The Night by Morphine
Liner notes originally written for Light in the Attic Records' 2023 vinyl reissues
by Ryan H. Walsh
The show always started something like this:
they’d walk out on stage, Mark would toss out a quick, “Good evening, everybody.” The crowd would cheer. Then he’d begin to do counterintuitive things, like introduce Billy and Dana up front, something almost all band leaders hold until near the end of the show. Then he’d list how many songs they were going to play that night, also not usual. “We’ve prepared 20 songs for you tonight, with several encores.” Except that this was just a plant for a joke you’d get later in the evening, as the band was never going to exit the stage and then return for those encores, as one would expect. No, Sandman was just going to start announcing the last couple of songs as “Encore #1,” “Encore #2,” etc. After he got this all out of the way, he’d raise his voice slightly louder and become the MC for his own band, bellowing, “Ladies & Gentlemen, from Boston, MA, we are Morphine, at your service.”
Often times, by the end of that sentence—especially in the last few years of the 90s—the crowd was cheering so loudly you sometimes didn’t quite hear the end of it.
There was so much joy in the Morphine live show, and audiences and the band alike were getting plenty of it; the amount of touring that happened after the release of Like Swimming was substantial. But back home at 288 Norfolk Street, in Mark Sandman’s loft, a struggle was blossoming. The band was disappointed and annoyed by the critical response to Like Swimming— accusations that it all sounded the same, that there was nothing left to explore with just bass, drums, and saxophone—and Sandman was determined to prove them all wrong. He was also hellbent on turning in an album to his new major label, DreamWorks, which stayed true to his artistic vision but also sold plenty of records. High artistic expectations are one thing, pressure to please a major label is another. The idea of achieving them both at once, simultaneously, is a proposition that would make almost any songwriter feel a little anxious.
“Most bands,” a frustrated Sandman said to Billy and Dana, “don't have to reinvent their sound for every album.” Tape was rolling. It was always rolling. Morphine was setting out to discover and capture the dark essence of The Night.
From the beginning, Sandman wanted to produce the album himself. In fact, he was temporarily under the impression that there would be no problem if he did so. DreamWorks informed him otherwise, presenting him with a list of name producers he should choose from. Almost all of them were based in Los Angeles. Many of them had recently worked with Beck. Then he saw two names he recognized, and they were local. The band had worked with Paul Kolderie for all four of their previous albums, but Paul was also part of a producing duo with Sean Slade, and the two of them as a pair were considered a hot, reliable choice based on their 90s track record including seminal albums from the Uncle Tupelo, Radiohead, Hole, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.1 Choosing them meant they’d get to make the album in Boston with trusted allies in familiar locales.
“He took the path of least resistance,” Sean Slade says, “and hired us figuring we’d just sit back and let him do what he wanted to do.” However, the topic of what precisely Sandman wanted to do was a bit of a question mark, even to himself. “I don't think he could have articulated what it was he was after,” Billy Conway told The Boston Phoenix in hindsight. “He just sort of knew what he didn't want. It was like, the first four records were one aspect of the band, and then this record was going to be the beginning of the next phase.” This tracks on all levels, from the completion of the four elements cycle, to the new record label’s expectations, and as a reactionary move based on the confusing reviews of their recent output.
“We were surprised by the vehemence of the negativity,” Paul Kolderie recalls about what started to happen with Yes onwards. “They were so in love with the other records, you know, I was like,
'"Really? We give you another awesome Morphine record, and you're upset that it sounds like Morphine?'
People want you to deliver the same thing that you're delivering but in some sort of different way.” If that last sentence sounds like a Zen riddle, it’s because it basically is—there is no recipe for this kind of artistic conundrum that tells you how many new and old elements to sprinkle into the pot. It can be a madness-inducing thing to consider at all, which is why, as Kolderie previously explained, it can be much easier to hit creative jackpots when no one is looking.
