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Members include DanaColley, baritone saxophone; BillyConway (joined 1993), drums; JeromeDeupree (left band 1993), drums; MarkSandman (died July 3, 1999), bass, vocals. Addresses: Record company--DreamWorks Records, 100 Universal Plaza, Bungalow 477, Universal City, CA 91608.
How low can you go? That's the musical question posed by Morphine, purveyors of "low rock," a bottom-heavy, cacophonous rumble you can feel in your bones. It's produced by a decidedly unusual grouping of instruments: a baritone sax, drums, and a unique two-string bass that's played like a slide guitar. Unlike most rock bands, Morphine doesn't use a guitar or piano to carry the melody or fill sonic space. Instead, those notes are implied, like in certain jazz tunes, but the overall impact of Morphine's music can't be denied. Like the band's name implies, low rock's effect is disorienting, feels somewhat illicit, and it totally addictive.
The concept of the low-rock sound was created by Mark Sandman, who died of a heart attack while performing in Italy on July 3, 1999. In some ways, he was the ultimate scenester among the Boston/Cambridge music community, maintaining numerous side projects before and during his tenure in Morphine. Creatively restless, he began experimenting with low sounds when he played in the Boston blues-rock quartet Treat Her Right. There, Sandman played a conventional six-string guitar, but did so through an octave-shifting effects pedal that made the instrument sound more like a bass.
He then switched to a conventional bass, but one with just a single string, reasoning (somewhat Zen-like) that all the notes he'd need to play were on that one string. By the time Morphine took off, he'd added a second string. Later, he would add a third, albeit one from a guitar, and call the invention the Tritar. Obviously, experimentation and innovation came naturally to Sandman, who was just 46 when he died.
Songwriting came naturally, too, and to hear a tune by Morphine is to hear something that's quite removed from mainstream pop and rock. Besides "low rock," Morphine's sound is sometimes called "beat noir," in reference to its jazzy feel--in a perfect world, the sound you'd hear emanating from a smoky bar at unreasonable hours of the morning--but also its lyrical content, which is often dark, hard-boiled, and full of intrigue.
Sandman played with his Treat Her Right bandmates David Champagne, a guitarist and the leader of that group, harmonica player Jim Fitting, and drummer Billy Conway who would later join Morphine on the albums Treat Her Right released in 1986, Tied to the Tracks released in 1988, and What's Good For You released in 1991. The first was released independently, but the second was recorded for RCA, who didn't know how to market the band's quirky sound and sensibility. For the third, they were back to indie status, working with Boston-based Rounder Records.
As Treat Her Right was in its final throes, Sandman was gigging all over the place, most frequently at Cambridge nightspots the Plough & Stars and the Middle East. His various bands included Supergroup, a collaboration with Seattle-based Chris Ballew, who would eventually rise to fame with the Presidents of the United States of America. There was also Treat Her Orange (later the Pale Brothers), which found Sandman playing with mandolinist Jimmy Ryan of the Blood Oranges, and the Hyposonics, whose membership included future Morphine saxman Dana Colley and Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon.
Morphine, too, started out as just one among many of his projects, but Sandman was quick to recognize its potential. He formed the trio with Colley and drummer Jerome Deupree. As Boston Phoenix columnist Matt Ashare wrote of Morphine, "[It] best captured the essence of Sandman's singular style: his deadpan delivery, his wry pulp-noir vignettes, his `less is best' aesthetic, and his love of loose R&B grooves rooted equally in the deep meaty blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and the savvy pop funk of an artist like Prince, who was one of his all-time favorites."
The band's debut album was released through Russ Gershon's Accurate/Distortion label in 1992. The next year, it was picked up by the independent but nationally distributed Rykodisc label based in Salem, Massachusetts. There was nothing special about the songs themselves--"We write pretty standard three-minute rock songs with verses, choruses, and hooks," Sandman told the Boston Phoenix--but the vibe of those songs was as indelible an individual stamp as a rock band can hope to muster these days.
Just as their music stood outside the mainstream, so did Morphine's approach to the business of music. They didn't open shows for larger acts very often; instead, they did their own modest headlining tours, setting up short residencies in various towns and allowing their audience to develop organically. Sandman knew how to exploit what he had to work with, and let the press run with the band's oddities--he invented the term "low rock" for that very purpose--but kept the particulars of his private life out of the papers.
While they were recording their second album, Cure for Pain, Deupree was replaced with Treat Her Right skinsman Billy Conway. The album, released in 1993, was less than a commercial sensation, but gained much wider exposure when some of the songs were used prominently in the film Spanking the Monkey. That, and almost universal critical praise, raised the group to a level of popularity that it was able to maintain until its untimely end.
