Mark Sandman, frontman of the Boston-based alternative rock band Morphine, died ten years ago, on July 3, 1999. It was the kind of death from which rock legends are born -- he was onstage, at the height of his powers, with the most ambitious album of his career having just been completed. Morphine were signed to a powerful record label, and if they weren't a household name in the music world, they had a large cult following that enabled them to pack large clubs and theaters worldwide.
You'd think Sandman's sudden death would have cued the stereotypical music biz vultures, ready to exploit his carcass for every dime it was worth. Only it didn't happen. In a bizarre twist of fate, the forces of the music industry wound up aligning against Morphine and Sandman's estate to prevent his music from being widely heard. And for the past decade, his family and collaborators have waged a lonely battle to keep his memory and his music alive -- a battle they finally seem to be winning.
Listen to a Morphine record today and it doesn't scream "'90s!" the way so many alt-rock albums from the era do. That's because Morphine didn't, and still don't, sound like any other band. Part of it was their unusual lineup, consisting of Dana Colley's baritone saxophone, Billy Conway's drums, and Sandman's homemade two-string slide bass, creating what Sandman liked to call "low rock." According to Dana Colley, it didn't happen by design. "He started developing the two-string bass -- it was a one-string bass at that time -- and I got a hold of the baritone saxophone I'd been playing. I'd been playing tenor previously. When we jammed once in his apartment, the sound just sort of clicked. It was one of these 'eureka' moments, you know? It wasn't anything we would have predicted."
To form a guitar-less band in the middle of the grunge era took guts. Colley says, "I can remember playing early on, at the height of grunge, and kind of jokingly saying at the end of the set that I think we're the palate cleanser, like the sorbet between the sandwich of heavy guitars." But it was also smart in that it distinguished Morphine from all the Nirvana wannabes, giving the press an automatic angle and music fans a reason to seek out their records.
What made Morphine more than a novelty was Sandman's brilliant songwriting, which fused shards of blues, funk, jazz, rock and poetry into a unique and thrilling synthesis; and the interaction between the three musicians. Morphine took all the conventions of what a rock band was supposed to be and stood them on their head. Sandman's fluid runs made two strings do the duty of bass, rhythm and lead guitar. Colley -- to my ears, one of the two or three best horn players in the history of rock -- refused to relegate his sax to the solo spotlight, playing meaty riffs that made him an integral part of the songs' foundation. And Conway was a genius at knowing what not to play, leaving plenty of space for Mark and Dana to create their groove.
Morphine released their first album, Good, with original drummer Jerome Deupree in the fold, on a tiny local indie label in 1991. It soon attracted enough attention that it was picked up by Rykodisc, a much larger indie with international reach. 1993's Cure For Pain was their commercial breakthrough, selling over 300,000 copies, and they consolidated their global popularity with Yes, released in 1995. They criss-crossed the globe tirelessly, playing everywhere from clubs to outdoor festivals, to a growing fan base and across-the-board critical raves.
With a new album, Like Swimming, already completed, their Ryko contract was bought out in 1996 by Dreamworks, a big-budget startup label run by music biz svengalis Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin. The deal gave Morphine greater distribution and more promotional muscle, but it also put more pressure on the band, and especially Sandman, to deliver the goods. The ante was upped when Like Swimming failed to become a crossover hit and got middling reviews from critics who opined that they were treading water creatively -- accusations which still rankle Dana Colley.
"The two-string slide bass, baritone saxophone, drum thing, oh yeah. For some reason, people were almost wanting to see the end of that, in a way. Like, OK, they're gonna shoot the bottom of the barrel with this concept - still thinking it's conceptual. That's funny, no one ever asked a rock quartet the same question, 'Another album with guitar, bass, drums?' To me, (Morphine) is like a combination lock. You've got three numbers to choose from. But let me see you open up a combination lock you don't know the number for. Let me see how many times it will take you to do that."
Compounding the problem was Dreamworks' eagerness to see Morphine as a vehicle for Sandman rather than a band. "They wanted to make him the next Beck, you know?" says Colley. "I think Mark was under a lot of pressure to really kind of live up to the expectations of the people who gave him a lot of support. We were in the big leagues, and he was under a lot of pressure to hit one over the fence."
The album that resulted, The Night, wasn't what Dreamworks had in mind when they signed the band. If it resembled Beck at all, it was the dark, melancholy artist that made Mutations, not the hipster wunderkind of Odelay fame. A moody, complicated and beautiful work, it took their music to another level, utilizing extras like piano, strings and backing vocals while retaining the classic Morphine feel.
The record hadn't been mixed or mastered, and it hadn't been heard by the higher-ups at Dreamworks, when Morphine hit the road in July 1999 for a European tour. But Sandman, who'd junked an entire album's worth of tracks to cut the whole thing over at his home studio, Hi-N-Dry, was happy with the results. Colley says, "I remember hanging out with him after we finished it, having gone through an enormous amount of pain and anguish to make a whole record -- for the first time in a long time, he smiled.
"I remember Mark saying, 'I don't want to tour. We're over this. I want us to get closer as a band.' Because we'd fragmented, I think, in many ways from Mark's being pulled out west by Dreamworks. We were kind of pulling the wagons around a little bit. It was pretty intense. He went through the mill for sure."