Everyone talks about DreamWorks’ influence, or attempted influence, as a kind of ghostly presence. Most of those involved rarely heard what was said directly, but they could see the results of it manifesting everywhere in the Morphine camp. “The Hollywood guys,” as multiple people involved referred to them, seemed to have Mark’s ear. Billy Conway recalls early on knowing they were going to be dispensing bad advice when one exec told the band, “We gotta get you guys out on the dance floor!” Conway says, “and I’m thinking, have you ever heard us? Do you know what we do?”
“They wanted the next Beck,” Colley succinctly explains, “They were really hard to please and never satisfied. It was the first time in our career that we had to have someone else’s approval. They were looking to take the band up a notch, and they were looking to do it with Mark. They saw that he wrote 99% of the songs and just looked at us as the other guys in the band.”2 To Sandman’s credit, he did not flee to the West Coast and let them plug him into other sets of musicians, but he did bring some of the mentality into the mix in Boston. One of the first things they tried was having other drummers come in and play a bunch of the new songs to hear who sounded best. Sean Slade didn’t think this was a great use of time, noting, “and then Billy came in to be one of the guys… like auditioning. But Billy is just about as selfless as one can be, and he was fine. He just came in and played on a couple of tracks.”
“Every day, we would have a different drummer come in,” assistant engineer Matthew Ellard recalls. “These were players that were the crème de la crème of the Boston music scene and beyond.” As this went on, Colley recalls spending hours and hours with Conway in the driveway outside Hi-N-Dry, trying to keep it all from falling apart. “I want to quit.” Billy would say. “Mark’s forcing me out.”
“Just stick with it,” Colley told him. “Stick with it. We’re a band. We’ve got to stick together.”
Conway’s present-day assessment of this mess goes beyond diplomacy; it feels almost Buddhist in nature. “I don’t blame anyone,” Conway says. “I think everybody was searching, and nobody was finding what they wanted. It was just not coming together. For all of us, it might have been the first time where we’re like, ‘Holy shit, we’re not pulling this off.’” He also cites factors that are rarely mentioned, like the cumulative rigors of endless touring and how detrimental the life of a working musician can be for close, stable relationships with friends and family. “There may have been a kind of reckoning going on for everyone,” he says in summation.
The whole team—Morphine, Kolderie, Slade, and assistant engineer Matthew Ellard—began work at Hi-N-Dry, Mark’s loft, but soon, the producing team were campaigning to get back to Fort Apache. “God damn it, it’s a major label record,” Slade recalls saying. “We can’t be making demos, pretending we’re being creative here.” Sandman eventually acquiesced; the project was moved over to Edmunds Street where Like Swimming had been done. By all accounts, this is where some fruitful work started to happen. In fact, large parts of an album with a completely different set of songs were recorded to varying levels of completion at this time.
Sandman had always kept things very casual during recording sessions, but Kolderie was forced to explain to him that, in a way, those days were over. “On previous records, Mark would just have his friends drop by the studio to play a part here and there, maybe toss ’em a few bucks,” Kolderie recalls, “but now with DreamWorks involved, I had to tell him that he needed to pay all of these musicians at scale. They couldn’t just drop by.” Meanwhile, Dana Colley was coming into sessions with ideas for parts he had worked on at home. Whenever he played them for the team, Mark would go wash dishes. “He became a knee-jerk naysayer,” Slade says. “It didn't matter what we said. He would say no.”
Meanwhile, Sandman was coming up with off-kilter ideas that were inspired but by no means appropriate for the final product everyone knew they needed to deliver. Slade recalls one idea was to have all of side two of the record be a radio drama.
“Like, with dialogue and sound effects?” Slade asked.
“Yes,” Sandman said. “I could write the script.”
“Listen, that sounds like a cool idea,” Slade explained, “but I really doubt the DreamWorks guys will go for that.”
