The highs and lows of working with Sandman & Co.
The 20th Anniversary Of "yes" and more on working with Morphine 03/21/15
I promised more Morphine stuff on the 20th Anniversary of “Yes” – here it is. There are lots of other things to say, but this is plenty for now.
First, I want to touch on a few of the factual issues with the "Journey Of Dreams" doc (and the subsequent Q&A).
Billy Conway says Morphine was the first “live band” Rykodisc ever signed. Not even close to true. For instance, Sugar’s “Copper Blue” was one THE alternative rock success stories of the year prior to “Cure For Pain.”
The timeline of Morphine becoming a successful live act has been separated from the “Spanking The Monkey” story. I sat in sales and marketing meetings, looking at data - like where we were shipping records, as well as weekly soundscan numbers for “Cure For Pain.”
The record not only exploded in markets where “Spanking the Monkey” played, but Morphine specifically booked tours through those cities. Yet in the film, it’s “we played everywhere and built a huge following off our live show, then music supervisors came running.”
Not exactly – film supervisors came running AFTER “Spanking The Monkey.” The film committed to the band BEFORE Cure For Pain was released. The participants in the film are either in denial or pretending they’re too cool to acknowledge the benefit they reaped from the film.
I’ve already detailed some legal issues Morphine forced by breaking their Rykodisc contract. So I have to say I find it at best disingenuous for original drummer Jerome Deupree (who was long-gone by the time the band signed to Ryko) to say “Everything that could’ve gone wrong in the music business did, and Rykodisc was a big part of that.” I’d be interested in hearing what informed his take.
There was a passive / aggressive question directed towards Vapors Of Morphine, which questioned if it was appropriate for them to play Mark / Morphine’s music. This was akin to suggesting they were a cover band.
Dana gave a great answer, saying they didn’t define any line and the music deserves to be played. I couldn’t agree more. They created it with Mark and people love it – in Mark’s absence who’s more qualified ort even obligated to keep playing it?
Dana has always maintained that whatever they’ve done in the wake of Mark’s death was in the service of the music and the question, which seemed to suggest otherwise, felt like a cheap shot.
Anyway, on to “Yes.”
I was Morphine’s A&R guy for “Yes.” Besides encouragement and honest enthusiasm as the songs came in, my only contribution was this simple, single piece of advice; to stretch the format of the band and test the limits of their songwriting – switch up the tempos, push the boundaries. I believed Mark had the talent and self-editing skills to deliver the best record he could (I don’t see why anyone would sign someone you didn’t trust to have the instincts to make a quality record, DUH).
Mark, Paul Colderie & the band didn’t need anyone hanging over their shoulders to make the best record they could. And they proved it. Maybe “Yes” is not most people’s first or favorite Morphine record (Cure For Pain is usually in the top spot), but it is typically #2.
In my mind, “Yes” is also the moment where Morphine peaked creatively. Although I wished it wasn’t so, future recordings & songs felt like subtle tweaks to what had come before.
The story of Morphine leaving Ryko for Dreamworks is not as presented in the film, but I doubt anyone in the band even knows the real saga, so here it is.
“Yes” had been released in 1995 and the band toured relentlessly, playing great shows to packed houses. In early 1996 they were ready to make another record.
Back then, acts waited until label deals were up to look for a new home. But Aerosmith made an unprecedented move, signing for the second time to Sony, their original label, for future records. Meanwhile they still owed two records to Geffen, their second home; the label that took them in when they were considered washed-up junkies. Of course this caused all kinds of strain between band and label(s).
Meanwhile the newly formed Dreamworks Records wanted to sign Morphine. This made sense because, even though Dreamworks had hired top music industry talent, it was driven by the mega-names who started the company, all film guys (Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen). And film guys thought Morphine was cool.
After seeing the Aerosmith signing, Morphine followed suit, signing to Dreamworks even though they still owed Ryko two records. This put a lot of strain on the relationship, especially considering how it went down, which both parties felt was very poorly handled. I’m not sure of the exact circumstances, but Morphine’s Manager, Deb Klein, raced to give the news to Don Rose, the President of Ryko, at Logan airport just before he caught a flight.
“We’re leaving the label, have a great trip” is not a good way to break up with the company that helped your band grow from a side project to an act on the brink. Relations were borderline hostile for weeks.
When the dust settled it was apparent Dreamworks wanted to get Morphine ASAP, and Morphine wanted to go asap. Mark was convinced their big commercial breakthrough was right around the corner, if they could just leapfrog to the Major Label marketing machine.
Mark suddenly seemed to prioritize a hit over a career, which was unlike his public “I don’t care about anything except doing things my way” persona. This makes me suspect he was aware of the limitations of Morphine and their potentially short commercial lifespan. He absolutely hoped Dreamworks with their huge budgets and influential owners, could move the needle for the band.
