Like Swimming by Morphine

Liner notes originally written for Light in the Attic Records' 2023 vinyl reissues
by Ryan H. Walsh

1996. Massachusetts.

The photo shoot for the cover of Morphine’s fourth album was turning out to be unusual for several reasons. The band—Mark Sandman, Dana Colley, and Billy Conway—had never appeared on the front of any of their records prior, and now that they were planning to do so, it had to be different. They needed to be submerged underwater. Danny Clinch, an in-demand music photographer who studied under Annie Leibovitz, had come from New York to capture the images, finding himself in the backyard of 72 Fairlee Road in Newton, Massachusetts. Colley and Conway were surprised to be there, too, as this was the childhood home of Mark Sandman, and for the most part, the Morphine frontman didn’t discuss, or sometimes even admit, that he had a hometown, a family, or a past at all.

“It was unusual that we would be brought into that world,” saxophonist Dana Colley recalls. “It was the first time we went and spent any time with his parents.” Drummer Billy Conway concurs, “Once we started touring, we saw my parents; they would come to shows all the time. But we didn’t know Mark’s parents at all the day we went to shoot the cover of Like Swimming.”

Clinch had the band underwater for less than three minutes total. In the end, only Dana Colley’s hands can be seen on the front cover. The full-band shot appears on the back.

“That was the first time I realized Mark came from a home and didn’t crawl out of a pack of wolves,” Colley says. Certainly, there were plenty of options for an underwater shoot in Boston, so something had shifted Sandman’s perspective to willingly choose his parents’ house, but what?

Perhaps it had something to do with this: after years of paying dues, false starts, and near misses with other bands, by the mid-90s, Morphine was a bonafide and continuous artistic, recording, and touring success. It wasn’t a fluke; it wasn’t limited to Boston, and the band was about to sign to a major label. So, along with the stability of the band’s career and the erasure of any lingering hints of imposter syndrome, perhaps Sandman’s personal, steadfast policy of not sharing his age or any details of his upbringing—with everyone from journalists to close collaborators—could finally be loosened. Maybe.

“I move slow, underwater
I know my way around
everybody knows me
I grew up in this town.”
Lyrics from “Wishing Well”

How do you reinvent yourself without entirely abandoning or denying your roots? It was easy, or at least Sandman was going to make it look like it was.

It was just like swimming.

You know, every article about us starts out with stuff about the two-string bass, baritone saxophone, and no guitar," Mark Sandman told The Boston Phoenix in May of 1994. "Personally, I'd like to see reviews that say we're a good band with good songs and good playing first.”

We’re going to honor his long-lost request here—Sandman wrote great songs, and Morphine created great recordings of those songs, to say the very least—but for readers who aren’t fully familiar with the origin story, or to those who purchased this record on a whim, we are now going to also do the thing Sandman disliked.

We begin with a single from 1956.

“Cherokee Dance” by Bob “Froggy” Landers is a beautifully fucked-up song. As I write this, it’s the year 2021, so you can go ahead and listen to it on YouTube right now. Let’s momentarily set aside the song’s deeply problematic leveraging of the perceived negative qualities of this country’s Indigenous people to invent a new dance craze. It’s the sound we’re after here. The main instrument on the track sounds like an industrialsized, electrified rubber band that always seems on its way towards a different note. Mark Sandman heard this strange recording sometime in the late 80s, and it captured his imagination. “[Landers] supposedly died of lung cancer three weeks after it was recorded,” Mark told a Dutch TV interviewer in 1996. “[And it also credits] Willie Joe and his unitar. And that's the solo you hear, a unitar. I asked around, and somebody told me it was a bass string on a guitar.”

This is how Sandman began testing out different bass strings on different electric guitars in search of a sound as wild as Willie Joe’s unitar. “Arriving at the Morphine sound was like an accident,” he said in 1997. “I was trying to play the bass with a slide, and I had worked it down to one string because I realized all the notes are there.”

Mark met Dana at Kenmore Square’s legendary dive, The Rat; Dana was playing with a band called Three Colors, while Mark’s band that night was simply called Sandman. The two became friendly, and Mark invited Dana to his house to jam. This was sometime in late 1989. “I came by, and he had his music room packed—jam-packed—with pianos and books and records and instruments and just wall-to-wall stuff,” Colley says. “I just remember clearing a little corner. He had his one string. He's like, ‘I'm working on this instrument. I'm just trying to see how it sounds.’ From note one, the baritone sax and the one string were like [makes vibrating sound and hand motion]. And then, when Mark started singing, it became this triad. So automatically, there was this choral effect that happened between the one string, the sax, and the voice.”

