Morphine The Night
Photo: From the back cover of 'The Night'

Morphine’s ‘The Night’: A ‘Souvenir’ of a Golden Era

Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley looks back at the alt-rock band’s career and discusses the newly expanded vinyl reissues for The Night and Like Swimming.

The Night (deluxe vinyl reissue)
Light in the Attic
8 September 2023
Like Swimming (deluxe vinyl reissue)
Light in the Attic
8 September 2023

Of all the iconic saxophone players in the annals of rock and pop, no one has ever carved out a place for the instrument quite like Morphine’s Dana Colley. Sure, Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, Billy Joel sideman Richie Cannata, and INXS’s Kirk Pengilly immortalized the saxophone as an integral presence on smash radio hits throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But, when Morphine started to make waves out of Boston at the onset of the alternative zeitgeist, Colley’s baritone was like the rocket fuel that powered late frontman/bandleader Mark Sandman’s vision. 

Before he formed Morphine, Sandman had been struck by the bare-bones arrangements of early Muddy Waters recordings. When he heard Joe Duncan’s single-string “unitar” solo on Bob “Froggy” Landers’ 1956 single “The Cherokee Dance”, Sandman had an epiphany. Expanding on Duncan’s setup, Sandman outfitted a guitar with two bass strings tuned a fifth apart so he could play both strings together with a slide. When Sandman recruited Colley and, shortly thereafter, drummer Jerome Deupree, together they forged what arguably still stands as one of the most distinctive sounds in the history of recorded music. (Just ask Joe Strummer.)  

To be fair, countless musicians have drawn elements from jazz and applied them to other styles in fresh, exciting ways. For context, Morphine emerged during a golden age for bands who straddled underground and mainstream influences. New York avant-gardists like the Lounge Lizards, John Zorn, and Bill Laswell had already, in fact, achieved a fair measure of pop-culture recognition. But Morphine had a particular knack for creating a mood that was at once sultry and tender, detached yet intimate, stripped down yet also bountiful and sumptuous. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more moving combination of sensuality and vulnerability as Sandman conveys throughout Morphine’s sophomore album, 1993’s Cure for Pain

This past Fall, Light in the Attic released expanded colored-vinyl reissues of Morphine’s final two albums, 1997’s Like Swimming and 2000’s The Night, which had never before been issued on vinyl. These handsome new packages come lovingly stocked with extra artwork, photos, and detailed liner notes from journalist-author, musician, and visual artist Ryan H. Walsh. Walsh’s liners further illuminate the band’s last few laps before their career tragically came to a halt.

When Sandman collapsed onstage and died during the band’s appearance at a July 1999 festival in the Italian city of Palestrina, Morphine effectively died with him — sort of. Sandman passed away just a few dates into what was supposed to be a tour ahead of The Night, which was already very close to completion by that point. Released the following year, The Night — which just passed its 24th anniversary in early February — significantly expanded on the minimal-frills approach that had become the band’s trademark.

From the beginning, Morphine always incorporated extra instrumentation, but they mostly tucked those auxiliary sounds into the mix. Though the band certainly evolved across their first four albums, Sandman and company stayed more or less faithful to the cocktail-lounge ambience they established early on. The Night, however, plunges listeners into a detail-rich sonic realm that springs into even more vivid relief on the new vinyl edition. From start to finish, subtle flourishes abound.

Even on downtempo numbers such as “Rope on Fire” and “Like a Mirror”, Sandman’s mixes teem with activity. Instead of the band rhythmically propelling the music as it had done in the past, the songs on The Night undulate with movement. Often, the sounds play on the ear like the musical equivalent of neon-colored schools of fish twirling in unison at the darkened depths of the ocean. A rather solemn listening experience compared to the rest of the catalog, The Night unfolds slowly in what can only be described as a gorgeously somber mood. 

Of course, the hints of despair infusing songs like the title track, “Take Me With You”, “So Many Ways”, and “Souvenir” accrued more layers of weight and meaning, released as they were in the immediate aftermath of Sandman’s death. At times, the band hits notes of celebration (“Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer”), passion (“I’m Yours”), and the reserved 1990s cool of earlier work (“Good Woman”). But the album’s soul reveals itself most, perhaps, on “Souvenir”, an especially downcast, dirge-like chronicle of regret that begins with the now-iconic line “I remember meeting you… we were super-low.” 

