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During the first weeks of 1993, Pixies frontman Black Francis unceremoniously ended his band via fax, leaving the mantle of Massachusetts’s most beloved college band temporarily vacant.
The Kim Deal-led Breeders were logical successors, but the scene had a fairly stacked roster with Buffalo Tom, The Lemonheads, and Dinosaur Jr. all releasing new material that year. Meanwhile, a steely-eyed, magnetic prophet emerged from Cambridge with a homemade two-string bass and one of the area’s most singular bands behind him.
That year, Boston-based band Morphine perfected a precise formula of jazz-informed cool and bluesy punk to briefly inspire an international fervor.
The band mournfully concluded with 2000’s “The Night” a year after frontman Mark Sandman’s sudden passing mid-performance, but their nocturnal sound arguably solidified with 1993’s “Cure For Pain.”
For the local crowd, “Pain” was more than a hometown hit; it embodied a Boston nightlife that critics and outsiders didn’t believe existed. It was as unbridled as a collision of bodies at The Model around last call, as introspective as a long walk home across the Mass Ave. Bridge after midnight, yet “Pain” was completely untethered from any other sound in the scene at the time.
“That was the best batch of songs [Mark Sandman] wrote for a record,” producer Paul Q. Kolderie says. “He was just really on fire right around then; every song that came out was another winner.”
“'Cure For Pain' just loudly announces that it is a classic,” author and Hallelujah the Hills frontman Ryan H. Walsh adds. “It doesn’t lean into any of the things about the ‘90s that stand out and say, ‘oh, this is from the ‘90s.’ The production and the very structure of the band itself kind of flew in the face of what was popular and cool or trendy.”
As far as its creators are concerned, the era surrounding Pain was one of triumph, loss, fatigue, and a continued effort to be effortlessly in the moment.
Colley, Sandman, and drummer Jerome Deupree began playing as Morphine in 1989, but the group’s unorthodox sound had roots long before they got together.
“We were all really old friends,” Kolderie says. “By the time we got to “Cure For Pain,” we had already made one record together and I had made numerous records with all the people involved.”
Morphine’s tangled web of scene friendships began in the early ‘80s with The Sex-Execs, a cheeky new wave act featuring Deupree on drums and Kolderie on bass. Colley was playing saxophone in the more subtly-named Three Colors, which Kolderie produced an album for before they split in 1988. Out of all of their priors though, Sandman’s Treat Her Right had the most promise, simultaneously foreshadowing Morphine’s sound to come.
“Mark had nine lives, so when he first got to Boston, it took him a while to find his footing,” Kolderie says. “When he fell in with the Treat Her Right people, that voice was there all of a sudden.”
With a driving blues sound highlighted by Sandman’s “low guitar” bass style and lyrics pulled from his vagabonding across North and South America, Treat Her Right released three albums and scored a deal with RCA Records before disbanding on the heels of Morphine’s debut, “Good” in 1992.
“Back then, we were all just striving,” Kolderie adds. “We were all just trying to come up. We made a previous record that was good, literally called “Good,” but I think we were determined to beat it.”
Production on “Cure for Pain” was spread over a brief two weeks at Kolderie’s revered Fort Apache Studio in Cambridge, but days into recording, Morphine’s lineup experienced a shake-up.
According to Kolderie, Deupree quit because of tension with Sandman coupled with some health issues keeping him from extensive touring. Deupree says he saw the recording as a “favor” to record a demo tape of the songs they’d been working on. Recording was happening at such an expedited clip, Deupree’s replacement, ex-Treat Her Right drummer Billy Conway, would only have to play on three songs for the record.
Whether it was their focus or confidence as a trio, “Pain” had already began generating hype before basic tracks were even finished. Kolderie’s girlfriend, then a publicist for Warner Music subsidiary Rykodisc, took a cassette of unfinished mixes to the label after overhearing Paul working on the record. Rykodisc signed Morphine on the strength of the cassette, going as far as to reissue “Good” ahead of “Pain.”
“We went to another studio called Q Division,” Kolderie adds. “I put on the tape, started playing ‘Buena’, and people were running into the control room like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ You notice when these things happen.”
Morphine’s slow rise was both word-of-mouth and a product of the band’s constant tinkering sonically. Sandman’s storytelling had become more direct in the year since “Good,” revealing vivid accounts of adultery (“Thursday”), strung-out vices (“Cure For Pain”), and self-doubt (“I’m Free Now”). Colley had mastered a kind of sax showmanship that anchored a song’s melody while flashily playing two saxophones at once live. In the shift from Deupree to Conway, Morphine had been blessed with two drummers that had years of experience playing off of Sandman and Colley.
“I’m very proud to be a part of it,” Deupree says. “If people know me as a drummer outside of Boston, it’s because of 'Cure for Pain.'”
As much as the album stands as a group effort, some of its most resonant moments come from the insular recordings from Hi-n-Dry, Sandman’s Cambridge loft/studio.
