Morphine

10 YEARS AGO

MARK SANDMAN (1952-1999)

When I started Live on 35mm, almost 2 years and 100 bands ago, I didn’t have a clue where I was going with this site, but I knew that if it lasted until the 3rd of July 2009 I had one band to publish. That day has come.

That band is Morphine.
This article is dedicated to the memory of their leader: Mark Sandman.

This is a unique post on several levels and very personal.
It contains the only pictures available (as far as I am aware) of the Morphine last concert, taken literally minutes before Mark Sandman collapsed on stage, dying of a heart attack.
Sandman life and the career of one of my favourite bands abruptly terminated exactly 10 years ago, in front of me on the stage of a small Italian festival.

These are my memories of that night.
Yes, I was there and I had my beloved camera with me.
Not yet a music photographer, after that night I decided I would try to be.
Already a live music lover, after that night I promised to myself I wouldn’t stop going to concerts.
There are defining moments in everyone’s story. This was clearly one of mine.

I drove from Rome for the short journey to Palestrina well in advance. I was in an iper-excited mood. A free small festival on a summer night and Morphine, that I have been looking forward to seeing live for at least the previous three years, were headlining.
(Not counting that a newly formed band, born from the ashes of Kyuss and bizarrely named Queens of the Stone Age, was playing the day after!).

Morphine are the most peculiar and underrated band to have ever appeared in the music scene. Fact. Take the word “music” in the widest sense.

During the eighties Mark Sandman and his tritar (a sort of three strings guitar), was leading the Boston outfit Treat Her Rights with Dave Champagne on (a proper) guitar, Jim Fitting on harmonica and Bill Conway (later with Morphine too) on drums.

Unfortunately Treat Her Right blues-rock project never managed to break beyond the Boston scene. After the third brilliant album, What’s Good For You, the band dismantled.
Many lo-fi blues bands still owe a lot to them. The sound of Detroit contemporary blues rotating around Jack White, just to name one, with bands as Soledad Brothers, Cut in The Hill Gang are deeply rooted into Treat Her Right music.

In 1989 Mark Sandman recruited saxophonist Dana Colley from another Boston band, Three Colors, and drummer Jeromee Dupree.
Morphine
were just born.

Dana Colley saxes replace Jim Fitting harmonica complementing the low sound of Morphine with a dark, jazzy edge. The union of Sandman bass and Colley sax works so well that nothing will match since.

Sandman is almost permanently on a 2 strings slide bass, Colley privileges the baritone among his saxophones collection (he often plays two at the same time). The clever drumming of Dupree thickens the mix.
The band naturally has a deep sound that fits Sandman voice, often filtered through his retro-sounding microphones.
If low-rock is a genre, Morphine are the ones who invented it. No other band depicts the smoky club atmosphere as Morphine did.

A trio formed by a bass player, a drummer and a sax is an oddity that should generate the curiosity of music lovers.
The only other band I know on such a line-up is John Zorn grindcore jazz trio Painkiller. Zorn sax is joined on bass by dub master Bill Laswell and Napalm Death’s Mick Harris on drums. Both bands formed at the beginning of the 90s but they position themselves at the very extremes of the audible music spectrum.

When I arrived to Palestrina there was quite a big crowd. Morphine, thanks to Radio Rock, were quite known in Rome. I had to fight a bit to get to the front but nothing would stop me at that time. I wanted to be there, see their eyes, feel the breath, enjoy the music. I wanted to photograph them.

The concert started. They played few songs, don’t know how many. I sincerely cannot recall how long the concert lasted. I’d love to know, but I really can’t. I was shocked.

Sandman at a first impression reminded me of Lou Reed. Dana had his long hair cut. Bill is on drums at the back surrounded by flowers. Everything looks perfect.

I started to take pictures as soon as they came on stage, a security guy stopped me once. I wasn’t an official photographer.
I timidly restarted taking some pictures after a while, you expect Italian rules are loose. Not that night, he came back threatening to take my camera. I told myself, OK wait few minutes, he will calm down I’ll snap towards the end.
There will not be an end, I regret having listened to him since.

There was another photographer there. An official photographer. He was in the pit, beyond the barrier. My usual place nowadays, not at that time. I envied him.
I have never seen those pictures anywhere, though. I wonder what happened.

Morphine first record, Good, was released in 1991 on a local label and attracted the attention of Rykodisk who signed them and re-released the album the following year.
Despite it won’t go much beyond the Boston Area, it is a brilliant album that contains some of the defining Morphine songs. Have a Lucky Day, You Look Like Rain and The Saddest Song are in it.