Morphine remained a commercially important act on the Ryko roster, especially overseas. So even though the Morphine/Ryko relationship was badly strained, we weren’t eager to let them go.
Ryko was not in great fiscal shape at this point. We had a lot of overhead and costly forays into Distribution, as well as the purchase of the Zappa Catalog, had put a huge strain on finances. Morphine was important to the bottom line, one way or another.
If Ryko had wanted to “punish” them (which would’ve been a stupid business decision, but I’ve seen labels do pettier things), we could’ve very profitably released the two new records they owed us, but quietly, without expensive marketing or promotion.
We would’ve made money off sales to their hardcore fanbase, which, without label support, would probably have dried up significantly, if not completely, by the time Morphine was free to go to their impatient new home. It would’ve been a massive “fuck you” to both the band and Dreamworks.
I’m sure that possibility lurked in the back of both the Morphine Camp and Dreamworks’ minds, and both factions stepped up their campaigns for Ryko to let them go sooner rather than later
As cool as he played it (and he played it well), Mark had a burning desire to feel important and have his ego stroked. He wanted to be a big fish in a big pond. I was told he’d moved back to his familiar Cambridge after a brief stint in New York - because he was beloved by all in Central Square, but unrecognized in Union Square. Dreamworks paying attention was about as ego-feeding a situation as an artist could hope for in 1996.
Meanwhile Dreamworks was courting Ryko, too. Legendary Record Exec and Dreamworks head Mo Ostin came to Salem to see if he could pry Morphine away from Ryko.
In the course of this meeting, Mark’s age came up. Ostin & Dreamworks had no idea Mark was on the wrong side of 40, which not only led to a spit-take, but made them even more desperate to get the fourth Morphine record, not the seventh one.
But we refused, telling Dreamworks “Talk to us after they’ve finished the album.”
After all, why cut them loose if they had a breakthrough record in them? It would be stupid to not at least listen to it first. The band went off to make the record.
I’d suspected that the band had peaked creatively – again, not because Sandman wasn’t a great songwriter, but because the format and concept of the band was so narrowly musically defined, which was also what made them unique. Tinkering with the formula was necessary, but risky.
Deb tried to get me excited about the addition of “tritar” to the band's traditional arsenal of bass, drums and Dana’s array of saxes, but enthusiasm for this new tool felt half-hearted and forced.
I still have a status report I’d written for an April 12th, 1996 Executive Committee meeting, which pretty much tells the story. It reads:
“Morphine: At Least five tracks delivered (although not all finished) that are album worthy. Another I’m on the fence about and two that seem like b-sides to me. I circulated some tapes and got very little in the way of comments. As everyone is concerned about the release, please view these tapes as an opportunity to comment.”
No one at Ryko commented. I’m sure the strain of the relationship was partially to blame, but by the same token, if anyone had been really excited about the music, they would’ve come screaming into my office. All eight of those tracks ended up on the album Morphine delivered.
The band finally finished the record in mid-1996. By now, Dreamworks guys were hovering around in the background, even at the studio, if I recall correctly – but they still had no rights to the record, and an argument could’ve been made that their insertion in making a record they had no contractual involvement in constituted interference.
As I said, my approach to A&R was usually very hands-off, I trusted my artists (including Morphine) to work in their best interests and would insert myself only if there was trouble or someone just had THE wrong idea. Luckily those instances were rare.
I both resented and was intrigued by Dreamworks’ presence. On one hand, they had no right to be there, but on the other, I thought, “Okay, these guys are all bigshots, let’s see if they pull some magic out of Morphine.”
In my view, they did not.
When they finally delivered the album it was titled “Like Swimming”; a name shared with a Sandman side project that released one single. It included an old Candybar track "Eleven O'Clock", and “Swing It Low”, which was a new recording of one of the tracks on the “Like Swimming” 7”.
Recycling old ideas, not a good sign.
Internal reaction at Ryko was lukewarm. We didn’t hear a single that would work at commercial Alternative radio, which is where Mark wanted to go. “Yes” had flirted with Alternative radio, but ultimately, the programmers just didn’t want the band. Without that format, and with this record, the radio targets were Morphine fans at college and AAA, which meant fewer sales.
For those of you who missed it or forgot, the AAA format (Adult Album Alternative) was essentially non-top 40 for Dockers-wearing old guys who still wanted to think their music was cool, but couldn’t take the grunge so much. They played the music Starbucks sold.
It was cool if you were in the target demo, and a lot of the music was very good, but these are also the people who gave you Sarah McLachlan, so they aren’t without faults. It damn sure wasn’t the company Mark Sandman wanted to be in.
In fact, Mark had once turned down an opportunity to use Morphine music in a Dockers commercial – he called them “Levi’s for fat old people,” ie; AAA listeners. Mark was slim, always, but this comment underlines how he was in denial about his age, and afraid of losing his coolness factor.
