LOW GLOW By the time Mark Sandman died, Morphine had evolved into the most instantly recognizable sound of the alternative-rock era.
Mark Sandman died with his boots on. Or at least the rock-and-roll equivalent of the Old West gunfighter’s epitaph: with his bass strapped across his chest while playing the music he loved with his band Morphine, at the Nel Nome del Rock festival in Palestrina, Italy, on July 3, 1999.
Before the Newton native’s heart stopped, at age 46, it seemed he’d always been in motion. Sandman’s pre-Morphine résumé included stints as a construction worker, a hobo, and a commercial fisherman. He was stabbed in the chest once while driving a cab. In Morphine’s early days, he even applied to drive a delivery truck for the Boston Phoenix. (He didn’t get the job.)
By then, he’d also been part of the influential band Treat Her Right. Formed in 1984 by Sandman, David Champagne, Jim Fitting, and Billy Conway, THR played alt-blues nearly 20 years before that appellation became common, touring internationally and opening for Bob Dylan. Next came Morphine, second only to the Pixies as the most influential band to emerge from the Boston-Cambridge club scene of the ’90s.
With Sandman’s death, Morphine ceased to exist, after a decade of evolving the most instantly recognizable sound of the alternative-rock era. Sandman coined the term “low rock” to describe the blend of the one- and two-string basses he played, Dana Colley’s baritone and bass saxophones, and the drumming of Jerome Deupree — who was later replaced by Conway and rejoined near the end to make Morphine briefly a quartet.
“Establishing a recognizable sound is the mark of a great artist,” says Conway, speaking over the phone from his new home in Montana. “Here’s a guy who invents a new instrument, creates a band to go with it, writes songs for that band, and then travels around the world playing those songs. We knew we were lucky when we worked with Mark.”
And Sandman sometimes worked in mysterious ways.
“Mark invited me to jam right after the light bulb for Morphine went on above his head,” recalls Colley, who put together a band with Deupree and local slide-guitarist Jeremy Lyons to play a tribute to Sandman in Palestrina this weekend. “Mark was sitting on the piano bench in his little apartment on Williams Street in Cambridge, with the one-string bass he’d just made, and singing. I had my baritone sax. The ideas were flowing beautifully. After about 10 minutes, he said, ‘All right. Let’s go get a drummer and get some gigs.’ ”
The next rehearsal was at Deupree’s practice space, beneath a deli in Everett. “It was . . . cool,” the drummer recounts. “We went upstairs to the deli after playing, and Mark said, ‘Morphine. I’ve already got the name.’ ”
And so it went on, for five studio albums and a slew of tours.
When Morphine weren’t on the road and he wasn’t recording in his Cambridge loft and studio, Sandman could usually be found watching bands from the back of the Middle East, the Plough & Stars, Lizard Lounge, or T.T. the Bear’s.