Best Of '99: Morphine Singer Dies With Live, Studio LPs In Works

Mark Sandman, who suffered apparent heart attack onstage Saturday, leaves countless hours of recordings.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, July 6.]

Morphine frontman Mark Sandman, who died Saturday after an apparent heart attack onstage in Italy, left hours of unreleased recordings, including a completed Morphine live album and a studio album that had reached the mixing stages, according to his friends and publicists for the band.

Just last week, Sandman, the singer and bassist for the Boston beat-noir band, had turned in a completed master of the live album, which is tentatively titled Bootleg: Detroit, according to Darcy Mayers, the publicity director for Rykodisc, which is releasing the album. Sandman was 46 when he died.

The album had been scheduled for release Oct. 12, but those plans were put on hold following Sandman's death, Mayers said.

The guitar-free trio Morphine, who gained national attention beginning with their second album, Cure for Pain (1993), also had finished recording their latest studio album, which they had been mixing prior to Sandman's death, according to Boston musician Michael Rivard, a friend of Sandman. Rivard, who added electric- and double-bass to the new album, also contributed to the band's previous album,

Like Swimming (1997) (RealAudio excerpt of title track).

"[Sandman] would always have tape rolling," Rivard said. "[I] can't believe how much stuff there is in the can — you'd go into his apartment and there'd be stacks and stacks of tapes."

The unreleased studio album demonstrates Sandman's interest in world music, Rivard said Tuesday (July 6).

A song called "Rope on Fire" spotlights an Arabic string orchestra, courtesy of a Moroccan musician who also plays the Middle Eastern instrument known as the oud on the album, according to Rivard. Besides his own additions, the album also includes contributions from a guest cellist and violinist, Rivard said.

Carrie Svingen, Morphine's publicist, said Tuesday it was too soon to discuss whether the band would release its live and studio albums. A statement released through Svingen said Sandman's bandmates, saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Billy Conway, and the band's management "are deeply saddened by the loss of Mark Sandman."

"Their hearts go out to the friends and fans who share their grief," the statement continued. A private funeral for Sandman will be held Friday, according to the statement.

Those who knew Sandman said the singer appeared to be in good health, although he was a heavy cigarette smoker, Rivard said.

"It came as a big shock to everybody ... there were no signs at all. He [was] not overweight, he [was] not a drug user," Mayers said.

In addition to the unreleased Morphine project, Sandman also had contributed his trademark two-string bass, as well as three-string and six-string guitar, to tracks for a forthcoming debut album from Club d'Elf, an instrumental project led by Rivard. On some tracks, Sandman and Rivard are joined by John Medeski of the groove-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, as well as turntablist DJ Logic, who frequently plays with that group.

Some music from that project, which Rivard hopes to release later this year, can be heard on the band's official website, www.bandelf.com.

In addition to these formal recordings, Sandman's Boston apartment was filled with home-studio tapes of jam sessions, according to Rivard, who knew him for 12 years.

Sandman's creativity didn't stop with his music. Rivard said that Sandman found an outlet for his sardonic sense of humor with a comic strip, "Twinemen," which he periodically wrote and drew, according to Rivard.

Despite leading a band with a major-label contract, Sandman maintained strong ties to the Boston music scene. "He was your next-door neighbor and a rock star at the same time," said the program director for the Boston alternative station WFNX, who would give only his on-air name, Cruze.

"[Sandman] truly was the king of Cambridge (Mass.) — he ruled the scene," Mayers said. In addition to his constant local presence as a live performer with Morphine and in a number of side projects, Sandman was known for producing unknown local acts he liked, she noted.

The bassist's influence reached far outside Boston as well. California-bred musician Mike Watt — who, as Sandman had been, is a bass player — said the loss of the Morphine leader hit him hard when he learned of the death over the weekend.

"He was an affirmation for me," said Watt, whose band the Minutemen broke up when guitarist D. Boon died in a 1985 van crash. "[Sandman] was older than me, and a bass player who wrote all the songs."

Over the years, Watt performed several times on the same bill with Morphine. "He didn't clone another sound," Watt said.

In recognition of Sandman's unique musicianship and rapport with up-and-coming musicians, his friends and family asked in a statement that, in lieu of flowers, mourners send donations to the newly established Mark Sandman Music Education fund, which will aid music education programs in Cambridge.

Morphine, who started out playing around Boston and Cambridge in the early 1990s, released five albums: Good (1992), Cure for Pain (1993), Yes (1995), Like Swimming (1997) and the odds-and-sods collection B-Sides and Otherwise (1997).

The band also contributed music to soundtracks for the films "Get Shorty," "Beautiful Girls" and "Postcards From America,'' and the television series "Homicide: Life on the Street.''

(Staff Writer Chris Nelson contributed to this report.)