Cure For Pain, apart from the fact of being the greatest title you can give to an album if you play in a band called Morphine, is a masterpiece.
It’s 1993. The sounds of the debut matures, the original drummer Jeremee Dupree still records most of tracks but can’t continue for some personal problems. Bill Conway, from Treat her Rights, will replace him on drums from now on.
The songs get a more defined structure, the album is more accessible. I really find difficult to choose the best tracks out of those thirteen pearls. I am listening to it now after 15 years and they retain all their fascination. Buena, Thursday, All Wrong, Cure For Pain, Sheila and the instrumental tribute Miles Davis Funeral won’t be left out in my personal “Best of” compilation.

The peak is yet to come. Yes follows a couple of years later and is another masterpiece!
I mean, you don’t become the most underrated band ever with just 2 singles, do you? These three albums are awesome.
On Yes, Morphine are on top form and on a variable mood, in a positive sense.
The album is assorted, multi flavour. From the opening Honey White with its saxophone catchy riff to the most beautiful sad song ever written, Gone For Good, which closes it, Yes doesn’t fail throughout its length.
In addition to the two above Whisper, Yes and Supersex are Morphine at their peak. The world starts noticing.

I will never forget that moment.
Mark Sandman said hello to the people of Palestrina, announced Supersex and just started sliding his two strings. A couple of notes into, music stopped, he was on the ground.

I firstly thought of a staged act, a sort of fake drama that would fit his humour. I had not seen Morphine live. It’s 1999 internet was very young and Youtube wasn’t even born. I didn’t really know what to expect from them live beyond the music.

I understand that something went wrong moments after. Dana Colley got rid of his sax literally throwing it to the ground and jumped on Mark‘s body. That was an impulsive act of terror and desperation.
Dana knew what Mark used to do on stage and that wasn’t expected. Bill followed and in few seconds all their crew was around Mark body.
Thinking at the silence of the crowd, the silence of the stage, still makes me shiver.
That feeling you get when you perceive something wrong happened, something very serious but you don’t want to believe and start magic thinking.

Audience thought it was a temporary accident and asked when the concert was going to restart. I had a bad feeling.
Minutes passed before someone made clear that the concert was not going to restart. Mark went with an ambulance.
No one knew what happened. I had a bad feeling.
I am not good at “living without knowing”. I sat on some concrete terraces on the side of the field, waiting to know.

!!UPDATE!! – Thanks to Cecily Crebbs that is writing a book on Mark Sandman, Now I have the question hanging for 11 years answered. She had the original Setlist intended for this gig, it should have run like this.
Morphine played seven songs in Palestrina before Mark collapsed at the beginning of Super Sex. These ones:

Lucky Day
I’m Free Now
Honey White
Poetry
Whisper
Potion
Thursday
Super Sex
Eleven O’Clock
Wishing Well
Candy
You Speak My Language
Cure for the Pain
Encores (set list had line drawn between)
French Frieds
Early to Bed
I Know you III
All Wrong
Mary
Buena
Rain

Like Swimming was the latest album Morphine issued when they were touring. It came out in 1997 on Dreamwork, a new label.
After three masterpieces this had to be the one to send Morphine into orbit. The one to give them success beyond the circle of devotees.
Unfortunately it failed to deliver, despite it is not a bad album and contains at least a couple of beautiful song as French Fries With Pepper and Early To Bed, it is less accessible without being intriguing.
I never managed to get into it completely, some songs sound classic Morphine tunes, other go somewhere without really knowing where.
It sits in the middle between an exhausted past and a future lacking a clear direction.

Following what just happened in front of me, I thought that was their last album. Hopefully it was not.
Morphine had just finished recording The Night before coming to Italy. It will come out posthumous at the beginning of 2000.
It is a much more convincing piece of work than Like Swimming and, most important, this time it gives a taste of where Morphine were about to going. It is not yet fully mature but is sophisticate and sign of a transition in progress are evident. Their instruments palette is expanded, several musicians joined the recording sessions. Strings, organ, guitars hot up the arrangements. The Night, the title track opening the album, is one of my favourite Morphine tracks and one of the most sensual songs I have ever heard.

After a long time, much longer than the concert, I found the strength to approach the people dismantling the stage and ask.
No one was willing to answer. I insisted until a guy made a gesture with his hands. His body language was indisputable. Mark was dead.
It felt so unbelievable I didn’t have tears to cry. Years waiting to see Morphine live I ended up seeing Morphine‘s death. It was unfair.

