Documentary Explores Life Of The Late Morphine Front-Man Mark Sandman

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Back in 1989, in Cambridge, three musicians came together and formed a band. They called themselves Morphine.

"The word morphine comes from the word Morpheus, who's the god of dreams," said frontman Mark Sandman in a television interview. "That appealed to us."

Mark Sandman (goodgovernor/Flickr)
Mark Sandman (goodgovernor/Flickr)

The music was moody, textured. Sandman called it "low rock." They made a sound unlike anything anyone had heard. And they used an entirely unexpected mix of instruments.

Musician Ben Harper described their music as "two string slide bass. Baritone sax. And drums. Really? Those guys might as well been playing accordian, banjo, and bagpipes."

Morphine was unique. But Sandman was its heart and soul. The band's intense run came to a sudden, tragic end when Sandman died onstage in the middle of a live performance on July 3rd, 1999. He was 46.

His life the subject of a new documentary, "Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story," which is screening through Sunday at The Brattle Theatre. We spoke with the film's director and a former Morphine band member about the talent, enigma and legacy of Mark Sandman.

A "Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story" will be screening at the Brattle Theater until July 1.


  • Jeff Broadway, creator and director of "Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story"
  • Dana Colley, former Morphine saxophonist, currently with The Ever Expanding Elastic Waste Band

Interview Highlights

On Sandman's Childhood

Jeff Broadway: "Mark was family. He was always a mythological figure in my family. I met him once, when I was 12 years old, and he died a year later in July 1999. It was interesting to go back and consider the emotional derivation of where Mark's music came from. We come from a family of professionals, engineers, doctors, lawyers... He lost both of his younger brothers within 18 months of each other. Mark was a meandering 20-something, and the loss really served as a source of purpose for him. It focused him. He seemed to understand that he needed to achieve something greater, and that might have been in the name of his brothers."

Dana Colley: "One of the early meetings we had in Mark's apartment in Cambridge, he reached up to the top shelf and pulled down an old saxophone case. He said, 'This is my brother Jonny's saxophone, would you mind playing it?' He alluded to the fact that Jonny wasn't with us, but he didn't go into any detail... I think he just wanted to hear it again, or just see it have some breath in it again."

On Morphine's Unique Sound

Colley: "The music he was making always seemed very soulful. In the post-punk era, he was a breath of fresh air to my ears. I gravitated to him as a musician... We were in that grunge scene, but we didn't use the standard drums, bass, guitar. We played different instruments, and they just happened to be the ones we played. We didn't think of it as anything other than bringing what we know to this time. It turned out to be a different sound, but I don't think we intended it... I can remember the ah-ha moment in Mark's apartment. Just the sound of his one-string bass and my baritone [saxophone], there was a yin and yang of sound. And then Mark's voice over it. You think of a combination lock, it just has three numbers, but infinite possibilities."

On Sandman's Difficult Personality

Broadway: "It was resounding among some of the musicians we interviewed: Mark could be quite difficult. He was very human, like the rest of us. We couldn't shy away from this part of him [in the documentary]."

Colley: "You had to choose your battles. We bumped heads. And Mark would say, 'Gee, I don't think I can work with someone who feels this way about me.' And I would say, 'Well Mark, I wouldn't say anything if I didn't love you.' And he would pace around, blow off some steam, and that would be the end of it."

On Sandman's Death

Colley: "It was [July 1999]. The day before we were in Portugal, and it was 100 degrees on stage. The next day in Italy it was as hot on stage. Mark was moving pretty slowly, but no one really thought much of it. We were going through our set, having a great time. About the seventh song in, I just noticed out of the corner of my eye, Mark was buckling at his knees. And the next thing I know, he had fallen over backward. And all I could think was, 'He's going to get back up.' I went to him, and his bass was booming, reverberating as he hit the ground. I tried to call him back, shouting at him to hang in there. But he died, right there."

Broadway: "Mark had been a taxi driver in Boston at some point in his 20's. He got stabbed by a passenger. He may have suffered some damage to his aortic wall as a result of that. There's been some speculation that that might have added to his ultimate complications."

On Sandman's Musical Legacy

Colley: "Mark was a cornerstone to the Boston/Cambridge music scene. His loft apartment on Norfolk Street, any number of musicians would be there. He was always creating, always incorporating his friends. It really was a hub for music... As for Mark, this film has really helped me immensely. It's helped to crack open the enigma."

This segment aired on June 29, 2012.


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