From that casual Eureka! moment, it didn’t take long to find a drummer1, book some shows, solidify a dozen or so songs, and start to capture them on tape. But what were they going to call it? When asked about the name origin in 1994, right after Cure for Pain was released, Sandman delivered what would become the standard reply:

     "The word morphine comes from the word 'Morpheus,' who is the god of dreams, and that kind of appealed to us as a concept. We were dreaming, Morpheus comes into our dreams, and we woke up and started this band." 

Above, I mentioned it all traced back to 1956, but forgive me for momentarily dropping us down to 1804 when Friedrich Sertürner first isolated morphine from opium in Germany. He did indeed call it morphine based on the concept of Morpheus, the Greek god associated with sleep and dreams. Morpheus was a winged figure but adept at appearing inside of people’s dreams in human form2. With a singer whose unlikely last name is Sandman, this is all a perfect, logical fit, though the name would cause problems and speculation throughout their career.

Sandman’s fascination with Morpheus traced back to, at least, 1979 when he wrote a short story titled “Morpheus” about a musician from Boston at a crossroads in life, forced to choose between security or following his dreams. It’s a good read and even somewhat prophetic for what would unfold in the ensuing decades. Sample line: “The two of them were from similar middle-class backgrounds; she was totally at ease with the mainstream, while Morpheus felt happiest on its edges.”

Dear reader, I regret to inform you that once you have decided on a band name and developed a sound, that’s when people will try to attach a genre to you. It might be accurate, or, more likely, it might not. It could prove to be some kind of an advantage, or it could be a direct impediment to success. Realizing that they would be assigned a genre whether they liked it or not, the band just decided to create their own genre: Low Rock. “Mark just made that up,” Billy Conway recalls, laughing, “and the next thing you know, there's a little section in the record store of ‘Low Rock.’”3

If you happened to be interviewing all three of them at the same time, there’s a good chance you’d end up being more confused about what genre they were than before you asked. From a 1994 interview with Boston zine The Noise:

     Mark: We like to call it "Fuck Rock."
     Dana: It's Low Rock, not slow rock. 
     Billy: It's more of mood rock, but I would never want people to interpret this as New Age.

And God help you if you asked Dana Colley directly. Billy Conway explains, “He’s such a good straight man. He would just look at you and say, ‘Yeah, we play Christian Fuck Rock.’ And he wouldn’t smile. He’d just watch you get really uncomfortable until that little grin would come out and let you off the hook.” Still, many journalists tried, whether it was an attempt to further define Low Rock or to offer an instantly recognizable genre to readers up front in their Morphine coverage. The low-hanging fruit was always “Jazz Rock,” as if the mere presence of a saxophone instantly converted any and all music into jazz. It was a tag that seemed to encourage less adventurous music fans to stay away, which the band found frustrating. “Think about it,” Sandman told The Noise. “All our songs are intro, verse, chorus, solo-out. It is very accessible.”


“They're not grunge, they're not punk, they're not folk, and they're sure as hell not techno,” Matt Ashare wrote in The Boston Phoenix in 1994. In hindsight, it becomes clear that what you saw in a lot of the early press coverage of Morphine was journalists low-key losing their minds that somehow this band was successful without any guitars—electric or acoustic. At first, the tone of this coverage was delighted shock at the originality and novelty of such a thing, and then, annoyingly quickly, it pivoted to conjecture about how long such a lineup could generate new and fresh material. No one ever asked Nirvana these kinds of questions.

Mark Sandman was nineteen years old when he first left home without a destination. Despite his high IQ and ability to earn money by writing papers for classmates, college had been a bad fit for him. Back in Newton, MA, his parents told him he’d either need to attend some kind of schooling, work a fulltime job, or live somewhere else. Dazed by the ultimatum, he packed up a few things and left that night. It was January in the middle of a heavy snow storm.

This was the culmination of years of discontent in the Sandman household. In high school, Mark—the oldest of four children—had started to rebel against his parents’ expectations for everything from his appearance to his professional ambitions. Guitelle and Robert Sandman recognized that their son was creative, but their concerns about his fuck-ups and rebellions always took precedence. Soon, they heard that he began skipping school, they suspected he had started smoking cigarettes and pot, and they even came upon him hitchhiking on Route 128 one night. They picked him up; he was embarrassed.

