L to R: Mark Sandman, Billy Conway and Dana Colley of Morphine
I grew up listening to the music of some of the most creative bands in the world that deeply influenced my father, himself a musician. Among them was Morphine which as I got older became one of my most admired bands, true to the convictions in the belief that music eventually find its audience on its own merits and not by way of slavishly pandering to the whims of an industry that continually lacks imagination and is subservient to formula and greed. I was 15 years old when Morphine’s frontman and singer/songwriter Mark Sandman died. It is a tremendous loss for rock and roll not only in that it halts Sandman’s production of new material, but because Sandman so well occupied a position of rocker-as-artist. The use of his music in independent films, his live poetry breaks, and the photography he kept on his website kept Sandman very much in the art-school vibe. Sandman’s band, Morphine, was one of the handful of rock bands whose work, I feel, will remain resonant after the glut of irony is washed away by time.
About the band
Morphine was formed by Mark Sandman, Dana Colley and Jerome Deupree in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1989. They disbanded in after Mark Sandman’s death in 1999. Mark Sandman died of a heart-attack at the age of 46 while performing and being filmed on stage in Italy. An indie rock icon and longtime fixture on the Boston/Cambridge music scene, Sandman was best known as the lead singer and slide bass player of the band Morphine. Sandman was also known as a prominent member of the Boston blues band Treat Her Right and the founder of Hi-n-Dry, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based recording studio and independent record label. Morphine combined blues and jazz elements with rock arrangements, giving the band a very unusual sound. Sandman’s distinctive singing was described as a “deep, laid-back croon” and his songwriting featured a prominent beat influence. When asked by reporters to describe their music, the band created the label “low rock”. One critical appraisal suggests that “Morphine immediately established a minimalist, low-end sound that could have easily become a gimmick: a ‘power trio’ not built around the sound of an electric guitar. Instead, with sly intelligence, Morphine expanded its offbeat vocabulary on each album.”
Although Morphine was critically lauded throughout their career, it is difficult to measure their success commercially. In the United States the band was embraced and promoted by the indie rock community, including public and college radio stations and MTV’s 120 Minutes (which the band once guest-hosted), but received little support from commercial rock radio and other music television programs. This limited their mainstream exposure and success in their home country, while internationally they enjoyed mainstream success and support, especially in Belgium, Portugal, France and Australia. When Mark died, musicians from all over the Triangle came together in July to contribute to a cover of Tomorrow, originally released on Sandbox: The Recordings of Mark Sandman. The song will appear on a compilation album to commemorate the 10th Anniversary.
Within a year of Sandman’s death, Colley and Conway created Orchestra Morphine, a group of Sandman’s friends and colleagues who toured to celebrate the music of the band and to raise funds for the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund. Orchestra Morphine mostly performed music from The Night, but also included some other Morphine and Hypnosonics material as well. Orchestra Morphine still performs occasionally but no longer tours. Singer and guitarist Laurie Sargent, a member of Orchestra Morphine and former vocalist for the band Face to Face, later joined Colley and Conway in their first post-Morphine musical endeavor, Twinemen.
Conway and Colley also officially formed the Hi-n-Dry independent record label and studio, converting Sandman’s workspace into a commercial enterprise. The label’s roster includes a number of their friends, colleagues and other Boston-area musicians. In 2004, Hi-n-Dry released the Mark Sandman box set Sandbox, which contained two CDs and a DVD of previously unreleased material spanning Sandman’s musical career. The DVD featured clips from early Sandman shows, interviews from the Morphine tours, and various videos from other Sandman solo and group projects, such as Treat Her Right. However, for copyright reasons the box set did not contain any previously released material found in the Morphine catalog, Morphine videos, or promotional material produced by Rykodisc or DreamWorks Records.
Deupree continued to record with various jazz musicians and later became a member of the group Bourbon Princess. Colley formed the band A.K.A.C.O.D. with Monique Ortiz, the former leader of Bourbon Princess, in 2006. Their debut album Happiness was released in early 2008 and supported by a tour, featuring set lists fortified with Morphine material.
In 2009, Colley and Deupree began regularly performing Morphine songs and new material as Members of Morphine (alternately, the Ever-Expanding Elastic Waste Band), with singer, bassist and guitarist Jeremy Lyons of New Orleans. In July 2009, the group played at Nel Nome Del Rock Festival in Palestrina, Italy, marking the ten year anniversary of Sandman’s death at the location in which it occurred. Later Rhino Records released the two-disc set At Your Service, composed of unreleased Morphine material, while Members of Morphine released their eponymous debut CD the following year.
The Mark Sandman Music Education Fund was established by his friends and family in order to give children in the Cambridge and Boston area an opportunity to learn musical instruments. As of 2008, this foundation has been re-named the Mark Sandman Music Project. Housed in the newly renovated Armory Arts Center at 191 Highland Ave. Somerville, the Project hopes to continue Mark’s legacy.
Mark Sandman – 2-string slide bass, vocals, organ, tritar (3-string slide guitar), guitar, piano (1989–1999)
Dana Colley – baritone sax, tenor sax, double sax, triangle (1989–1999)
Jerome Deupree – drums, percussion (1989–1991, 1991–1993, 1998–1999)
Billy Conway – drums, percussion (1991, 1993–1999)
My Morphine Playlist: