I have a vague recollection of where I was when Kurt Cobain died. I can't honestly recall what I was doing when I heard Jeff Buckley had drowned. But I know exactly where I was, what I was doing and how deeply I was affected when I heard that Mark Sandman, the baritone-voiced frontman of '90s alt-rockers Morphine, had collapsed onstage in Italy and was later pronounced dead of a heart attack at the age of 46.
It was July of 1999 and I was driving back to San Diego from Wyoming with my mom. Unlike Cobain and even Buckley, Sandman's death wasn't newsy enough to be announced on radio or TV (note to youngsters, this was way before smartphones, and the Internet was still in its toddler stage). So I didn't know about Sandman's death until I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone at a gas station in order to pass the time. I was devastated. I wanted so bad to be back home where I could do some teenage shit like light a candle and play their albums all night.
When I was in high school, Morphine was mine. We all had that band growing up. The one whose t-shirt you wore proudly, content in the fact that almost none of your peers knew who they were. In a manner of speaking, I was a teenage Morphine addict.
Over a little less than a decade, they released four increasingly excellent albums with a unique musical configuration: saxophone and drums, with Sandman on vocals and a two-string slide bass guitar. The resulting music was moody, sexy, jazzy, noirish, bizarre, sometimes humorous, and certainly as anomalous now as it was then (their second album, Cure for Pain, is a great starting point for newcomers). Somewhere along the line, Sandman described the band's sound as "low-rock." The term stuck.
The reflectively analytical side of me likes to think that day in 1999 not only marked the passing of an underrated musical force, but also the death of my formative years. I loved many bands in those days, but none of them were as personally impactful than Morphine in shaping the way I heard and approached music. And just like that, they were gone.
"It's etched into all our minds, that day," says Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley, when asked about the death of Sandman. "The years go by and there are memorials and remembrances and we tell stories, but we continue on doing what we had been doing prior to that, but just, you know, without Mark."
Colley and original drummer Jerome Deupree have revisited the music of Morphine off-and-on over the years. There was Orchestra Morphine, a loose collection of Sandman's friends that was assembled to promote the band's posthumous fifth album, The Night. In 2009, Colley and Deupree formed Members of Morphine with singer and bassist Jeremy Lyons in order to play the Nel Nome Del Rock Festival in Palestrina, Italy, the same location where Sandman had died 10 years before. The band did a few more gigs and started to notice that fans' love for the music hadn't abated.
"Early on, we were sort of sticking to the typical versions," Deupree says. "We always knew we weren't just trying to sound like Morphine, and slowly but surely weíve been able to really put a new stamp on things."
Members of Morphine has morphed into Vapors of Morphine. The band's new album, A New Low, is a concise collection of blues covers and revisited Morphine material. When a band decides to reunite without its original frontman, it can sometimes come across like a cash-grab (see: Sublime with Rome or the more recent Prophets of Rage). But for Vapors of Morphine, it's important to remember that the original band never sold millions of records or sold out arenas. Talking to Colley and Deupree, I get the sense that they still truly love playing this music, and in the case of Vapors, they're free to create new music without sullying the original band's legacy.
"It was difficult at first to do Sandman's stuff, but that two-string bass, I've always loved the sound of it," says new frontman Lyons, who cut his chops as a New Orleans street musician before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts after Hurricane Katrina. "The singing part is a lot harder. He had a much deeper voice than I did and also smoked a couple packs of cigarettes a day."
Lyons goes on to emphasize that, while he's ostensibly filling in for Sandman, Vapors of Morphine should be seen as a new experience altogether. Sure, old fans like me will delight in hearing songs such as "Sheila" and "The Other Side" revisited and reexamined, but for Colley and Deupree, the new band isn't an exercise in nostalgia. It's more an affirmation of a proud musical legacy that, for them, still warrants exploration and experimentation.
"I always talk about the sounds kind of like a combination lock where you have three possibilities in numbers, but pretty infinite combinations," says Colley. "We are fortunate enough in that we are able to do it in short bursts and people kind of get it. There's something about being in front of an audience and playing music from Morphine that people haven't heard in years. It's very gratifying."
Vapors of Morphine play October 20th at The Casbah