I sat down on the concrete floor. I saw Mark‘s bass being put back into its case. Someone put one of the flowers on stage into it. It closed in front of me, as a coffin’.
I felt tears coming down. I wonder where that bass is today.

In the next couple of hours I drove back home, walked straight in the darkroom, rewind the unfinished film, developed the negatives and printed the photos.
A scene that reminds of Antonioni’s Blowup. I desperately needed to see that I got something. I wanted to see Mark playing again. I needed to have something physical to handle.

I printed two copies of those pictures that same night. One for me, I posted the other to the band. Then I couldn’t cope with them for years, I didn’t want to earn money out of them, I haven’t even looked at them.

Now they are here, for you.
If even just one of the readers discovers how great Morphine are, I reached my goal.

I have never been to Palestrina since. Emotionally distraught I couldn’t cope.
I missed the Queens of The Stone Age the day after and all the other “Nel Nome Del Rock” festival editions in the following years.

I am flying back to Palestrina this year, though. It is the 20th festival and on the midnight of the 2nd of July Dana Colley, Bill Conway and Jeromee Dupree will walk back to that stage joined by Jeremy Lyons to play a special gig to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mark‘s dead with Morphine‘s music.

My picture of Mark on top here has been printed in a giant poster and decorates the back of the stage.
You’ll get a full reportage of this event next on Live on 35mm and you will discover how Mark Sandman legacy is being kept alive.

Part 2 >>>


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~ by Valerio on July 3, 2009.

48 Responses to “Morphine”

  1. Your article is very moving. I don’t know the music of Morphine and will now check them out. Your photos are an excellent tribute to a sadly lost life.

  2. Absolutly great band!! Impressed, that you’ve got photos of them.

  3. Dieci anni non sono potuto venire a palestrina per un banale contrattempo…ero molto arrabbiato perchè i Morphine sono sempre stati il mio gruppo preferito. Pochi giorni dopo ho saputo della tragedia. Giovedì scorso ero presente al concerto. Ancora adesso non riesco a descrivere tutte le emozioni provate. Mi pare di aver capito (non parlo inglese) che scriverai qualcosa sul concerto di giovedì, aspetto la tua recensione.

  4. I’m a big fan of Morphine for years now and love the slow, deep grooviness. But this is the first time I have heard of Sandman’s death. Damn…

  5. Cool!

  6. Thanks for such a moving post. I saw last saw Morphine in Boston in 1999 a few weeks before they left for Europe. I had tickets to see them at the Cape Cod Jazz Festival when they returned. I still have those tickets.

    Mark’s music lives on in many forms. As for the bass, when Mark’s loft apartment was converted into a recording studio run by Dana and Billy (called Hi-N-Dry), it hung proudly from the rafters.

    Hi-N-Dry are releasing Morphine and Sandman tracks every week from now thru Sept 20th – http://www.hindry.com/home/index.php

    Also, if you don’t already have it, you should get the “Sandbox” boxed set – 2-CDs of Mark’s music and a DVD.

    All the Best from Boston!

  7. Thanks for all the info and for telling about the fate of that bass, George.
    I have the Sandbox as well as some other stuff, I’ll talk about that next post, together with the Palestrina concert last week. Stay tuned

    Ciao Luca,
    si hai capito bene ci sarà un articolo sul concerto di Palestrina di giovedi come trovo il tempo per scriverlo.

  8. a moving story Valerio & thanks for showing the pictures.

  9. Thanks Chris!

  10. Thank You.

    I had wondered for years what it was like that night.

    I had forgotten just how sad I was, but it is a healing as well.

    Thank You.

  11. i love morphine

  12. Cazzo, I did not know you wrote this. It made me shiver.

  13. Thanks for posting this!!!! Great photo’s, very impressive story.

  14. Thank you for these photos and your story of that night.

    The sunflower in the case with Mark’s bass; how sad.

  15. Hi, working for a radio station in australia called triplej, I was introduced to Morphine & became an addict, what a band, what a sound.

    Does anyone know of a video achive for morphine. A classic of theirs calls “Sharks” seems to have disappeared completely from the net & it was a wonderful video?

    Any ideas?

  16. it’s too sad that i’ve never seen morphine live and i’ll never. rip sandman. he’s the sexiest guy to walk the earth, he was just an incredible musician.

    and thank you a lot for your article, i’ve always wanted to know what happened, what was it like there.