The record’s sales prospects were better outside the US, where the band had struck a deeper chord and radio opportunities remained positive.
Don Rose asked me what I thought we should do with Morphine, based on the record they’d delivered.
My response was “cut them loose and get as much money as you can from Dreamworks.”
I explained we all felt “Like Swimming” didn't have the goods to sell as well as “Yes”, that the band wasn’t showing the signs of growth that would reverse the sales decline. In other words; it’s a dead end. Even worse, it was clear Morphine, and possibly even Dreamworks, were going to be a huge, distracting pain in the ass if they didn’t get their way. They just wanted to go.
Don and the partners eventually agreed, and, ironically, in the same way Morphine signed a deal with a new label without telling us, we dropped them without letting them know.
Once the decision was made, Ryko re-opened discussions but still wasn’t able to come to terms with Dreamworks. The record was being readied for release on Ryko. Marketing was being planned and paid for, including the pressing of an advance CD of what would have been the Ryko “Like Swimming”.
Every time Ryko spent a penny on the record, it got more expensive for Dreamworks. If we were going to eventually let them have the record, all expenses we were incurring were getting added to the bottom line, like tru-cote at the car dealership. The sticking points on the deal were that we wanted two more records from the band (at a later date and of an archival nature) and unfettered rights to the “new” ones for the world ex-North America.
Dreamworks did not have distribution set up outside North America, but they needed records like the Morphine album to help them cement deals, so that was tough for them to swallow.
When the advance CDs came in, it was real. If Dreamworks was going to have them, they needed to concede immediately, and they did. We held off on shipping the advance CD to our mailing list and cancelled all promotions. The Mega-Label wrote us a check for millions of dollars, the cost of which I assume went straight to the bottom line of Morphine’s Dreamworks recoupment – ouch!
Ryko got the rights we wanted for ex-North America AND participation in the US sales, should they recoup – basically a royalty to Ryko. There’s no way Morphine ever recouped at Dreamworks.
We also got the exclusive rights to two "new" archival releases, an odds & ends collection and a live album, so we stayed in communication with the Morphine camp on those projects.
The band returned to the studio. By all reports, Dreamworks inserted themselves even more. After all, this was no longer a release on a mid-sized Indie label, it was now going to be a BIG DEAL DREAMWORKS RECORD. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t get their fingerprints on it even more.
As a result, the album got bumped from a Fall 1996 release to March of 1997. Word trickled back that Mark was very frustrated with the tiny changes his new corporate overlords were making. I don’t blame him – there’s very little difference between the versions of the songs on the Ryko “Like Swimming” and the Dreamworks version.
They added two tracks, the 1-minute instrumental opener “Lilah” and the downtempo “Hanging On A Curtain.” While neither piece is a dud, they add nothing to the commercial potential of the record.
The outstanding detrimental change is the loss of “In Your Shoes”, which, despite not being a hit single, is one of the more touching songs Mark ever wrote, in the vein of “In Spite Of Me”, a favorite track from “Yes.” Both of those songs stand out – they are rare instances of Mark honestly, emotionally laid bare, and they’re all the better for it.
Whenever I ran into Mark he always put the best face on the Dreamworks relationship, a true pro. But truth be told, these transitions are tough, especially for a controlling artist like Mark, who’d been used to getting his way, making the records he wanted to make without interference.
After the album came out, we bumped into each other in Tower Records at 4th & Broadway in New York. There was a huge 4ft x 4ft Like Swimming lightbox in the background as we talked.
I’d seen “Like Swimming’s” Soundscan; it was on track to do less than “Yes”, despite all the money and effort Dreamworks had poured into it. Both parties had to be disappointed. I asked him how it was to have a big Major Label behind Morphine and all he said was “It’s good to go into stores and see the record (in stock).”
Possibly he was implying Ryko hadn’t been able to get Morphine’s records into stores, but that’s not true. We knew the Dreamworks sales force aggressively oversold “Like Swimming” into stores with expensive retail programs (which the band ultimately pays for, like the lightbox).
On top of that, the record wasn’t reaching beyond their fanbase. Of course there was stock everywhere - all that Dreamworks money and influence couldn’t attract enough new fans to make a difference.
“Like Swimming” ended up selling less than “Yes”. “Journey of Dreams” narrative lays the blame for the disappointing results on Deamworks, but I maintain the record didn’t have the goods. No one could’ve made it sell beyond what it did, no matter what they spent.
Meanwhile, I was still dealing with Morphine on what would ultimately become “B-sides and Otherwise”, a collection of previously uncollected b-sides, compilation tracks and soundtrack songs. We were probably working on it at the same time “Like Swimming” was released.
Mark called me one day to tell me he’d come up with a title for it and he seemed especially proud of his idea, teeing it up with “are you ready?”