The entire Sandman family would be indelibly marked by terrible, repeated tragedy when Mark’s younger brothers, Roger and Jon, both died in the span of fifteen months in the late-70s. Mark’s enormous grief and survivor’s guilt would manifest itself in a song as early as 1989’s “No Reason” by Treat Her Right, which culminates with the lyric, “Someone try to tell me why / Lord I’m alive and my brothers died.” While the processing of this familial grief seemed without end, he was not outwardly forthcoming

MARK SANDMAN'S 1973-1974
City of Boston taxi license.

about these tragedies whatsoever, even with someone as close to him as his Morphine bandmates. “It wasn’t like he opened up,” Dana Colley said. “You’d just sort of learn these things as you went along.”4

When people say Mark Sandman had lived multiple lives before anyone knew of him in the Boston music scene, they are not exaggerating. He would spend the majority of the 1970s on a Kerouac-style journey through the U.S. and beyond, including a communal living situation in Vermont, a miner’s cabin outside of Breckenridge, Colorado (where he was only reachable through phone calls at the local saloon in town), in Seattle where he became longhaired and unshaven, on a salmon trawler up and down the West Coast, as a crane operator in a cannery on the Olympic Peninsula, working on a crab tender in Alaska, to South America to climb Machu Picchu, to Brazil where he learned Portuguese and played guitar for a band led by a man named Flavio. Sandman felt he had successfully avoided “the traps set by the mainstream” but, at the same time, couldn’t shake the feeling that he was also some kind of failure. “Oh, I am tired of being a drifter, and I am so scared of getting into a routine,” he wrote in his journal around this time.

After an illness in Brazil and an arrest in Texas, his drifter fatigue finally beat out his fear of routine, and he traveled back home to Massachusetts. He even had a plan: get a degree from UMass and support himself by driving a taxi.5 His parents were delighted by the news, even more so when he graduated in 1981. “Mark loved Massachusetts,” explains Morphine manager Deb Klein. “Even though he traveled the world and continued to travel and see the world, I think home was something that was symbolically really important for him.”

Upon completion of school, he broke the bad news to his mother:

     "I did it for you, Mom, and now I want to be a rock musician."

And that's exactly what he did. 

"I knew the album cover was going to have something to do with water,” Sandman told the Chicago Tribune in 1997. “I don't know, man—big element, most of the Earth. I just wanted to let it run. Just let the water run.”

The Like Swimming album would complete the Morphine cycle through The Four Elements. It goes beyond the visual cues, but you just need to look at the cover of each album for initial confirmation that there is something to this idea: Earth (Good), Air (Cure for Pain), Fire (Yes), and now, obviously, Water with Like Swimming. Though Colley doesn’t recall explicit conversations about this concept as a band, he’s sure this was something Sandman was intentionally building over time. Water represents intuition, wisdom, power, and grace, and I would make the case that Like Swimming is an album about getting into the flow of things finally going your way, about comfortably making use of your talents and doing it all with confidence, grace, and style. The title track, for example, is not a song about the singer’s first time “swimming;” no, he’s teaching you how to do it. He’s already great at it. “It gets easier when you move your arms and legs… Why don't we try right now? Yes, right now… I know a way to swim all the way downtown.”

In this way, it is the only Morphine record without any brutal heartbreakers on it (think “In Spite of Me,” “Gone for Good,” and “Take Me with You”). I will stop short of calling it a “party record,” but there are multiple songs here about the joys of staying out late, the best time to go out, and even what to eat while you’re enjoying those nights out.6 This is such a far cry from the tone of the first album, where Sandman’s narrator returns home to find that, literally, he is unable to communicate with others: “Even in my hometown / My friends make me write it down / They look at me when I talk to them / And they shrug their shoulders / They go ‘what's he talking about?’” On Like Swimming, things have changed. Consider the confidence needed to convincingly deliver the line, “I'm exactly where I want to be right now.”

Though Like Swimming is full of positive mantras and optimistic outlooks, it would be false to present Mark’s working style as all smiles all the time. “Mark had a dark side,” Mike Rivard, a frequent Sandman collaborator, remembers. “One of the best ways to call that dark side forth was to engage him in the ‘writers conversation.’ Sandman was a practitioner of the age-old artistic philosophy of the master not sharing credit with the apprentice. After a while, I started to get uppity and brought the subject up, and He. Shut. Me. Down. And looking back, I can sympathize. I have since learned what it’s like to have a band member overestimate the essential nature of their contribution.”