  17. Thanks to NPR (through the Jeff Buckley newsletter), I now listened to the music of Morphine and will be buying it. Great story Valerio, sorry for your loss. Jeff Buckley is gone too, as they say… only the good die young.. RIP Mark & Jeff.

    http://www.jeffbuckley.com/jbin/12-04.html

  18. im from argentine. i learn, and i dont believe, this is exiting. thanks, and sorry, mi inglish is bad. but my feeling y so great now.
    thanks again! y need some like that from them. i listening morphine last year, one year maybe, and them make me so high like floyd. only floyd and morphine make’s me so happy. (and they’s fuking dead!)
    thanks for the pictures! are great!
    no tengo mas calificativo que decirte great!
    saludos, diego

  19. Gracias, Diego :-)

  20. I have been working on the biography of Mark Sandman since 2003. its an extensive project and i have often wondered about that last show. I would love to talk to you and brainstorm about some aspects of that concert.

  21. I am not sure whether my reply went through. I have been working on Mark Sandman’s biography since 2003. It’s a huge project.

    Contact me please.

    • Cecily, I would love to read your book. Has it found a publisher yet?

      • Sarah Jane,

        Still working on the book. Have kids….. :>) so its a part time project. It’s a beautiful story. I have more details, interviews, etc to fill in some of the blank areas. Every interview seems to lead to ten more. “Have patience, everything will be all right….. It’s really such a beautiful lie…..”

  22. I’m just totally moved by this Valerio, unbelievably iconic photographs of one of the best bands ever. Stunning article to compliment too. Thanks for the insight.

    Matt

  23. You’re welcome Matt, thanks to you… have you read the part2?

  24. Bellissimo. Thank you for posting this and the pictures. Mark is alive in our hearts and ears! Those of us in Boston still mourn.

  25. Another old Boston friend thanks you for this.

  26. Thank you, Valerio, for generously sharing your last photos and your memories of Mark and Morphine. A touching gesture. The best rock band I know.

  27. Thank you for posting this. It is a mercy that Mark died before everyone had video phones. Your photos are beautiful, haunting. I still miss Mark all the time.

  28. …..Thanks for the time and effort to post these great photos! I am a photographer. Great story to go with the photos.

    Life is unknown, until it’s end.
    We miss more that is untouchable and lost.
    We also realize we will go to the darkness.
    Alone.

    PSR

  29. Ciao, adoro i Morphine e il tuo racconto mi ha veramente emozionato, grazie.
    Ne approfitto per segnalarti che su SentireAscoltare c’è la tua immagine e sotto c’è la possibilità di segnalare di esserne l’autore: http://www.sentireascoltare.com/artist/4953/morphine.html

    Emanuele

  30. Great article. I started listening to and loving Morphine in the early 90’s and was never able to fully explain their sound to friends who couldn’t quite get it. Mark and the guys would be in Chicago, IL not long after Italy and my wife and I were excited to see them live for the first time…we would not get that chance. I think to be there at Mark’s final moments as he did what he loved should be seen as an honor and privilege.

  31. Ciao Valerio, thank you so much for posting your story here. I couldn’t imagine how many people still think about Mark after 14 years from his death, just today. His music is here with me, I’m listening to the double “At your service” and it’s my way to maintain still alive someone who has parted away too, too early.
    Congratulations for the wonderful material shot and posted here. You have a new follower from today.
    Keep well!
    Maurizio

    • Hi Maurizio,
      it’s a honour and a burden to be (the only) author of photos recalling such a dramatic day.
      Thanks for your words and for following

      • Love the photo which was about to be a tee shirt. Do I have any chance to get one original print signed by you ? It would be a great. Thank you for keeping me posted.

      • of course you can, Maurizio, I have the darkroom up and running! Write me a private e-mail and I’ll tell you about avilable sizes, timelines and prices liveon35mm@gmail.com

  32. Hi, i have read this article after so many years…i remember every single moment of that night.

    Me and a friend came from Bari to Palestrina, 400 km on a very old Opel Kadett diesel. I never had the habit of travelling so much to follow concerts, moreover i didn’t know that band (i was curious to see the Queen Of The Stone Age). Later i would have discovered that the band was mentioned in the popular Italian movie “Viaggi di Nozze”, with Carlo Verdone (who is a fan of the band) – 3 tracks are present in the movie, and in a scene Carlo Verdone openly says “They are Morphine” while playing their songs on a CD player. But that’s another story.

    Well, let’s back to my story. Immediately after arriving, we started wandering in the streets of Palestrina. We found excellent local wine and, in short time, we were quite drunk. We spent several hours waiting and drinking.

    Then the concert started. There was a lot of people – but also a quite chaotic situation. A girl collapsed and was pulled by friends – i still remember her drugged eyes, they were two black puddles. So i felt not very comfortable, although it was not the first time to see people collapse for drugs or simple environmental stress.

