What we said
Mark through the eyes and ears of the Phoenix
compiled by Carly Carioli
Here's a sampling of some of the Phoenix's coverage of Mark Sandman and
Morphine over the past six years.
"In some ways Morphine are about the least likely success story to hit the
Boston circuit. For starters, there's that notorious instrumental line-up:
drums, baritone sax, two-string slide bass, and not a damn thing
more. . . . But there are other good reasons why Morphine were
anything but a sure thing. Their music owes as much to blues and Vegas grind as
it does to rock, which would have made them more likely to play roots-type
clubs than to sell out the Middle East or the Causeway the way they've been
doing. Then there's the 'spinoff from an old band' syndrome (two of the three
members were in Treat Her Right) -- which can be the kiss of death, given the
scene's prejudices against folks who've been around for a while.
On the other hand, there are a few reasons why Morphine's rise makes perfect
sense. They may not sound like a rock band, but on a good night they can kick
and swing like one; and their heavy use of open space can be a refreshing
change from the tradition of louder-is-better. Besides, frontman Mark Sandman
has shown a knack for memorable songs ever since he wrote Treat Her Right's
signature number, 'I Think She Likes Me,' in the mid '80s. Sandman is one of
those guys who seems to have been born to be on stage in front of a band . .
-- Brett Milano, September 10, 1993
"Morphine didn't fit in a box and they still don't. They're not grunge, they're
not punk, and they're sure as hell not techno. But they're not Frankenstein,
either. . . . It's obvious that they're a damn good rock band,
as meat-and-potatoes as Chuck Berry, with the same side helpings of blues,
jazz, and R&B. . . . Dig a little deeper and you'll notice a
seasoned, swinging groove that Charlie Watts would be proud to call his
own. . . . And to top it off, Sandman's lyrics, which touch on
sexy adult themes like pacts with the Devil and illicit affairs, have more in
common with the blues than with any of Seattle's twentysomethings."
Matt Ashare's reflection on Mark Sandman
And, friends and fans look back at Mark and Morphine
Morphine/Mark Sandman links
"The blues, according to more than one legend, are about mastery and prowess,
especially sexual prowess. I'm a 60-minute man. I'm a back-door man. I'm a
hootchy-kootchy man. . . . Why does Robert Johnson have such big
hands? (It ain't just for fast finger work on the guitar, baby.) Why does a dog
lick himself down there? Because he can.
Maybe Morphine's new album, yes (Rykodisc), should have been called
'Yes, We Can.' Whatever it is, the trio want you to know they can do it,
whether it's creating a full sonic palette without a guitar, or Dana Colley
blowing baritone and tenor sax simultaneously on two tracks, or Mark Sandman
getting by with just two strings on his bass, or drummer Billy Conway driving
you wild with anticipation by dropping out for a few bars, or Sandman's deadpan
baritone, dripping with cool and sharp like an icicle, insinuating everything
but too slippery to pin down. 'You want a super ultra maxi funky American love
baby?', Sandman asks on 'Super Sex,' to no one in particular. 'I got it all
year long, ha ha.'
Morphine are what Tom Waits would sound like with the rasp and rough edges
slicked and smoothed out, as if that bard of the whiskey bottle were a lot less
Charles Bukowski and Kurt Weill and a lot more Fats Waller and Allen Ginsberg.
Morphine are smoky jazz clubs of the '40s, where dark-suited men and
Dior-gowned dames pass notes to the cigarette girl, or the '50s, where angry
hipster prophets fog the air with poetry raining down like mustard gas -- but
it's got a good beat and you can dance to it. Morphine are film noir, as
experienced from a careering shuttle on the Universal Studio Tour. Morphine are
fun -- when Sandman drawls 'Yes/Yes/Yes/Yes' on the title track, he evokes
Molly Bloom's erotic reverie -- but they're never so emotional that they
relinquish control, or their sense of detached irony."
"When you're a veteran rocker struggling to make ends meet, the line between
cool and pathetic gets tenuous. With his confident, reserved demeanor and his
consistently inspired take on jazz- and blues-inflected rock, Sandman --
barfly, scenester, regular -- always managed to stay on the right side of that
line. . . .
Sandman still looks the same as he did a decade ago -- tall, laid back, and,
well, cool. And his musical tastes haven't changed much either. But with
Morphine he's found the perfect vehicle for his hipster persona: a band as
casually intense as he is, with a deep, dark sound that's ideally suited to his
smoky baritone croon. He's a private person who finds the limelight awkward and
uncomfortable. But he's smart enough to know that cool has more to do with what
you don't show than with what you do. And Sandman's not showing his hand.
-- Matt Ashare, April 28, 1995
"Morphine are masters of mood, playing with a cinematic richness that evokes
Edward Hopper, nighthawks on barstools and in bedrooms -- isolated, static,
unfulfilled. Or to be less abstract and hifalutin, if you've seen the film
Spanking the Monkey, you know that Morphine's music can be a devastating
soundtrack for a young life gone to hell. The simple bass-sax-drums do much to
convey claustrophobia and doom, but the most haunting image in Spanking the
Monkey comes at the end, when the thwarted spanker walks away from the mess
of his life to the mandolin-driven 'In Spite of Me' (compliments of Blood
Orange Jimmy Ryan). The lovely, sad song communicates a resilience perfect for
"Talking to Mark Sandman on the phone -- which is the only way I've talked to
him -- is like listening to somebody who's half-heartedly negotiating his way
around the Final Nod. Soft-spoken doesn't begin to describe it, and the
frequent silences can be alarming. There were a few moments there when I
thought I'd lost him; but no, he revived and completed his thought. Our
conversation was taped, and playing it back for transcription purposes, I turn
the volume all the way up. Now he sounds coolly articulate, thoughtfully
responsive as I bellow my questions at him like a drunken
Shriner. . . .
Meanwhile, back to Like Swimming. I notice that there's a lot of water
imagery. On 'Potion': 'Below the ocean/I make my bed down there/I gotta live
somewhere/Maybe the graveyard/Maybe I don't care.' On 'Wishing Well,' it's 'I
move smooth underwater/I know my way around/I grew up in this town.' There's
also significant wetness on 'Empty Box' and, of course, the title song.
Although I like these lyrics, and the kind of kicked-back but punchy, dark
ambiance they float in, I just can't squeeze a question out of them. So instead
I ask what's a tritar.
'It's a name I gave an instrument I've been working on that has one bass
string and two guitar strings. I play it with a slide. You can hear it on this
album on 'Murder for the Money.' "
"Sometimes it's all deadpan cool with a wry edge that can make even a large
clubful of people feel as if they were in on some sly joke. Other times it's a
soulful croon connecting the dots between the swamp and the city, deep rural
blues and urbane cocktail jazz, generating a different sort of intimacy. And
occasionally it's full of hedonistic bluster. . . . But it's
always deep, languid, and a little smoky, the perfect finishing touch to the
spare yet robust combination of two-string slide bass, baritone sax, and drums
that has become Morphine's ingeniously unique calling card.
-- Matt Ashare