‘What did you think?’
‘They were screaming!’
‘Yeah. They were great!’
‘They were screaming!’
‘They’re from Seattle—’
‘Yeah! [Feigns deafness] What?’
‘But I’ll be honest with you – I was kinda scared.’
So ran the conversation between David Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1992 after the Screaming Trees performed an intense, and apparently rather loud, version of Nearly Lost You, live on late-night network television.
Even in 1992, when some pretty uncommercial prospects had major-label record deals and all the TV appearances they could hope for, Screaming Trees were an odd fit for the world of talk shows and smart-alec comedians with house bands. It’s worth remembering that by and large the frontmen of the really big bands from that era, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain and so on, were photogenic dudes, and that Vedder and Cornell were never above taking to the stage shirtless. Even Layne Staley was OK-looking before he got too cadaverous. Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, just looked permanently angry, and as for the rest of the Trees, well, as Van Connor so memorably put it in Hype!, there may have been tons of bands in Seattle, but the Screaming Trees were a ton of band. The Connor brothers were two enormous guys, so big they made their guitars look like toys, windmilling, thrashing around, rolling on the floor and beating each other up.
That sense of barely restrained chaos still animated their live shows – with Lanegan the calm, motionless eye of the storm – but by the time that Nearly Lost You hit, the band’s recorded output was getting more controlled and focused, and was all the better for it. Screaming Trees are that rare band whose work got consistently stronger as they went along, and their last album Dust, from 1996, is their finest. (With some folk preferring their early SST records there’s inevitably some debate about this, but not in my house.)
Of all the records I listened to in my teens, Dust (along with Murmur) is the one where my relationship with it has most slowly evolved. With other records, I’d leave such long gaps between listens that from one listen to the next the record would seem completely different. WIth Dust, though, I’ve never stopped listening to it, even as I put heavy rock aside for a few years while I took the time to get educated in the canon*, so as I changed and developed, so did Dust seem to. I heard the reflections of so much music from the 1960s and 1970s in it, I came to understand more about the musical traditions the Screaming Trees worked in and rather than making the record seem shallower or retrograde, it brought it even more to life.
But it’s the energy of it, the renewed vigour, that gets me most now. Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, originally intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, had recorded an album’s worth of material, but their hearts weren’t in it and the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot. They were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and needed time apart. Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were just the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.
But the album was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period (he would relapse hard in 1997) and it shows. The energy level is higher on Dust than on any other Screaming Trees album. On record, energy is a most intangible, evanescent thing, not at all related to how loud or fast the band’s playing (similar to how ‘heaviness’ has nothing to do with volume or amount of guitar distortion). It’s more the case that on some records the songs seem somehow animated from within. From the intro of Halo of Ashes all the way through to Gospel Plow, Dust just barrels out of the speakers. To my ears this energy comes partly from the physicality of drummer Barrett Martin, an upbeat, music-for-music’s-sake, jam-till-the-early-hours kind of guy, much needed in a band whose other members tended towards the depressive and argumentative, but mainly from Lanegan, who sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive: ‘I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave,’ he sings, and his performance carries the fervour of someone who knows how damn lucky he is to still be here.
The second half of the nineties was short on records as life-affirming as this, and in retrospect much of that period’s pre-millennial tension, so hip in 1997 and 1998, looks a little ridiculous, mere juvenile posturing. Dust, on the other hand, looks bigger and grander every year, a little-anticipated album by a band of perennial also-rans that has ended up outlasting the work most of their contemporaries and leaving it in the, well, dust.
Oh, and it should go without saying that electric sitars are cool. Tablas, too.
Screaming Trees in 1993, l-r Gary Lee Connor, Barrett Martin, Mark Lanegan, Van Connor
*Just a side note on ‘the canon’. By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music.
However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it;s rather less likely to become part of the canon (it does happen though: witness Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, its reputed ‘difficultly’ and unavailability on CD becoming a bigger claim to fame than the music it contains).
It’s interesting to note how artists rise and fall in esteem over time, how opinions are transmitted and received from one generation to the next. I wait to see, for example, if the death of Ray Manzarek prompts a revival of interest in the Doors, whose stock seemed to me to drop in the nineties and noughties. And will the new film about Ginger Baker, accompanied by a feature in Uncut last month (‘probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe,’ says Baker; I’ll refrain from comment in line with my declaration of positivity the other day), rehabilitate a band whose critical standing has been in the toilet for a couple of decades.