My first encounter with Mark Sandman was more than twenty years ago. If high school had a sound track, at least one side of the tape would have been Treat Her Right. Nearly every party came to a point where we’d listen to “Everglades” and laugh uncontrollably. I still grin when I hear that opening harmonica/feedback/wail.
Was a nice young man from Jacksonville,
A nice young man, not the kind who’d kill
But a jealous fight and a flashing blade
Sent him on the run to the Everglades
Now he’s runnin’ like a dog
Sandman’s songwriting for Treat Her Right resonated with me as much as anyone’s: a mix of dark humor, reckless attitude, hillbilly spite. Perfect for growing up in Florida, living in a rented cracker house without air conditioning, shirtless most of the time. My roommates and I were very amused to hear Sandman wasn’t actually from Jacksonville. A few years later, I followed him eagerly to Morphine, who I latched onto even moreso than Treat Her Right. I was still living in a cracker house in Gainesville, but it was my own now, and I was married to Erin. Sandman was different, too. “Buena” made it onto an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. His work with Morphine felt more urgent, less oriented around storytelling. Going on a roadtrip, kidding with a waitress, finding a party, miscommunicating with friends, relationships, gambling, Sandman wrote more about the mundane. Less fictional. That was fine with me.
In the morning, I was by the sea
And I swam out as far as I could swim
Until I was too tired to swim anymore
Then I floated, and tried to get my strength back
Then an empty box came floating by
An empty box, and I crawled inside
This week marks ten years since Sandman died while performing on stage in Italy. Stunned, I wrote a friend, who was living in Cambridge at the time. “I saw him a few weeks ago,” Erich replied. “He looked like hell.” Not much later, on 9-9-99, I sat behind my house in Gainesville, drank wine, ate french fries, and listened to Morphine. A few friends came over. We talked about dead musicians, dead movie stars, and listened to Morphine’s baritones.
The Night was released in February 2000. Erin bought it for me, and I returned to the back porch to listen. From the first bars of the opening track, I knew it would be an amazing record: not just a collection of low-growl staples, but something much more adventurous, moving beyond the sparse instrumentation that had characterized Sandman’s work to that date. Sandman, Colley, and Conway paced the record stunningly, using breaks and rests to keep the production from becoming cluttered. Right away I thought, as I do now, what a shame Sandman wouldn’t get a chance to follow through, to begin again, as his last lyric for Morphine suggested.