The DMCA bell did not toll for a beloved musician—thus, I could grieve him

Enlarge / Bass guitarist Mark Sandman and saxophonist Dana Colley in concert with their band Morphine in the '90s.Getty Images / Tim Mosenfelder

I'm a firm believer in the power of a live performance. A television broadcast or DVD doesn't capture the same thing as a theatrical production or a concert. You gotta be there.

But what about when you can't? What recourse is there when you're in love with an artist or performer who you can't physically interact with for any number of reasons?

I've thought about this for decades from a few perspectives: as a former full-time music critic; as a frequent chronicler of how information is presented and exchanged online; and perhaps most of all, as a music fan who had one freaking band slip through his hands.

I will never see my favorite songwriter in concert, right in front of me, reacting to my cheers and enthusiasm. But if any performer was going to vanish just as I teetered into my concert-going years, at least this one had some surprises for me five, 10, even 20 years later, all just a few mouse-clicks away.

“I was little, I didnt know $#!*”

If you've heard of the musician in question, Mark Sandman, you likely travel in some select music circles. Sandman was best known as the lead singer and bassist for the Boston-area rock trio Morphine, who rose to mid-level, college-radio fame in the mid-'90s. Theirs was a unique sound: just bass, drums, saxophone, and vocals, swirled together in a style that Sandman dubbed "low rock." Saxophonist Dana Colley played his baritone sax like a guitar, while Sandman's unique slide-bass style favored thudding chords and far-from-subtle grooves.

I found out they existed the same way a few thousand people from my generation did: by a quick-hit report on MTV News. The cable channel would occasionally air five-minute vignettes about up-and-coming bands, usually when they'd signed to mid-level record-contract deals. Morphine's "You Hear It First" snippet wasn't well preserved; I've struggled to find it online over the past 20-plus years, but I can pin it to a specific era and a specific friend who I watched it with. One of those seared-in-the-brain childhood memories.

But at that age, if it wasn't in a BMG or Columbia House catalog ("10 albums for one penny!"), I pretty much couldn't buy a CD in question. So my real appreciation of the band was held up a few years, until I started going to the local used CD store to spend whatever part-time job money I hadn't spent at Software At Cost Plus 10% (an actual store in Dallas for a few years). I flipped through the CD store's "new arrivals" bin, where the good stuff usually hid before getting alphabetically sorted by staffers. One time, I found a Morphine motherlode. I bought it all.

Were I typing this article at a music-centric site, I might regale you with a lengthy, overwrought description—one of exhilaration at the band's crunching, unique-sounding riffs, another of my love for Sandman's straight-to-the-gut lyrics, and a third about how foolish I immediately felt for not looking up their albums sooner. Instead, I'll just embed a song.

"Radar" by Morphine (alternate studio take).

I knew this was outside the normal rock-radio realm of the time, and I also quickly figured out that not every band with a CD at my local store had quite "made it." That was OK for me. I didn't fit in at my school. It was cool to have a band to reinforce that feeling—something weird, edgy, catchy, and poetic that didn't require me to dress like a metalhead or a goth.

But as I hinted earlier, my increasing fandom didn't go according to plan. My hopes of eventually seeing Morphine in concert fell apart 20 years ago this week. On July 3, 1999, Sandman died at the age of 47, shortly after suffering a heart attack in the middle of a concert in Rome. No foul play or drugs were detected; Sandman had a history of congenital heart failure in his family, and he'd brushed aside troubling symptoms earlier that day. The rest of that 1999 summer tour was, unsurprisingly, canceled. I had just turned 18 and would've finally been able to see them at age-restricted venues.

“11 years later, still dont know any better”

I know a lot about Sandman's death. I also know a lot about the album that was about to launch when he died, about the other bandmates' efforts to create a tribute concert series in the wake of the tragedy, about a pair of documentaries about Sandman's legacy, and more.

I wasn't nearly as encyclopedic about Morphine at the time. In hindsight, I realize how numb I was to Sandman's death. Other musicians I really liked in my teens had come and gone: Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Shannon Hoon, just off the top of my head. And my fascination with music was only beginning to blossom; barely two months after Sandman's death, I had moved to Austin for college, where I became a live-music addict. Between cheap concerts and free file-sharing downloads, I was distracted.

My mourning period for Sandman didn't really land for some time. I've come to realize that's typical for grief, in terms of life events reminding us of the people and things we miss. But my first blush with this about Sandman came from a surprisingly geeky source: Soulseek, one of the many peer-to-peer file-sharing apps that littered the post-Napster landscape. I favored Soulseek's simple interface over the bloated likes of Kazaa and Limewire, and I loved its default encouragement to pick through uploaders' individual libraries. Search for a Weezer song, then pick through a Soulseek uploader's full collection, and you might find other Weezer rarities, if not other exciting new bands.

In Morphine's case, Soulseek introduced me to a surprising number of bootleg concert recordings, which I found while trying to fill out my collection of the band's B-sides. Some of Morphine's bootlegs came from jam-band fans who'd been to the Horde Festival. (Morphine weren't a jam band by any stretch but got booked at Horde for some reason.) Others just came from die-hard fans. Most of these sets included clearly recorded introductory speeches from Sandman: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are Morphine, at your service."

This wasn't the same as grabbing albums and B-sides. These were documents of a band experience I'd never, ever get to see. I'd finally started going to a ton of concerts (and even bootlegging a few local favorites). For the first time, I felt myself trying, and failing, to fill in the gaps of a missed experience.

"Virgin Bride" by Morphine.

Still, I loved the songs, so this material tided me over before the handlers of Sandman's estate began officially unearthing a mountain of posthumous output—enough to make the Tupac Shakur estate blush. Sandman invested in a home studio early in his career, which he dubbed "Hi-N-Dry Studios," and there, he put countless experiments and musical ruminations down on tape (not on hard drives). This was still the era of the B-side and single, which meant a few of these weird one-off songs had reached retail before his 1999 passing. (A personal, macabre favorite is above.)

The first major issuance of posthumous material came from a 2004 three-disc box set, simply titled Sandbox, which included a surprising number of entirely new songs. Sandman dabbled in a number of side projects, particularly the trippy, techno-laced Hypnosonics, and I was overjoyed to finally get my hands on more recorded examples of his oeuvre. The sentiment quickly grew bittersweet. Was it easier to miss Sandman with more songs to enjoy? Or was it harder to miss him with the realization of how surprising and diverse his output really was?

In the years since Sandbox's launch, even more music has emerged. What's more, his musical legacy has fallen into a strangely sweet spot on the Internet: big enough to have a huge number of fans uploading all manner of bootlegs and rarities, yet small enough to avoid a DMCA smackdown. I cannot recall any videos from my long-running "SANDMAN/MORPHINE" bookmark folder drying up due to a copyright claim, in spite of his biggest studio albums being available for purchase (let alone some snazzy vinyl re-releases).

“Its way too late for me to change”

The best stuff all seems to come from one YouTube channel, in operation for a little over two years, with a strange nickname attached: Sito Lupion. As I'm writing this from the perspective of a fan, not an embedded member of the Boston music scene, I don't have any personal insight about who this person might be. But as a rabid Mark Sandman fan, I can assure you, they have some incredible level of aRead More – Source


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