The new label deal being the reason behind so many “no’s” was unmistakable.3 It must be extraordinarily difficult to blame creative roadblocks on a record label that has just handed you an enormous check and is telling you that you're a genius, and so it seems that Sandman was trying to blame every other variable as the possible problem, one being that he felt he wasn’t getting his money’s worth from Kolderie and Slade. Kolderie recalls working on rough mixes over a weekend while the band played a concert in Detroit. Upon returning, Sandman took the DAT tape of the rough mixes and labeled it “CRAPPY FORT ROUGH MIXES.”4 During the next session, Mark said something cutting to Kolderie, finally setting off the tensions that had been building for weeks. They both exploded. “It started about music,” Ellard says, “and then got very personal.” Slade recalls thinking they were going to get into a fist fight. “Me and Matthew Ellard actually ran away. We ran and hid in the lounge and waited until it blew over.” Eventually, Sandman departed, slamming the door behind him.
Morphine promotional photo taken by Danny Clinch. (left to right) Mark Sandman, Sana Colley and Billy Conway.
Wall of tapes at Hi-N-Dry.
"You had to choose your battles,” Colley told WBUR in 2012. “We bumped heads. And Mark would say, 'Gee, I don't think I can work with someone who feels this way about me.' And I would say, 'Well, Mark, I wouldn't say anything if I didn't love you.' And he would pace around, blow off some steam, and that would be the end of it."
But that’s not what happened when Kolderie and Sandman collided. The next morning, Mark returned with band manager Deb Klein. It was the end of Mark and Paul’s long friendship and remarkably fruitful working relationship.
“I'll be honest here,” Matthew Ellard says regarding the abandoned version of the fifth album. “It sounded awesome. It didn’t sound like any Morphine record before it.” There are indications of what exactly was lost in the fallout to consider, specifically these three tracks from the posthumous Mark Sandman Sandbox box set: “Tomorrow,” “Patience,” and “Cocoon.”5 All in all, it seems like something poppier, slightly brighter, and more accessible was taking shape at Fort Apache. Dana Colley’s memory is that DreamWorks heard these songs and lightly rejected them, saying something along the lines of, “Nope, we’re not there yet.” Whether the direction they pursued next was a reactionary pivot away from that sound or a new, inspired vision for artistic growth—or both—it too would sound nothing like what the band had ever created before.
Do you know Sheila? Brenda? Ever met Ramona? How about her sister? Anita, Brenda, Candy, Claire? Mary? You can’t forget Mary. Honey, her tragic fate still known to all? We met Priscilla, Mary Ellen, and Jane at a party once. Recently there was Martha Lee, and above all, there was Lilah.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary male songwriter, Sandman wrote and sang about women, by name, again and again, in ways that were interesting, complex, and transcended the traditional rock music tropes of “Wow, I really want that girl!” or “Gee, I really miss that girl!” Consider the partial list above compared to the amount of male names that appear in Morphine songs. There’s Pete—whose only motivation is to eat snacks—and… uh, that’s about it.6 Every other male that’s name-checked is a famous artist: Al Green, Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis.
“He wanted to speak to women,” Deb Klein says, “and so by naming them, he's speaking to them. But they're more like an archetype than an actual person.”
“He wrote so many songs about women that were empowering, celebrating their intelligence or their power,” Sabine Hrechdakian, Mark's girlfriend, explains, “and I think he admired all those qualities in women.” When it came to opinions on his music, it was also women’s reactions that mattered most to Mark, almost exclusively at times. Dana Colley recalls, “When he was working on a new song, he would play it for small groups of people, and he concentrated on watching the women and their reactions really closely. If their foot was tapping, if they were into it, or if they lost interest. He wanted to know how his music was affecting women.”7
In one song from the Sandbox set titled “Goddess,” Mark takes this even further, referencing the despicable conditions for women in the current culture and the eventual fate that awaited men. “For a thousand years women had to walk the streets in fear / There goes the men bullying the women as he walks through life / I'll tell you someday brother, the Goddess will return / On that day brother / You are gonna burn / You are gonna burn.”
It’s interesting to consider where Sandman learned and fostered this outlook. Certainly the culture of the 1990s was far worse than today when it came to culturally accepted misogyny, so Mark's point of view was in opposition to the norms, broadly speaking. Sabine wonders if his years of traveling, especially in Brazil, played a significant role. Looking back, she finds his stance prescient and ahead of its time.8 “He was in awe of women’s power—reverential, even.”
