Mark Sandman, lead singer, bassist, and songwriter of the seminal indie rock band Morphine, died on July 3, 1999. He had a heart attack while performing in Palestrina, Italy.
Sandman revealed little about his life, which makes his songs all the more intriguing. They are simultaneously confessional and vague, like you are hearing him speak to a specific person, not to the public. For example, what exactly happened on March 4, 1982, on which date Sandman says “if I’m guilty, so are you” (“Radar” from Yes)? Did he have a long-time affair every Thursday afternoon at some motel called the Wagon Wheel (“Thursday” from Cure for Pain)?
The early 1990s were a heyday for independent rock, with many bands going on to mainstream success. Morphine remained a cult band, perhaps because they were so different: vocals, saxophone, bass, and drums. Dana Colley, the group’s saxophonist, played baritone saxophone primarily, and Sandman’s vocals are in the baritone range. Sandman dubbed the Morphine sound “low rock.”
Morphine’s style somehow sounds from a different era. Sandman’s lyrics sound like a cross between Chandler and Kerouac, and the music fits – it sounds like music people might have listened to in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although this amalgam of rock, jazz, and blues would not have been at those dates (since the band had more recent influences). Whatever the era, Morphine sounds like the night as depicted in film noir – a lonely, sad world filled with danger lurking around the corner and femme fatales constantly breaking your heart. He goes out every night at “Eleven O’Clock” (from Like Swimming), he finds a woman who “when she laughs…[makes him] collapse inside” (“All Wrong” from Cure for Pain), and he seems to have a personal relationship with the Devil himself (“Buena” from Cure for Pain and “Honey White” from Yes), all while searching for an elusive “Cure for Pain.”
Since Mark Sandman’s tragic death, Dana Colley and Billy Conway (drums) have put together a few projects in his honor. Shortly after Sandman passed away, they toured with “Orchestra Morphine,” a band of Sandman’s friends performing his songs. They continued to produce music at Sandman’s Hi-N-Dry studio in Cambridge, MA, and formed a side project called The Twinemen, based on a Sandman short story.
Sandman has been honored in his home city of Cambridge, with Mark Sandman Square (the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Brookline Street) and the Mark Sandman Music Project, a non-profit supporting music in local schools.