MARK SANDMAN, a remembrance

MARK SANDMAN

I have a pink shirt. It’s an Agnes B. It’s a beaut. Great color, great feel, and fits perfectly. It even fits in well with my own personal 50’s Vintage meets Army-Navy Store sartorial style that I’ve been rockin since about 1978 or so. It cost more than probably 60% of my entire wardrobe put together. I refer to it as my special shirt. I’ve had it for almost twelve years. It used to belong to Mark Sandman.

Here’s a brief history/bio/dossier/the skinny on my pal Mark for those of you who do not know. Mark Sandman was a musician. He was a musician the way Derek Jeter is a baseball player (even though Mark was from Boston/Cambridge). Consummate, natural, brilliant, supremely talented, a standout, a hard worker, devoted, simply great. Mostly he played bass, although he would do so on a guitar w/pedal octave thing, or on a two string bass with a slide, and occasionally on a Fender bass. He walked through many styles, bands, situations, and musical universes inhabiting them all, spreading his unmistakable graceful sound and vibe, and leaving none of them untouched in the bigger sense, or unaltered. His persona, which was expressed pretty truthfully in his writing, was smoky, as in a cigarette and whiskey world of breakfast after noon, cheating wives whose husbands were out of town a lot, beautiful elegant romantic poetry, long and lean, and a real good dresser. I don’t recall ever seeing him in sneakers. And, that is not to denigrate sneakers. I wear them most days myself, and have for over half a century. But, the world I live in is such that it is indeed something worth noting when a man NEVER wears ‘em. But, he was the kind of dresser who did have Vera Wang shirts in his wardrobe. Always looked great – in a very noir way. He was my friend. I am very fortunate indeed to be able to say that.

I met Mark when I was with the Del-Lords and Mark was with Treat Her Right. Must’ve been 1986 or so. We were touring off our second album, and they off their first. They also had the benefit of an MTV hit. It was called I THINK SHE LIKES ME. It was a very strange record for MTV in that it was a sparse, smoky, dark stomping Blues, with a cool attitude, sung from the perspective of a poor shmoe at a bar who allows himself to be flirted with by an attractive bad girl playing him like a fiddle – just for grins. He gets caught, is now in some trouble with her man, and in response to What The Fuck Do You Think You’re Doing??!! comes the song title. It was really pretty great.

We met in Nashville where we were sharing a bill. I walked in during their soundcheck and they were great. One guy (David Champagne) played slide guitar & sang, another (Jimmy Fitting) just played harp, and was fantastic at it, the drummer (Billy Conway, also fantastic) played a single, solitary cocktail drum, which is kinda like a conga with a foot pedal & a little cymbal, and then there was Mark who played a Telecaster, but through an octave pedal to approximate the low tones of the bass, which is essentially what he played – bass. They were quite amazing: great songs, a heavy Blues rooted sound, filtered through some Beat poetry vibe, and some very rockin’ syncopated grooves that were very exciting. I was particularly drawn to the songs Mark sang, although David’s were cool, too. Mark had a dark smoky voice that seemed to be as one with his look, which had a Mickey Spillane, hard-boiled detective look, or something from a 50’s crime novel: no jeans, no sneakers, and man-tailored shirts. His songs felt like that, too. Very cool.

That was the meeting. Over the next few years we shared more bills, and Mark and I struck up a friendship that grew and never waned. Treat Her Right broke up after another record, and some other recordings, but I continued to see Mark a lot. He would call whenever he made one of his frequent trips to NYC. We both loved to walk, and NYC being the world’s best walking town, we did that a lot, while discussing the universe, music, pot, and a little of this, that, and the other. Mark was a big crime novel fan and me being more of a science fiction guy, asked him to turn me on to some cool crime novel he could recommend to get me started to check out his passion. He went down across the street from my apartment where there was a Mystery Book store (I wish I could recall the name of it) and came back with AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy. The book blew my mind, and I became a big Ellroy fan, and still am, especially of the trilogy that began with AMERICAN TABLOID, ran through THE COLD SIX THOUSAND & concluded with BLOOD’S A ROVER. An amazing literary experience that I heartily recommend.

We would of course talk music all the time. He would listen to my songs and always say, with this delighted smile, “Scott, you’re so Pop”. Mark was other. He would make tapes for me of African music, Middle Eastern music, Turkish singers, obscure Blues (most of which I already knew inside and out), and some more experimental music. We were pretty much opposites, but with lotsa respect and love for each other’s work. He even came to see The Dictators once in Boston, and really loved that. He said it was the best he ever heard me play.

One day, he was coming to town with his new band, MORPHINE. Mark was always involved in multiple musical projects: the occasional THR gig, The Hypnosonics (horns, Beat poetry), Candy Bar (harder Rock with a female drummer), The Pale Brothers (hard Country), and the one project Mark said he knew had the least chance of success, Morphine (two string slide bass, sax, drums). Well, he was wrong about Morphine, as they went on to sell almost 1,000,000 records, and played to big, enthusiastic audiences all over the world. Mark described them as Low Rock.