His title? “Besides”. He could tell I wasn’t enthused and started to (unnecessarily) explain the spelling pun to me. I had to interrupt him. I said, “It’s a clever title, Mark but we released a collection of Sugar odds & ends with the same title over a year ago. Sorry, someone beat you to it."
He protested. I told him, “We can use it, but it just might be a little confusing to have two records with similar content on the same label within a year of each other. Why don't you sleep on it?”
Of course I knew he would never use the title because he’d be accused of being unoriginal at best or at worst, stealing it. I’m sure he came up with it independently, but coincidences happen and he was second to the finish line.
Even so, I could tell he was hurt; like I threw cold water on his idea. It felt like a little kid showing his dad a dinosaur drawing and the dad says, “That’s a dinosaur? Come back when you can draw!”
It wasn’t my intention to bum the guy out, or imply his creative juices weren’t percolating, but he sounded dejected. It's important to remember when working with creative people that approval is the goal of their process, but I don't think I could've handled it any better.
We wrapped working on the record together after he’d come up with the title the record has today. Almost immediately after we put the collection to bed, he requested a new A&R person to work on the live record when the time came.
My guess is either a) he was so humiliated by the title issue with “B-Sides” he didn’t want to risk re-living it or b) he knew I wouldn’t settle for the lo-fi audience recording released as ”Bootleg: Detroit” when they had plenty of pro-recorded live tracks in the can.
“Detroit” is fine as a bootleg traded amongst fans, but a disservice to Morphine, a nearly always-amazing live band, who deserve to have their prowess properly documented. Even worse, it was supposed to be released in 1999, but was delayed when Mark passed, ultimately coming out after “The Night” and, for a while at least, was the last official Morphine release - an unworthy legacy.
Mark claimed to love the Detroit tape so much that he wanted everyone to hear it, but after seeing "Journey of Dreams" it seems more likely he was struggling with making “The Night” and didn’t need the distraction of working on a live album. There had been talk of mixing a 16 track recording of a show from Brussels, but that never happened. “Bootleg Detroit” is contractual obligation filler, in my view. Mark wouldn’t be the first guy to put out something quick and easy in order to close a chapter he wanted to be done with. He probably figured he could release his ideal live album through Dreamworks later.
It’s worth mentioning the Morphine survivors have unearthed the Brussels tapes and are endeavoring to release them. I hope they can, because they and their fans deserve a quality live record.
That mostly ends my part in the Morphine story until the Sandbox debacle, which is detailed below.
But there are a few little tidbits and one major Morphine story I still haven’t told. I’m grappling with if I’ll ever write it up.
The truth (both good and bad) is very important to me, but this story involves the most unethical, underhanded act I’ve seen in 30+ years in the music business, an industry that is not known for good behavior.
Let your imaginations run wild.
Enough for now; thank you for reading.
MORPHINE: Journey Of Dreams Review 3/10/15
The East Coast premiere of the Morphine "Journey of Dreams" doc (I guess you'd have to call the last one a Mark Sandman doc) was part of the Salem Film Festival on Friday March 6th, 2015, after which, Vapors of Morphine performed at the awesome Gulu-Gulu cafe. The showing had been sold out, but was moved to a larger theater to accommodate demand, and it still sold out. I was there and as promised, here's the review - a couple days late of course.
One more thing before you read the review - I just realized the 20 year anniversary of "Yes" (my favorite Morphine album) is coming up in a few weeks - on Saturday March 21st, to be exact. That day there will be a new story here that I allude to in the review (it's mostly written already, so it WILL be on time).
Director Mark Shuman’s “Morphine: Journey Of Dreams” is a sharp little piece of a visual oral history that tells the fascinating story of Boston’s singular and beloved 90’s low-rock cult band via the point of view of its members and inner circle/hangers on.
I’ve already written about the band and some of my dealings with and there’s more to come, but let’s focus on “Journey Of Dreams”.
2011’s “Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story” touched on the band as one element of the overarching story of Sandman’s soul-searching, often tragic life. An interesting portrait of a complex, troubled & mysterious figure, “CFP” has, until now, served as the defacto Morphine doc.
Fans of Morphine’s music will find this the more satisfying film (although “CFP” is recommended further viewing, just hide your nooses before you settle in).
“Journey Of Dreams” doesn’t pretend Mark’s personal tragedies aren’t part of the tapestry of the band, but it doesn’t dwell on them, either. Shuman gives fans a film about Morphine: The Band - not just the guy who conceived it.
As the director pointed out in a post-show Q&A at the northeast debut of the film, the Sandman doc is sad and that sadness overshadowed the band’s story. He’s right - Mark’s life was filled with incredible tragedy and so is “Cure For Pain”. It’s emotionally bumpy viewing.
Shuman conceived “Journey of Dreams” as both a celebration of Morphine and a gateway to their music for those too young to have missed it in the 90’s. That’s a perfectly admirable motivation to make a film. But does it make for a good documentary?
