The Boston Phoenix
July 8 - 15, 1999

Mark Sandman

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Morphine, Mark, and memories

Friends and fans look back

by Jonathan Perry

 Across town and inside the clubs this week, people -- fans, artists, friends, and sometimes combinations of all three -- were grieving for Mark Sandman, and it was all but impossible to find people who didn't have at least one memory or story about the Morphine singer -- or about how his music had touched their lives in some way. Inside the Middle East bakery Monday night, a middle-aged woman sat quietly sobbing at the bar as she held a black-and-white photograph of Mark. In the next room, a young, aspiring musician who confessed that he listens mostly to metal said he couldn't think of anybody he knew who didn't admire and respect Morphine's music, regardless of musical tastes. What follows are recollections about Sandman from a few of these people -- from close friends to former band members to casual fans -- who wanted to talk about the ways in which their lives intersected with his and what his presence meant to the local music scene.

former booking agent,
Green Street Grill

"I've known Mark probably about 15 years or so -- I got to know him when he was just getting started with Treat Her Right and I was managing the Del Fuegos. One of the things I admired about Mark was that he just loved to play music so much, and even when he had achieved a certain level of success and fame -- you know how certain people shutter themselves up -- Mark was always out there. My God, he had so many side projects and bands that he was always someone you could call up to play, and he'd say, 'Sure, who do you want to play?', because he had so many projects going. I think Morphine debuted at [artist] Paul Richards's loft one New Year's Eve, and it was fabulous. That was one of Mark's 'side project' bands at the time, and I remember saying, 'Wow! This sounds like striptease music.'

In this day and age, just when you think everything's been done, Mark created something else. He had that great, guttural voice, and the band had that slinky sound, and he and they appealed to so many different generations -- the kids loved them and the older generation loved them. The last time I saw them was at the Central Square World's Fair [June 6], and he came up to me a couple of days later and he had a sly little smile and said, 'Lilli, have I ever told you how much I love playing the Central Square World's Fair? Put me down for all of 'em.' "

booking agent,
Middle East

"He definitely, in a way, encapsulated the Boston arts scene and how it was community-oriented. Even when his band got really huge, he still remained in Boston and took local bands on tour with him and took the time to play the Middle East with his other bands. He still lived down the street. He definitely has left his mark and will be sadly missed at the Middle East, I'm sure, where he was considered to be almost like family. He was absolutely a fixture here. You have to remember all that he's given to this community. As big as they got, he was always interested in jamming and playing music -- regardless whether it's a stage with five people or 5000 people watching. The last time he played here was March 28, 1999."

Matt Ashare's reflection on Mark Sandman
And, Mark through the eyes and ears of the Phoenix
Morphine/Mark Sandman links

Last of the Crawling Chaos

"I saw him when he came into my record store in Austin, Texas. I recognized him right off the bat -- he had a very mellow demeanor. Morphine's music was some of the most incredible music that I had ever heard, and it's sad to think that there won't be any more albums. Their sound was pretty incredible. It's something that all my friends know and love. No matter what they listened to, they were into him."

Shyness Clinic

"He was part of the beginning of the stuff that's getting big now, like Beck. He's the founding father of all of that stuff and was part of the community beyond just being an artist. And he had a really great smile."

Ray Corvair Trio

"I've known Mark for eight years or so, and in the last year I became better friends with him and we'd go over to his house and make music. I had a lot of bad things happen to me this year, and he'd always bring me out of it. We [Ray Corvair] played last night and we expected him to walk in. He probably sat in with us 12 times in the last six months or so, and I usually don't even hang out with the guys in my band. But he was sitting in, and me and [Corvair bassist] Pete Sutton and Mark went out for beers and we had a great time. He was one of my musical heroes and I almost feel selfish that I'm not going to get to hear him sing anymore. Every Sunday, I'm going to expect him to come into the Plough.

I remember that about three years ago at the Central Square World's Fair, somebody had handed him a piece of paper, and he looked at it for a minute and then said, 'Kevin, if you're out there, your parents would be happy to see you.' And he said later on that he thought somebody had handed him a set list and he didn't know any of the songs."

Plough & Stars

"I mentioned an obscure band to him one time, and it turned out he knew the guitar player. He knew the whole scene -- knew it like an encyclopedia. He was a regular guy, a very bright guy, and had a great sense of humor. He came here regularly for lunch, y'know. Treat Her Right used to play Thursdays here for a long time, and in some ways it got to be a crowd problem. People would be lined up into the middle of Mass Ave. He was here recently on a Sunday night and jammed with the Ray Corvair Trio, played keyboards with them. But he stayed in the background. You wouldn't even know he was here. But that's the kind of guy he was. He would never take over someone else's show. He was into other people's music as a listener."

long-time fan

"I think Cambridge has been so gentrified the last decade, and it was people like Mark who connected us to what had attracted us to Cambridge in the first place. He used to play the Plough & Stars on Tuesdays in '87 or '88, and he'd be playing for the after-work crowd and then the after-dinner crowd and he'd be experimenting the whole time. The key thing is that he really understood the audience that appreciated his music. He had a great sense of irony, not just in his music but in his lyrics. And it was pretty clear that he wasn't egotistical or selfish. He allowed other musicians to take his ideas and use them to showcase their talents. And I think that's pretty rare."