PopMatters contributor Brian Stout, an avid fan of The Night who provided input on this story, offers that Morphine’s music would be ideally suited for placement on contemporary TV shows. (Their songs graced numerous film soundtracks when the band were active.) Stout suggests that the current pop-culture landscape is ripe for the band to find favor once again, if even just in niche pockets. It’s an astute observation. Hopefully, these reissues will contribute to a resurgence in interest. Nevertheless, as more time passes, it’s hard not to mourn for the moment in time that Morphine’s music will always be remembered for.  

“Souvenir” stands out for several reasons. For once, Sandman’s bass — though certainly prominent — doesn’t play the central role. Instead, lower-register piano chords darken the skies with a profound sense of woe. About two-thirds of the way through the song, Colley enters the picture for the first time to play a saxophone solo. Supremely fluid and lyrical as always, Colley’s lines fill the otherwise heavily overcast soundscape with streaks of golden light. Looking back, his solo functions as a brilliant sunset for a band, a decade, and an already-fading sense of promise around independent music. 

Individual listeners, if pressed to provide examples of music that’s most emblematic of a specific turning point, will, of course, point to many different songs. But “Souvenir” — and Colley’s solo in particular — provide as powerful a requiem for the 1990s as you’ll ever find. Light in the Attic’s reissue campaign fittingly honors the legacy of a band that should be remembered for embodying the most inspired characteristics of their time. 

Colley spoke with PopMatters at length about this final phase of Morphine’s storied career. 

Like Swimming and The Night are quite distinct from one another and from the previous three Morphine albums. What feelings did it stir up for you to listen to them again? 

I have to say, getting the test pressings back was a revelation. These albums originally came out on CD. To hear The Night on vinyl with headphones was very, very gratifying. Over the last few years, I probably wouldn’t have put a CD on, even if I’d wanted to — never mind a Morphine CD. I’ve always loved vinyl. So, to be able to hear The Night in that format, it felt like the music had come home. Like, “This is how it should be heard”. Especially that album, where there’s a lot of additional instrumentation and layers. It seemed warmer, deeper, and… omnipresent. Now you can hear the layers, almost as if they were blown out like a 3D image. Vinyl just seems deeper somehow, not as flat. 

It’s amazing to me how much people argue that point from a technical perspective. But it’s like being in a room versus looking at an onscreen image of a room. 

Being in a room is exactly what it’s like. That’s the beauty of vinyl — you get the air in the room. You hear the room as much as you hear the music. And that’s what makes it interesting because there are so many different types of ambience that have been captured. Especially in the early days of recording because the room is what they relied on for getting reverb. 

Like Swimming is very rich in terms of the sense of space. Those are probably the richest reverbs I’ve ever heard. 


It’s so thick. The music just pours out of your speakers. But with The Night, there’s so much detail and so much mood

That’s a good way to put it. That’s funny because Mark really loved reverb. He used it lavishly, especially on the saxophone. He enjoyed his outboard gear. He wasn’t afraid to use reverb, that’s for sure. The Night was all done at one place — at Mark’s loft space in Cambridge. And you really hear that because it’s like the room is part of the instrumentation. 

For different reasons, both of those records had a difficult birth. You made the jump to a major label for Like Swimming, which also had something of an adverse impact. What was your experience of all that like? 

Well, Like Swimming came out and… I’m not even sure what happened. [Laughs.] People weren’t getting too excited at the time. It was like, “Oh yeah, here’s another record where they sound like themselves”. But the move to Dreamworks put us in a different league. I’m a little foggy on how it was all worked out, but Like Swimming was a joint Dreamworks/Rykodisc release. So I don’t think anybody at Dreamworks was fully invested in that record. I think they were much more interested in what they would have more control and ownership over. 

It was not an easy time for the band. Mark was feeling a lot of pressure to hit one out of the park, so to speak. Dreamworks were expecting something big from us. So [when it came time to follow up Like Swimming], we went and made essentially a complete record with Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade. That ended up being scrapped. We ended up not working with Paul and Sean and started working again. It was pretty tumultuous. Mark had a lot of people in his ear for the first time. He was trying to satisfy our record label and an A&R man, and he wasn’t having an easy time of it. He wasn’t used to having to please anybody but himself. So that was an added stress. 

He was looking at a lot of different angles to see what the magic bullet would be, starting with the drums. He and [late drummer] Billy [Conway, Deupree’s replacement, who passed away in 2021] had worked together for years, but Mark was starting to question if Billy was going to be able to pull off the drum parts the way Mark was hearing them in his head. That caused a big rift between us. Billy and I weren’t sure if we were going to be in the band from one day to the next. There was talk of using Beck’s horn section and pairing Mark with the Dust Brothers. Hollywood got in there and wanted to take Mark and turn him into the next Beck. In terms of how those people saw the project, Billy and I were expendable. It was pretty clear. 

