Morphine Frontman Remembered as 'An American Original'


Mark Sandman bypassed guitars to create a musical vision all his own
Posted Jul 6, 1999 at 12:00am
Morphine was a sound Mark Sandman heard in his head. As lead singer and songwriter for the Cambridge, Mass.-based band, Sandman, playing his trademark two-string bass guitar, was one of a handful of Nineties rock musicians who actually created and perfected his own unmistakable sound. And it was a sound fans worldwide appreciated, buying up nearly two million Morphine albums.

Sandman suffered a heart attack during a Morphine concert outside of Rome Saturday night. He died en route to a hospital. Sandman was forty-six.

The fact that the lead singer of one of America's coolest rock bands was pushing fifty was just one of the many unusual things about the singer. A child of the Boston suburbs, Sandman tried college at the University of Massachusetts for a while, and then fell into a string of odd jobs, from cab driver to working on an Alaskan fishing boat.

At a time when most musicians are thinking about quitting their bands, Sandman created Treat Her Right, a mid-Eighties rock trio that, like the later Morphine, featured Sandman on bass but bypassed the traditional electric guitar out front. The band scored a minor hit with its swampy single, "I Think She Likes Me" and helped re-energize the Boston rock scene. Along with new acts such as the Pixies and Scruffy the Cat, Treat Her Right introduced the city to a new generation of distinctive rock voices.

Treat Her Right was eventually picked up by RCA, but the major label wasn't quite sure what to do with the college radio act, and the band and the record company quickly parted ways. Soon Sandman was on to other projects, including the band Supergroup, which featured Chris Ballew in his pre-President of the United States days. Ballew, who battled writer's block, later credited Sandman for helping him overcome the plight by re-teaching him the craft of songwriting.

But it was Morphine that best defined the sultry low-rock sound swirling around Sandman's head. The band's exotic and relentlessly baritone songs, built around Sandman's bass (along with his moody vocals), Dana Colley's saxophone and Billy Conway's minimalist drums, became instantly recognizable. "You knew it was Morphine from the first note," says Cruz, program director of WFNX in Boston, a longtime supporter of the band. "They were a quintessential Boston band."

The band teamed up with the tiny hometown label Accurate/Distortion to release its debut, Good. (Sandman wasn't opposed to major labels, it was just that none of them were interested in his new band.) Morphine then quickly moved to nearby Rykodisc Records, where the band put out five critically acclaimed albums: Yes, Cure For Pain, Like Swimming, Good and B-Sides and Otherwise. The band's signature songs include the scorching radio hit, "Honey White," along with "Sharks Patrol These Waters," "Good," and "Super Sex."

Touring relentlessly both in the States and abroad, the band delivered exuberant live shows that inevitably ended with exhausted, sweat-and-smoke-drenched patrons stumbling toward the door. Singer PJ Harvey dubbed Morphine "one of the sexiest bands around." As the band's following grew from word-of-mouth (no nifty videos or catchy novelty singles from these indie rockers), industry pros took note. When Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, the legendary music men who ran Warner Bros. for years, left to help launch DreamWorks Records, Morphine was one of their first signings. That, despite the fact Morphine still owed Rykodisc two albums. "Mo and Lenny had to have them," said Don Rose, president of Rykodisc.

Morphine's final album for Rykodisc, a live release, was set to be released in October. Sandman handed in approved masters to the label just days before he died.

Those who knew Sandman remember him as a quiet, thoughtful and nocturnal character, cut from the same cloth as Tom Waits. Usually found Monday nights sipping drafts at Charlie's Tap in Cambridge, Sandman seemed to know every musician in town. As a musician he was fascinated by world music, particularly Brazilian records. His loft apartment, where he composed on piano and often recorded, was always littered with various tapes and DATS.

"He was an American original," said Rose.

A private funeral for family and friends is scheduled for Sunday. Sandman's family has created a trust in his name. Collected donations will go toward helping teach music in Cambridge's public schools. Send contributions to: Mark Sandman Music Education Fund, P.O. Box 382085, Cambridge, MA, 02238.

Written by ERIC BOEHLERT for RollingStone.com News

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