In Morphine’s mid-90’s heyday, VH-1 ran a very popular show called “Behind the Music”, which started out as low budget, seedy reality TV programming focused on the spectacular rises and falls of what were largely considered washed-up rock stars. Famous for it’s pre & post-break sinister voiceovers, always implying even greater doom & gloom lay just beyond the next commercial, it was a huge hit for VH1.
Unexpectedly, it began driving sales of records by bands that had previously been thought of as has-beens. Of course, labels smelled the money and came running, pitching acts for the program to VH1.
VH1 adjusted their model accordingly and charged those artist’s labels the episode’s production costs. Since documentary production (really one loooong ad for an artist’s catalog) was considered a marketing expense, the cost was recoupable against the artist’s royalties, so of course the labels piled on, especially the ones with deep catalogs.
Eventually the tone of the shows turned from grimy & gritty to buffed and polished. Artists paying for the shows understood what they were getting into, so a degree of bad behavior and tragedy was acceptable, but pissing off the client wasn’t smart, so the darker stuff was consciously omitted.
That’s kind of the problem with “JoD”. A true documentary should be an honest portrayal of its subject and “JoD” is not, because, while the film is well crafted, it’s made by a self-confessed fan with no outside perspective to provide another view of the subject. It’s essentially propaganda.
Without a counter-viewpoint, investigative research or, it seems, studious fact-checking, the film is not a documentary by definition. Instead it becomes a VH1-style legend-building exercise, the truth deliberately convoluted by the very people who serve to benefit from the perpetration of that legend.
So, while famous fans abound (Joe Strummer, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, and the ubiquitous Henry Rollins), there are no journalists, radio DJs or critics; no one from either label that worked with Morphine at the height of their success.
If anything, “JoD” is how Morphine survivors want the band to be remembered. That said, it’s not a total whitewash – there’s plenty of truth here, including a lot of stuff those outside Morphine’s inner circle wouldn’t otherwise know.
When the first few minutes of the film rolled, the set-up montage was so reminiscent of the Sandman doc, I briefly wondered if I was about to see that film again, with a new title.
Happily, this was not the case and after the initial sequence, the film sets off on it’s own path, focusing on the band, how it came together, how members joined and left and everything else that happened before Sandman’s tragic, romanticized death on stage in Italy ended the band forever.
The band’s origins as a Sandman side project are laid bare, as is their struggle to get noticed and signed. Carrie Svingen, the publicist I mentioned elsewhere (and who was dating Cure For Pain album producer Paul Kolderie while Morphine was recording the album), is given deserved recognition for efforts in getting the band signed to Rykodisc.
New light is shed on pressures the band, and Mark in particular, felt when they moved from Boston-based Indie label Rykodisc to Mega-Mogul Major label Dreamworks.
In a historic clip that perhaps foreshadows future creative troubles, a pre-Morphine Sandman project, Candybar, is shown playing a song that was later re-recorded and released as a single from Morphine’s first Dreamworks album, “Like Swimming.” While much is made of Mark’s retention of every musical idea he ever had to repurpose later, an argument could also be made that he’d run Morphine dry of ideas just as his greatest moment of opportunity arose.
Their grueling struggle to make their final album, “The Night”, is portrayed as the kind of stress-filled grind, complete with frustrating starts and stops, that breaks many bands apart.
“Journey Of Dreams” makes good use of contemporary interviews with band members, friends, family and close associates of the band. Billy comes off as he is; likeable, reflective and easy going, and the same can be said of original drummer Jerome Deupree who left the band before they broke through, but returned years later. Dana still comes across as angry and possibly bitter in the film, but was very funny in the post film Q&A. Morphine’s manager Deb Klein, and tour manager Mark Hamilton have plenty to add from their unique perspectives.
Shuman mixes this in with archival interviews, including some candid interviews with Mark where he’s talking about subjects besides music and not trying to project his cooler-than-thou image.
There’s plenty of live footage, too and Shuman admirably keeps performances from being too stepped-on by voiceovers.
The band was always fantastic live, but I found the repetitive use of certain archival footage took me out of the moment. To be fair, there’s a limited amount of pro-shot live footage of Morphine. By the same token, abundant cuts to “Cure For Pain-esque” sky footage get old, too.
But these are minor quibbles. Shuman makes innovative artistic choices presenting what would otherwise be dull readings of unheard entries from Dana Colley’s period tour diaries. Although the writing doesn’t illuminate the 90’s tour grind with any insight you couldn’t easily find elsewhere, footage of what is essentially a guy reading in monotone is elevated by dramatic lighting choices and sweeping camera movement.
Shuman knows how & where to set his story beats, and he uses dramatic, extended fades to black to lend them the weight they deserve.
