…I give you Morphine.
Imagine holding your Thanksgiving dinner in the back of a bar. As Dad carves up the turkey, cigarette smoke wafts around the room. There is an extreme sense of stillness and quiet in the room that mingles with low tenor saxophones playing in the opposite corner. It’s dark – past two a.m., and there’s a guy who’s been staring at you all night long. The place was packed with bodies and vitality at one point, but is now empty.
Now, why you’re having your Thanksgiving dinner in a bar, I can’t say, and I certainly don’t recommend it. However this is a brief glimpse into how it feels to experience the great 90’s band Morphine. Their sound arose from the alleyways of Boston and slowly crept across the country. It was a truly innovative blend of rock roots and jazz elements that steered away from guitar-centric song composing.
The band was led by the dark voice of Mark Sandman, who joined together with his college roommate, Dana Colley, to form the band in 1989. A typical morphine song featured Sandman on his 2-string slide bass, Colley on tenor or bari sax, and then Billy Conway or Jerome Dupree (depending on the era) on drums.
But makes the band so unique is the melancholy that they were able to capture in their music. Their first album, Good, was released in 1992, and was met with some acclaim. The second song on that album is called “The Saddest Song”, where the chorus is “My biggest fear is/If I let you go/ You’ll come and get me in my sleep.”
They soon began to branch out, however, adding more layers and more complex ideas to their work – a particular favorite of mine being “Early to Bed” off of Like Swimming (1997) which I posted on the blog last month. The video for this song is particularly worth checking out – with the three band members operating scaled-up versions of their faces from in their own heads. It’s pretty meta.
But Morphine’s most staggering album came at the end of the band’s career. February 1st 2000 saw the release of The Night. The range that Morphine covers on this record is incredible. For me, the song with the most force is the title track. Although this song is more subdued than the rest on the album, it holds a passion behind that explodes from its restraints. Sandman sings
“You’re the night, Lilah
A little girl lost in the woods
You’re a folktale
You’re a bedtime story
The one that keeps the curtains closed”
The next big ticket number is “Souvenir” which has the slickest bass and drums I’ve ever heard. “Souvenir” is coupled back-to-back with “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer” both of which have incredible harmonized sax sections.
After that comes “Like a Mirror”. I remember being blown away by this song the first time I heard it – the refrain goes: “I’m a mirror, I’m a mirror, I’m nothing ’till you look at me.” This song, more than any other typifies Morphine’s ability to create an atmosphere
But this story doesn’t have a happy ending – Sandman passed away in June of 1999. While performing at the Nel Nome del Rock festival in Italy, he had a heart attack on stage and died soon thereafter. Colley and Dupree stuck together for a little while to raise funds for the charity they started the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund. They returned to Nel Nome del Rock in 2009 as Members of Morphine to honor the tenth anniversary of Sandman’s death.
Ok, so that got a little more dark that I meant it to be, but Morphine is all about facing dark topics head on. And so should you as well.
So if the typical holiday music fare seems too banal this year, try putting on some Morphine for your friends and family, if nothing else, they’ll think you have an exquisite taste in music. But in all seriousness, this band is one of the most unique groups to come out of the 90’s and if you haven’t heard of them you should definitely take a listen.
Oh, and good news! As it turns out, turkey has no more tryptophan than other meats – so that itis is completely imaginary – just like the state of Nebraska.
PEAK KEYWORD: Itis