In the end, Morphine was the vehicle that best encompassed Mark’s whole trip. His voice, his songs, his look, his sound, all came together to create something equal parts brand-new, and instantly accessible. It was a helluva feat. At the same time it felt natural as hell. I was a huge fan. For awhile I was one of their few NY fans. I remember seeing them in NYC where my girlfriend and I  comprised pretty much the entire audience. But, they quickly caught on, and they appeared on Conan O”Brien’s show, and they were off to the races. They made a buncha records, all up at Mark’s Cambridge loft with the 360 degree wraparound view, and all the gear ALWAYS miked and ready to go, so that all you had to do was flip the on-off switch to on, and you were ready to record. It was classic. I always loved visiting the loft.

There was Sabine, his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, who I loved, and was always happy to see, too. At one point they took an apartment on 7th ave in Manhattan, and we finally got to hang out all the time, which suited us fine. We always had a good time together, and Mark even came by to watch some of the 1996 World Series with me even though he was a not a baseball, or sports fan, to help me root my beloved Yankees to yet another championship. I remember trying a Mexican dish Mark had made, and whose recipe had made it into a cook book. He was very proud of that. And, the dish? Damn good. I was impressed At one point I was playing with a band who prided themselves on playing every song exactly the same way every single time, every single night. I would say that the Del-Lords never played anything the same way twice. Mark woud say that Morphine never played anything the exact same way once. I thought that was real funny, and still use it to this day. And, of course I went to every Morphine show, got to be friends with Dana Colley, the sax player, and remained friends with Billy Conway, as well, from the THR days. Great guys who all loved and appreciated Mark and his immense talent.

Things were all just fine until I got that phone call. It was late afternoon, twelve years ago yesterday, July 3rd, 1999. It was an old friend calling to ask if I’d heard anything about Mark. I said, yeah, he’s in Italy with Sabine and the band, why? My friend said he’d heard a rumor that Mark died. I just did not believe it to be anything other than a misconstrued rumor, and assured him Mark was fine, or else I would have heard. Well, something stuck with me and I tried scouring the internet, MTV, the radio, etc, and after a half hour I came across something on, I think, CNN. Well, I can tell you I was paralyzed by the sudden realization that this completely incredible, fantastical and inconceivable rumor was true. I felt my life change in an instant. I felt my blood run cold. I was white as a ghost, and started having difficulty breathing. As an instinctive reflex I called Manitoba, my best friend, and someone who knew Mark, too, and tried to get the words out. I couldn’t. Somehow I got the news across, and I could hear Richard’s shock settle in, and he asked if I needed him to come over. I told him no for some reason because the answer was really yes. I was spinning and dizzy, and it all started to settle in.

It turned out that Mark was onstage in Palestrina, a town about 25 miles outside of Rome, and during the second song, collapsed onstage with a massive heart attack that killed him before he hit the stage. Just like that. Mark was not overweight, not a druggy, not much of a drinker, he did smoke, but no prior heart problems, nothing. Forty-six years old, jut one year older than myself. I suddenly felt the hole that had opened up in the Earth. I noticed the coffee stains on the rug where Mark had spilled some coffee a week before dancing around playing me mixes from THE NIGHT, what was to be the final Morphine album. But, Mark was gone. The world would now be a darker place.

I grieved and I grieved and I grieved. It just didn’t stop. It would come over me at the oddest and most inopportune moments. It had only been a week or so before that Mark was at the pad, and we were hanging’ out, having our usual good time, and all was right in the world. Soon I started to dwell on the meaning, and the great sin of wasting time. I started to think about how Mark was only one little year older than me, and how no one was guaranteeing any of us how many ticks we were gonna get on that old ticker inside us, and it forced me to really and truly take stock of my own life. I knew I had to make some changes, and things were not alright in my own personal world. I needed to rectify everything. I ended up getting divorced, moving to California, and doubling down on my life’s purpose as a musician. Before the dust even settled I had left the town of my birth, and had lived for 47 years, and began anew. The grieving never stopped. I couldn’ t get over losing Mark. I couldn’t get over the world losing Mark. I couldn’t play his music because of how it conjured up Mark’s presence in an instant, and as a tease. And, his voice was still on his answering machine, which no one wanted to change. Everyone in his orbit was devastated.

It was about a month after Mark’s passing that I heard from Sabine. She wanted to come by and said she had something for me. It was great and sad to see her beautiful face, and again I cried as soon as I answered the door. Sabine had some photos of Mark for me, all taken the day of his passing. They are stage shots and often I looked at them, from different angles, trying to see if I could see “it”, the look of what was coming, some kind of death mask, some kind of insight into that greatest of all mysteries. Of course, I never could see it, although I have those photos on my desk, where they always can be found, and they do make me smile now, to see him playing. I have some of him and Sabine, and him and Dana at my pad. I don’t think of the end when I look at them now, at least not always. Sometimes, though.

The other thing Sabine had for me was the pink Vera Wang shirt, which I always loved, and which fit me perfectly. She wanted me to have it. I took it and I still love it. I always feel Mark’s spirit when I put it on. It still fits. It’s my special shirt.

 

 

 

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