One of the most surprising, honest and moving moments in the film is Manager Deb Klein’s emotional re-telling of an expensive, likely career-changing, remix which Dreamworks commissioned & paid for in the hopes of breaking the band to commercial radio.
Everyone involved felt the remix was great and could get Morphine the radioplay and larger commercial breakthrough that had so far eluded the band.
But as Deb tells it, Mark killed the remix, because, to him, it didn’t sound like the band. Although not specifically stated, the weight of story lingers in the air with the significance of a dark day in their history; specifically the moment when Mark’s adherence to his vision, right or wrong, killed Morphine’s relationship with their label and destroyed their chances of reaching a larger audience.
It also illuminates a problem that many in the Morphine camp seem to be in denial of – that as amazing as the band could be (especially live), commercial radio just didn’t want them as they were. Morphine needed to evolve their sound if they were going to break.
You could argue this film is exhibit A that those involved (except, possibly, Sandman himself) never came to grips with what Morphine really was –a specifically conceived, tightly defined, and therefore, limited, side project that grew wildly, unexpectedly out of control.
And that’s the problem – as someone who knew the players and was involved in the rise of the band, it feels like “Journey of Dreams” is trying to re-write their history, either deliberately or delusionally exorcising important realities about their career arc.
A significant amount of the film’s running time addresses the death of Sandman in Palestrina in great detail, with many new insights. To his credit, Shuman doesn’t wallow in tragedy but celebrates the beauty of the city and its inescapable connection to everyone who surrounded the band. It redefines Palestrina as a place of comfort, solace and joyful remembrance of Mark and his band, not a landmark of his death.
The film concludes - almost abruptly – shortly after the demise of Sandman, and with him, Morphine. While Shuman doesn’t shy from the difficulties the survivors faced moving on as musicians after Sandman died, very little mention is made of their various post-Morphine projects. Instead we see where everyone has landed, and their appreciation of the Journey.
This deftly and admirably shifts the film’s closing note from tragedy to surprisingly upbeat.
Ultimately Shuman does a great job presenting the version of the story he was given, by the people he chose to interview - not exactly as it was writ in the stars; but through their selective filter.
That said, the full Morphine story has a lot more to offer. It’s not only the celebration Shuman & Co. created here, but also a cautionary tale, with complex moral issues and personal stories of ego and struggle that would’ve made this a more compelling and interesting film.
Post-Morphine Legal Wrangling and History Untangling
A couple things to clarify; I always liked Morphine, the band (especially live, where they never failed to thrill). As far as Morphine, the people, I liked Billy Conway, who seemed like an easy-going guy. As has been well-documented, Mark Sandman could be a total dick. To anyone. You never knew which Mark was going to show up. And although I'm not sure if it was his natural look or if he was using his facial expressions to convey his inner feelings, Dana Colley always appeared angry and/or suspicious whenever I was around. I have no idea why, it's not like he caught me going through his sock drawer once.
Full disclosure, I did not sign them. In fact, I was opposed to signing them, but not because I didn't like them. I thought I was adhering to a strict commandment made by Ryko higher-ups; a firm declaration that "No New Alternative Rock Bands" were to be signed.
This was practically a slogan around the office; it should've been a bumper sticker or a card we were all forced to carry in our wallets. The rule was the result of an experience the label had with an earlier signing in the late 80's when "alternative rock" was not yet a super-sellable thing, but on it's way. They poured a small fortune into this band without keeping an eye on the budget. They were mortified at the final balance sheet and probably their own hubris.
This "wisdom" ran counter to the prevailing sales of pretty much every record on every other label at the time, as in the early 90's alternative rock was kinda the thing, post-Nevermind, duh.
But Ryko didn't want to compete with the majors (or anybody). They wanted to go against the tide, find their own niche. In reality this meant you could either try to find a thing so oddball it would either sell 10 or 100,000 copies, no middle ground. This is akin to trying to pick a lottery ticket, but without using numbers while everyone else is using numbers. We could sign an established artist with a name and a fan base (i.e.; usually an eroding fan base), but not a New Alternative Rock Band.
Yet every one of these fucking guys wanted to sign Morphine, even though Morphine was clearly a New Alternative Rock Band. When I asked why they were even remotely interested in signing such an obvious NARB, they sputtered nonsense about them finding a jazz audience or getting in with the spoken word crowd (that was maybe a two hundred potential CD-buyers below Canal Street at that time). It was as though they were trying to convince THEMSELVES they weren't breaking their own rules, not me.
A Ryko publicist was very much the driving force behind getting them signed. She was dating the guy producing "Cure For Pain" which the band was recording without label funding, so there was no A&R involved on that record (or the already released Good). She a very good publicist. I originally questioned her abilities, as she seemed to know little to nothing about music, but she made an effort and learned a lot about music. I, in turn, learned that being a girl twisting your hair in a cute way while smiling at pale male journalists is more effective in getting press than I'd realized, certainly a hell of a lot more effective than a pale male publicist trying to pull the same stunt. She did a fantastic job, so my bad - I owe her a major apology for getting it wrong. That said, there's more to her role in the Morphine story than I realized at the time, but I'll get to that later.
