The Boston Phoenix
July 8 - 15, 1999

Mark Sandman

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Mark Sandman


by Matt Ashare

Mark Sandman Last Saturday, July 3, Mark Sandman collapsed on a stage just outside Rome. He was performing with Morphine, the Boston-based trio he'd led for the past decade. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He'd suffered a massive heart attack.

I was in Montreal when I got the news the following day, attending the 20th-anniversary Festival International du Jazz with my wife. And it hit me hard. I'd been a Morphine fan for a long time. I'd seen Mark perform with and without the band dozens of times. And since the release of Morphine's first CD, in 1992, I'd gotten to know him personally. First he was just a subject to me, someone I interviewed, wrote about, and then bumped into from time to time. But gradually he'd become a friend who lived just up the street. We'd go out for a drink every once in a while, usually at about 11 o'clock. He'd call to discuss the grand piano he was thinking about buying, or to invite me over to his loft to hang out and listen to music for an afternoon. My wife and I would bump into Mark and his long-time girlfriend, Sabine, at neighborhood restaurants like Eat and the East Coast Grill. Because of tours like the one that took him to Italy last week or to NYC's Central Park on the Fourth of July last year, Mark wasn't always around. But eventually he would always turn up back in town, drinking Patrón and fresh-squeezed orange juice at the Middle East, playing a low-profile gig with his buddy Jimmy Ryan as the Pale Brothers at the tiny Lizard Lounge, or sitting in on keyboards with the Ray Corvair Trio at the Plough & Stars. That was something a lot of people had come to count on.

Mark through the eyes and ears of the Phoenix
And, friends and fans look back at Mark and Morphine
Morphine/Mark Sandman links

I'd planned to be in Montreal until the seventh, but immediately I knew I had to drive back home. Because Sandman had become, over the years, an integral part of the Boston scene -- or, to be more geographically precise, the Cambridge/Somerville side of the river -- that I'd come to know. It's hard to overestimate the impact he'd had simply by sticking around and doing his thing. He hadn't moved to New York or LA after Morphine became the second act to be signed to the wealthy DreamWorks label of David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg back in 1996. Success hadn't even changed him all that much. You'd still find him hanging out at the same places, even playing the same rooms that he had when Morphine were just starting out, headlining the Central Square World's Fair whenever Morphine weren't on tour, and taking local acts like Mr. Airplane Man, Wooden Leg, and Trona on the road to open for Morphine. And by achieving what he had with Morphine on his own terms, he was a walking, talking inspiration in ways that are impossible to quantify. "Mark just made this a much cooler place to be," is how my wife put it when we got back home.

Sandman grew up in the area -- in Newton, where he attended high school and where his parents still live. After earning a BA in political science from UMass Boston, he spent a period of time traveling -- at one point working on a giant fishing boat out in the state of Washington. Details like that about his personal life and his past were hard to come by. There were things he just wouldn't talk about on the record. And in the age of the confessional talk-show interview, I grew to respect that. "I like to keep the personal personal," is how he once put it. "I try to be a pretty private person." He wasn't trying to hide anything, except perhaps his age, because he was older than your average rock-and-roll star. In fact, the only time I ever pissed him off was backstage at the Conan O'Brien show in 1995, when after listening to him tell me about a Rolling Stone reporter's desperate efforts to find out his age I joked that I was going to dig up his Newton North high-school yearbook.

Sandman was 46 when he died.

So he was in his 30s when his music career began in earnest with Treat Her Right, a unique blues-rock foursome that paired him and his innovative "low guitar" (a regular six-string electric that he ran through an octave-shifting effects pedal to make it sound more like a bass) with more conventional guitarist David Champagne and featured harmonica blower Jim Fitting and drummer Billy Conway (who would later join Morphine). The band released their Treat Her Right debut in 1986, signed to RCA in 1988, and got to record one major-label album, Tied to the Tracks, before they were dropped. Treat Her Right did garner a fair amount of critical praise (and scored a local hit with the song "I Think She Likes Me"), but they didn't move enough units for RCA's liking. And as a bemused Mark once pointed out to me, the label really had no idea what to do with a band who specialized in spare, swampy interpretations of tunes by the likes of Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, Buck Owens, and James Blood Ulmer.

