Holding Court :: Ryan Walsh on Morphine

Ryan H. Walsh can be called many different things, but one thing that you cannot accuse him of is being “lazy.” A prolific songwriter with his longrunning Boston indie-rock group Hallelujah The Hills and a tireless investigative journalist, Walsh famously uncovered the connections between the recording of Van Morrison’s most mysterious album and his home city, as well as several bizarrely fascinating threads that connected along the way, in his unmissable book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. This month, Light In The Attic tapped Walsh to look into the history of another beloved music force from the area as he wrote extensive liner notes for reissues for two long out-of-print albums by the legendary Boston band Morphine, 1997’s Like Swimming and their final posthumous release, 2000’s The Night.     

The three-piece gained notoriety for their unorthodox instrumentation, with drums first by Jerome Dupree and later Billy Conway, saxophone by Dana Colley, all behind the poetic and enigmatic frontman Marc Sandman and his unmistakeable two-string slide bass. These albums were released on DreamWorks records and despite mixed reviews, the band had been reaching a commercial breakthrough before Sandman tragically passed away from a heat attack onstage in 1999 while the band was performing in Palestrina, Italy. With these records being absent from the conversation for so long, the band had only remembered for their early highlights such as their masterpiece Cure For Pain. It was Walsh’s goal to dig deep into the archives for this project in order to uncover the genius behind this band to bring some justice to these unheralded works. 

Contained in the liner notes to The Night is an extensive map of Morphine’s Cambridge, MA, including places where the band lived, drank, and recorded. On September 24th (Sandman’s birthday), Walsh will be leading a walking tour for 25 fans that will conclude with an intimate concert by Vapors of Morphine, which features past members of the band, upstairs at the famed club The Middle East. We caught up with Walsh to talk about all things Morphine as well as the ambitious new project from Hallelujah the Hills.   | P King

Aquarium Drunkard: Morphine is is a peculiar band for me. I think they may have been the first band I’ve ever discovered because of a death. Mark Sandman’s death was so bizarre and came out of nowhere. I’m sure I had been aware of songs like “Buena” on alt-rock radio. But I think his death was maybe what drew me into checking out Cure For Pain. How did you first become aware of Morphine?

Ryan H. Walsh: Well, I grew up in Boston. As you read in the liner notes, they were very much a Boston band. Though, they were bucking all the trends of what you think of Boston bands. It was just much easier to “discover them” as a fan here because more people knew about them than most places here. An older friend from high school put on Cure For Pain for me one day, and I was like, “Wow, what is this?”

AD: In your writing about these two records, you talk about how Morphine was a band that achieved so much critical success for having this unique sound and really applauded for it. Not very dissimilar to like Ben Folds Five or something where part of the allure of this three piece kind of stripped down thing. But that sound really kind of was their Achilles heel almost in a way where it seemed like reviewers started to turn on them for sticking to that sound and these last records are kind of forgotten for that reason.Were were you always a fan of these records before working on this project?

Ryan H. Walsh: It’s really cruel in a way, because they were rewarded and then instantly punished for having a unique sound. You could have the same exact lineup of a guitar band 12 albums in a row that sound pretty similar and they’re not going to be like, “Oh, this game is getting old” because they think it’s a gimmick. There was a part of writing these liner notes, Pat,  that felt like I was trying to get a little bit of vengeance for Morphine because I really feel like, critically, they’d not got a fair shake.

AD: Even if you think of it outside of using the blanket of “guitar rock bands” and think about what Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were doing at that time or the mode that Tom Waits settled into post-Bone Machine. They both were applauded for a similar noir-ish sound. 

Ryan H. Walsh: Sigh… “Oh, no, he’s hitting the radiator again. Here comes the glitter in his pockets, and he’s doing his vocals from a payphone in Toledo.” I don’t know. Maybe Tom Waits was a little bit better about the magic trick of that, where you get people to forget. I think it is a talent and a magic trick for artists to get critics to forget about certain aspects and to concentrate on other aspects. So it just broke bad and that way for Morphine. 

But you asked, yes, Like Swimming was the first one I bought the night it came out. When Yes came out,  is when I must have discovered them. I started sneaking out of the house go to see shows. I met Mark Sandman briefly when I was at college. I was at the final show, I talked about it in the liner notes, that outdoor, Central Square Cambridge, Mass show. I was there and then it was over. Mark was gone. I remember getting to South Station on July 5,  and it was one of those moments where you actually picked up a physical newspaper and learned something which is rare [laughs]. It was in Boston, so it was on the front cover: Morphine Frontman Mark Sandman Dies onstage in Rome. It was shocking and really sad. I was really fond of them. They were from Boston and they were doing really interesting things. I think they were about to make a breakthrough. It’s a tragic story, for sure. But the music is just so great.

AD: Could you tell me a little bit about meeting Mark Sandman? There’s there’s that line from “Like A Mirror” from The Night where he says, “Like a mirror /  I’m nothing / I’m nothing till you look at me.” It kind of goes with his whole mysterious folklore. Did he seem that elusive?

