Remembering Sandman


On the anniversary of Mark Sandman‘s passing from this earthly plane to a more ethereal one, my thoughts this day are on my fallen friend and comrade. I first met Mark around 1987…i wasn’t keeping much in the way of records back then, and there wasn’t this interweb thing. No hard drive to reference info off of other than my faulty memory. I was playing in the Either/Orchestra at the time, and Russ Gershon and Tom Halter from that band were also playing with Mark in his group Hypnosonics. Sandman seemed to have an unlimited amount of bands, including Treat her Right, which was his main focus at that point. Hypnosonics played when he had time off from that band, soon to sign with RCA, and allowed him to access musical ideas what didn’t fit with that group. img008

Hypnosonics played a kind of psychedelic, avant garde funk that was very rootsy and primitive, as minimal as could be. The drummer, Jay Hilt, played a wooden cymbal of his own creation and hit the drums as if every beat would be his last. Though the band didn’t really sound like him, Sandman was a huge Prince fan, and his Black Album was a template for a lot of Mark’s explorations at this time. I should add that he was an intellectually hungry man – hungry for a widely varied array of musics that would probably surprise people who only know him for the Low Rock that Morphine would later create. He turned me onto a mind-expanding palette of sounds that still resonate and influence me to this day, including Hassan Hakmoun‘s Gift Of The Gnawa and the Luv ‘n’ Haight compilation Evolution, which was filled with obscure funk and soul rare grooves from the 60’s & 70’s. But I’m getting ahead of myself. img010

Russ recommended me to Mark for bassist in Hypnos (as we called the band…he named it after Hypnos, god of sleep, and later Morphine was named after the god of dreams) after the old bass player Vince started not showing up to gigs one too many times. I met Mark for an audition in his apartment on Williams St outside of Central Square, and entering it was like stepping into the realm of the guy with the coolest collection EVER. Place was a mess with LPs and cassettes falling off of shelves, and books, books, books everywhere. I was just awestruck at the immense pile of data that assaulted my senses (plus we had no doubt tasted of the muggles by this point), and the thing that really blew my mind was that he has listened to all of this…he had read all of these books. These weren’t just decorations or result of an obsessive collector who acquires things and then puts them behind glass and never accesses them. These were tools to him, just like the guitars and keyboards and 4 track cassette recorder and the myriad pile of gear that filled every corner and available space. That’s the way I remember it anyway, but like I said there is not data to go back and look at. I don’t even have any photos from that time.img009

The audition became a rehearsal pretty quickly, as he threw tunes and riffs at me which i tried my best to keep up with and document on my little Sony cassette recorder. I was fresh out of Berklee and even though i wasn’t perhaps as inclined to needless displays of technique as some who come from there are prone to, i was still as green as they come and in need of a proper education from someone who had been around as much as Mark had. He was about 10 years older than i but his knowledge and experience of the world gave him an even greater edge than a mere decade. He saw in me a kid worthy of playing in his band, but oh man, i had some learning to do.img001

One of the first things Mark instilled in me – or tried to (the lesson was re-taught every gig as he would turn around and yell at me) – was don’t fill. “Fills” are little breaks in the groove that musicians often throw in at the end of 4 bar phrases or multiples of 4. I had a tendency to take these opportunities to spin out some little variation that i thought was cool, but what in reality just breaks up the trance quality of the groove. When you really get into exploring what it is that makes a James Brown or Fela groove so deep and so compelling is that no one is filling. Everyone is just playing the same thing, over and over and over again. I was still prone to that jazz mentality that is prevalent at Berklee and other institutions that teaches us that playing the same thing repeatedly is boring and not creative. How wrong i was, and Mark was my first drill sergeant in the army of the groove. Trance by necessity requires repetition, and the little filigrees i was throwing out – as hip as i thought they were, and as much as i was trying to be like Bootsy or Jamerson – were not compatible with Mark’s aesthetic. And he let me know about it, over and over. It was painful, I’ll admit, and i rebelled and would often sulk and grumble with the other guys during breaks or after…”fucking Mark….blah blah gripe gripe….yelling at me….grumble moan….embarrassing me on stage…the nerve…” But it was one of the greatest lessons i learned, and i owe it all to him. img006