Dana Colley doesn’t contest that Sandman had a big ego, but over time, he came to realize it had little to do with any rock star diva clichés and everything to do with self-preservation. “It was a survivalist thing,” Colley says, “which I didn't understand until later. There's so many impediments to living a creative life. Mark’s ego was much more about taking the bull by the horns and saying, ‘I'm gonna live my life the way I'm gonna live my life. And I'm not going to let anybody stop me.’”

Producer Paul Kolderie puts it the most bluntly and simply: “Mark could be super fun to be around, but he could also be a total dick.”

In the mid-nineties, Boston producer Paul Q. Kolderie was in the thick of an undeniable hot streak; he had recently produced Radiohead’s Pablo Honey and Hole’s Live Through This as well as multiple albums for local breakout acts like Buffalo Tom and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. But to Morphine, he was almost like a fourth member, there from the very beginning producing their first three records at Fort Apache Studio in Cambridge. “In the Cure for Pain days, we worked in a vacuum,” he remembers. “We didn’t think anyone cared. No one had any money. We had just enough money to buy pizza and beer, smoke some weed, and come up with cool ideas.” There was more money involved by the making of the fourth Morphine album, and they had certainly stepped outside the vacuum, sure, but the foursome was still happily, creatively cooking in the early months of 1996 as they laid these new songs down to tape.

In the year prior to making Like Swimming, Fort Apache had moved the operation from Camp Street to a larger space on Edmunds Street—also in Cambridge. It was the only new variable in the mix since the making of Yes. Both studio locations, as well as Mark Sandman’s loft, Dana’s apartment, and local haunts and home base venues like The Plough & Stars and The Middle East Club were all within a two-mile radius of each other (see “Morphine Map of Cambridge” included in liner notes for The Night MCR 930), and this close-knit geography is a good indicator of why the world of Morphine seemed insular and interconnected—because it was.

Like Cure for Pain, Like Swimming also opens with a meditative, instrumental incantation, this one titled “Lilah,” a Hebrew name which means, “languishing, lovelorn, seductive; night beauty.”7 “He used to love to sing that name,” Colley recalls, improvising an example.

     "He was really interested in that kind of almost call to prayer sound that this intro song evokes.

All of the opening, lyrical gambits on the first four Morphine albums are about an encounter with some otherworldly presence. On “Good,” it’s someone seductive who can read his mind and call to him telepathically; on “Buena” and “Honey White,” it appears to be, quite literally, the devil; here, in “Potion,” it’s some sort of magician figure who can provide a drink to make the narrator of the song fall in love. It seems like a sinister deal, but then again, the narrator seems to be quite sure and insistent that this is precisely what he desires. “Give me a potion / make it a double.”

For a song like “Potion,” Paul Kolderie would stack identical unison takes of Colley’s saxophone parts, mixing them to sound like one single, impenetrable wall of sound. No matter how his parts were treated, filtered, or multiplied on the records, Colley didn’t use any effect pedals for live shows, which is nothing short of astounding. Here’s Sandman in 1997 on the subject: “A lot of the reason we can get away with what we do is because of the guy we've got on saxophone. You just don't miss a guitar with a guy like that in your band. He covers a lot of ground and does a lot of subtle things that people aren't always aware of—long power chords, circular breathing, overblowing, reinforcing the bass line, solos, counterpoint, droning.”

Next up is the more grounded but no less seductive, “I Know You (Pt III)”—a sequel to a series of songs introduced on their debut album.8 The lyrical confidence continues here (perhaps it peaks?) when Sandman seems to indicate that time spent in his presence is covered by a warranty: “If you don’t like it you can have your money back.” It’s all backed up by some of Billy Conway’s finest performances. “You can really hear the drums,” Sandman noted to journalist Larry Katz in 1997. “You can hear the tone of the drums, what part of the cymbal he’s hitting. You can even hear him grunting. He’s not competing with all the other mid-range instruments, voices, and guitars… Of course it has to be the right drummer. Luckily, we have one of the best.”

“I Know You” is followed by what I feel safe in promising you is the hottest single ever to be based upon a Ben Franklin quote. In “Early to Bed,” Sandman takes the famous proverb from 1735—

     "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise

—and offers a counter argument: it

     "makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife.