Ultimately what a lot of people forget was that even after Cure For Pain was released and the band had been touring, Morphine had some fans but were unlikely to be anything more than a blip on the fading horizon except for fortuitous arrival of the underfunded incest film "Spanking The Monkey." This was the first feature from Director David O Russell, who later directed Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Sterogum called Spanking The Monkey "90's as fuck" - good call. It was a low-budget feature with no money for music and badly in need of a soundtrack. Let me tell you kids, back in those bygone days, incest was a pretty hinky subject: no one really wanted to get wrapped up in the dirty business, lest the stink of incest's bad PR rubbed off on them. Say, Tad, for instance.
The film's Producers came looking for music, and we sent them Morphine music, five songs of which ended up being the score of the film. We gave the Producers a "festival license" (allowing them to use it while they shopped for a distribution deal) and attached to that was a "step deal" (increasing the music payments due based on the film's box office, with a new payment due as each new plateau was reached).
Spanking the Monkey won the Sundance audience award for drama and was off to the races. I haven't seen it for twenty years but my recollection is a solid, convincing, well-written film that was right for the time (the early 90's). It eventually got wide distribution and a LOT of people saw it. Considering it only cost $80K to make, everyone with a cut was very happy and made a spiffy return.
Spanking The Monkey drove interest in Morphine, which drove sales of Cure For Pain (seriously, you could see sales spike wherever the film had opened), which drove other music supervisors to seek out Morphine, which led to a lot of requests for placements in a certain type of post-Tarantino film (Two Days In The Valley, Get Shorty, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, etc), which in turn made a lot of people money.
Meanwhile the band toured like warriors, pockets of radio started to pay attention, and those things combined helped make them popular. We had signed them before Cure For Pain was completed, so when they went to make their next record, I got to be their A&R guy. Lucky me. Anyway, I'll get to that story later.
In the meantime, a few years ago, this article appeared on Huffington Post.
Please take a moment to read it (hint for my mom: the italicized text above is a link) before reading the paragraphs below the photo. I originally wrote those in the (now deleted) comments section of the blog page. At the time I remained relatively anonymous (although I think I used the handle Jroug, so it wasn't a big secret).
I'm sure the surviving members of the band knew I wrote it and this was pretty much confirmed by the author's attempts to contact me, along with posts in the comments saying he was "just a fan" hoping to spread the word, even though he blindly took the side of the subject and never spoke to anyone else involved. While this was probably supposed to be an opinion-based blog, it was presented as truth; a fact-based article. Sorry, but this is not journalism. The whole thing made me think less of Huffington Post.
Dana Colley also posted, saying that regardless of the facts, they were "just trying to keep Mark's work alive." Nice intent, but they didn't need to knowingly break the law to do so, and if they just wanted to keep his work alive, why not give it away?
I hold no grudges about this, but I do believe if you're going to spout a bunch of lies, you should not be surprised or offended when the truth is ultimately told.
It may not seem like it, but I'm tremendously sympathetic to the predicament the other members of Morphine found themselves in. They watched their friend and bandmate die in front of them; I can't even imagine what that must've been like for them. Without Mark the band was over and no matter how substantial their contribution to the group, so, ultimately, were their jobs. That had to suck.
Here's my response to the article:
As a former Ryko employee and a longtime associate of Morphine, I have to take issue with some of the facts and conclusions in this piece. Clearly, the article is written through the eyes of a fan. But if you're going to put something like this out there you shouldn't be so eager to swallow the "poor little band vs big mean record company" rhetoric/stereotype. Not every record company is the devil and not every band is an innocent victim of their own naivete.
Mark Sandman, of all people, should have been as prepared as anyone could be to sign what were his second & third record company contracts. After all, he'd had an earlier Major Label experience when Treat Her Right signed to RCA. While he was very gracious to Rykodisc in public (especially on the stage), in private he complained constantly about the Ryko & Dreamworks deals almost from the moment they kicked in. Mark was no fool, and if he signed something he had a problem with, he had no one to blame but himself. Perhaps unwilling to accept this responsibility, he was antagonistic towards Ryko throughout his years with the label, a trait that the surviving band members seemingly carried on in his absence.
Maybe I'm misreading it, but the article almost seems to suggest it was too bad the "vultures" didn't swoop in to milk Mark's carcass, as if it would've been swell if they had. I'm not sure how that works, but okay. While Ryko was not a "vulture" company, it was not shy about wanting to release more Morphine material - even after the band had left them for the supposedly greener pastures of Major Label Dreamworks.