Citing influences is often an excuse for people to trot out names that on close inspection bear no resemblance to the playing of the person calling upon that hallowed individual or band. I’ve been guilty of it, and i got humbled once by Dave Holland when i was studying with him, when he casually remarked that he didn’t hear any of so and so’s playing in my own after i had name-checked a famous bass player. I realized then that the only way you can really call someone an influence is to immerse yourself in their world – in the case of a musician, in their sound. You need to transcribe and learn how to play what they do, put on their shoes and walk around in them. For over 10 years i had the good fortune to immerse myself in Mark’s sound, in his world. And he, along with Mr Holland and later my Club d’Elf band mate Brahim Fribgane, became part of the Big 3 in my hierarchy of musical influences. img002

He was like a big brother to me as well as a mentor and band mate. He reluctantly let me take CDs from his collection (I never gave him Gift of the Gnawa back and still have his copy…sorry, Mark) and would invite me over to listen to music. And play. There seemed to be a non-stop recording session going on at his house, especially once he moved to Norfolk St and Hi-N-Dry was born. The Tascam multi-track cassette recorder (he had graduated to 8 tracks by now) was always on, always recording, Kyle. Always recording. A dizzying array of local players were in and out and at all times, as he would ask for the groove du jour. img007

It would be a disservice to deify the man, for as anyone who worked closely with him found out, and found out pretty quick: Mark had a dark side. One of the best ways to call that dark side forth was to engage him in the “writers conversation”. Sandman was a practitioner of the age-old artistic philosophy of the master not sharing credit w/ the apprentice. When you went in and did something in his realm, he owned it, plain and simple. And after a while i started to get uppity and brought the subject up, and He…Shut…Me…Down. And looking back i can sympathize. I have since learned what it’s like to have a band member over-estimate the essential nature of their contribution and feel that they have written something that they did not really. I know this is what Mark felt, and he could prove it in his own way, in that just about every song he ever wrote he performed in multiple versions, with multiple bands. “You think your part is essential to this song? Well, here’s another version that doesn’t have it and it’s still the song.” It’s a lot easier to do that when your songs mostly consist of one chord. So yeah, best not get to talking about writers credit if you wanted to stay on good terms with Sandman.

We had our falling outs about that, but it was impossible to stay away from the guy. He had that…charisma. He had charm like you have never experienced.  I’m not gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but i have to admit that he was just a very sexy man, and it was intoxicating just to be around him. Exhilarating. To be liked by Mark and invited into his realm was just about the coolest thing, and to be treated like an equal in the creation of music (as long as, you know, you don’t expect your name attached to it) was…the best. I would call him up, usually to bug him about when he was going to book some more Hypnos gigs (Morphine had begun by this point and we was often away touring the world for long periods), and he would laugh that wry laugh of his, and then pause. He was the king of the pause, often accompanied by the sound of him inhaling on his cigarette or just taking a deep breath. And you would wait for it…and then out would come some snippet of zen hipsterism that just summed everything up as perfectly as you could ever hope for.img005

One time i was on the phone with him after he had just gotten back from Brazil, and finally he said, “Rivard…(sucking in sound)…(exhale)…why don’t you come over?” (Mark never traveled to your house. You came to his). And of course i was down for it, and told him that i was just going to jump in the shower and i’d be right over. He laughed when i said this, and i couldn’t figure out why at the moment. I arrived about an hour later and he smiled and showed me the latest episode of his on-going Twinemen comic, in which one of the characters was using a shower like a means of transportation. That’s what he did: he used all of the information coming into him – from friends, from records he was listening to, from art he was checking out – and put it into his work, but he added something that transformed it and made it identifiably Sandmanian. I can see that more clearly now, and understand his perspective on his territory and how threatened he was when others impinged upon it. For as much as i value what i added to the music, it was Mark who really gave everything he touched validity and brought it into a place of timeless beauty.

The day he died was one of the hardest days i have experienced, right up with there with the passing of my mother. Jerome Deupree gave the call, and Dyann, my wife at the time, took it and broke the news to me. I was devastated, as were all of his friends. It just simply seemed impossible that he could be gone. Though if he had to go, what better way than to have his bass feeding back through an SVT while the sound washed over him as his soul began it’s journey into the next world. It seemed like such a fitting end, like the finale to some dark fairy tale, with the noble death of the king. We all gathered some days later for a memorial concert out in front of the Middle East, battling torrential rains. There was a sense of solidarity and community that i don’t think i had ever experienced until that moment. He had touched us all so deeply, bringing together a village of people that all revolved around his commanding center axis. But now he was gone.

