David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 161: Morphine (Cure For Pain)

July 5, 2022

It takes a lot of courage (and creativity) to stand out. That statement rings true whether you're a policeman, teacher, artist or musician. No matter what, there will be a population that claims you aren't playing with a full deck.

Morphine did it in the early 1990s by becoming a power trio formed around a saxophone and no lead guitar. They barely had any guitar, literally cutting their strings from any comparisons to Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, or, among their contemporaries, Nirvana. Mark Sandman, main songwriter, sometimes played a one-string bass, other times a two-stringer, and even a home-made "tritar," with two bass strings and a regular guitar string added. The sound of this power trio is unlike anything we'd heard before when they broke big with their album Cure For Pain. As I have admitted before, I don't keep up with pop music well enough to know if we have heard it since, but given that Google brings up nothing related to Tritar in a search, at least in terms of Sandman's invention, I am thinking the concept died with Sandman when he had a heart attack in 1999.

You listen to a Morphine song and you feel like you are in an alternate world. The sound evolves slowly, lurking in a murky underworld not too far removed from the Grunge that dominated rock music. Dan Colley's saxophones were often baritone or bass saxes. This wasn't the world of "Baker Street," this was music's version of Elm Street. And in the middle of it all was their Sandman, and let's face it, is there a better name for a leader of a band called Morphine playing such somber music? (His name was not a stage name as was the case with the punks.)

Sandman's lyrics throughout the album fit a mood of darkness: "I met a devil named Buena/and since I met the devil I ain't been the same" ("Buena"); "she had black hair like ravens crawling over her shoulders all the way down" ("All Wrong"); "Hold both hands against the door/and dig your feet into the floor" ("Mary Won't You Call My Name"). However, "Cure For Pain," the title track, to me, seemed to speak a certain truth about mankind's struggle between worlds of faith and secularism:

Where is the ritual/

And tell me where, where is the taste?/

Where is the sacrifice/

And, tell me where, where is the faith?/

Someday there'll be a cure for pain/

That's the day I throw my drugs away.

In the dark underbelly of each of us, there is that constant fight with our demons, with the pain that accompanies us through life. Drugs, alcohol, caffeine, sex, whatever most people retreat to, combat the higher levels of faith and religion. After Sandman's death, Colley was very adamant in saying that the lyrics refer to "everyday drugs" that we all use to survive. I don't understand why anyone would have thought differently. Hadn't they listened to Sandman when he drops the hammer during the bridge? "I propose a toast/to my self control/you see it crawling helpless across the floor." 

One of the other stand-out songs on Cure For Pain is "A Head With Wings," in some ways the most upbeat song on the album. The lyrics remind us that Sandman had gone out on a limb with his sound. He's willing to jump off the limb with his winged head because

Now I'm floating around up here above the clouds/

So high above the ground/

And the only thing that holds my head to the ground/

Is this one little skinny string.

It doesn't matter how many strings (1, 2 or 3) were attached, Mark, you and your band were true to who you are. For a whole bunch of us, Cure For Pain (album and song) is our temporary cure for pain.

Morphine. "Cure For Pain." Cure For Pain. Rykodisc, 1993. Link here.

Day 160: The Beatles "Old Brown Shoe."

Day 162: The Blue Aeroplanes "The Applicant."

Unfinished list here.