Mark Lanegan
Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Sub Pop

Whiskey for the Holy Ghost was Lanegan’s second solo album, arriving in 1994, four years after his solo début, The Winding Sheet.  In 1994, he was still better known for his regular job, frontman of Seattle grunge icons, the Screaming Trees.  That album had kind of laid the blueprint for much of his solo work, more stripped down, darker.  Whiskey for the Holy Ghost was both more of the same, and hella more expansive, and a much greater artistic statement.

Lanegan and the Trees were on constant rotation in my place throughout much of the early 90s, but when I moved back to Vancouver in 1993 after two years in Ottawa, where I couldn’t handle the Ottawaness of Ottawa, me and My Main Man Mike, it seems, spent much of the time between May 1993 and May 1994 in the Mikemobile, a grey 1982 Mercury Lynx that Mike, at least, had invested in a decent stereo for.  Remember those car stereos you could eject and take with you?  Yeah.  One of those.  If I remember correctly, the interior of the Mikemobile was red, maybe even fake leather seats, but they were probably cloth.  You’d think I would remember.  I didn’t have a driver’s license in those days, so it was Mike behind the wheel, and me riding shotgun.  We drove all over Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.  We explored the city, its suburbs, we found 0 Avenue along the US/Canada border.  We drove up to Whistler, we drove to Mission and to Hope.  Why?  Why the fuck not, that’s why.  We shot the shit, we listened to music, we talked about school, girls, our parents.  Plans.  This was a formative time of my life.  And Mike’s too.  We were talking this week, via txt, as we both should’ve been working.  We’re old now, in our late 40s, we have mortgages, he has kids.  We have careers.  I have a driver’s license.  Hell, I even own a car.  In 2017, I went on this epic roadtrip from where my wife and I lived in Appalachia, Tennessee, to Vanvouber, via Santa Fe, NM.  When I got to Vancouver, we mixed shit up.  Mike and I took a day and drove around Vancouver.  In my car, listening to music, shooting the shit, talking about marriage, his kids, our careers. Mine was in flames after getting gaslit by a bunch of assholes in Alabama, the primary reason for this drive, to clear my head.  Anyway, we were txting this week, talking about the music of the Mikemobile and The Flat, the basement suite we lived in on West 20th Ave in 1994-95.  I was trying to find not necessarily a definitive album from that era, but one of the key ones.

We bandied about a few.  Nirvana’s In Utero.  Smashing Pumpkins, both Gish and Siamese Dream.  There was some Babes in Toyland, Pearl Jam, and L7.  There was Hole’s Live Through This.  There was the Trees’ Sweet Oblivion.  Flaming Lips’ Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.  There was Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, and the Wu-Tang Clan.  There was A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.  Pop Will Eat Itself, the Wonderstuff. The Pixies and Frank Black solo.  And the Breeders.  There was Sloan, Dinosaur Jr., and Sebadoh.  Swervedriver and the Stone Roses and the Charlatans. NoMeansNo, D.O.A, and SNFU.  And Fugazi and Chokebore.  And Soundgarden.  And so on and so on.  Generally, Mike and I tended to agree on. music.  But this album, Lanegan’s Whiskey for the Holy Ghost sparked one of the most intense arguments about music we’ve ever had.  We carried this argument on this week via txt.  Mike is wrong, of course.  Flat-out fucking wrong.  I’ll get back to this in a moment.

Whiskey for the Holy Ghost was a frustrating experience for Lanegan.  He was in the midst of a pretty serious addiction to heroin, and the Trees wrote, recorded, and toured the hell out of Sweet Oblivion.  He was pissed at Sub Pop for the way the label treated him in the wake of The Winding Sheet.  He had wanted this album to be written, recorded, and done in a year.  It took four.  Being the frontman of a pretty major band meant that he only could work on this in his spare time.  His solo career originally emerged out of the tension in the Trees between Lanegan and guitarist and main songwriter, Gary Lee Connor.  It wasn’t so much Lanegan wanted to be writing the music, but Connor wrote the lyrics too, and Lanegan, according to his autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, he thought Connor was a craptastic lyricist and felt embarrassed singing those songs.  So his solo albums were about his own artistic vision.