In the same way people found Mark Sandman to be mysterious, Sandman himself found women —all women—to be endlessly mysterious and fascinating in a way that only expanded over time. In what would become the title track and opening song of his final album, Mark synthesized this view down to some of his most beautiful lyrics:
You're the night, Lilah
You're everything that we can't see
Lilah, you're the possibility
You're the bedtime story
The one that keeps the curtains closed
And I hope you're waiting for me
'Cause I can't make it on my own
I can't make it on my own
Remember when Mark Sandman wanted to produce the album himself back at the beginning of this story? The fallout and firing of Kolderie and Slade now made this a possibility, if not the obvious choice. Matthew Ellard, the assistant engineer at Fort Apache, had been a neutral party in the conflict, and so Sandman enlisted his help to prepare his home Hi-N-Dry studio to capture songs suitable for release on a major label. “Mark bought a 1-inch 16-track, a crappy console, and some nice microphones,” Ellard recalls, “and we basically filled up his loft. That was an awesome space. I used to love going up there… It was just very vibey and hip, especially for Boston at the time.” By the time Ellard was finished, Sandman was in a position to easily roll tape at any time.
In the search for alternate or additional drummers, the name Jerome Deupree had come up. Deupree was Morphine’s original drummer, performing on the first two albums and touring up through the release of Cure for Pain.9 “I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t stay,” Deupree says about his initial exit from the band. Not only did he sometimes have tense disagreements with Sandman, but he also had a desire to stop being around alcohol every night, so a robust touring schedule was not a part of his desired future. But Deupree and Sandman’s disagreements had cooled over the years, and there was no doubt he was a fantastic drummer. “Jerome is world class, I mean it,” producer Sean Slade said. “He literally can do anything.”
“I knew I could spark him,” Deupree says about the idea of possibly making music with Sandman again. “I always had that ability. Our personalities work musically, but we had a hard time communicating beyond that.
“So I went in [to Hi-N-Dry], and it was just kind of Mark and I, and it just felt bad. I knew Billy was being put through the wringer, and I knew it wasn’t his fault. So I kind of said, ‘Look, let's do this with everybody. Billy and I will do the whole thing together.’ And that was what we did.”
It is a tremendous irony that a project that, at times, looked like it would feature new primary players, if not Mark being backed by entirely different bands in Los Angeles, had now circled around to include every member of Morphine, past and present, playing together in tandem.
With Jerome and Billy side by side, things started to come together again. Dana Colley recalls it as the turning point. “It got a lot easier from that point out. It was like, ‘Ok, we can do this.’”
“We set up our kits so close together that we could reach across each other's kit,” Conway remembers. “I could hit his ride cymbal or his floor tom. He could reach over, hit my hi-hat or a snare drum. So on that song ‘Like a Mirror,’ to this day, we can’t quite tell who’s doing what.”
But Jerome quickly noticed this wasn’t at all like the way the band used to record their albums. “On both the other records,” he says, “the band knew the songs and had been playing them live. Whereas this was really going in and just jamming around these ideas. Mark might have had a sketch of a song, and we would come up with an arrangement and then play it forever. I remember just playing and playing, going around and around the arrangement. Then Mark would go back through the tape and find the section that he liked the best and build on top of that.”
This is why, for example, “A Good Woman Is Hard To Find” fades in and out, as if it had been going on long before what you hear and that it continued long after the track ended (because it did!). Dana recalls Sandman telling him, “there was no point in turning off the machines because he was just going to turn them back on in a little while." Deupree recounts one session where he began warming up with a spontaneous drum pattern, soon joined by Billy. Sandman came running from the other side of the loft, hit record, and began playing bass. “I didn’t have headphones on, so I couldn’t even hear him,” Deupree says. That moment became track two on the record, “So Many Ways.”
