Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
The saxophone is the youngest of the woodwind instruments and I’ve always thought of it as such characteristically–as the baby of the family. In different situations, it sounds playful, mournful, arrogant, attention-seeking, lonely, or brash. It comes off as somehow lower brow than its reeded siblings, like the punk kid who hangs out with the skaters while the other children are studying at the library–even its wild curvature stands out against the stiff, straight lines of its brethren. Clarinets, flutes, oboes, and bassoons do Peter and the Wolf at the Met; the saxophone does four-hour sets in the witching hours of Brooklyn basement clubs.
In the 1980s, which like most American decades is a mode of thinking that may or may not last ten years, the saxophone was a shorthand for sex or metropolitan landscape, and little else. You heard it often in the background of primetime adult dramas, like Moonlighting, or occasionally in playful bursts like Glenn Frey’s “The Heat is On.” The sound remained young and immature–like a teenaged boy constantly in search of conquest. Interesting, but empty.
And then, for me, there was Morphine.
Using primarily drums, two saxophones1, a two-string bass, and Mark Sandman’s laidback, seductive baritone voice, Morphine produced music that sounded like the sort of people one meet on public transportation; the sort of people who may as well live on such trains and buses, telling anybody within earshot the story of their evening and letting the rhythm of their oration branch out into the story of their lives. There’s always too much information in a Morphine narrative, and you won’t necessarily understand all of it. Nor are you supposed to.
We used to meet every Thursday, in the afternoon. For a couple of beers and a game of pool. We used to go to a motel across the street. The name of the motel was The Wagon Wheel. – “Thursday”
More people coming, looking for the number. Mary-Ellen sees ’em. She has a little stutter. – “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer”
If I’m guilty, so are you. It was March 4th, 1982. – “Radar”
And beneath Sandman’s hypnotic ruminations, there’s the low thrum of his bass, sliding up and down from one low note to another, like knuckles down the spine. And there’s Dana Colley’s saxophone, jumping in and out and spilling itself into the song. A toppled snake basket of sly, smoky music, all punctuated by Billy Conway’s loose, sprightly drum and cymbal work2. Morphine’s music revels in the contours of the human body, the unknown pathways of human interaction, and in the sensuality of language, often using one to facilitate a greater exploration of the others.
She had black hair like ravens crawling over her shoulders. She had a smile that swirled, she had a smile that curled, she had a smile that swerved all over the road. – “All Wrong”
Fast as fast the scene slips to Now, the ever-glorious Now, the ever-present Now. Dredged in flour, and deep-fat fried, and cooled on paper towels and then devoured. – “Sharks”
I wanna know what you got to say. I can tell you taste like the sky ’cause you look like rain. – “You Look Like Rain”
In my mind, Morphine doesn’t merely utilize the saxophone as an ensemble instrument; it analyzes its sound as if analyzing the psyche of a human being and then builds music based on what might otherwise be considered a treatable condition. The playful, mournful, arrogant, attention-seeking, lonely, brash undercurrent of the instrument goes out on the town with you and has crowds of strangers eating out of his hand by midnight.
Mark Sandman died onstage in Italy of a massive heart attack in 1999, and Morphine died with him3. I miss his outlook on the world, his reverence of nightlife, his understanding of love and desire as something earthly, rife with rough surfaces and sharp points that leave us bruised and bleeding and all the happier for the effort.
Morphine taught me two things. One, that the existence of other people is affirmation that you yourself exist, because to somebody else you are also other people.
The other is that one should respect the saxophone.
1 Occasionally being played by Colley at the same time!
2 It should be noted that on Good and for some tracks on The Night, the drummer was Jerome Deupree. I don’t know why he was out of the band for much of its time.
3 I do know that Colley and Conway started the band Twinemen with Laurie Sargent sometime later. I still haven’t heard their work.