Mark Sandman gave me everything I needed to express myself the way I do with music. He literally gave me my first two-string guitar. As members of the improvisational band Supergroup, we invented songs in front of a live audience for hours each week during the summers of '91 and '92. He gave me a bed on the floor of his loft in Boston when I was homeless. And for Mark, who liked his world customized and private, these things were very generous.
I wasn't the only one he inspired. He was the hub of a wheel of musicians in a scene full of intensely creative and unique people who depended on him for both opportunities and confidence. I had no idea how much I owed Mark until I went to his funeral in Boston and reconnected with all the people Mark connected me to. We marveled at the wide-open collaborative and improvisational spirit that Mark nurtured in all of us.
Mark had no patience for the irrelevant, and I was often met with a blank stare as my stream-of-consciousness rambling bounced around him. Sometimes a silly notion would click with irony, and he would tilt his head back and bust out laughing. It was like striking solid gold. I loved to crack that exterior. That was what our collaboration on stage was about. He was a tall statue making random noise, and I was the hyper jester holding down the solid bass lines. I remember more than once turning to Mark and the drummer of the night and thinking that I was witnessing the best musical situation I would ever find myself in.
He died on stage. Amazing . . . that was something that he never did in the metaphorical sense. On stage with Mark was the coolest place in the world. As the band staggered off into uncharted improvisational territory, I always felt extremely confident that we were somehow relevant if Mark was willing to associate himself with the sound we made. That freed me to go nuts on the two string and discover a freak inside me that otherwise never would have had the chance to pop out. I simply never would have accessed that confidence without him.
Mark was always struggling for the perfect balance of simplicity and effect in all that he did. He would record many, many different versions of the songs he wrote, striving for that combination of space, clear communication, and drive. He used to joke half-seriously about writing a book for the single male on how to make excellent food using only one pot from start to finish. Step-by-step instructions toward minimal excellence—that was Mark Sandman, and that was what he taught us.
In the graveyard two weeks ago, the ceremony was short, and we turned away for the last time. Dana Colley, the baritone sax player from Morphine, and Russ Gershon, from the Either/Orchestra, both got their instruments and stood under the tree next to Mark's grave. They played disembodied horn sections from songs by Morphine and the Hypnosonics. The lack and void was huge. We returned to the site and cried in pairs. Suddenly people began shoveling dirt from the pile next to the open plot down onto the casket. We were all collaborating one last time for Mark. We couldn't let strangers bury him. I watched in awe as the workers hired to do the job stared, and Mark's friends tucked him in for good.
Mark Sandman's family has set up a memorial fund to benefit music education programs in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area. Donations can be made to the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund and mailed to: Morphine, P.O. Box 382085, Cambridge, MA 02238.