I'm mostly interested in addressing the Ryko side of things, as I can't speak directly to the experience the band had at Dreamworks, although I knew from talking to Mark and his management that the label was micro-managing the "Like Swimming" record. The album had been delivered to Ryko finished before we sold off the Morphine contract to Dreamworks at the band's request. In fact there are Rykodisc advance CDs of Mark's originally intended "Like Swimming" master - with a different track list, some different mixes and one entirely unreleased song, which was one of the best, if not the best, things on the record. That the record changed so little after months of tinkering is indicative of how Dreamworks had inserted themselves, and must've been frustrating for an artist that had previously been given free reign to do as he pleased artistically.
You write that neither label was interested in helping the band or each other. This just isn't true. A live Morphine album on Ryko was in the works when Mark died and was due to be released shortly thereafter. It was rescheduled as both management and the "vultures" at the label felt it would be wrong to release it so soon after Mark's death. A Greatest Hits record that Dana & Billy were both involved in assembling (including material from Ryko & Dreamworks albums) was released a bit later. Both of these examples prove that Ryko, at least, was willing to work with the band.
Universal/Dreamworks didn't really have any reason to be difficult after Mark's death as their rights were only for North America. But to be fair, they didn't have a lot of reasons to support the act either. Dreamworks was a Major Label started by industry Heavy Hitters with huge track records and similar egos. With a lot to prove, they also needed monster sales to support the vast amounts of money they spent making and marketing records. When the frontman and seemingly creative force of your act passes, the odds of having a "Back In Black" type career resurgence is remote, at best, so they did what virtually any Major Label would do - they cut bait. That's the type of risk a band takes moving from the Indies to the Majors.
I had left Ryko when it was sold to Chris Blackwell in mid-1999, but I returned in 2003. In that time, three "new" Morphine albums had been released and marketed - so it's not like the artist was being ignored, even though the band as we knew it no longer existed.
After I returned, we discussed what else could be done with Morphine internally, but before I had contacted the band, I got a press release about the upcoming "Sandbox" project - the first I'd heard of it. At that point, we reached out to band & management and asked about being involved. During these discussions the band admitted that they were including Morphine songs on the set that were recorded during the period of the Ryko agreement, something they had never cleared with the label, and a violation of their contract.
We carried on talking with them to amicably resolve this issue for months prior to the release of the record. I had a long meeting with Billy & Dana that I left feeling optimistic; as though some progress had been made, some bridges mended. They agreed to not release Sandbox until everything had been resolved. Unfortunately, subsequent discussions were unproductive, and both sides agreed to a meeting in New York with everyone at one table to hopefully hash out a solution once and for all.
All of the Ryko staff involved travelled to New York from Boston & Philadelphia for the meeting.
No one from Morphine came.
Instead, they called late that morning and said they just weren't coming. This was same day that Sandbox was scheduled to be released, so I walked around the corner to the Virgin store in Union Square and guess what was on the shelves? The scheduled meeting appeared to be nothing more than a ruse, a premeditated "up yours" from Morphine to the label and a clear indication that they had no intention of negotiating further.
Sandbox was out and they had violated their contract. The only recourse left to the label was to pursue legal action in order to protect our rights - rights which Morphine acknowledged were Ryko's in the first place.
Despite the assertions in your article to the contrary, Ryko never sued to prevent the release of Sandbox. We saw it's release as a good thing, but we also didn't want the companies property hijacked. We sued them only AFTER they had violated their agreement, AFTER the release date of the record.
This lays waste to the claim that there was no money left to promote Sandbox. In most cases, when done properly, the vast majority of money spent marketing a record is done before release date. The surviving members of Morphine were not sued until after the record was released and all other options had been exhausted.
I'm not sure how either side can say they "won" the case, least of all Morphine. It cost both sides a lot of money. Morphine were finally put in the position of having to abide by the contract they signed, which was all anyone at Ryko had ever asked of them. They turned over tapes that had been owed to Ryko for many years, including the master tapes to the albums. They were given the task of assembling the best unreleased material for a box set, so the world would have more Morphine music to hear. It was unfortunate that the lawsuit had to happen, but was entirely avoidable had the band only lived up to their agreement, or at least, had come to the table.
I left Ryko again in 2006, when the label was sold to Warners, which is how the records ended up at Rhino and why the box set was delayed. It sounds like the box set material will now be released*, albeit in a somewhat different presentation than originally envisioned. I'm glad that the fans will get to hear more of Mark's music and I hope the surviving members of the band appreciate what a rare and special thing they were part of. They were one of the greatest live acts I've ever seen and watching their career take off was a thrill. Finally, I hope this sets some of the record straight.
* It was eventually a two CD set called "At Your Service", a mix of unreleased studio tracks and live recordings. Mark, while prolific, was his own best editor. Of the many, many Morphine studio tracks he left behind, there are sadly only a few gems on AYS.