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:
I’m Free Now
You Speak My Language
Cure for the Pain
Encores (set list had line drawn between)
Early to Bed
I Know you III
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.