Exit the Sandman

Fond recollections of Morphine's lead singer, the cat with the so-cool countenance.

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was last fall at the Middle East, the no-frills center of the alt.music scene in Cambridge, Mass., and more-or-less the personal musical sandbox of Mark Sandman. The Hypnosonics, a funky Morphine spin-off and one of Sandman's "secret bands" (he had many, and they were not so secret), was playing the room downstairs. For once it wasn't overrun with bodies. Breathing room was a rare pleasure when you saw Sandman perform in his hometown -- which he seemed to do 52 weeks a year. Thankfully, this gig was barely announced.

With a full horn section and keyboards, the Hypnosonics was a larger outfit than the three-piece Morphine but, in keeping with Sandman's signature style, there still wasn't a guitar in the house. Not even a bass with a full set of strings.

By the third or fourth song, Sandman was clearly in his element, looking very much the part of a Tom Waits nighthawk-cum-Chris Isaak crooner and sounding like the sexiest man in all of New England. That's when my girlfriend whispered in my ear, "If you were a rock star, I think you'd be like him." For a woman not easily impressed by fame or fortune or rock stars or me or really much of anything, this was the nicest thing she could have said to me. It was a fantastic concert and an unforgettable evening, lit by the cool, smoky charge of Seqor Sandman.

On July 5, my girlfriend and I were driving down the New Jersey Turnpike. Morphine's "Candy" was playing on a public radio station, which put us in a good mood because you just don't hear the eclectic guitar-less rock band on the dial much. The song finished and the DJ came on: "That's 'Candy,' in honor of the late Mark Sandman who died this weekend. Viva Mark Sandman."

Sandman suffered a major heart attack during the second song of a concert in a small town outside Rome, and died on the way to the hospital. He had been reciting the lyrics to "Mona's Sister," a song from his pre-Morphine canon, in Italian. He had always been guarded about his personal life and specifically his age, so many were shocked to learn he was 46. On stage he'd seemed 10 years younger.

Little information has emerged about why his ticker gave way, though old friend Russ Gershon told the Boston Globe that 20 years ago Sandman was stabbed in the chest while driving a cab, which could explain a frail heart.

Unlike others who've eulogized Sandman (and done so eloquently), I haven't been drinking beer with him since the days when he did a weekly gig at the Plough and Stars, the bar down the street from his Cambridge loft. The devastation I feel is that of a fan. And while I can listen to his discs over and over, it's a lousy feeling to know that I'll never see Mark Sandman onstage again.

The band toured constantly; they lived to play, especially Sandman, who infected his audiences with the feeling that there's no better experience than live Morphine. Sandman only used the A and E strings on his bass, and the band's songs are all fairly short. At its best, the music built to a slow boil, with Sandman, sax player Dana Colley and drummer Billy Conway allowing the sound to slowly slip off the stage like steam from a tea kettle. The lyrics are a woozy cocktail of blues and booze, sex and death, angels and devils, stirred and served up by the cat with the so-cool countenance.

Sandman leaves behind recorded music that will always be tough to describe: low-fi, low rock, beat noir, whatever. Morphine could certainly crank up the pace when it wanted to, but what sticks with me most is their slower, more cool-and-tumble rock. When I listen to the sexy "You Look Like Rain" ("I want to know what you got to say/I can tell you taste like the sky/'cause you look like rain/You look like rain"), I hear music from a man who's listened to a lot of blues, read a lot of Kerouac and is much too interested in life to wallow in angst. Then I play it again, and I hear the same thing, only it sounds even better.

Before Morphine, there was the terrific but ultimately unsuccessful band Treat Her Right. Led by Sandman and Dave Champagne, this rocky, rhythm and bluesy foursome put out three albums between 1988 and 1991. The last, and my favorite, "What's Good for You," covers the likes of Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker and the Stones. The liner notes say, "This is what we really sound like if you put us in a room and turn on a tape recorder." The story was that the band lost most of its equipment in a fire, and the album was practically recorded in a garage. Sandman had a low-fi love affair with legs.

The band split after that record, but Sandman (and eventually THR's Conway) formed Morphine, starting with "Good" and then "Cure For Pain," "yes," "Like Swimming" and "B-Sides and Otherwise." Sandman was a singer-songwriter-experimenter with a singular sensibility that wasn't for everyone, and wasn't meant to be. He had more control over Morphine's albums than he had with Treat Her Right's, and built up a following by constantly playing small clubs. Eventually, DreamWorks signed the band; now if you listen closely to a flick like "Get Shorty" or a television show like "Homicide," that's Morphine's murky baritone buzzing in the background.

Morphine and Treat Her Right were grounded in blues-rock American soil, but Sandman had a curiosity for all types of music that was always evident. In one journal entry on the Official Morphine Web site, he wrote, "We just met an excellent oud player. I played with him recently at a club d'Elf show. An oud is a fretless Middle Eastern lute. Maybe we'll try recording something." In Cambridge, he was always trying one thing or another, whether it was the funky Hypnosonics at the Middle East or the more mellow Pale Brothers in a tiny basement club called the Lizard Lounge. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was just weird, but it was always interesting. Innovators have that effect.

Morphine's music didn't click for me at first (at the time it was, perhaps, too "low-fi" for my impatient self). Then one night while camping with friends, my brain pumped with all sorts of magic, I lay down on the ground and looked up at the stars and heard these words and music slipping slowly, loudly and decisively out of a little black box:

I was once sittin' on top of the world

I really had things in my hands

But something went wrong

I'm not sure what

And now I'm sitting here at home alone

People -- they want to give you free advice

And that's something that I've always tried

But you get what you pay for that's what I say

And now I'm payin' and payin' and payin'

I lost everything I had

I'm startin' over from scratch

"Scratch," from the band's third album, "yes," was the moment that Morphine kicked in for me.

I'm told that when you take the drug morphine after getting banged up, you drift into a state that's sort of slow and weird and wonderful, but at the same time the pain doesn't actually go away -- you feel it there inside you. Then, when the morphine's gone, you go through withdrawal, and you're hollow and sick. And there's no worse feeling in the world than that.

By Larry Smith

Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications.

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