I've been listening to a lot of Morphine lately. For those who don't know Morphine (the band, not the chemical), the were a three-piece consisting of drums, baritone sax, and a one-string (sometimes two-string) bass often played with a slide by Mark Sandman, the band's singer and front-man who, in 1997 at the age of 46 and at the height of his powers as a musician, collapsed and died of a heart attack on stage during a show in Italy.
I used to think of Morphine as this deeply laid-back kind of cool, smokey, jazzy-bluesy group that wasn't really my style back in the 90's, but that I could still respect and get into as kind of background theme music. Recently I've started playing music with a few folks - different ages, different music backgrounds, different skill levels, etc. - and we've been trying to figure out what stuff to learn. Morphine came to mind for me because they are seriously "tight in the pocket" - meaning they are very much in the groove together timing-wise - and I think that's something we'd all benefit from. They are also really vampy - their groove is not about lots of chord progressions that people have to learn, it's more about drones and lines that are pretty easy to understand and remember, but that gel together into this thick swaggerey soup that creates cool out of no single part. Lastly, their frontman was a middle-aged guy, which saves a few of us in the crew from feeling douchey about playing songs that, while great, are clearly intended to be performed, and listened to, by those whose lives are mostly still ahead of them.
So while listening to Morphine, and in the process becoming kind of fascinated by their story, I'm actually getting really inspired by Mark Sandman. He's inspired a lot of innovative and influential bass players (Mike Watt, Les Claypool) who have intern inspired others. He's an experimenter who has stretched the definitions of his instruments, including inventing some of his own ("That's a two string bass with a slide? Oh, of course it is - I never realized what that was!"). He's also a really amazing songwriter - "Honey White," "Super Sex," "French Fries with Pepper," and so many others show a flow of consciousness in language and phrasing that is amazingly authentic and not at all forced. It's definitely thinking-man's music, with perspective and depth. Most of the artists I was drawn to when I had my own band, while really great, were very much of that time, and that time is kind of over. Listening to Morphine, it does not feel like it's tied to a decade, but is connected to something deeper that is still just as relevant now as it ever was. And it doesn't require a dashing 23-year-old to carry it off.
So as I'm finding my way back into music, I'd like to thank Mark Sandman for turning up, posthumously, in my life in what might be just the right time.