If there is one song on The Night that’s a throwback to the celebratory, party atmosphere of Like Swimming, it’s “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer,” which also might be the Sandman composition that’s most literally evocative of Boston and New England (outside of “A Head with Wings,” of course). When anyone from the Boston area hears the lyrics, “We're goin' to a party, our friends will all be there / I got the directions, it's across the river somewhere,” they know exactly what “across the river somewhere” means. If you live in Cambridge or Somerville, across the river—the Charles River—would be somewhere in downtown Boston, Jamaica Plain, or Allston-Brighton, and vice versa. Even though the maximum distance between destinations would be around 8 miles, crossing the river is sometimes, amusingly, built up as if you are about to take an international flight. If you’re “crossing the river” for a party, it better be good.
The directions to get into the party— “Top floor, bottom buzzer / The middle won't work / Ring the one under”—are very much the kind of thing you’re often told when visiting a friend living at a classic New England “triple-decker.”10
Especially before cell phones became ubiquitous, it was common for a top floor friend to shout down to you on the sidewalk with instructions about how to get buzzed in, just like Mary Ellen does in the song.
Linda Viens, a friend of the band who also sings back-up on “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer,” recalls that the lyrics were sweetly accurate about the kind of soirées Sandman would throw. “His loft was just this legendary, unbelievable gathering spot,” she says, “and he would just sit like a king watching and enjoying it all. He wouldn't try to make the scene, you know, you just went to him. You just looked for the darkest, smoke-filled corner of the room, and there he was.” Manager Deb Klein adds, “He literally lived on the top floor and it was the bottom buzzer.”
By late 1998, Sandman was firing on all cylinders; the band completed a short tour of Portugal in October; then, in November ’98 alone, Morphine began the month headlining Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, continued daily tracking of new songs back at the loft, brought in Mike Rivard and Brahim Fribgane to perform their impressive parts on “Rope On Fire,” and Sandman even tested out three new songs live with Club d’Elf at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge just days before everyone would break for Thanksgiving holiday.
It was around this time that band members started to notice unusual moments with Sandman that would later, in hindsight, seem to function as early indications of serious exhaustion and poor health. Colley remembers picking Sandman up in front of 1369 Coffee House one morning: “When we pulled up in the car, Mark was coming out, and he came over to the driver’s side, and he was kind of shaking a little bit. He looked like he’d been up all night.”
Paul Kolderie had even noticed it before their fight: “Mark would never address health problems. He literally would say things to me like, ‘Well, if I feel sick, I just tell myself that I'm not sick.’ He didn’t like doctors and would rarely see one.”
Jerome Deupree recalls one moment being notable because of the unusual warmth on Sandman’s part. “I remember at one point during the recording, he came over to me and gave me a big, awkward hug, you know, with just one arm around the shoulder. I didn't really respond. I was able to acknowledge that internally even if I didn't acknowledge it externally.” Deupree gets emotional recalling the moment: “I was just glad to be playing music… and helping out friends.”
When fans, critics, and even those close to the band talk about the story of making The Night, they sometimes mention how they were feeling pressure to create radio-friendly recordings. There is no question Sandman was under both self-imposed pressure and dealing with expectations from the new label, but when you listen to the finished album, outside of “Bottom Buzzer,” there is nothing that remotely sounds like a songwriter going for radio play whatsoever. In fact, The Night comes off as willfully strange and dark—like trance music for barflies, like slow dance numbers for angels, like deep amber honey sliding down an incline. “I think at some point, maybe he gave up,” Jerome Deupree offers, “you know, and did the record he wanted to do.” It rings true. The Night sounds far more like a unique vision realized than an obligation completed.
Sandman and Matthew Ellard started to mix the record at the loft, but, as Ellard says, “the gear just wasn’t good enough, the room was not accurate enough.” Next, Sandman took the songs to The Magic Shop in Manhattan to mix it himself. “Everyone thought that was madness,” Ellard recalls, noting certain details of the kind of mixes Sandman would casually present during the making of Like Swimming. “Remember to make the snare drum loud enough!” Ellard called out to Sandman right before he left. He remembers Sandman turning around, smiling, and saying, “You’re the third person who told me that!” For better or worse, from start to finish, this album would be Mark Sandman’s full creative vision realized.
Upon his return, Dana and Mark sat in the loft and listened to the final mixes together.