"Listening to early Morphine creates a sensation similar to slowly burning yourself with a cigarette," wrote Addicted to Noise contributor Seth Mnookin around the time of the release Morphine's third album, Yes in 1995. "It's a little scary, very intense, and impossible to stop because you're so determined to feel what's going to happen next." That sort of response was typical of a Morphine fan, and the group sated its public's desire for material with numerous singles sprinkled with bonus tracks and songs on various soundtracks. A collection of such odds and ends, B-Sides and Otherwise, surfaced in 1997.
Just before that, Morphine became the second act signed to DreamWorks records, the music arm of the entertainment conglomerate owned by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The album, Like Swimming, found the band varying the low-rock sound to a degree, incorporating instruments such as guitar, tritar, mellotron, and female background vocals into the mix. Ultimately, though, low rock was Morphine's hook, not an end in itself, and there were no hard and fast rules about what could and couldn't be done within the context of the band.
That became even more the case on The Night, the album Morphine had finished just before Sandman collapsed on a stage outside Rome and was pronounced dead-on-arrival at a local hospital. The Night seems a fitting epitaph, however, because its music finds Morphine's sound taken to its logical conclusion as a unique brand of chamber-rock--adding more, and somehow ending up with less. Only Morphine could do that. Keyboards, violin, cello, and double bass, acoustic and electric guitars, oud, and various hand drums are played on the album. Drummer Deupree is back, too, playing in tandem with Conway on nearly every track. In some ways, the album is the lowest of the low, which is meant as both a compliment and a tribute to Sandman, who brought something unique to music--something not very many musicians can claim.
The Night may have been Sandman's final work, but it was not the last word on his legacy. In late 1999, Morphine's surviving members--Conway, Colley, and Deupree as well--formed Orchestra Morphine, a big band that toured the country, playing Sandman's music in a new, and wholly fleshed out fashion. Sidemembers included Either/Orchestra leader and Accurate Records executive Russ Gershon, trumpeter Tom Halter, keyboardist Evan Harriman, bassist Mike Rivard, and singers Laurie Sargent and Christian McNeill.
Whether Orchestra Morphine can go on to create new music without Sandman seems unlikely, though not entirely impossible. "He was a visionary," DreamWorks chief Lenny Waronker said of the fallen musician. "He invented a sound that was unique. He was one of a kind; he was uncompromising. It might be a cliche to call someone the real thing, because too many say that these days, but in his case it's the truth. He was truly the real deal."
by Daniel Durchholz
Group formed in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts area in 1992; released debut album Good on independent Accurate/Distortion label. It was later picked up by larger indie Rykodisc. Ryko also released albums Cure for Pain, 1993, and Yes, 1995, plus an album of rarities B-sides and Otherwise, 1997. The group was represented on numerous movie soundtracks, and built up a solid cult following through insurgent touring campaigns. Signed with DreamWorks label in 1996, resulting in Like Swimming, 1997, and their swan song, The Night, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Good Accurate/Distortion, 1992; Rykodisc, 1993.
- Cure for Pain Rykodisc, 1993.
- Yes Rykodisc, 1995.
- Like Swimming Rykodisc, 1997.
- B-Sides and Otherwise Rykodisc, 1997.
- The Night DreamWorks, 2000.
- Soundtrack appearances
- "You Look Like Rain," The Best of Mountain Stage, Vol 7 Blue Plate, 1994.
- "Yes," National Lampoon's Senior Trip Original Soundtrack Capricorn, 1995.
- "I Had My Chance," "Bo's Veranda," Get Shorty Antilles, 1995.
- "Radar," Safe and Sound Mercury, 1996.
- "Gone for Good," 2 Days in the Valley Original Soundtrack 1996.
- "Kerouac," Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness Rykodisc, 1997.
- "This Is Not a Dream (with Apollo 440)," Spawn: The Album Epic, 1997.
- "11 O'Clock," Phoenix Original Soundtrack Will Records, 1998.
- "Honey White," MTV 120 Minutes Live Atlantic, 1998.
- "Hanging on a Curtain," La Femme Nikita Original TV Soundtrack TVT, 1998.
- "I Had My Chance," "Murder for the Money," Wild Things Original Soundtrack Varese Sarabande, 1998.
- "You're an Artist," The Mod Squad Original Soundtrack Elektra, 1999.
- "Sheila," IFC--In Your Ear Volume 1: Original Soundtracks Hybrid, 1999.
- "Radar," Condo Painting: Life From a Different Angle Original Soundtrack Gallery Six, 2000.
- Billboard, July 17, 1999.
- Boston Phoenix, July 9-15, 1999.
- Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 12, 2000.
- Addicted to Noise, http://www.addict.com/issues/1.05/Features/Morphine/ (June 23, 2000)
- Boston Rock Storybook, http://www.rockinboston.com/morphine.htm (June 26, 2000)
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