The Boston Phoenix
September 21 - 28, 2000

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Morphine memories

A live album and another memorial show

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

More than a year later, Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley still can't believe it. That Colley hasn't fully come to terms with the sudden, tragic death of his friend and bandmate Mark Sandman, who collapsed a year ago July 3 while Morphine were on stage in Palestrina, Italy, is certainly understandable. But at the moment, that's not what's got Colley shaking his head in disbelief and even smiling slightly. It's a wind-whipped thunderstorm he's thinking about, the downpour that descended upon Cambridge without warning on an otherwise sunny July 25 afternoon, mere minutes before the first annual Mark Sandman Music Education Fund benefit concert was about to get underway.

"It was raining, it was thundering, it was lightning, there was sleet, there was hail at one point -- it actually hailed and this was in July. It was a bizarre day," Colley recalls over a Guinness at the Druid in Inman Square. "You just didn't think we were going to be able to pull it off, it was raining so hard -- harder than I think I've ever seen it rain in my life. It was Mark saying something. He was saying, `Hey, that's not the way the music's supposed to go -- lay out, play less.' Because he never passively participated in making music. He was always physically or vocally acting out the direction that he felt it should go, and I think that was true to form with the weather as well." Ninety minutes later, the weather being as moody and willful as Morphine's music, the rains abated and steel skies broke into clear blue.

It was -- and still is -- hard to resist interpreting the events of that afternoon as a symbol or an extension of the man whose life and work were being celebrated as a way to drown out the surreal silence that had hung like a shroud over Cambridge following his death. And there was more that could be read into the rain. "It was our tears coming down, really," remembers Deb Klein, Morphine's long-time manager. "Half of the time, I can't even believe he's gone because his music is still so present in my life. And it's weird not checking with him and talking with him about Morphine stuff."

Some 14 months later, Sandman's spectral presence remains. Klein says the band's watershed 1993 album, Cure for Pain (Rykodisc), still sells between 300 and 500 copies a week, and if the Morphine singer/bassist's former bandmates, friends, and fans have anything to say about it, his impact on the local -- not to mention international -- music community will be felt for years to come. This Tuesday, Morphine's first-ever live album, Bootleg Detroit (Rykodisc), a stirring document of the band as they stood on the cusp of fame during their 1994 "Cure for Pain" tour, will finally see the light of day (the release date, originally slated for last year, was postponed after Sandman's death). And this Sunday in Central Square, the second annual Mark Sandman Music Education Fund (MSMEF) Benefit Concert gets underway on Brookline Street (between Mass Ave and Franklin Street) with a who's who of Mark's musical peers and admirers, including Peter Wolf, Willie "Loco" Alexander, Orchestra Morphine, Treat Her Right, Catie Curtis, Jimmy Ryan, the Ray Corvair Trio, Mr. Airplane Man, Binary System, and Mickey Bones and the Hot Tamale Brass Band. Preceding the concert, at 3 p.m., a dedication ceremony will see the corner of Brookline Street and Mass Ave renamed Mark Sandman Square. There will also be a screening of Steven MacCorkle's Morphine documentary, At Your Service, and a raffle of Morphine memorabilia (the concert's free but contributions to benefit MSMEF are encouraged).

"Last year, we only had two weeks to pull everything together," says Klein, the MSMEF treasurer. "But this time, we knew we wanted to have the concert and the dedication on Mark's birthday [he would have been 48 years old on September 24]. . . . This is a nice way to commemorate his impact on Cambridge. He was a rock star, but he never went Hollywood on us."

Created last year as a tribute to Sandman's legacy, MSMEF is devoted to developing and supporting innovative approaches to music education for children in Cambridge by helping them explore their creative potential through a variety of programs, lectures, workshops, and music lessons. This year, MSMEF's pilot grant program will provide funds ranging from $500 to $1000 to schools, community centers, and individuals for a variety of music-related activities -- including the use of Hi-N-Dry, Sandman's loft and recording studio, for student recording projects. (For more information and guidelines, contact MSMEF at Box 382085, Cambridge 02238.)

Meanwhile, Colley and Morphine drummer Billy Conway are starting to sort out the future of their professional lives. For most of the past year, they've barely had time to breathe. Besides an extensive tour with Orchestra Morphine, the ensemble of friends and musicians that hit the road to support Morphine's final studio album, The Night (released by DreamWorks earlier this year), both men also recorded with their old friends in the Coots, a new band fronted by former Treat Her Right harpist Jim Fitting. (Conway, Fitting, and guest bassist Paul Kolderie were all in a college band together before Conway and Fitting went on to form Treat Her Right with guitarist David Champagne and Sandman). But now, they say they just want to decompress and figure out what to do next.

In touring with Orchestra Morphine, "we really wanted to honor the life of a great songwriter," says Conway over the phone from his New Hampshire home. "And in doing those things, we really kept ourselves so busy that there really wasn't time to think about what's next. And now is the time to think about what's next. On a personal level, you're dealing with all these issues, and in some ways being on the road is a distraction. It was really kind of a difficult time to think about your future. And musically, it's very difficult to talk about it, as far as where to go from here."

One thing seems certain: Colley and Conway will continue to work together. "I'm sure that when the dust has settled a little bit we'll record," says Conway. "What we'll be called I don't know. I'm sure we won't be called Morphine -- in fact, I can guarantee you we won't be called Morphine. Whether Orchestra Morphine carries on remains to be seen. But whatever happens, it'll have to be organic." Colley agrees: "We all love playing music together, so it's no question at this point that that will continue in one form or another. Part of what we did this past year with Orchestra Morphine was an attempt to try Mark's music, Morphine's music, in a setting outside of Mark's personae, his cult of personality, by allowing it to be heard live. It was, `This is the music, we're his friends, this is how we remember it to go.' "

Colley and Conway say that placing Sandman's songs within a new context -- expanding and reimagining the material -- was in keeping with what Mark himself had been exploring while shaping the orchestration and textural direction of The Night. Still, performing Morphine songs without that two-string bass rumble or that smokily sardonic, street-poet voice front-and-center was tough. "At times, you just -- you always miss Mark," Colley says of the experience. "Riding above everything was the fact that the guy whose music we're playing isn't here, and our good friend isn't here. And I often let myself daydream that he would get a real charge out of it if we had been rehearsing all this time and he could just walk up on stage, grab the mike, and start singing."

"Trying to teach the band how to play a good version of `Honey White' was not a fun experience," adds Conway.

And what of releasing future Morphine recordings? Sandman's habit of recording everything -- Morphine jams, demos, scattered ideas, not to mention the material he wrote for the Hypnosonics, one of his many ongoing side projects -- was local legend. Which recordings, if any, would be faithful to what Sandman might have wanted people to hear?

"It's hard to say," muses Colley. "There are a lot of variables, and they're still being worked out in terms of Mark's estate and that sort of thing. I would hate to see them [his recordings] get in the wrong hands. I would hate to see Mark's music exploited in a way that I know would be counter to what we were all trying to do with this band. But there are lots of Mark's songs that are his entirely, the majority of them. As far as Morphine goes, the chapter might be closed. It's a very, very complicated question."

Conway says he has no intention of holing up at Hi-N-Dry to riffle through the trunks and tapes of old Morphine memories. Instead, he wants to find a new, "healthier creative outlet. . . . I'm looking at 15 years of always having a tour coming up or a record coming out, and I have to entertain the thought of being a civilian again." Before that happens, however, he's got at least one more gig to play this Sunday. Will his old friend be on hand? "I don't know," says Conway with a knowing chuckle. "But this time I'm bringing an umbrella and a lawn chair."

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