Kolderie recalls feeling that the band had found a new gear with this track, specifically noting his fondness for the Prince-esque keyboard line. Jamie Caliri was hired to shoot a music video for “Early to Bed,” who recalled that he had been given instructions from the band to avoid a literal visual representation of the lyrics. This is how it came to be that a press release for the finished video was issued with this actual headline: “MORPHINE FRIGHTENS SMALL CHILDREN WITH SINISTER PUPPET SHOW.”9 And yet, still, the song elucidated a sincere point of view Sandman needed to express. “I think he was trying to make a case for his lifestyle,” Colley says, smiling. “Everybody in his world were nine-to-fivers, including his parents. That he was living his life this way, making his own hours, was a victory he wanted to celebrate.”

“Wishing Well” is the album’s lone instance of Colley’s magic trick: playing two saxophones at once. “Sometimes it was a circus act,” Colley says, “and sometimes it was actually musical.” A writer friend of Colley’s likened the sound of it to “a cow in heat.” At live shows, audiences loved the audacity of the move; the outrageous visual alone would get people pointing before he even played a note. “It's honestly just a parlor trick,” Colley says, downplaying the difficulty. “It's like drinking from two straws!”10

The celebration of nocturnal living continues on “Eleven O’Clock,” a composition that summarizes Mark Sandman’s daily schedule using only eight words:

“Every night about eleven o’clock I go out.”

“That was a lyrical breakthrough,” he told Larry Katz. “I realized that there was no point in any more lyrics because that was all the song was about.” Sandman was fairly fixated on this nocturnal lifestyle as something to be explored in all forms of his creativity; he made artwork visualizing the “Eleven O’Clock” ethos: clock faces with the band name in the center and delightful watercolor paintings of clusters of people at divey bars nursing drinks and tending to their cigarettes. As he suggested in his 1979 “Morpheus” short story, he knew he’d be happiest on the edges of the mainstream, and now that he was finally there, as suspected, he was thriving.

At what point does a lyric become a mantra? “Eleven O’Clock” might be the best example, but other songs like “Good” and “Yes” perform a similar function: repeating one word or phrase over and over again until it takes on the quality of a prayer, a wish, or even a kind of hypnosis. There’s a similar thing at play in “French Fries with Pepper” where not only are all the dates mentioned based on the repetition of one digit, but the second verse is the same as the first. “French Fries with Pepper” feels like a rarity in the Morphine catalog. It is a happy, hopeful imagining of a content future filled with simple pleasures. The song seems to answer the question, what’s the simplest possible thing that could represent a happy ending? At live shows, it became an unlikely sing-along with an entire audience happily shouting, “French fries! With pepper!” back at the band.

The fact that Mark Sandman didn’t live to see his “French Fries with Pepper” destination date of 9/9/99—he was only 69 days shy of it when he collapsed on stage in Palestrina, Lazio—is inarguably tragic; it adds a layer of melancholy to an otherwise funny, hopeful song that you would never expect to take on such qualities. This is a good example of how the events of the future can often become the final co-author of any creation. When you put a piece of art out into the world, its eventual context could very well change its meaning in ways that neither artist nor audience could have anticipated upon its initial release.

MARK SANDMAN reluctantly holds up a French fry and a pepper shaker as MIDDLE EAST owner JOSEPH SATER looks on.

Like Swimming concludes with the most hypnotic, subtle song Sandman ever released. “Swing it Low” is only three minutes and sixteen seconds, but you could play it on repeat for hours, and you might not even notice. It has an odd history: this recording consists of a drum machine, organ, guitar, and vocal all done at home by Sandman and released on a 7” in 1996 under the band name… Like Swimming. Which is confusing, I agree. He liked it so much, it migrated from side project to the closing slot of a proper Morphine album.


The confidence and swagger of the rest of the album is still present on “Swing it Low,” but now it’s much softer. Suddenly, he’s singing about keeping his sweetheart safe, a clear indication that he’s moved beyond seduction into something deeper.11 It’s no longer just a cavalier flirtation; this sounds like commitment. “You especially,” he whisper-sings, “you have my loyalty.” For anyone close to the band, it was crystal clear where these new themes originated. Sandman’s relationship with Sabine Hrechdakian had solidified and deepened in so many ways since they began dating in 1993. While Morphine manager Deb Klein is comfortable saying that certain songs are about Sabine, Sabine herself is not, perhaps not wanting to reduce the universal appeal of Sandman’s lyrics down to any one particular thing. She deflects with a sweet, hilarious memory. Hearing one particular line in a new song, she once asked Mark if it was about her. “He looked at me and said, ‘They’re all about you, baby,’” she recalls, laughing, doing a spot-on impression of Sandman. Shortly after the release of Like Swimming, they put a deposit on 48 Line Street in Somerville.12

Turns out he didn’t need that potion after all.