“For the first time in many years, I saw Mark satisfied again,” Colley says. “He was like, ‘Okay, we did it. This is the record. This is it.’ He was happy with the results.
So we went off to tour, and everything was pretty rosy. I think there was a huge weight lifted. We felt like we had turned a corner, and now we could do anything.”
Colley tries to put it all into perspective: “It was a tough part of our career, a tough part of our relationship—it was fraught with struggle —but some beautiful music came out of it.” And there’s no question that this is all true; the album opener, “The Night,” is among the very best, hauntingly beautiful songs the band ever produced. When Deb Klein listens to it, she hears Mark’s greatest love song, a towering tribute to the love of his life, Sabine: “Lilah, you’re my only home / and I can’t make it on my own.”
The album was set to be mastered late summer, but first, the band had a two-week tour of Europe booked for July. They played one last hometown show, an outdoor headlining set at the Central Square World’s Fair in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, June 6, 1999.11 In less than two months, that same square would be named after Mark. Two weeks before the tour, Sabine, in hindsight, believes Mark suffered a minor heart attack while sitting together on their couch at the loft. The pain and shortness of breath passed quickly, and Sandman assured her it was probably just indigestion.
On Tuesday, June 29th, the day before the band would depart for Europe, engineer Matthew Ellard was supposed to have an evening drink with Sandman to discuss possible directions for the next album. “He was thinking about utilizing technology, maybe some programming and stuff like that,” Ellard says. “But earlier that day, totally coincidentally, I bumped into him at Harvard Square around noon.” Ellard was worried that Mark didn’t look well, telling him they’d catch up once he returned from tour, a decision he soon regretted.12
On July 3, 1999 Mark Sandman collapsed onstage in Palestrina, Italy during the middle of a Morphine show—the 7th song, “Super Sex.” The audience watched, stunned into utter silence, as he was taken away to the hospital. From the ER parking lot, Billy and Dana watched through a window as a doctor pulled a sheet up over Mark’s body. He was gone.
Morphine performing at Central Square's World Fair on June 6, 1999.
Photos by Lana Z. Caplan.
Waves of chaos and grief followed. One by one, loved ones in the States were notified. “It took a few minutes for the impact of this catastrophe to sink in,” Mark’s mother, Guitelle, wrote in her memoir. “It was too much to accept. But then we had to get mobilized for what had to be done. Unfortunately, we knew all too well what was involved since this was our third son who had died, the third awful death with which we had to deal.” Getting a body back to America was complicated and confusing, especially since it was all happening around the 4th of July, when many offices and services were closed for the holiday. Guitelle Sandman remembered the frustration of finding out that the American Embassy in Rome was closed because everyone who worked there was from the U.S.
Once Sandman’s body finally arrived back in the United States, the funeral was arranged to take place in Sharon, MA. Mark’s parents, surviving sister Martha, and Sabine watched as his casket was lowered into the ground. Mourners came from all over the world to pay their respects; Bob and Guitelle Sandman were overwhelmed to suddenly grasp how much their son’s music and presence had meant to so many. Others told them things they already knew: “Even at the funeral, no one said he was easy,” she recalled. “He was his own person, often self-centered, and always driven by his passions.” Producer Paul Kolderie was there too, explaining, “I should have made up with Mark. So I went to the funeral to not be estranged from my friends and to make up with Dana and Billy, to say 'I'm sorry.' They understood." As people slowly made their way out of Sharon Memorial Park, Dana Colley and Russ Gershon performed Mark’s song “Bo’s Veranda” near the gravesite.
“We were most surprised after he died,” Bob Sandman explained in 2011’s Cure for Pain documentary, “when all the magazine and newspaper articles poured forth, lauding his career, about which we knew little.” Mark had often criticized his parents for not listening to his music, but now Guitelle couldn’t stop.
“I played his CDs over and over and, for the first time, got into what he was trying to do and heard his words and thereby his thoughts.”
Their conflicted relationship was now wholly replaced by grief over his absence.
