Back in the eighties and nineties, the only way to hear stuff off the beaten track outside of John Peel and clubs was to take a punt on albums speculatively.
For some reason then I decided that, of the two completely unrelated drug named bands which were doing the rounds at the time, I would go with Morphine rather than Codeine. Both bands ended in unfulfilled promise, but Morphine’s demise was particularly tragic with the death of their singer Mark Sandman on stage in Italy in 1999. Even more sadly, it was third of three sons that Sandman’s parents had buried in a twenty year period.
Morphine were formed in Boston at the end of the eighties. I bought their third album “Yes” having heard and enjoyed the title track of their earlier album, “Cure For The Pain”. I always felt the somewhat downer connotations of their name did them a disservice. Whilst the band could probably not be described as universally upbeat, their blues and jazz stylings combined with the croon of their singer, Mark Sandman to generate a unique and enjoyable sound.
Nowadays, there is a vogue for stripped back and reduced instrumentation (Royal Blood, Death From Above 1979, even the White Stripes). Morphine were something else though. Sandman played a two string electric bass, sometimes even with a slide. They had a drummer and a sax player and that was your lot in terms of musicians. It doesn’t quite end there though, with Colley often playing two baritone saxes or a baritone and tenor sax together live.
Sandman stretched his two strings as far they could go tuning the strings to a fifth apart. He thought that you could get by on one string (“you had all the notes”) but two was an extravagance on his part. The baritone tax has a deep rich tone which combined with Sandman’s voice and bass, created a low rider sound. They brought back the Violent Femmes to me in a strange kind of way.
I saw them at the Garage in London 1995 touring the “Yes” album. It was quite a performance. Sandman was charismatic and laconic, leading the band through an intense but enjoyable show. The three of them translated the brass powered studio recordings to a live environment. The songs were all concise, not falling into the trap of endless jazz noodling. Sandman’s vocals were rich with a sprinkling of beat poetry (“Sharks Patrol These Waters”) and a noir-ish tilt to James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. The way they locked into each other’s groove, the bass and saxophone flavours all pointed to a jazz aesthetic.
Sandman was the focus though. He felt a fish out of water, the oldest of four children and older than most of his musical contemporaries. His brother Roger had learning disabilities and died after an infection in his heart in 1979. His other brother Jon died after falling through an open window at a party in New York. Sandman had headed to South America, working as a taxi. commercial fisherman and collecting mushrooms to get by. He returned to the US, worked for a taxi driver for a while and started playing with a panoply of bands, including Treat Her Right.
He became the centre of a scene, the “king of cool”. Sandman was a constant source of worry for his parents, who didn’t see either Mark’s lifestyle or career choices as the basis for a stable future. Mark was badly stabbed whilst working as a cabbie. Jon was the Sandman’s mediator and created a huge hole in the family when he died.
Treat Her Right got picked up by Demon Records in the UK, home to Elvis Costello amongst other people. They didn’t fulfil their promise and Sandman started Morphine after a fire at a gig caused Treat Her Right to flee the building. Their drummer Jerome Deupree started suffering from arthritis and quit. He was replaced by Billy Conway, who remained their drummer for the rest of the band’s career. Morphine built momentum, became a go-to band for soundtracks (“The Sopranos”, “Get Shorty”, “Wild Things”) and signed for Dreamworks.
Here’s two highlights from the “Yes” album – the afore mentioned “Sharks” and “Honey White”, a performance from Channel 4’s White Room, an under rated show famed for the moment when Iggy wore his transparent jeans whilst going commando.
Mark was in a stable relationship, setting up house and mending bridges with his parents, who acknowledged that they had no concept of the scale of Mark’s musical career.
The band went off to Italy to play at the idyllic Palestrina festival, near Rome. They were getting on well, almost the brothers that Mark had lost and Mark was in a good place. It was hundred degree heat. The band started playing “Supersex” when Mark’s knees buckled. He fell backwards, suffering a heart attack. He died on stage, 46 years old.
Since Mark’s death, there have been a couple of retrospectives on his life and Morphine. The remaining band members have continued to make music, none of it particularly registering in the UK but the participants have become closer and tighter. They still play Morphine’s music together. A film was made with tributes from fans such as Josh Homme and Ben Harper. His mother wrote a book about her family and dealing with the premature loss of three sons.
It’s a tragic tale but thankfully enough of their music still exists for them to be readily appreciated.
Thoughts on Codeine to follow.