Not gone entirely. He came to me in a dream a short time after he died. Like a David Lynch movie – like the scene in The Elephant Man, where John Merrick’s mother appears in space, in the clouds – Mark came to me in a white, white space devoid of sound. I could see in his eyes that he was dead, and i wept like a child. I cried and cried, telling how much i loved him, as he smiled that wry smile of his, and played his 2 string bass. The sound erupted out of the silence and he looked me in the eyes and i felt that he was passing something on to me. I’ve always been an avid dreamer, and this one stands as one The Big Ones. He came to me again recently, but this one was weird, with him still alive and having faked the whole thing (the same thing another friend dreamt about him, recently too) in a kind of Truman Show way, where he was both Jim Carrey and Ed Harris.

I miss him so much. Today i think of him and toast his memory, and later, along with some other mutual friends & Orchestra Morphine alumni – Russ, Tom & Christian McNeill, and my cohorts in Club d’Elf, Dean Johnston & Paul Schulthies and other guests, will pay tribute to the man with a set of his music. Mark always said “rehearsal is death”, so we’ve kept true to his philosophy, and though it won’t be the most tight set of music ever performed, it will be done from the heart. If you’re in Union Square in Somerville this evening, don’t be surprised if you hear the strains of Buena or Wishing Well or The Night coming out the doors of Precinct. Thanks for the music, Mark. Thanks for teaching me what I needed to learn, and for being my friend. I love you, man.

Post-script: this was written 5 years ago, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Mark’s death. Tonight, on the 15th anniversary, Orchestra Morphine will once again rise from the ashes and pay tribute to our friend with a night of music at the Lizard Lounge.

Hypnosonics at Middle East Downstairs, mid-90s
Trailer For “Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story”

~ by delfblog on July 3, 2009.

10 Responses to “Remembering Sandman”

  1. Hey Mike,

    That was a lovely post. I listened to The Night over and over all day for the last few days… wish I could have been in Boston or Italy last week. Working on the bio all of the month of July – will be out in September.

  2. micro
    what a great blog… i am truly moved. you captured sandman’s spirit and were able to share it with so many ppl… keep it always real micro – that is SO cool of u…

  3. That was beautifully written. Your fondness for Mark, in spite of his flaws, is clear. Sure wish I’d been at that July 3 tribute – anyone record it, perchance?

  4. I just found this and I thank you for sharing your memories. I saw Morphine in early 1994–having known nothing about them at the time–and it was to be years before I fully grasped what genius had been at work. The music has grown so much on me since then that the loss of Mark Sandman seems greater with every passing year. Thank heaven for that music.
    And thank you for your heartfelt writing.

  5. Unreal! I’m a grown man who never had the pleasure to see mark live and I am in tears right now. The music that poured out of this man changed my life tremendously. I was pretty sad when he died, but imagine that if he had been a friend, I would probably still be recovering. Thanks for your post.

  6. big hugs to you micro

  7. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. I never missed an opportunity to see any one of the “musical vehicles” Mark Sandman and all you guys were involved with. Always an amazing thing to see.

    My main recollection was of a gig at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge one Saturday long ago- say 1990(?) The Hypnosonics were in full effect. So crazy – to see all those guys playing squeezed into that tiny corner!

    At one point Mark Sandman comes over – strumming along – After a rather amazing version of “someone stole my shoes today” – and just sort of says to the crowd- in my general vicinity – “yeah, yeah…what do you FEEL?!…what do you need?!…do you know?…” To which I responded “…you know…the funk…you know? That stuff…” What ensued -musically was nothing less than a variation of a variation of stream of consciousness creation that was, exactly what we wanted – but never expected.

    And THAT kiddos- is what music is really about.

    I’d say RIP Mark Sandman, but my guess is that he’s making the unexpected happen someplace else. Just out of our sight somewhere in a strange cafe.

    Can’t wait for that improv performance.

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  10. wow, talk about a time lag…i just saw this. really cool to read about your recollection of that hypnos gig, and very timely, as we’re planning a tribute show to mark on july 5 at the lizard in recognition of the 20th anniversary of his departure from the planet. of course, he’s still here in some sense. hope you can make it out.

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