Still gigging with Treat Her Right, who released a final album on the local Rounder label in 1991 (What's Good for You), Sandman immersed himself in the local music scene and began playing out in various guises, mostly at the tiny Plough & Stars in Cambridge (where he held down a weekly booking for a time) and upstairs at the Middle East, where you could count on seeing him at least once a month. There was Supergroup, a collaboration between Sandman and Chris Ballew, the Seattle kid who would go on to form the successful pop trio Presidents of the United States of America after his mentorship with Sandman. There was Treat Her Orange, a partnership between Sandman and Blood Oranges mandolinist Jimmy Ryan that would later blossom into the Pale Brothers (and yield the Morphine track "In Spite of Me" on Cure for Pain). There were the Hypnosonics, whose line-up found Mark fronting a horn-driven funk ensemble featuring Morphine saxman Dana Colley, Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon, drummer Larry Dersch, and bassist Mike Rivard. But mainly there was Morphine, the trio that best captured the essence of Sandman's singular style: his deadpan delivery, his wry pulp-noir vignettes, his "less is best" aesthetic, and his love of loose R&B grooves rooted equally in the deep meaty blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and the savvy pop funk of an artist like Prince, who was one of his all-time favorites.

It's a tribute to Sandman's keen instincts as an artist that he recognized the potential of Morphine's unusual line-up: two-string slide bass, Colley's baritone sax, and drummer Jerome Dupree, whom Conway would replace during the recording of the trio's first album, 1992's Good (Accurate/Distortion). Mark didn't think there was anything terribly unusual about Morphine: "Basically, we write pretty standard three-minute rock songs with verses, choruses, and hooks . . . they're just songs," is how he once explained it. And in a way he was right: you didn't have to be a hardcore fan to appreciate singles like "Cure for Pain," "Buena," and "Honey White." But there was nothing standard about the interplay among Sandman, Conway, and Colley, about the intense mix of mood and groove they created on stage. That was special. And Mark knew it. He was always spreading the credit around, singling out the special talents of Dana and Billy in interviews. People would come up to him after shows and tell him how great the band sounded, and he'd give all the credit to soundman Phil Davidson.

Morphine weren't an immediate success. That first album, Good, was rejected by every label Sandman sent a tape to before he decided to put it out more or less by himself on Russ Gershon's small local Accurate label. But right after that, the larger, locally based Rykodisc label bit. In many ways it was the perfect situation for Sandman. Rykodisc was big enough to get the band's next two albums -- Cure for Pain and Yes -- out there but small enough that Mark could retain the kind of control he'd lost with Treat Her Right. Together with Dana, Billy, publicist Carrie Svingen, and locally based manager Deb Klein, he put together a plan that he sensed would work for Morphine. Instead of trying to score opening slots on tours with bigger bands, a strategy that almost always translates into playing in front of half-full (or less) rooms of people who'd rather be seeing the headliner, Morphine would go out on their own and play smaller clubs. Instead of bouncing from one city to the next, they would set up two- and three-night residencies in different cities, giving the press something substantial to bite into and fans a deeper sense of connection with the band.

These were simple, common-sense ideas. And Mark liked simple. He once told me that if people really wanted to know about his musical aesthetic, they'd be better off asking him about his cooking techniques. "I've applied a lot of that to my music. For example, for years I made myself a red sauce for pasta with oregano, some thyme, some basil, black pepper, salt, some of this, some of that. I thought that's how you were supposed to make it. Then one day I didn't put anything in. I just forgot. And it was the best sauce I ever made. That moment right there taught me a lot."

But simple doesn't always mean easy. And Morphine was a lot of work for Mark. He had the final say on everything, from CD art to magazine ads, from the mixes to the sequencing to the presentation of an album. He'd "hired" me to "write" Morphine's DreamWorks first and, I guess, last press bio -- mainly, I think, so that he could write it himself and have me just touch it up. He may have seemed laid back on the surface, but when it came to the business of Morphine, he was focused and driven. He took it all very seriously. "We do what we have to do to do what we want to do" was the mantra that defined his approach to the industry, and sometimes that also meant not doing certain things. When DreamWorks pushed him to put a Dust Brothers remix of "Early to Bed" on 1997's Like Swimming, he stood his ground, not out of any misguided sense of "indie credibility" but because he could hear that they'd bled the Morphine out of the tune. He wasn't opposed to using something like that remix in the future, but he realized how crucial it was for Morphine to sound like Morphine on their first major-label album.