If the songs on Like Swimming were smooth, confident, and felt effortless, the release of the record itself was the opposite. Salem, MA's Rykodisc label had released all of the band’s discography thus far; they were best known for quality CD reissues of legacy acts like David Bowie and Frank Zappa, but Morphine, along with Bob Mould’s Sugar, was one of the few modern, active acts on the label’s roster.13 At first, it was a good fit for all, but there was a growing consensus in the Morphine camp that the label was not doing everything it could to help them reach the next level. Paul Kolderie recalls, “I think Mark felt, justifiably, that Ryko had dropped the ball. Cure for Pain should have been a platinum record. They couldn’t get their shit together. Mark would call me from an in-store appearance at a record store in Cleveland furious that they didn’t even have the album in stock.”14 Band manager Deb Klein recalls,

     "So, we started to say, 'What are our options?'"

An option would soon present itself. In 1996, David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg founded DreamWorks Records, putting two industry vets from Warner Brothers Records’ glory days in charge—Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin. They needed to build up an artist roster quickly from scratch, which would require both acts that were likely to sell lots of records as well as respected bands that radiated artistic integrity whose presence would attract others to the label—Waronker called those “statement signings.” Morphine seemed like they could potentially be the best of both worlds. The only problem was that their contract guaranteed two more albums to Rykodisc. In the end, Morphine signed to DreamWorks while still under contract with Rykodisc, which is unusual but not unheard of. “With Morphine’s significant fan base and the resources of DreamWorks, we believe we can take the band to the next level,” Ostin told Variety upon signing Morphine in 1996. Everything that happens after this point depends on who you ask.

DreamWorks didn’t want a new Morphine album three years from now—they wanted the one they were currently making at Fort Apache. Mo Ostin traveled to Salem, MA to try to convince Ryko president Dan Rose to cut a deal allowing Like Swimming to be released on DreamWorks.15 According to Rykodisc, Morphine had declared that the album was complete, so the label began to plan a marketing budget and produce advance copies for press. According to Mark Sandman, that was all a charade.16 The album was not finished, and Ryko was bluffing in order to get a more favorable deal from DreamWorks. There are rare copies of this “charade” advance CD floating around out there—it lacks the opening instrumental and features an additional song titled “In Your Shoes” along with different mixes of “Early to Bed,” “Murder for the Money,” and “Eleven O’Clock.” Whatever the exact truth of the matter is, the end result was that Like Swimming would be a co-release from Dreamworks and Rykodisc, and the band would finish their Ryko contract by delivering two archival records for later release. Relations between Rykodisc and Morphine became extremely chilly from that moment onward.

When the album was finally released in March of 1997, the fan reception was positive— some of these songs were already live show favorites—but reviews were definitely mixed. The Chicago Tribune called it “strange, sensual, and slightly unsettling,” which is an example of the kind of measured language that was found even in the most positive reviews. Elsewhere, if critics weren’t focused on the major label angle, they were hitting the same old talking points about the band’s signature sound containing built-in limitations. Some did both in one fell swoop: “Fans of Morphine will likely sigh with relief to hear that the band’s move to a megalabel hasn’t changed its raunchy sax-bass-drums sound at all,” the CMJ review began. The band is then accused of becoming “too efficient” at what they do in the following sentence. Rolling Stone gave it 3/5 stars. Pitchfork, a website less than two years old at the time, saw founder Ryan Schreiber turning in a scorcher take-down that was so poorly written it’s one of a handful of deeply embarrassing reviews that has been entirely scrubbed from the publication’s history.17

The DreamWorks marketing budget was indeed substantial—large lightbox displays in several record store chains was a brand new level of visibility for the band, for instance—but sales were similar to Yes, and the more mainstream radio stations weren’t putting “Early to Bed” into their rotations. Someone at DreamWorks felt that a professional remix of the single might be the grease needed to slide the song into the mix.

At first, Sandman indulged the idea. He flew out to L.A. to work on a remix with the Dust Brothers, a producer duo that seemed to be able to bottle the mid-90s Zeitgeist upon command. Kolderie recalls Mark coming back from the trip complaining that nothing much had been accomplished, that they had just hung out for a couple of days, and worst of all, it added a significant amount of money to the band’s recoupment total at DreamWorks. “That weekend cost me $40,000!” Sandman humorously griped to Kolderie. By all accounts, the Dust Brothers treatment did not transform the song entirely, but it did alter the beat, add atmospheric samples, and generally nudge it closer to sounding like something Beck would have released at the time. We don’t know, exactly, because almost no one’s ever heard it. Mark hated the final product. He felt acquiring new fans via a sound that was not the true sound of the band was disingenuous, rejecting any plans made for its release. Deb Klein begged him, DreamWorks begged him, but he would not budge. The same artistic integrity that made Morphine appealing to DreamWorks was now, in their view, hindering the band’s success as well.

