July 1999 saw the death of a remarkable American from Massachusetts.
I refer not to JFK, Jr., but rather Mark Sandman, who suffered a heart attack
July 2 on stage during a performance with his band,
Morphine at the Giardini del Principe music festival outside of
Rome. Sandman died on the way to the hospital.
Before Morphine, Sandman was a member of the "Best Band
in America:" Treat Her Right. Treat Her Right was a four-piece
band from Boston consisting of David Champagne (guitar & vocals), Billy
Conway (cocktail drum), Jim Fitting (harmonica and vocals), and Sandman,
playing only the bass strings of a guitar and singing. They made three albums
between 1988 and 1990. The first was the self-titled Treat Her Right,
the second was Tied to the Tracks, and the third was What's Good
for You. Of these, only the third album is still available, but a 16-track
compliation (7 songs from each of the first two albums and 2 from the third)
is available with the appropriate title: "The
Perhaps you've never heard of Treat Her Right, and are wondering how a band you've never heard of could be "the best band in America." I came to refer to them as such, because at the time (the late 1980s) Rolling Stone was going on and on about how REM was "the best band in America." I knew REM, and I knew they were a good band, but I wasn't convinced that they were the best.
The fact that you've never heard of Treat Her Right, and they never sold zillions of albums says nothing about the quality of their tunes, of course. Popularity and quality are weakly correlated at best. They were popular in their hometown of Boston, and a song (I Think She Likes Me, which is done in a sing-speak manner reminiscent of early Rod Stewart) from their first album made waves on the US college charts and in the UK.
With that hint of success, a big record company got behind them, and put a bundle of money into the making of their second album, assuming that spending much more money making the album would mean much more popularity. However, the correlation between money spent in album production and popularity of said album is about the same as that between popularity and quality. Disappointed by the lack of success, the record company dropped them. Treat Her Right's third album was made in the same fashion as the first, although there are only 4 original songs on it with the rest standard blues/rock'n'roll tunes.
The Treat Her Right sound has been described as "punk-blues," which is a decent characterization. They played rock'n'roll as it is meant to be played, with emotion and energy, so their songs are visceral and compelling. Their songs are consistently fabulous, regardless of whether singing about being railroaded in a relationship (Tied to the Tracks), racism in America (Jesus Everyday), relationship equality (What's Good for You), or just a guy with a junkyard (Junkyard).
Many of their songs are about emotions, such as kindness (I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail), lust ("The girl that I love is just 14 years old, what the hell is the matter with me?" from Back to sin city), temptation ("Would I like to see a picture of the future? Who wouldn't wonder what it would look like?" from Picture of the Future), remorse ("If could have another chance that night, I wouldn't drive so fast, I wouldn't drive so fast " from King of Beers), confusion ("She never told me about her life, she never told me she was someone's wife, man with a gun says why'd you buy her a drink? I think she likes me" from I Think She Likes Me), and regret ("Marie, Marie, why didn't I ask you to marry me?" from Marie). If there is a better song about regret than Marie, I haven't heard it, and I'm not sure I want to.
After the demise of Treat Her Right, Sandman and Conway hooked up with baritone saxophonist Dana Colley to form Morphine, another fine band with a sound so deep and rich it's as if it came from the bottom of a mine; the kind they get diamonds and gold from. Sandman wrote most of Morphine's material, sang it, and played bass. He used a fretless bass, and only put two strings in it. When asked why he didn't have more strings than two, Sandman said that he could make all the notes with just those two strings, so why have more?
Mark Sandman was part of two unique and glorious bands. The music he left behind may not a cure for the pain of his passing, but it helps.