Just got back from seeing the premiere showing of “Cure for the Pain: The Mark Sandman Story,” about the frontman for the great, eclectic rock band, Morphine. Great music, and cool footage. Some good interviews — especially the funny, bizarre ones with Sandman himself, such as why he plays a two-string bass (“I started out with one string. Then I graduated to two.”)
But the documentary leaves a serious hole by never addressing the question of drug use. Specifically, why did so many of his lyrics have to do with addiction? And why did he die, onstage in Italy, at the age of 46? The name of the band, is, of course, the most obvious sign. By way of explanation, Sandman himself, in the documentary, says it comes from the name “Morpheus,” the Greek god of dreams. OK. That could settle it — except that references to drugs and addiction are not simply scattered throughout his lyrics, but are the very basis of many of them. In the title song of the band’s most famous album, which is also the name of the movie, Sandman sings:
I propose a toast to my self control
You see it crawling helpless on the floor
Someday there’ll be a cure for pain
That’s the day I throw my drugs away
Then there’s “Lucky Day,” which is not about drugs, but gambling, where the speaker is at a blackjack table in Atlantic City:
Now I’m down a little in fact I’m down a lot
I’m on a roller coaster ride that I can’t stop
Yeah my luck has changed but she’ll come back
That’s the beauty of a game of chance
I can’t lose forever but I’m doomed to try.
There are dozens of other examples, those are just two. And then there’s Sandman’s mother, who, in an interview in the film, mentions the time he spent in Central America doing “something with marijuana and mushrooms.” So it seems hard to believe that he didn’t have some history with drugs, despite the arguments of some, like blogger Marc Campbell, who says, “Mark and I came to know each other back in the eighties and while I shared an occasional drink with him I never saw or knew of Mark doing drugs.”
So it’s a natural question which I think the audience is entitled to ask, and receive an answer, in any story that purports to be about Sandman’s life: Did he use drugs?
I asked the question tonight after the showing in Somerville Theater, when the producer, two directors, and Sandman’s girlfriend, Sabine Hrechdakian, were all onstage. After I asked why it was never addressed in the movie, producer Jeff Broadway turned to Hrechdakian to address it. She cited, again, Sandman’s explanation in the movie about the origin of the name, then added, “It’s not really something I feel comfortable addressing.”
In a blog written a few months ago, Michael Azerrad, who says she is a friend of Hrechdakian, argues that the family did not want an autopsy after Sandman’s death in 1999, and that because of that (and, of course, the name of the band), there has been a lot of speculation that his death was somehow linked to drugs. She ends saying, “People can speculate all they want, but both Sabine Hrechdakian and (bandmate) 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.”
To me, that’s simply not good enough. And Hrechdakian’s answer tonight didn’t exactly put the rumors to rest. It’s an important point, not because it would change the fact the Sandman wrote and performed some great music. But if Sandman didn’t do drugs, and all of the references in his lyrics were simply an act he put on onstage, why bother? Why glorify drugs if he privately hated them?
There are many comments from people in the film about Sandman’s privacy, how he hid much of his life, as though that should explain why the question is never asked in the movie. But it’s the elephant in the room throughout the documentary, and why the documentary ultimately comes off as surface.