Screaming Trees on Late Night TV

After a series of gritty psychedelic noise rock releases which distinguished the band and played a pivotal role in shaping the early grunge scene, it was time for Screaming Trees to break out, and earn their place in the spotlight.

Sweet Oblivion, the Trees' sixth studio album and their most successful release, came out in the autumn of 1992, following closely behind the release of the grunge-themed film soundtrack, Singles, which featured their breakthrough track Nearly Lost You; a song also included on the album. With Nirvana-mania dominating everything at the time, the band which greatly influenced Kurt Cobain was finally receiving the recognition it deserved from audiences in the United States and beyond.

During an East Coast promotional tour in October 1992, Screaming Trees had a scheduled appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. A couple of nights before the show, they had a day off in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and were slated to perform at the Fast Lane, a bowling alley where the band was unwinding with some drinks the night before. A minor altercation between the band members and the venue's bouncers and management escalated into a full-blown brawl, leading to the cancellation of the event. Singer Mark Lanegan ended up with a black eye from the altercation, which he carried with him onto his first national television performance a couple of days later.

Trees drummer, Barrett Martin, had his shoulder dislocated during the fight and was unable to perform. He was replaced by Steve Ferrone for the Late Night appearance. Lanegan declined the assistance of Letterman's makeup department to conceal his black eye.

Screaming Trees went on to deliver a memorable performance of Nearly Lost You on the show, leaving a strong impression. Paul Shaffer could be seen in the background, clearly enthusiastic about the heavy rock sound which reverberated throughout Letterman's studio. Letterman himself was impressed enough to call the band back out at the end of the show to partake in the catering. The Conner brothers eagerly dug in, and Lanegan thought that it was a good time to start a food fight, unintentionally hitting a displeased David Letterman with some of the debris. It all escalated into Van Conner attempting to force a carved pumpkin onto his brother Lee's head. As a consequence of the chaos, Lanegan was banned from appearing on the show again until 17 years later.

Just a few months after their appearance on the Letterman show, in the midst of their spring 1993 American tour, Screaming Trees were scheduled to perform on The Tonight Show. This was during Jay Leno's early tenure as the host, having taken over the show approximately a year prior.

The night before the Tonight Show appearance, while staying in a West Hollywood hotel room, Lanegan succumbed to drug abuse, a habit he frequently indulged in at that time. He eventually drifted off to sleep in front of the TV, with his head dangling off the bed, a position which caused stomach acid to reflux into his throat and be breathed into his lungs. Consequently, the following morning, on the day of the Tonight Show taping, Lanegan endured intense pain and discomfort as the persistent burning sensation in his lungs made it excruciatingly difficult to take a breath without pain.

They were initially requested to perform Nearly Lost You once more, despite it no longer being their current single. The band rehearsed the song multiple times in preparation, however, at the last minute, the producers changed their minds and asked them to play Dollar Bill, a song unfamiliar to the camera crew and sound technicians. Of course, the band didn't require any additional preparation to perform the song and did so competently. Regardless, Lanegan's difficulties were noticeable during the show.

"The burn I’d experienced for hours, combined with the shit sound in the room, made it damn near impossible for me to sing. I broke out in a river of sweat, pouring off my brow and into my eyes, stinging them so badly I couldn’t keep them open, forcing them closed for almost the entire performance. I struggled mightily for the three and a half minutes of music, straining to hit the notes and stay in tune," Mark Lanegan describes in his incredible book, Sing Backwards and Weep.

Despite the challenges and mishaps, Screaming Trees' appearances on US late night TV are indeed memorable and impactful. They represent a significant part of music history, capturing a time when music had a profound and visceral impact; a period which is rather tough, if not nearly impossible, to be repeated.

Lanegan died at the age of 57 on February 22, 2022, at his home in Killarney, Ireland, and less than a year later, in January 2023, Van Conner passed away at 55 due to pneumonia, after serious complications from Covid.

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