ON JULY 3, 1999, Mark Sandman, frontman of the band Morphine, collapsed and died on stage during a show in a small town in central Italy. Word trickled slowly back to the States, in those days of the not-yet-omnipotent Internet. What I heard is that he died of a cocaine-related heart attack on stage in Rome. This narrative had all the elements of the classic rock-star death: drugs, self-destruction, fan involvement, exotic foreign city, an air of mystery. Bucky Wunderlick would approve.
Because the band was named for a drug, and because there is an overt reference to drug use in “Cure For Pain,” Morphine’s signature song (insofar as they had one), I assumed, as many fans did, that the rumors were true, that cocaine contributed to Sandman’s death. For one thing, it made the story sexier. For another, it offered an explanation for why an apparently-healthy 46-year-old man of great energy and vitality would suddenly and unexpectedly die.
“Rock Star Dies of Cocaine Heart Failure in Rome.” A nice headline, but a deceptive one. Sandman was many things, genius among them, but he was not a rock star, as such. He didn’t die in Rome, but in Palestrina, an ancient outpost 40 miles to the east. And the only drug in his system that fateful night was nicotine. The muggy Italian summer had more to do with his demise than cocaine. So did stress—ironic, because Sandman’s stage persona was as laid-back as it gets.
No, Sandman was victim of a pedestrian heart attack, at the worst possible moment. That there were no drugs involved makes his death less “rock star,” but more tragic.
A trio: drums, baritone sax, two-string slide bass. No guitar, no keyboards, no bullshit. Heavy on the low registers. The only treble the tink tink tink of the cymbals. The resulting sound a slurry, bass-heavy concoction as soothing as actual morphine. Nobody else sounded quite like them.
Dana Colley played the saxophone. His instrument of choice was the baritone sax, which produces a deeper, fuller sound, and is not to be confused with the commercial Kenny G-style rock solos. He’d sometimes add the tenor sax (i.e, the instrument known as, simply, the sax), to balance the high registers. For show, he’d play them both at the same time. His licks were superb, flawlessly easing in and around the bass lines.
Jerome Deupree was the drummer. He could wail on the skins when the opportunity presented itself, but his style tended toward jazz. He was very skilled at dynamics—quiet then loud, loud then quiet.
But the centerpiece of the band was Sandman, the bass player and lead singer. Two strings, a fifth apart, played with a slide and a pict, the bass lines dancing beautifully around what Colley’s sax was doing. But his voice: that was the thing. Low, almost monotone, but incredibly hypnotic—in another life, he’d be dangling a watch in front of some sap’s eyes, commanding them to go to sleeeeep. His lyrics were filled with pain and remorse and longing, as with “I’m Free Now”:
I got guilt I got fear I got regret
I’m just a panic stricken waste I’m such a jerk
He blurred the distinction between singer and spoken-word artist, and, at the live shows, between beat poet and stand-up comic. If he were not musically inclined, he might have been a regular at the Laugh Factory. And yet he also had tremendous gravitas. When he sang
They’ll be a cure for pain
That’s the day
I’ll throw my drugs away
When they find a cure for pain
you got the impression that he knew damned well what he was talking about.
I saw Morphine play twice. The first show, at the West Beth Theater in Manhattan on October 29, 1996 1, after the release of Yes, remains the best concert I’ve ever seen. The second show, at Webster Hall perhaps a year later, was also superb, although not quite as good as the first show, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
I tend not to like live shows. More often than not, an artist I love in the recording studio disappoints me in person, and the subpar performance sours me on the music (I call this phenomenon the Beth Orton Effect). Morphine is the only band in my experience where the opposite was true. Their albums—Good, Cure For Pain, Yes, Like Swimming—didn’t fully capture the uniqueness of their sound. The band was far better than what you heard on the records. I remember thinking, in 1996, that the studio version of “Buena” paled in comparison to what I’d heard on stage. I didn’t even like to listen to the albums, in fact, because they were like watered-down stage Morphine. This was a band that you simply had to see live to fully appreciate.
The West Beth is a tiny venue, as big as half the gymnasium at your average elementary school (at least, that is how I remember it). The audience packed the room that October night, but there couldn’t have been that many of us. The levels were ideal—I could hear perfectly, but the amps were not jacked up high enough to hurt my ears. Deupree was not with the band, for some reason owing to his health; another drummer was filling in for him. Sandman made constant reference to this in his banter, to great comic effect. “Give it up for replacement drummer Steve McQueen!” 2 Almost everything he said was funny, his delivery pitch-perfect deadpan. I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did.
“We’re Morphine,” he said, “and we’re going to play 17 songs for you.” He wasn’t lying. They played exactly 17 songs, and no amount of screaming for an encore would make them go for 18. “We can’t play another song! Not with replacement drummer Steve McQueen!” But then, knowing when to stop playing is an art unto itself. Morphine’s sound is so specific that you can’t listen to it all day. It’s better in small doses, like Mississippi Mud cheesecake, like that really good fudge you can only buy down the shore.
Dana Colley was also sublime that night, especially when playing the two saxophones simultaneously. This was an incredible feat, and one a lesser showman would primp while doing, but Colley was still and reserved to the point of stasis. He looked nothing like a rock star; in his casual t-shirt-and-jeans ensemble, he looked like a guy who’d walked in off the street and began to play. He reminded me of the jazz band guys in high school. I got the impression that when the show was over, he’d slip on a baseball cap, tuck his horns in a bag, and vanish into the subway. You’d never know, if you saw him in a different context—even wearing the same clothes he wore to the show—that he was an integral part of such a phenomenal band.
They played “Honey White” and “I’m Free Now” and “Candy” and “Thursday” (the last, about a casual affair gone bad, would be my son’s favorite song when he was six years old). They played “Super Sex” and “Cure For Pain.” They played 11 other songs.
At a rock show, the climax comes when the big radio hit is played and the speakers tremble and the crowd screams and goes ape-shit. The high points at the Morphine show were when it got low—when the sax and the bass rested, and the snare and bass drum stopped, and all that was left was the ta ti-ti ta of a ride cymbal that sounded like a rhythmic dropping of pins, and Sandman’s voice, his wonderfully hypnotic voice, and the audience was mesmerized:
Sharks patrol these waters
Sharks patrol these waters
Don’t let your fingers dangle in the water
Don’t you worry about the day-glo orange life preserver
It won’t save you
It won’t save you
Swim for the shores just as fast as you are able
Swim like a motherfucker
This is not the sort of thing that can be appreciated on a recording. You had to be there. As someone who is woefully ignorant of new music, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been there twice.
What would have become of Morphine had Sandman lived? He was under incredible pressure to write new songs, commercial songs, songs that justified their record contract. And yet the sound was not the sort of thing that could sustain more studio albums than what they’d already produced. What made them great also made them limited. Morphine was never going to play stadiums. They were never going to be the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead or Nirvana. Their sound was too specific, too alien, and it depended on quiet, on intimacy. The second and last time I saw Morphine was at Webster Hall, a club frequented by the kids Harmonie Korine made movies about. Their loud and distracting presence at this second show dimmed the experience for me; 65,000 raucous fans at Giants Stadium would destroy it completely. And Mark Sandman was not going to be a rock star, in the Cobainian sense. He was too protective of his privacy, too uncomfortable with celebrity. He would have loathed social media—although his tweets would have been funny as hell.
And despite all of that, I think Sandman would have figured something out.
Morphine, lower-case m, is a balm, a way of temporarily arresting pain. It does not actually cure it. There is one, and only one, cure for pain. Mark Sandman found it fourteen years ago this past week, on a hot and muggy Italian evening. He’s free now.