Ultimately, Sandman’ danced with the girl he came with’. He came back to me and Billy and invited Jerome to come back, too. The combination of Billy and Jerome playing drums together really laid the groundwork for some amazing music. That seemed to be the solution. Once we were finished mixing, Mark was happy. For the first time in many years, he was satisfied that we had accomplished making a great record. And then, literally within that month, we were off on the road. And then there was the European tour, where Mark passed away at our second performance. 

At that point, Billy and I had to go home and finish the record. We had to take the mixes, get them mastered, sequence them, do the artwork, put the thing out, and then follow it up with a live representation with Orchestra Morphine. Dreamworks weren’t very interested in what we were doing — they made it very clear that they weren’t going to support Orchestra Morphine. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much they supported the release itself. Dreamworks didn’t last much longer after that, either. But we certainly didn’t live up to their expectations. I mean, we didn’t live long enough to live up to their expectations. 

When the record went out, you could read a lot into the lyrics and the mood. It somehow seems almost as if it was a prophecy in some weird way. 

All that outside interference came really close to corrupting the creative integrity of the band. And yet, oddly enough, that record doesn’t sound compromised at all. 

It wasn’t, because in the end, Mark said, “Screw everybody, I’m going to do it my way and use my people.” I mean, it wasn’t like it was a breeze at that point either — there was something Mark was going for that seemed elusive throughout the process. But somehow, at the end of the day, it hung together. Stepping bac,k it was like, “Okay, this is good. We can sign off on this”. 

Obviously, when an artist passes away before an album’s release, it colors what people are going to hear — and what they’re hearing might actually be there. But that record has a lot of different colors. It’s tempting to describe it as more ruminating, more dark, more somber, and more emotionally heavy. It is all those things, but there’s a lot more to it too. What do you hear? 

I just hear the beauty of what the Morphine sound was. Pretty much every song that we recorded has some other elements in it than what you’d see us playing onstage. You’ll hear guitar on a lot of tracks, or distortion, keyboards — little bits here and there. So when I listen to The Night, I hear the fruition of being in that environment where you’re reaching for something and looking for how to shape this idea you have. You have the basis and the foundation, but then you have the magic and the additives that you bring into it that can spread it out a little bit and give your ears more of a treat. 

Yeah, it’s like the full realization of what had always been there. Because all along, as you mentioned, there had always been other instruments. They were just blended in in a more subtle way. Like on “Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave” from the first album, it sounds like there’s one of those preset organ rhythms, but I don’t know if it’s actually there. I’ve never checked. 

[Plays the song on his speakers to listen.] I don’t think there’s anything on this one other than sax, shaker, drums, and bass. But we were always interested in the implication of other instruments — the idea that you’re hearing something that isn’t actually there, but your head picks up on it. People would ask Mark, “Why don’t you use any guitar?” And he would say, “Well, we have implied guitar.” [Laughs.]

Once The Night started to fall into place, how were you feeling as far as the band staying intact and where you could go from there? 

That’s a good question. I distinctly remember sitting at Mark’s studio at the desk where we were listening to the mixes. When it was over, for the first time in a long time, I saw Mark smile. I mean, it was arduous. It really was. But it was like, “We did it.” We did it on our terms, we stayed together, and we figured out how to do this without burning bridges — well, we may have burned a couple. But, in terms of the band, we stayed intact. And it became more unified somehow as a result of the whole process. Because what mattered to us was the music.

Someone like Billy Conway, who was the ultimate team player, suffered the most humiliation and degradation. He’d just been brutally pummeled by Mark wanting more and more and more from him. Billy could have quit on a number of occasions, but instead of quitting just kept coming back. Like, “What can I do? How can I make this better?” when most people would have just said “Fuck you, I’m done.” To his credit, he stuck with it.

That loyalty to the sound and to the music was more important than any of our own connection to it. But by the time we’d come away from all that, it was a great relief. There was a great sense of promise. It looked like we were onto something and that we were going to start a whole new chapter as a band. We could play wherever we wanted. We could select what shows we wanted to do and where we wanted to play. We’d crossed into another phase, and it looked promising from my perspective. It was looking pretty good. Things were looking up.