    Morphine started playing their songs. Their sound immediately impressed me, although i was more accustomed with punk/garage/grunge sounds. No guitar, sax, and that fantastic fretless bass. Mark’s appearence impressed me as well – he looked almost like an old-style gentleman, although it looked a bit drunk or altered in some way. Just a bit drunk – nothing more. Maybe it was some weed? Ok, but he was OK and there was nothing of strange at the moment. They played 2 or 3 songs, until the crucial moment.

    If i remember well, he was partially speaking in Italian. He said, in a crooked Italian: “E ora, una canzone supersexy”. Something like that – i don’t remember. I just remember that he started to play the bass, but after some chords he fell over on the stage, backwards. No signals, no warnings. Just suddenly. Just one fraction of time, from the sound to the stop.

    People started to laugh, thinking he was “fatto” (high) and taking that as a joke. A guy near me started laughing, shouting, in Roman accent: “A bello de casa!” (something like “mummy’s boy”, in mocking way). Then chaos followed. The concert started and restarted with support bands but we were either too shocked or drunk to understand what was happening.
    Then, approximately at 1:30 pm, we approached a Carabinieri car to ask informations about “the American singer”. The two Carabienieri replied, with a cold, yet contrivied expression: “Mr. Sandman has deceased”.

    I said only “ok, thank you”. My soul was under my shoes. Then we stayed in silence. We were drunk and with nothing to do – the concert was stopped earlier. And it was too late, it was time to sleep. My friend choosen to sleep in the park, i choosen to sleep in the car. After some time, i had some problem in my bowels – i had to go to the bathroom, but the only chemical WC was the worst thing you can imagine. So i took the car to search for some isolated place in the countryside. In the meanwhile, my friend woke up, and he did not see my car – he thought that i had left him alone, drunk and totally out of mind, 400 km away from home. I came back and he shouted to me. The curious thing was that he was upset not for the Sandman’s death, but for the probable cancellation of the QOTSA gig. Probably a questionable, yet useful way to hide the shock for the Sandman’s departure.

    I don’t remember much of the following day. If i’m not wrong, QOTSA played anyway, in homage to Mark. I still remember the long trip to home, running at a mere 70Km/h on the Appennini highway under the long-term effect of the strong local wine. Trees, dark, trees, dark, my friend sleeping on the right seat and me driving in silence. We stopped in a service station to sleep in the car for 2 hours, then we came to Bari to our respective homes, exhausted and shocked.

    I admit that i have searched for the video of that night. I didn’t find it. It’s much better in this way- everything will remain in my head until the end of my life.

    Thank you for reading a so old post, but i had to do it.

    regards

    M.

  33. sorry, i was meaning “a so long post”, not “so old” – my mistake.

  34. Ma sei italiano??

  35. Olá Valério! Greetings from Brasil!
    Thanks for sharing your memories.
    Do you still wonder where that bass is today?
    The bass went home. And it’s nice to know that are people taking care of it.

    http://www.youpoordevil.com/index.php/2009/12/10/i-went-to-hi-n-dry/

  36. Death is so funny
    Calling on Dream at his Height
    Such is Her humor

  37. Hi there!

    Morphine was an incredible good band. Its sound is obscure due to the lack of electric guitar, but not so on the gothic or dark side but through a most clubby atmosphere. In this seemingly narrow alley they managed to be incredible diverse, subtle and energetic at the same time.

    If you like them may I dare suggest you certainly could find the Argentinean band Sumo interesting.

    http://euterpedesmelenada.blogspot.dk/2011/03/sumo-obras-cumbres-2001.html

    Cheers!

  38. Powerful read. Thankyou for this.

  39. And now it’s 15 years since mark passed away. Morphine were and are one of the more innovative bands ever. There will never be another Morphine. With saying that, the original members Dana Colley, Jerome Deupree and a guitar/bass player vocalist named Jeremy Lyons have joined forces to continue as ‘vapors of Morphine’. They play music from the Morphine song book as well as some originals by Jeremy and some covers that are inspired by Mark Sandmans music library ( he was a voracious musicologist). ‘Vapors of Morphine’ recently played to sold out crowds in South America and recently played in Austin Tx in support of a new documentary by Mark Shuman called ” Morphine-Journey of Dreams”. Hopefully the documentary will be played all over and everyone can see and hear the history of this awesome band.
    I’m soo glad that even after all these years, the band is recognized as being one of a kind and soo memorable.

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