Tarbox Ramblers

"He was the best -- a great songwriter. A large part of the scene revolved around what he did. Everyone we know had something to do with someone who played with one of Mark's bands. The cool thing about Mark was that he was into so many different kinds of music. And everybody tagged Morphine as lo-fi in the beginning. But it's really just because he was into the low registers of the music."

booking agent,
T.T. the Bear's Place

"I really liked Morphine when I first saw them. Back then, I was getting into that roots-rock thing. I had a lot of friends who were into garage bands and punk bands, but I always felt that if I went to New Orleans, they're the kind of band I'd see. There wasn't anything like them in Boston. Mark kept at it and he did it on his own terms, and their records were true to what they were like live. Around five years ago, me and Bonnie [Bouley, T.T.'s owner] were in a club in San Francisco and we didn't even know Morphine were there, playing. And it was interesting to see them in another environment -- people definitely loved them, and they were so critically acclaimed that it was amazing. I think it's sad because you just take for granted that those people are always going to be around."

long-time fan

"Morphine's music was so distinctly different than any other band I've ever heard. I am absolutely crushed that he's gone. I found out after the fireworks and I went and danced my ass off. It was what I had to do, go out and dance. But then I started to cry."

host of Leftover Lunch,

"One of the things that always blew my mind about Mark Sandman that he laughed at me for was that he learned how to speak key phrases in different languages so that when he was up on stage he could talk to the audience. That always said something to me about how much he cared about his audience. When he came to the station one time to host a show, he brought his stash of records, really choice stuff, and he said he wasn't going to take his coat off -- you know that long coat he used to wear -- and he wasn't going to sit down. I'd play the records and he'd pace back and forth, thinking really hard about what he was going to say and what he wanted to play."

bar manager,
Lizard Lounge

"As an example of how incredibly creative this guy was, they [Supergroup] would sit down with a set list of songs that didn't exist and improvise them. And it was on June 22 when Mark made his debut playing trombone [at the Lizard Lounge] with the Hypnosonics. In addition to Morphine, the Hypnosonics had 20 songs he had written; the Pale Brothers had another 20 songs; and Treat Her Right had 20 songs. He wrote songs as quickly as you or I learned them. His appetite for all kinds of music is what fed his creativity. He listened to all types of music and was open to all types of music. He was always exploring. There was a sensuous quality to the music. You felt it differently. There was a languidity to it that was enticing. He was a groove player when you came down to it. He always had a groove -- people talked about how minimalist Morphine were, but they drew on a lot of different sources."

news director,

"He really kept the legacy of the Beat generation alive. I think if there was a modern-day Jack Kerouac out there, it was Mark Sandman. Part of Morphine's magic was that they could adapt themselves to any kind of setting, whether it was a smoky room with the lights dimmed down low or a festival like the one they were doing when he died. My best memory of Mark is that I would always say that Morphine should be kept in a small club and he'd always say, 'No, it's about taking it to the festival and being a rock star.' But he would sit in with anybody and trade musical riffs with anybody. He was nocturnal and lived the lifestyle."

drummer for numerous
Mark Sandman-related projects;
booking agent, Lizard Lounge

"Mark was certainly one of my closest friends for many years. I'd be out of town working, and it seemed that every time I'd come back, we'd get together at his place and jam. Mark is the face of Cambridge. It's amazing to find out how many people he touched over the years, and he never got holed up in the ivory towers of success. It was all about experimentation with Mark: let's rethink this, let's try it that way -- and I think that's what made him so vibrant. One of the things that's unique is that Mark was 46 and he was able to carry both a young audience and an older audience, and in this day and age where there's such an emphasis on youth and the limits of age, I think Mark was a model for all of us.

Mark recorded everything. The amount of different versions and different ideas for songs is unbelievable -- the tape was always rolling. And sometimes we'd jam and a couple of days later he'd call me and say he had a new song. That he had found a three-minute segment of a jam and had written lyrics over it. In Supergroup, we'd meet at the Plough & Stars and try to make up song titles and play them as songs. We'd never do things the same way twice, and we'd never rehearse. He had a great sense of humor and a clever wit and he loved having a laugh. And he laughed a lot."

WFNX will air a two-hour special dedicated to Mark Sandman's music next Sunday, July 11, at 11 p.m.

[Music Footer]

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