Seeing the dates on Mark’s brothers’ gravestones led to a revelation for Dana Colley. Through Morphine, in a very real way, Mark had recreated the brotherhood that was taken away from him. “I felt that Billy and I became his surrogate brothers after he lost Jonny and Roger. They were both about Billy’s age and my age.” Jonny even played saxophone. Colley recalls Sandman once offering his brother’s instrument to him; Colley kindly demurred, saying he preferred to play his own.
Sandman’s stubborn, determined drive to succeed, it turns out, had all been born out of a calling to make the most out of his life after his brothers had lost theirs at such tragically young ages. “When you suffer a lot of loss in a family,” Sabine explained in 2011 to filmmaker David Ferino, “the impulse is to self-pity or self-mythologize, or to just give in to the sorrow. He sort of had the opposite reaction. It puts into relief the fact that you're alive. You're alive. What are you gonna do?”
Mark Sandman memorial at Middle East on July 25, 1999.
When all was said and done, when the shock transformed into an accepted reality for all, Billy and Dana began taking action to get Mark’s final musical statement out into the world. “We did the mastering with Toby Mountain and came up with the artwork and the title,” Colley says. “The Night seemed pretty obvious to us.” Hope Zanes’ photo of a night-blooming cereus13 was selected for the cover art. Looking like a close-up, inverse reproduction of some part of the cover of their debut album, Good, this imagery— as well as Jerome Deupree’s return—closed the loop, making the Morphine discography neatly cyclical in nature. The beginning is the end. The end is the beginning. “You want to begin again,” Sandman sings in the closing song of The Night.
The record was finally released February 1st, 2000. If critics had grown accustomed to dragging the band for sounding like themselves in the years prior, there was now an about-face in progress. Alternative Press declared it a masterpiece. Most reviews noted the “expanded palette,” listing off cello, piano, and organ, seemingly unaware that these instruments had all made multiple appearances on previous Morphine records. “How long can they get away with this?” had now transformed into, “Makes you wonder where he would have gone next?” as the Spin magazine review concluded.
Dana and Billy created Orchestra Morphine, a nine-piece band14 assembled to play the music from The Night in a live setting and honor Sandman’s life and legacy. “We had each other to get through losing him,” said Conway of the new band comprised of friends. “Instead of blowing apart, we got closer.” Colley describes the tour that followed as a kind of extended funeral procession throughout the United States. “Within the first three gigs, the whole band just gelled,” Deupree says.
“It was really great to be there for that. But it was also tough; you'd go out to play, and people would be crying in the audience. And I'd be sort of like, ‘Yeah, it's the same up here.’”
But promotion for the band’s final, dark marvel was disappointingly scant, so when the tour arrived in Los Angeles, Dana and Billy requested a meeting with DreamWorks to ask for support.
That meeting was with—and this will likely be very surprising information to you—The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who was doing some A&R work for the label at the time. “Robbie was very kind. He brought us into his office, we sat down, and he gave us the talk, you know, letting us down easy.” Robertson was genuinely sympathetic, but the long and short of it was that the label had nothing for them outside of well wishes. Colley almost thinks the choice of Robertson for this news was strategic: “You're so stunned that you’re staring at Robbie Robertson that you don't quite hear them tell you the bad news.”
Even without the label’s support, Orchestra Morphine continued onward, culminating with a performance in Palestrina on July 3, 2000. Billy, Dana, and their friends walked back onto that stage and finished the show they started a year earlier with Mark. You can’t keep a good band from Boston down. In the two decades since Mark Sandman’s death, Morphine’s legacy had been somewhat marred by legal entanglements and record label red tape, but manager Deb Klein and Sabine Hrechdakian have recently taken over managing the estate seeing immediate, positive, tangible results. By preserving the band's archive, building a website and social media presence, and reviving relationships with record labels and sync departments, they have taken the initial steps to ensure that Mark and Morphine's legacy endures, evolves, and continues to be discovered by new listeners worldwide. Unlike a lot of music from the time period, Morphine’s records don’t sound dated or tethered to some bygone era. In particular, The Night now sounds ahead of its time, forward-thinking, bold, and surprising. This is what Sandman left behind; this is what this band still has to offer. It’s all still there when you need it.
