"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man or woman miss out on the night life."
Yeah, you know Morphine. Even without hearing them, you know Morphine like a late weekday out at the bar, alone or with friends, knocking them back and never happier. You know Morphine like you know that slinky spaghetti strap dress barely covering that knockout figure heading across the establishment to your table. You know Morphine like you know the most unbelieveable sex of your life. You know Morphine like you know God speaking through a baritone saxophone, guiding your every action, fulfilling your every primal desire. You know Morphine like you know the morning after, sweet and fading.
And of course you know Morphine like the night her husband comes home early. You know Morphine like you know a kick in the teeth from a steel-toed wingtip. You know Morphine like you know your heart breaking for five months straight. You know Morphine like a hangover, like a bad temper, like regret.
In 1991, Mark Sandman, fresh from the break-up of Boston's foremost ecclectic blues outfit, Treat Her Right, teamed up with Dana Colley on bari sax and long time cohort Billy Conway on drums to form what could've easily been the most kitschy throwaway band this side of Phish, but instead...
Well, I mean, just listen to these guys and you might think, just for a tiny little second, that they invented the very concept of fucking. Without wailing distorted guitars. Without turning the sax into some studio gimmick. Without twenty minute long organ solos or an ever tedious circus of guest artists. These guys meant business, they got their hands dirty, and left audience after audience with stains on the sheets and a bad case of bedhead. They were that good, and they knew it.
Not that they let slip the extent of their powers on stage. Sandman would open shows with a very humble, "Ladies and gentlemen, from Boston, Massachusetts, we are Morphine at your service," and then that was it. There's no escaping that kind an introduction. You couldn't see Sandman's gaunt and honest face and think for a second he and his friends on stage had anything up their sleeves.
But back up a second. Foremost, Morphine was a Boston band. Treat Her Right was Sandman and Conway's outfit and well known in the area. Both Colley and the original drummer, Jerome Dupree (who appears on only a couple of the albums), were fixtures in Boston's scene. Morphine's first steady gigs were at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge, a pleasant little hole in the wall that, well, if you lost your hearing in the war or something, just walk into this place and sit for a while. This is what you're missing. But I digress. These were Boston's kids. Know that.
There's something else you're missing, too. I said no guitars, and I pretty much meant it. In addition to singing like a cherry '66 Mustang with a broken-in back seat, Sandman also played a homemade fretless two-string slide bass, created after he listened to Central Square buskers and realized that every note he had ever needed was on the E and A strings, so he threw the rest away, added Colley's sharp, lugubrious bari shaken with Conway's impeccable drum work, and served over a stunned dive bar audience every damn week. They started scoring gigs at larger Boston venues, like the Middle East, and soon enough their Plough and Star nights were standing room only.
So they cut Good in 1992, and, like a lot of debuts from damn good bands, no one listened to it. It's a little lo-fi. It's nothing you could listen to while shopping. In fact, you probably wouldn't want to listen to it while having sex, the only exceptions being sex with an ex-girlfriend, sex with a stranger, sex with your sibling's significant other. Good is a pack of unfiltered cigarettes, all smoked one after the other. Slowly. In the dark. With a glass of bourbon.
Say what you want about Good, it paved the way for their breakthrough, 1993's Cure For Pain. If you're looking for a way to get into Morphine, this is the one I'd suggest. It opens with a sax solo. A real sax solo, forty-three seconds long and mournful, only a shimmering organ chord for accompanyment. Then the second song comes in and Sandman plays his bass like he's playing your heartstrings here, and it's very likely that's what he'll end up doing. I mean, how can you resist an opening line like: "You see I met a devil named Buena Buena, and since I met the devil, I ain't been the same, oh no, and I feel all right now I have to tell ya I think it's time for me to introduce you to the buena buena buena buena good good good!" This album -- well, it'll knock you on the floor and do all the unspeakable things you've ever wanted music to do to you.
Oh, but these two albums, they're just foreplay compared to the rest of the band's carreer. Yes, released in 1995, is an unrelenting attack upon your sense of decency. You'll wanna double up on your birth control for this album. Yes may just make you throw your pants out the window in a brazen declaration of the strength of your libido. Man, will you ever have some rough times, too. There will be things happening in your ears that you cannot agree with, cannot for the sake of your sanity allow to happen, but you won't think for even a second that leaving is an option. You'll be willing to work through it. You wouldn't dare leave this behind, even as Sandman advises coolly, like a smoking gun, "Free love, don't bank on it, baby."
And, god, if you thought Yes was tumultuous territory, 1997's Like Swimming is the album that'll really kill you. A strange little thing happens around Like Swimming: this flirtatious little romp you've been taking with Sandman and company? It's starting to mean a lot more. It's not just about the (great) sex anymore. There's something a little more to this weather-worn group than you could've ever expected, something other than the dark mystery you had been trying to unravel all this time. Suddenly it's apparent that behind this well of sorrow, behind this neverending affront to the mortal man's libido, there are honest-to-god humans, somewhere, and they're probably just as unsure about you as you are of them. They might not like you. They're in this for the good times, too, and they are just as unsure of themselves as you. Not even Morphine has it figured out, and they aren't all that pleased to admit it. Luckily for you, they aren't quitting anytime soon.
Yeah, things are lookin' up for you and Morphine, which is really the only time you get your heart broken. On July 3rd, 1999, at the age of 46, Mark Sandman suffered a fatal heart attack on stage during the second song of the band's set at the Giardini del Principe in Palestrina, Italy, just two weeks before a major U.S. tour with Soul Coughing and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The band's final album, The Night, was already in the can, but you don't want to listen to it. Not unless you've hidden all the knives, tossed out all the liquor, and stocked up on kleenex, because this is the heartbreak you've been promised. This is the best Morphine ever was, and you'll never have another moment with them again. All you can do now is remember how it used to be. All you can do now is wish for more.
They'll fill your heart with tar and malice and they'll never call again, but a four album engangement (six, if you count an official bootleg live record and a b-sides compilation) to Morphine is something you'll never regret. There are cheap lays abound in the music world. Sleep sound in knowing that there is also Morphine.