On July 3, 1999, the band Morphine started their concert in the town of Palestrina in Italy. The weather conditions were unbearable, the temperature surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Frontman Mark Sandman, well known for his baritone voice and his signature two-stringed slide bass guitar, had experienced chest pains two weeks before – possibly a mild heart attack, according to girlfriend Sabine Hrechdakian – but did not get a checkup before going on tour. After Morphine began the second song of their set, Sandman dropped his bass and collapsed onstage. A doctor was brought up from the audience, but it was too late; Sandman had suffered a massive, fatal heart attack. He was 46 years old.
During their brief time together, Morphine was a band that was difficult to categorize. Even in the 1990s, when every band seemed to fall under the umbrella term of “alternative rock,” the trio was unique among their peers. In the four albums that Morphine released between 1992 and 1997 and in their final album, recorded in 1999 and released in 2000, their style defied any typical genre expectations. It was a mélange of jazz, rock, blues and other influences from world music. Lyrically, Mark Sandman was influenced by the writings of pulp fiction author Jim Thompson, giving Morphine’s records the feeling of a film noir soundtrack, at once both retro chic and a modern cool. Perhaps that is why the music appeals to me so.
I have been a fan of Morphine for some time now – I hold their album Yes (1995) in particularly high regard – but my interest grew deeper when I recently read a memoir written by Guitelle Sandman, Mark’s mother. Titled Four Minus Three: A Mother’s Story and published in 2007, it recounts in devastating detail the losses of all three of Guitelle’s sons, Roger, Jon and Mark, in the years 1979, 1980 and 1999 respectively. (The lone daughter, Martha, is still alive.) Roger battled learning disabilities throughout his life and died from a heart infection at age 19, while 23-year-old Jon mysteriously fell to his death from an open window while attending a house party in New York. (The Sandman family lived in Massachusetts.) Mark had also had traumas of his own: in the 1980s he was stabbed in the heart while working as a taxi driver in Boston, an attack which forced him to have emergency surgery a few years afterward – the wounds had left a hole near his digestive tract, something not realized during the initial incident – and which could have contributed to his eventual death. (Stress and years of heavy smoking have also been cited as factors.) The pain that a mother would feel at experiencing so many tragedies involving her children is unimaginable, but Guitelle and her husband, Bob, survived it and she wrote her book. (Mrs. Sandman passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010.) She wrote a lot about how she reexamined her Jewish faith as a means of healing and understanding and she wrote about how much she listened to Mark’s music after he died, trying to feel closer to the man who was both a public figure and her rebellious little boy.
In the spirit of remembering Morphine, a band best described by the term “low rock” which was coined by Mark Sandman, I present to you 15 of their best songs, 15 for each year that has passed since Sandman’s untimely death. I think of these songs as music for the night, specifically that moody, noir-like time between 1:00 and 5:00 am, when the night sky is at its darkest before the blue light of dawn. Like Morpheus, the Greek god who is the band’s namesake (in addition to the inspiration of Sandman’s own name), this is music that may find its way into your dreams.
- “You Look Like Rain” (Good, 1992)
- “Lisa” (Good, 1992)
- “The Only One” (Good, 1992)
- “I Know You (Part II)” (Good, 1992)
- “Buena” (clip of live performance) (Cure for Pain, 1993)
- “Let’s Take a Trip Together” (Cure for Pain, 1993)
- “Miles Davis’ Funeral” (Cure for Pain, 1993)
- “Honey White” (Yes, 1995)
- “Whisper” (Yes, 1995)
- “All Your Way” (Yes, 1995)
- “I Had My Chance” (Yes, 1995)
- “Swing It Low” (Like Swimming, 1997)
- “The Night” (The Night, 1999-2000) – perhaps their greatest song?
- “Souvenir” (The Night, 1999-2000)
- “Rope on Fire” (The Night, 1999-2000) – …and this might be the runner-up.