In that way, Morphine still is, and always will be, at your service.
—Ryan H. Walsh
Boston, MA, October 2021
1. Kolderie recalls that when he was producing the Bosstones’ follow up to 1997’s Let’s Face It—which featured their massive single, “The Impression That I Get”—that the parking lot of the studio looked like a new car dealership. “Everyone had their ‘I made money’-car. I personally was driving a vintage ’65 Thunderbird. Once people are worrying about their next car payment, there are a lot of distractions. You’re much better off working in a kind of vacuum.”↩
2. It is difficult to imagine how someone could look at Morphine and not realize how there was something incredibly unique and powerful about the dynamic between these three specific players. As Les Claypool explains in the Cure for Pain documentary, “Billy and Dana and Mark together was amazing chemistry.”↩
3. Manager Deb Klein doesn’t agree with this assessment, noting, “The pressure to make the next record, he really put that on himself. So it wasn't coming from the label; DreamWorks had plenty of money. They weren't waiting… they got what they wanted when they signed the band. Which was integrity.”↩
4. Ironically, hilariously, tragically, take your pick—probably a little mix of all three—that sharpied diss of Sandman’s would become a key piece of evidence in a future law- suit. Mark’s negative assessment of the tape eventually worked in the band’s favor. Bizarre kismet.↩
5. Keen-eared listeners will note that some of the lyrics to “Cocoon” end up in the finished version of The Night in the song “Like a Mirror.”↩
6. We’re never told if the Devil has a gender in their multiple appearances in Morphine songs.↩
7. Before she became the band’s manager, Deb Klein recalls Mark frequently asking her for her opinion on everything from album art to song titles.↩
8. Speaking of Sandman being prescient, another part of Mark’s 1979 “Morpheus” short story, as referenced in the notes for Like Swimming, seems to predict the direction of American culture that would largely develop after Sandman’s death. If you didn’t know it had been written in 1979, you might think this was a comment on fame in the era of reality TV and viral social media notoriety:
“This country’s gone mad over fame. The impulse to create—art, music, literature—has been swallowed up by the desire to enter the lexicon, to become a household word… Taste is a national commodity, forced down one’s throat… It made Morpheus wonder if perhaps the impulse to create, that once noble and dedicated occupation of one’s energy, had become for many the simple desire for fame or notoriety.”↩
9. Conway is there from the very first record as well, by the way. He played percussion on a few songs from Good and Cure for Pain before taking up the position in full. The two drummers were good friends from the start and remained that way; none of the lineup changes resulted in bad blood of any sort between Jerome and Billy.↩
10. In the late 1800s, three-decker apartment houses sprouted up nearly ceaselessly in Massachusetts for decades as a kind of economical housing solution for the influx of immigrants arriving to work in area factories. Triple-deckers often have front porches and can feel much more like living in a home than a gigantic apartment building.↩
11. As someone who was lucky enough to be there, I can report that this show was a pure joy. The band was in top form. Everyone on and off stage seemed to be in a celebratory mood. A perfect final Cambridge show for their many local fans to remember them by; a recording of the full concert circulates online.↩
12. For every anecdote about someone noting Mark’s poor health, whether in the moment or in hindsight, you have to remember all of the completely contradictory signs he presented on stage around this time. During Morphine live shows, Sandman came off as super powerful and vibrant, flowing with energy. In this way, it becomes patently unfair to retroactively assemble any set of “what ifs?” or “I should haves” and suggest that it was all avoid- able. It’s human nature—people do this all the time when confronted with the loss of a loved one—but it can be particularly, doubly painful for the grievers when it’s a public figure and strangers engage in this kind of conjecture as well.↩
13. “The flowers are short-lived, and some of these species bloom only once a year, for a single night.” - Cacti & Succulents, Sterling Publishing Company, 1997↩
14. The other seven members being Christian McNeill, Laurie Sargent, Jerome Deupree, Russ Gershon, Tom Halter, Evan Harriman, and Mike Rivard.↩