He also got pretty intense during recording, reporting in his book of lyrics, I am the Wolf:

Many different musicians, engineers, producers, and studios were burned through, and my behaviour became erratic, not easy to deal with as I continually rewrote, re-recorded, and mixed tunes according to an internal, chemically cracked sensibility that sometimes verged on paranoia.

Things got so bad he wanted to toss the masters into the river, but producer Jack Endino physically restrained him from doing so. Jack Endino should be knighted for that alone.  Whiskey for the Holy Ghost is a flat-out masterpiece, a brilliant record from start to finish.  It is both a statement of a time and a place in the early 90s, and it is timeless.  Mike and I blasted the hell out of it in 1994-5.  I don’t listen to it so much now, but I still listen to it.  It is still brilliant, intense, and, I would claim, genius.

Opening track ‘The River Rise’ only vaguely hints at what’s to come.  Beginning with a spooky whistle, an acoustic guitar appears on the scene, then another, and, then Lanegan and an electric guitar show up.  And, well, it sounds like a continuation of The Winding Sheet, stripped down, intense, personal.  This doesn’t mean it’s no good. In fact, ‘The River Rise’ is one of my favourite tracks on the album, the electric guitar is cinematic, the acoustic guitars and percussion add to this.  His voice is, well, Lanegan’s voice.  Big, powerful, bruised, and damaged.

But ‘The River Rise’ does not prepare the listener for ‘Borracho.’  This is an intense song, it is loud, aggressive, deeply self-loathing, and paranoid.  It is only 5m41s, but it feels epic, I always think, in my head, it’s an 8-9 minute song.  An electric guitar and feeback, rolling drums, a bass guitar, and Lanegan singing nonsense, and then the song pulls itself together and Lanegan delivers one of the greatest vocal performances of his long, long career:

Trouble comes in slowly
A neverlasting light come to shine all over me
Bright in the mornin’
Like all of heaven’s love come to shine on me
And to you who never need
Fuck yourselves, I need some more room to breathe
Here comes the devil, prowl around
One whiskey for evey ghost
And I’m sorry for what I’ve done
‘Cause it’s me who knows what it cost
It breaks and it breathes, and it tears you apart
It bites and it bleeds
And this desert turns to ocean over me
Here come the devil, prowl around
One whiskey for every ghost
And I’m sorry for what I said
I said I just don’t care anymore
A fool can feed on the notion
Sees and believes
And this desert turns to ocean over me
Trouble comes in slowly
A neverlasting light come to shine all over me
At the dead end to mornin’ darlin’
With all of heaven’s love come to shine on me
The fool that feeds on the notion
Sees and believes
And this desert turns to ocean over me
Here come the devil, buy the round
One whiskey for every ghost
And I’m sorry for what I done
Lord it’s me who knows what it costs
The fool that feeds on the notion
Sees and believes
And this desert turns to ocean over me
Here come the devil, prowlin’ round
One whiskey for every ghost
And I’m sorry for what I said
I said I just don’t care anymoreIt breaks and it breathes and it tears you apart
Gonna bite, gonna bleed
‘Til this desert turns to ocean over me.

His voice is defiant, fiercesome, and kind of terrifying in that as it rises and breaks over the swells of the song, which is loud, guitars, and bass and drums, and feedback.  It remains one of my favourite songs of all-time.  And it is the source of the argument Mike and I have had for twenty-six long years.  This is the best song on the album.

