It was in the summer of 1994 when while talking to a drummer friend she asked if I was going to see the band Morphine that weekend in Central Park’s SummerStage. I had seen the band mentioned in the Village Voice but I hadn’t given it much thought till then. So I figured “what the hell, I don’t have anything else going on” and I went. Wow! One of my favorite shows of all time.
On paper, Morphine sounds like a gimmick. A trio of drums, baritone sax, two-string slide bass. I’m definitely a fan of the low end of the sound spectrum but I thought it could be a little too much but the novel instrumentation proved to be the perfect setting for the heart of the matter: the songwriting of two-string slide bassist/vocalist Mark Sandman. Their sound was the epitome of stripped down minimalism. Rounding out the trio was Dana Colley on baritone sax (occasionally playing two saxophones ala Rahsaan Roland Kirk, see my post about Rahsaan – https://roymusicusa.com/2016/02/29/bright-moments-rahsaan-roland-kirk-live-at-the-keystone-1973/) and drummer Billy Conway.
Coming out of the Boston indie rock scene, their sound was unique. It immediately made one think of the sound track to any number of film noir movies. Sandman’s voice was a deep, hypnotic croon that projected a world weary detachment of someone whose been in the wrong place at the wrong time a couple of times too many. They were once described as sounding like they were the house band in a Raymond Chandler novel. There is an existential blues meets Kerouac Beat Generation vibe going on. In one of my favorite Morphine songs, Have A Lucky Day, he sings, “I can’t lose forever but I’m doomed to try”. If that’s not existential dread then I’ll eat my copy of “No Exit”.
The fatalistic world view of the songs now seem especially tragic now. While playing in front of a festival crowd in 1999 in Italy, Mark Sandman collapse onstage and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital of a heart attack. It’s just so sad.
Morphine – “Buena” (1993)
Morphine – “Have A Lucky Day” (1994)
Morphine – “You speak my language” “Honey white”