On the other hand, Mark wasn't "afraid of success," and he knew how to capitalize on his and the band's talents. Early on he came up with sly marketing terms like "low rock" and "implied grunge." And as the band became more of a commercial presence, he took advantage of opportunities to broaden their base -- in terms of both audience and the band's own versatility. That included licensing songs for movies and television: their work showed up on the soundtracks for Spanking the Monkey and Very Bad Things, among other films, and recently a Morphine video popped up on HBO's hit series The Sopranos.

Mark was proud, deeply proud of what he'd accomplished with Morphine, with Billy, Dana, Carrie, Deb, Phil, producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade, and all the other people who'd become directly or indirectly part of the band over the years. And, yes, I get all choked up when I think about that now. He was happy, really happy with Sabine. And that kills me too. In the last year or two, he'd finally begun to enjoy, modestly, the fruits of his success. He replaced his crappy Japanese hatchback with a nice new Saab. He bought that grand piano. He and Sabine were looking for a house in Cambridge or Somerville, and they'd finally found one they liked. He'd upgraded the recording studio in his loft -- Hi-N-Dry, as he'd christened it -- with state-of-the-art speakers and digital outboard gear, the studio that had yielded a number of Morphine album tracks even back when it had only eight-track-cassette capability and one tiny Radio Shack speaker for playback. And, of course, he'd continued to add to his collection of oddball two- and three-string basses, cheesy keyboards, and cool guitars.

For reasons I'll probably never understand, he'd been struggling with Morphine's next DreamWorks album. I say I'll never understand because all the tracks he'd played for me over the past year sounded, at the very least, like the seeds of great Morphine tunes, if not completed album tracks in the rough. But he was consumed with the desire to push Morphine to the next level, to incorporate new sounds and textures into the band's minimalist style without destroying the essence of what made Morphine special. And, maybe because that was the only time I spent with Mark when he seemed even remotely unsure of himself, it made me respect him as an artist and a human being even more.

In the month before Mark left on Morphine's final tour, his issues with the new album had all been sorted out. After searching in vain for someone to mix the new tracks, he'd gone to New York and done it himself. He was happy with the results, and with the thought that he finally had a completed album to give to DreamWorks. Working with local engineer Brian Dunton, he'd even finished putting together a Morphine live album, which I hope will see the light of day, because Morphine were such a great live band. And because, though he was a private person, Mark loved living where he died -- performing on stage with Billy and Dana (and he was a performer). He loved performing his music for people, whether it was a crowd of thousands at a giant European festival or just a small club full of friends at his favorite room in town, upstairs at the Middle East.

The last time I heard from Mark was two and a half weeks ago. He left a message to remind me that he was going to be sitting in on keyboards with the Ray Corvair Trio that night at the Plough & Stars. He was excited about the show and he wanted me to come down and check it out. He knew I hadn't seen him with the Ray Corvair Trio yet. I didn't get the message until late that evening, and I guessed that by that time word would have gotten out that Mark was playing and the tiny Plough would be uncomfortably jammed with people. So I decided to stay home. I knew I'd have plenty more chances to see Mark do his thing with the Ray Corvair Trio, plenty more opportunities to see Morphine, the Hypnosonics, the Pale Brothers, and whatever his next little project would be. It was hard to imagine it being any other way. Mark would be away for a while, touring Europe and then the West Coast. But he'd be back with some great stories about interviews he'd done overseas with music critics who were more like musicologists, or about some fabulous Italian meal he'd had. Mark's spirit, I think, is still with us, as is his music. But like a lot of people in Boston right now, I'm still trying to get a handle on the reality that this time Mark won't be coming back.

A Mark Sandman Music Education Fund to benefit music-education programs in the Cambridge public schools has been set up in Mark's honor. Contributions should be mailed to Morphine, Box 382085, Cambridge, MA 02138.

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