But Mike?  No, not Mike.  He votes for ‘Carnival.’  ‘Carnival,’ track 5 in your program, is a killer song.  Brighter music, a violin by Dave Kreugher.  Lanegan’s voice here is brighter, and maybe more optimistic than it was in ‘Borracho.’  And Mike swears this is the greater track.
Where in the world have you been
It’s as strange as I’ve ever lived
So you’re comin’ along to the sideshow
I’ll be fallin’ all over like dominos
For girls are sad in their eyes
They’re all standin’ around bein’ hypnotised
And walkin’ me back to the firin’ line
Ya smile to get in the door
Ya can’t keep it closed anymore
Tell your ma that you’re gone to the freakshow
I’m crawlin’ all over the carnival
Just scratchin’ a stitch in a skin
I’m moanin’ for more of the medicine
In the mornin’ you’re wonderin’ where ya been
Just turnin’ your back to the ghost
And tryin’ to look like you just might know
That all of the good that you’ve seen
Just went down and into the drain
Oh kids am I straight out for now
In the mornin’ I’m gonna find it on out
What in the world can it be
It’s as strange as I’ve ever seen
The girls are dead in their eyes
Just standin’ around like they’re hypnotised
Who’ll follow me back to the freak show
I’m crawlin’ all over the carnival
And I am gone
The kid’s in a straight out for now
In the mornin’ I’m want to find it on out
What in the world can it be
It’s as strange as I’ve ever seen
The girls are dead in their eyes
Just standin’ around like they’re hypnotised
Who’ll follow me back to the freak show
I’m crawlin’ all over the carnival
And I am gone.
I do have to say, that lyric: ‘The girls are dead in their eyes/Just standin’ around like they’re hypnotized,’ is pretty intense.  Great even.  But the best song on this album?  No.

 

I don’t really remember the 1994-5 argument between Mike and I over this song, other than he was wrong.  There was a lot of alcohol and weed in our lives in those days. But this week, via txt from Western Massachusetts to Vancouver, I dismissed ‘Carnival’ as fluffy and light, which isn’t exactly fair, but, this is an argument about something that matters.  But now, at our age, the passions aren’t quite as deep, and after bandying back ridiculousness for a bit, and me arguing the epic cruelty and viciousness of ‘Borracho’ was superior, Mike said:

Don’t get me wrong borracho is still a killer track. Carnival to me was both uplifting and troubling at the same time which I think spoke to me own peaks and valleys. 

Fair enough.  And in 1994, these two tracks did speak to the very real differences between Mike and I.  I was more prone to grand statements and relishing my alienation and general ‘fuck you’ attitude to the world.  It’s ironic, because I am soft-spoken now, but in those days, I was bombastic, Mike was soft-spoken (he still is).  We were both philosophic about life and the world about us, but, Mike did seek the uplifting, I sought the gutter.  He probably helped save me from myself, too.

And listening to this album again today, with a mind of writing this column, it strikes me that we’re both right, but more than that, in a lot of ways, the two songs we argued endlessly about (to the point where our girlfriends, Anouk (his) and Christine (mine) looked like they wanted to clock us with our cast iron frying pan whenever we argued about this album, these songs aren’t really emblematic of the rest of the album.  ‘Borracho’ is deep, dark, and terrifying, and ‘Carnival’ perfects that Smiths-esque trick of dark lyrics with uplifting music.

The rest of the album, though, is classic 90s Lanegan, deep, dark, mostly (though not entirely) acoustic music, a form of music we lacked a vocabulary for in 1994.  Critics have since called it ‘Americana,’ but I think that’s a cop out, because I’ve seen that term apply to music by very un-American or non-American artists.  It’s more complicated than that, and because of Lanegan’s voice, it can’t ever not be menacing music.  There is something dangerous in Lanegan’s voice, and this was especially true in the early 90s.  He was a big, volatile man.  He was in a band with three other big, volatile men.  And as becomes clear in Sing Backwards and Weep, the Trees often turned on each other.  One gets the sense that they didn’t actually like each other all that much, including the two very large Connor brothers (Van was the bassist).  They were an appropriately-named band.  And when the Trees weren’t fighting each other, they brawled anyone who attacked them.  They appeared on Letterman in 1993 the night after a brawl in a bar in New Jersey.  Lanegan’s sporting a black eye.  On national TV.

As for the man, well, he has cleaned up.  That he’s still alive is a miracle, given how many casualties there were in Seattle in the 90s from heroin, including but not limited to Andrew Wood (Motherlovebone), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), and Layne Staley (Alice in Chains).  Staley was one of Lanegan’s closest friends, as was Kurt Cobain, and Lanegan went looking for Cobain at his home the day he killed himself.  That’s one of the more gut-wrenching passages of Sing Backwards.