The second show of the tour was in Palestrina, Italy, at the Nel Nome Del Rock Festival. Colley remembers, "You drive up this winding road, up this beautiful hill town about an hour outside of Rome, underneath the pine trees and the ancient cobblestone roads and fountains. The stage was set below the bottom of the hill, underneath this big grove of trees. It was one of the most ideal places I'd ever seen, let alone played.
"The next day, the temperature was very hot, it was about 100 degrees on the stage. Mark seemed ready to go. He was sitting at Billy's drum kit, playing the bass drum and the hi-hat with both feet while playing his bass, waiting for us to come down to soundcheck. He was chomping at the bit, ready to play, with a big smile on his face."
At the beginning of "Supersex," the second song of their set, "we were doing the introduction, it's kind of an open-string thing. I look over to my right, and I just see him, his knees buckle. He fell down, he fell back, with his bass on, and the whole place just came to a complete hush." An ambulance rushed Mark Sandman to the nearest hospital, where he was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack. He was 46, with no history of heart trouble.
Colley and Conway put their grief on hold while they sequenced, mixed and mastered The Night. Colley says, "I think there's no greater love we could bestow as to get back to work and to finish this thing up, because we knew how much he put into it. I think we got right back into it -- we wanted to get it out there, and to finish it. And then we put together the nine-piece Orchestra Morphine to perform the songs, which had never really been performed onstage by Morphine in their fully realized arrangements."
With the album in the can and the Orchestra Morphine tour ready to go, Colley and Conway flew to the West Coast to meet the Dreamworks label execs, where their hopes for Sandman's last hurrah were swiftly kicked in the ass. Colley recalls, "They brought Billy and me in and patted us on the back and said, 'We know you guys are hurting, but we're not gonna support this record. You guys want to do this, you go right ahead, good luck. But, you know, this isn't what we signed on for. This isn't who we wanted. We want Mark. We don't want a bunch of ragamuffins from Boston.'
"And it was over, essentially. We were the last people to get the message, maybe. But who knows. We just felt like we had to do it in spite of it all." Without a promotional push from the label, The Night flopped, and Morphine was effectively finished.
But it was just the beginning of a decade of legal and financial pitfalls that beset the Sandman estate. Mark never had any business deals in writing with the other members of Morphine; after a protracted debate, Mark's parents became the curators of his estate. But, as Colley says, "They're not in the business, and they're in their mid to late 80s. They don't want to run the publishing, they don't want to deal with that. So a lot of stuff fell through the cracks."
Colley, Conway and other members of the Morphine family opened Sandman's home studio, Hi-N-Dry, for public use, and started up a record company of the same name to record local acts. But when they tried to release Sandbox, a 2 CD/DVD set of unreleased Sandman music including a bunch of Morphine outtakes, Rykodisc sued to stop its release, saying they owned several of the songs. Hi-N-Dry went to court and eventually won, but Colley describes it as "the Pyrrhic victory - winning but losing everything in the process. That really sucked the lifeblood out of a lot of the momentum." With no money left to promote Sandbox, it went all but unnoticed when it finally came out in 2004. (It's still available, by the way, and still essential listening for fans.)
With Morphine's slim recorded legacy (five studio albums, a B-sides compilation and a live set) almost evenly divided between two labels, neither of whom wanted to help the band or each other, it seemed with every passing year that Mark Sandman was in danger of being forgotten entirely. If you ask me, the nadir came in 2007, when Hi-N-Dry studios had to move out of Sandman's loft in Cambridge, Massachusetts and relocate.
But the last couple of years have seen things take a turn for the better. Hi-N-Dry started the Mark Sandman Music Project in 2008, which gets local musicians and volunteers to work with kids and help them develop an interest and a talent in music. The Hi-N-Dry headquarters is now in a bigger, more sophisticated facility in Somerville, MA. Colley says, "There's an enormous performance space and artists' lofts, and we have our studio in the basement. So that's really promising, and we're just plugging away."
And with legal problems behind them, Morphine and Mark Sandman are finally going to have another shot at being heard. Two documentary films about Mark and his music are currently in production. Hi-N-Dry will be releasing previously unheard Sandman music and spoken word recordings online each week through September on its website, as well as new covers of Morphine songs by both local and national artists; among those featured are Les Claypool, Mission Of Burma's Roger Miller and Mike Doughty. To top it off, there will be a memorial concert this September in the renamed Mark Sandman Square in Cambridge, MA, featuring Sandman's music played by his friends, fans and collaborators.
Best of all, Morphine's first three albums have been acquired from Rykodisc by Rhino Records, who will be re-releasing them along with a 2 CD set of unreleased tracks and alternate takes from throughout the band's lifetime, compiled by Billy Conway. For this fan, who's listened to their five studio albums so many times that they're part of my musical DNA, the chance to hear "new" Morphine music is incredibly exciting.
As for Dana Colley, he'll continue to keep his friend's memory alive through his music. Ten years to the day after his friend and collaborator died, Colley went back to Palestrina and performed Morphine's classic songs on the stage where Mark Sandman performed for the last time, along with original Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree and Jeremy Lyons on vocals and two-string slide bass.
"You know," Colley says, "a day doesn't go by when I don't think about him, when I don't hear his voice, or there's a reference, or there's some weird coincidence that doesn't feel like a coincidence, it feels like a message from beyond.
"It feels right to be playing these songs again. No one's trying to be Mark, no one's trying to be Morphine. But these songs need to be played."