Morphine singer-bassist Mark Sandman died of cardiac arrest onstage in Palestrina, Italy, on July 3, 1999. And that's pretty much everything almost anybody knows about the circumstances of his death. None of the accounts of the incident ever explained how such a thing could have happened to a vital 46-year-old man. And so rumors started.
In light of the fact that there wasn't any official word on why it happened, and the band, friends and family were too grief-stricken to talk, any explanation seemed to be fair game. Maybe it was because Sandman was a rock musician, maybe because of his preternaturally laconic manner, maybe it was simply because his band was called Morphine, but some people jumped to the conclusion that drugs were involved. If so, cocaine would be a good guess — too much and it stops your heart. Many musicians have died of cocaine-related heart attacks: the Pretenders' James Honeyman-Scott, soul giant David Ruffin, Quiet Riot singer Kevin DuBrow, the Who's bassist John Entwistle, and on and on. You could probably throw in comedians Chris Farley and Mitch Hedberg too. It was an educated guess, but it was only that — a guess.
In the course of reviewing the upcoming documentary, Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story, I noted that the otherwise fine film doesn't answer the most basic question surrounding Sandman's demise, namely, why did it happen? A work of long-form journalism about a man's life should surely be a little more illuminating about his death. It didn't address, much less refute, the rumors. I've since been in touch with Sandman's former girlfriend Sabine Hrechdakian, who's a friend of mine, and his former bandmate Dana Colley. They're keen to set the record straight, so I offered to tell their story on this blog. Here it is.
Both Sabine and Colley say Mark Sandman did not use hard drugs — in fact, Sabine says he despised them. "Over the course of his life, he'd seen the wreckage drugs cause," she says, "and someone of his intellect and curiosity just wasn’t interested in obliteration. He wanted to heighten his experience of life, not deaden it."
And let's face it, to infer merely from the band name that Sandman was a drug user is pretty juvenile and gives little credit to such a sophisticated artist. In the film, Sandman says he likes the etymology of the word morphine, which stems from the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. But the name Morphine surely also refers to the anodyne powers of music, something Sandman leaned on heavily in the wake of the untimely deaths of his two younger brothers Roger and Jon.
So why did it happen? Well, Sandman had some classic risk factors. He was a heavy smoker — a pack a day for many years. And he was also under quite a bit of stress, not just as a middle-aged frontman of a hard-touring rock band, but also because he was the principal songwriter of a band that was trying to live up to the major label recording contract they had signed — "I think Mark was under a lot of pressure to really kind of live up to the expectations of the people who gave him a lot of support," Colley told the Huffington Post's Tony Sachs. "We were in the big leagues, and he was under a lot of pressure to hit one over the fence… He went through the mill for sure." Sandman was also basically co-managing the band. "As someone with strong opinions who liked to exert control over all aspects of the creative and business process, he basically didn't delegate anything, and I mean anything," says Sabine, "so he was under a lot of stress."
And here was the biggest red flag: there had been a serious warning sign. Two weeks before he left for what was to become Morphine's final tour, Sandman suffered what Sabine feels in retrospect was a minor heart attack. "We were sitting on the couch together in the evening and he started complaining of pains and shortness of breath," Sabine recalls. "It only lasted a couple of minutes and then he felt fine. He thought it might have been indigestion. I asked if he wanted to go to the hospital, but he said no. When you’re still relatively young, you just don’t assume the worst when something like that happens. You figure it will pass. It’s not a big deal. We’ve all felt weird chest pains from time to time." Sandman promised he'd get a check-up when he got back from tour.
By the time Morphine's European tour wound around to the hill town of Palestrina, a 45-minute drive east of Rome, it was near the height of the southern Italian summer. Colley recalls blazing 100-degree heat that day and it was still very hot when the band took the stage that evening. Several songs into the set, Sandman fell over backwards to the stage floor and never revived. As noted by the American Heart Association, "adrenaline released during intense physical or athletic activity often acts as a trigger" for sudden cardiac arrest. So there you go.
All the ensuing news reports were variations on "Morphine frontman dies of heart attack onstage." Which left a gaping open question: why such a relatively young man had suffered cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest doesn't happen for no reason, but it was never explained, and so the drug rumors flew, deeply upsetting the band, family and friends to this day.
Here's the reason it was never explained: Sandman was Jewish. Or, more to the point, his parents were. (His mother passed away this year; his father is still with us.) In Judaism, the body is considered the holy temple of the soul. And you do not desecrate a temple. So Jewish religious law, as written in the Talmud, prohibits autopsies. It also urges a prompt burial, within three days. Perhaps more important was the fact that this happened in a little town in a foreign country, which Sabine says made Sandman's parents uncomfortable with conducting an autopsy. "None of us," Sabine says, "felt there was a plausible cause to warrant conducting one." After all, he was gone, and the exact reason was of little importance. A post mortem at the hospital confirmed it was cardiac arrest, but that's as far as it goes. So that's why it has never been revealed why Mark Sandman died so young — because no one really knows.
People can speculate all they want, but both Sabine Hrechdakian and Dana Colley confirm it wasn't drugs that killed Mark Sandman. Now everyone knows the story. Maybe that will put the whole thing to rest.