It didn’t matter. Everyone in Morphine wanted to be as successful as possible, of course, but above all, they were in love with and stayed true to their vision of music. “It was always about the songs,” Billy Conway recalls. “Look, Mark and I would not have been friends if it weren’t for both of our commitment to this music. You know, he was a hipster; I was not. I was pretty outdoorsy, and that wasn’t really his thing. You might have idiosyncrasies or be difficult sometimes, or you might wanna be in the limelight, but at the end of the day, the most important thing’s gotta be the music, and I never doubted that with Mark.”

This is all to say that Like Swimming is far, far better than its initial reviews indicated. Removed from its original context—e.g. the baggage of signing to a major label and the ‘how long can they keep this up?’ critic POV that grew in intensity with each release—this is, in broad terms, simply just one of Morphine’s five great, full-length records. It’s not their peak, most would agree, but a mountain can only have one peak, and it still needs everything below it in order to be a peak. Fans who discovered the band’s catalog years later, for instance, don’t usually have the kind of reaction to it that critics had in 1997 because they are largely unaware of that narrative; they simply hear more interesting songs by a band they love. For longtime fans, perhaps this reissue will allow you to hear it fresh again, as if it’s brand new to your ears, as if you’re swimming for the very first time.

It’s not as if Mark Sandman became an open book after settling into the comfortable confidence you hear on Like Swimming, but it was a highly notable change that bandmates Dana and Billy were slowly being let into the world he worked so hard to keep so private for so long. Even more notable may have been the fact that Mark was planning on putting down local roots with Sabine. With all of the Hollywood productions using Morphine’s music in their films, a move to the west coast would not have been too surprising around this time. It seems like there was something about the sum of everything Mark had been through—from his drifter days to his brutal familial tragedies to his terrifying taxi attack to his long, hard-fought road to musical success—that made him feel like he had earned his right to make his home base in Boston without anyone being able to accuse him of being inauthentic or a “never made it” townie.

MARK SANDMAN reads The Boston Globe.

It sounds almost beyond belief in the present moment, but in the 1990s alternative music world, fans cared about an artist’s perceived authenticity to a borderline extremist degree, punishing those they felt had sold out. When it came to Sandman’s age and upbringing—which his mother described as an “ordinary, rather privileged family life in Newton”—he worried it was all undiscovered matches for a fire that would burn everything down that he worked so hard to build up. How terrible would it be, for instance, if a popular consensus had developed that Mark had not earned the right to author and sing a song like “Cure for Pain”? Ironically, if Sandman had let everyone know all of the details of his life, no one would have the audacity to imply that he had not experienced just as much, if not far more, grief and pain than most.

So rather than trust the nuances of his personal history to audiences and journalists, Mark felt it might be better to just act like he didn’t have a past at all. Even his parents, who often seemed bewildered by their son’s choices, understood this.

     "He felt that was not the picture he wanted to present,

his mother wrote, commenting on his Newton childhood.

     "Considering the lifestyle he had chosen, this was understandable.

But for every step forward on this front, there was another step backwards. It’s been said that the DreamWorks staff were surprised—and not in a good way—when they learned that Mark was “on the wrong side of forty.” Local journalist Matt Ashare reported that the only time Sandman ever got upset at him was when he joked that he was going to find his high school yearbook to figure out his actual age. Pursuits to pinpoint this must have felt like they would potentially be used as another way to easily dismiss the band, just as their unique, unusual sound had been turned into a negative by the press over time.

Also, unlike Like Swimming, there was no question that the follow-up album would be released on a major label. DreamWorks had made a substantial investment in Morphine, and especially Sandman, and they were expecting a big return on that investment. You don’t deposit a gigantic check in your bank account without starting to feel some pressure to deliver the goods in a serious way.

By many accounts, Mark Sandman started to feel significant amounts of pressure around this time. It would all lead to complex shuffling around of the band’s lineup, the end of certain working relationships, and entire attempts at a fifth record that would be scrapped and shelved.

The sun was setting over
Central Square, Cambridge. 
It was getting dark out.

The night was on its way.

