Forged in the Shadows
The Gutter Twins are the most hotly anticipated antihero rock act of the moment, not just in Seattle, but especially here, since the gloomy duo of former L.A. roommates have deep roots in our scene.
Ellensburg-born Mark Lanegan’s stygian rasp made Screaming Trees almost famous at the dawn of grunge — “I Nearly Lost You” remains the best-sung tune on the “Singles” soundtrack — and Greg Dulli’s comparably semi-renowned Afghan Whigs was so in tune with the local sound, it was one of the first big nonlocal bands Sub Pop signed. Both dark stars exemplified the style expressed in the motto stitched into the record company’s jackets: “Loser.”
Each survived his band and bad habits and lost famous friends who died needlessly young (for Lanegan, Kurt Cobain and Jeffrey Lee Pierce; for Dulli, Elliott Smith and Ted Demme). Each went on to increasing, if esoterically nonmainstream, acclaim.
Dulli made two electronically eclectic albums with The Twilight Singers. Lanegan made exhilaratingly bleak solo albums — his version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” is nearly as superb as Cobain’s — and behaved like Groucho Marx, who would never join a club that would have him as a full-fledged member.
Lanegan “ghosted around,” as a British journalist evocatively put it, popping up on ad hoc collaborations with everyone from P.J. Harvey to fellow Seattle émigré Duff McKagan to Queens of the Stone Age. He made a well-received record with Ian Glover of the Soulsavers, although he reportedly never even met the guy — sending his vocals from L.A.
Up to now, Lanegan’s most notable duets were with Isobel Campbell of Belle & Sebastian. She’s a breathy confection, a spun-sugar fairy, and he’s a glowering tower of menace. Their imminent second record, “Sunday at Devil Dirt,” is also hotly anticipated. People compare them to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, and Beauty and the Beast.
Lanegan and Dulli might be called the Beast and the Beast, two looming thunderheads of equal magnitude, growling out sentiments from the unsunny side of the street (and in Dulli’s case, playing lots of instruments well too). They cast long shadows — they’re all about shadowy emotions. Their long-awaited record “Saturnalia” is a stab from the past of grunge, yet it feels fresh, the rugged, ragged vocals anchored in a lurking murk of droning guitars. There’s also some stylistic variation, and even moments that find the softer side of Sears. Many melodies never quite hit a rolling boil, but bubble with promise and bad attitude.
“If Richards and Jagger were grunge almost-Gods,” says author Charles Cross, “they’d be Dulli and Lanegan. Both have had more respect from other musicians than they’ve had commercial success, yet both still mine the same dark, lost visages. Lanegan not only seems like a character out of a Raymond Carver short story, he continues to astound everyone as he keeps putting out tremendous music long after most of his cohorts have faded, died, or given up.”
In fact, the Gutter Twins told The Guardian (UK) newspaper that each rescued the other from drugs and depression: Dulli, the less aggressively reclusive of the two, jazzed himself up on cocaine (the subject of his tune “40 Dollars” (which isn’t on this album), while Lanegan reportedly dove down into heroin. “We’re fire and ice,” Dulli explained.
The mixture sizzles on “Saturnalia” and, according to online reviews of their show, onstage. Expect Lanegan to clutch his microphone and emote only with his vocal cords, and Dulli to interact with the audience as if he did not bitterly wish for them to all vanish and leave him the heck alone.
The lyrics are elusive, but I’m intrigued by one possible interpretation of the first single, “Idle Hands,” which goes like this:
“With my idle hands there’s nothing I can do but be the devil’s plaything, baby and know that I’ve been used/Her lips are cold they suffer me they drag me under, baby into your suffering.”
Could this refer to the incident that poisoned Lanegan and Dulli’s friendship for years after they met in 1989? Dulli told The Guardian that “a young lady … duped us and set us against each other, for her own gain.” (I dare a Seattle journalist to ask Lanegan about this.)
My favorite rock critic, Jim Farber, recently mused in the Daily News of New York about the mystery that is Seattle’s Gutter Twin, Lanegan: “There’s a level of sexy malevolence to Mark Lanegan’s voice that hasn’t been heard from a rock singer since the heyday of Jim Morrison. In his dark tone and deep bellow, Lanegan exudes equal parts threat and allure. So why isn’t he a major star?”
Maybe he didn’t want stardom, having seen what it can do. Maybe he couldn’t stand nosy journalists and stalker fans. Maybe he was like Ben Jonson, who would’ve been a far bigger star if not eclipsed by Shakespeare. If Cobain hadn’t recorded “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” it would be Lanegan’s version that was legendary.
Or maybe now, with a partner whose voice and sensibility rhyme so beautifully with Lanegan’s, his time has come around at last. This guy could be huge someday.