With a seemingly endless array of anonymous lineups and musicians coming by to pitch in, Sandman’s private output was a precursor to the eclectic lo-fi producers of the Bandcamp age, hitting record as soon as inspiration struck. The record’s atmospheric album closer, “Miles Davis’ Funeral,” simply came about when Sandman and percussionist Ken Winokur were rolling tape on the day of the jazz icon’s burial. More fully-formed loft experiments like the crystalline, mandolin-plucked centerpiece “In Spite of Me” ultimately inspired Kolderie’s self-described “let’s fu**ing do this” attitude in the studio.
“We were just trying wild things,” Kolderie adds. “There was one mix of ‘A Head With Wings’ where I had the sax track routed to a wah-wah pedal underneath the console and I was literally playing the wah-wah pedal live while we were mixing the song. I don’t think I did that with anyone else.”
“Cure For Pain” was released on September 14, 1993, kicking off an expansive tour across the globe. The album received an early cosign in the form of multiple songs being featured in director David O. Russell controversial 1994 hit “Spanking the Monkey.” Fittingly though, Morphine picked up the most steam from late-night television appearances, entertaining Conan O’Brien, Jools Holland, and, most notably, Beavis & Butthead.
“It seemed to snowball and it was worldwide,” Colley says. “We were working a lot, so we never got a chance to just stop and take inventory. We were on the road, like, nine months of the year traveling around the world, going from one place to the next, and just repeating it.”
Despite their globetrotting successes, Morphine kept a fairly low profile once they eventually returned to Boston, earning a restrained sort of respect from locals that seemed to suit the reserved band.
“That’s why I loved to come back to Boston: it didn’t change,” Colley adds. You saw your friends, they were like, ‘where have you been for the last couple weeks?’, ‘oh, well, we were on tour,’ ‘oh, welcome back.’ Nothing changes, nobody looks at you differently, and you could slip right back into playing little bars with your friends.”
“There’s nothing that I loathe more than rock stars who are big time people when they’re talking to me. To find he was the antithesis of that was such an awesome addition to his talent,” Walsh says about his brief encounter with Sandman in the ‘90s. “He was easy to talk to, but clearly, he also cultivated a mysterious aura around him. That shit wasn’t accidental.”
Even before Mark Sandman’s fatal heart attack while headlining the Nel Nome Del Rock Festival in 1999, Morphine’s future, to some, was in question.
Pain’s follow-up, 1995’s “Yes,” doubled down on its predecessor’s winning formula of romping live hits and Sandman’s nocturnal observations, but 1997’s “Like Swimming” brought additional pressures to the band. Morphine had signed to nascent major label Dreamworks Records, which seemed to bolster the anticipation surrounding “Swimming” while baiting critics that had doubts about the group.
“They desperately need to alter their sound, and if they have to break up to do it, I don't think anyone's gonna care,” Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber wrote in a scathing, since-deleted review. “In fact, after four identical records, it's about time, 'cause Morphine is, like, drowning.”
“I think they (the band) found the sound and, if there were problems with any of the later records, it was just because there was this profound conflict between sticking to the sound they had or trying to go somewhere else,” Kolderie believes.
In the decades following the band’s tragic dissolution, the surviving members of Morphine have managed to find a happy medium between “sticking to the sound” and expanding somewhere else, thanks in part to New Orleans-based blues musician Jeremy Lyons, who says he initially listened to “Pain” upon meeting Colley and Deupree to a point of exhaustion.
“I think I actually remember getting to a point where I couldn’t listen to it for a while because it was very sad, some of the songs, whereas I think the follow-up is a bit more rock and I felt some of the tunes had a bit more of a party feel.”
After casually jamming for years, Colley floated the idea of performing a “members of Morphine” set at Nel Nome Del Rock in 2009, just one day shy of a decade since Sandman’s passing at the same festival. The passionate tribute performance led to a residency at Atwood’s Tavern back in Cambridge and marked interest across the States for reunion shows.
“I really had to relearn how to sing in order to do the Sandman stuff,” Lyons says. “His range is naturally lower than mine, but he also had a beautiful way of singing very gently and quietly.”
The topic of a “Pain” anniversary was brought up and tabled over the years as Vapors of Morphine became a project with as much longevity as the original Morphine. This past February, a 25th anniversary performance of “Pain” front-to-back at the Lizard Lounge was met with a sold-out crowd and a second set to keep up with demand.
“For us, it’s been great to reach out and to have that next generation come up to us and say, ‘my dad played Morphine in the car when I was going to preschool’ or ‘my mother used to put headphones on her belly when she was pregnant with me and played you… now here I am with a full beard, let me buy you a drink,’” Colley says with a laugh.
The record’s endurance goes far beyond nostalgia though; as much as it was a part-realized, part-idealized vision of Boston’s nightlife, the record has since become an underrated document to its younger fans of adulthood, warts and all, while trying to grasp at fleeting youth.
“To me, it was like a glimpse into adult life,” Walsh says. “It was a very unique kind of adult life and not an entirely happy one, obviously. It wasn’t pop fluff, it was short stories about the difficulties of being an adult.”
Regardless of the album’s contained, but enduring legacy, Colley, Deupree, and Lyons will carry on, playing the songs they’ve been growing and tinkering with for over 25 years. As far as new fans coming aboard, Colley is confident that he’ll keep getting requests to play “Buena” as long as they’re playing shows.
“I think if you’re interested in music, you’re going to find your way to Morphine eventually,” he says with a calming degree of certainty.
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