Ryan H. Walsh
Boston, MA, October 2021



1. Originally, Jerome Deupree, who was eventually replaced by Sandman’s old Treat Her Right bandmate, Billy Conway. Both unique, both great drummers. We’ll mostly focus on Conway here, but rest assured, we will return to Deupree in the liner notes for The Night.

2. Morpheus is sometimes depicted with his wings attached to his temples, like… a head with wings (see track 6 on Cure for Pain, also the name of Mark’s publishing company). Morpheus’ father is also sometimes depicted this way, too. His name was Hypnos, which is notably part of another Mark Sandman band name, Hypnosonics. Additionally, did you know that the classic 17th century “skull with wings” tombstone etching—the “death’s head” as it is sometimes called—is largely restricted to old Puritan graveyards in New England? The striking image was thought to evoke both “physical death and spiritual regeneration.” By the time graveyards were required further west in this country, the stone imagery had moved on to cherubs and crosses. A cemetery with plenty of “head with wings” gravestones could be found less than three miles from the house where Mark Sandman grew up.

3. Sandman also sometimes told journalists that Morphine’s music was “implied grunge,” which is a rare instance of being both abstractly accurate and hilariously nonsensical.

4. Once you’ve learned the details, you can’t help but spot the small references throughout his songwriting catalog. A lyric from the 1995 song “Radar,” for instance, takes on an entirely new meaning once you know that Mark’s brother, Jonny, was either pushed or fell out of a window—no one knows which—on March 4th, leading to his death.

5. In the spring of 1978, Sandman picked up two teenagers in Dorchester on a Sunday afternoon. One stabbed him in the chest, collapsing his lung, and took his cash, which totaled eight measly dollars. Bleeding and in shock, Mark radioed the cab company dispatch for help. Two years after he recovered, a serious problem arose when it was discovered that the taxi attack had put a hole in his diaphragm, a detail that makes Sandman’s later vocal performances all the more impressive. Dana Colley surmises that Sandman’s fondness for the vocal effect which made his voice sound like it was coming through a telephone traced back to the sound of the taxi dispatcher in his cab. Imagine the lyrics of “Super Sex” as a monologue Mark delivers through his taxi radio to a bewildered but entranced dispatcher on the other end of the line.

6. Sandman’s ability to sing about ordinary foods in sensual, intriguing ways is an underreported talent exhibited throughout the Morphine catalog. Behold and enjoy all the Caesar salads, angel food cakes, French fries, candy bars, fresh lime & mint, apples, grapes, and even a bowl of Combos. According to friends, Sandman was a talented chef and took great pride in his cooking.

7. The meaning of the name could almost, by itself, function as a description of Morphine’s entire collective output. Sandman’s concept of Lilah will significantly expand in importance on The Night.

8. Having a “Part III” on your album without parts I & II on the same LP is a pretty ingenious way of encouraging new listeners to go explore your back catalog.

9. The video was nominated for a Grammy!

10. Do I need to literally add “It’s like swimming” here, or is everyone locked in with me at this point?

11. There’s a few lines here that come off like they could be Mark’s interpretation of the hip hop trope of bragging about all of your fortunes. “I got buttons bursting in the air / I got apple orchards everywhere,” is the weirdest brag I’ve ever heard; I adore it.

12. Sabine notes: “Line Street divides Cambridge and Somerville (residents get a coveted parking permit for both cities). Not surprising that we would have found home on a street with two identities.”

13. Russ Gershon’s Accurate/Distortion label out of Boston originally released their debut, Good, in 1991, and Rykodisc re-released it in 1992.

14. The Rykodisc counterpoint comes from Jeff Rougvie: “[Mark] was implying Ryko hadn’t been able to get Morphine’s records into stores, but that’s not true.”

15. It certainly wasn’t Ostin’s first A&R trip to Massachusetts. In the early 70s, former Jug Band leader Jim Kweskin convinced Ostin to visit him at his new home—The Fort Hill Community, a cult led by Mel Lyman—to listen to the new direction his music had taken.

16. This account comes from Larry Katz’s published transcript of a 1997 interview with Mark Sandman on his website. Sandman’s “charade” explanation was off the record at the time, but Katz decided to include it in his 2014 posting. The Rykodisc version of the events is largely based on A&R man Jeff Rougvie’s memories of the time, published on his own website in 2015.

17.  In a quick assessment of the back catalog, Schreiber writes, “By the band’s third release, Yes, they were quickly becoming a No. And the weird stuff on side two was just plain bad.” Thought-provoking criticism. Why did they take this gold off the site?