Ryan H. Walsh: Here’s the thing, I think he loved holding court. He loved being recognized for being an artist. I think he really hated people who liked to be famous to be famous. He knew he had the goods and he liked the social aspect of it too. So I got to college and I saw he was playing a solo show, which was rare. I made sure to go see it. I’m 18 or 19 and just truly a kid and kind of awkward. So when he played his set at the Middle East upstairs, songs I had never heard before and still have not heard after all the posthumous releases. They were all fucking great. My memory was that he was on acoustic guitar, and he played all of these great songs. And so I’m walking out of the Middle East and he’s walking very slowly in front of me, and I remember just poking him in the back, like tap-tap. I remember the sound of my fingers hitting his leather jacket and him just very slowly turning around. I was like, “Hey, those songs were great! Are you going to record those songs?”  Remember, I’m just this weird kid who’s just approached him. He grinned and looked at me and said [in a low register], “I don’t know. You think I should?” Him just giving me the time of day but also being interested in my opinion, it was everything you’d want from a little interaction. I was like, “Yeah, I think you I think you should. They were very good.” That was about it, but it was. It was really sweet. He was nice. Like I said, I think he really enjoyed being the centerpiece of Boston rock and roll that he was certainly near the top of.

AD: There was so much myth making with Sandman’s whole persona as an artist. When the band signed to a major label he seemed to be panicking that he would lose control of building his own narrative with more of a spotlight on the band. Was that something you felt researching these liner notes?  

Ryan H. Walsh:There were always tensions where he was trying to keep certain things unknown, and people were always interested. I would say more than undoing his myth, major labels just put pressure on and imposed these rules. You know, [mimics record executive] “Your friend just can’t show up and play on this record, you have to sign this form. He was coming up with crazy ideas for what to do on The Night like Maybe side two should be a radio play?

AD: That concept was so funny to me.

Ryan H. Walsh: I couldn’t believe when [producer] Sean Slade told me that. That is such a great, bizarre idea  and only [Sandman] could, probably, do that. I remember, hunting for the next Beck, being a music fan around that time,  and he was he was caught up in that hunt unfortunately. No one was really going to recognize him for who he was or what the band was. Unfortunately, I think he was treated like, I don’t want to say a ”commodity” because I feel DreamWorks maybe thought of Morphine as what you call the “prestige signing.” You have the true artists so that you can get the hot new kids to sign because they love that band. 

AD: You go into great detail about his actual life. He lived on a commune in Vermont for a time and it seemed like he was kind of running away from horrendous grief he was going through with after so many family members tragically.

Ryan H. Walsh: I think both running or trying to process grief, but also leaving home to figure out who he was, and then certainly coming back [when he was ready]. It’s, you know, that’s classic hero’s journey stuff. He was in the Joseph Campbell wheel, there.

AD: I love that quote that you kind of pulled from his diary where he said, “Oh, I am tired of being a drifter, and I am so scared of getting into a routine.” It  must have gotten so stuck in his craw knowing that that’s how he felt and then reading those disparaging reviews that said the band only had one trick. 

Ryan H. Walsh: Right? In hindsight, it’s crazy to me to say that because every album, to me, sounds pretty different and has a variety of instruments. It’s the gimmick that got them a hook to get them a lot of attention and then really just was like an albatross. 

AD: How were you approached with this project? 

Ryan H. Walsh: Darryl Norsen did a great job with the layout. So Darryl recommended me because I would tweet about Morphine now and then because I was trying to keep their name alive. And then Dana Colley had actually played on the soundtrack to my book [Astral Weeks]. We did an instrumental album that became the music between chapters in my book. Dana was nice enough to play on that, so I got to know him a little bit. Then Darryl got the job doing the graphic layout by Light In The Attic and he recommended me and then the “Dream Team” was built and everyone gave us full access. To the archives and brought me in Darrell there. We just started digging in and so we got the job. 

AD: How was the process of digging through the archives? Was it a seamless process? 

Ryan H. Walsh: They have it all in pretty one pretty much one place, archive wise. We kind of went through and took a lot of photos so we could read it home. I’m always gonna do a lot of interviews for anything that I’m writing something like this. So I interviewed anyone I could who was in the inner-circle who is still with us, including Billy Conway. It was probably one of if not the last of his  last interviews [Conway passed away of cancer last year].

It’s my job to tell the story. But part of the story is the worst thing that’s ever happened to these people, like Dana. Being this is awful to relive it, my job is to kind of make them relive it so I can get it down. I remember Dana planned to go to the archives with us and kind of supervise. I remember that day,  he unlocked it, picked up one thing and kind of looked at a photo, read something, and I was like, “yeah, guys, I gotta go.” He couldn’t be there that day and I got it. That’s like your good indicative anecdote about the difficulties. They all still have heavy, heavy, hearts about how this ended. Navigating that and still treating everybody with respect was important to me. 

AD: I really love the anecdote about Mark playing songs for people and really taking note of how women reacted to his lyrics. Being familiar with his work, you really get a sense that he genuinely put care into how they depicted them in his songs and was really empathetic towards them. 

Ryan H. Walsh: It certainly struck me as respectful and not a one way street. You could tell, this was a guy who loved women. 

AD: Afterall, his band before Morphine was called Treat Her Right. I think a lot of bands from that era are now regretting the way they wrote about women back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. 

Ryan H. Walsh: Right! Yeah, exactly. That’s a great point. He not only wanted to think about women and their experiences and their point of view, but also wanted to the feedback. Do you like this? Does this resonate with you? I loved I love to picking up that thread. There are two documentaries about the band, or on Mark himself, and I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a repeat of that. So any kind of thread I thought over the years about the band’s lyrics or the story that wasn’t in those docs or wasn’t fleshed out, that’s kind of where I went and put a lot of focus into for these.

AD: Mark built so much of a mystique around himself. But once you actually dig into what actually happened in his life, it seemed like his life was more interesting than any myth you could really build. 

Ryan H. Walsh: Yes! I think his mother says it in the liners. If people knew what he actually went through, they would feel gross about some of these criticisms they they threw out him. Does this guy actually know grief? Can he write an album called Cure For Pain? Well, guess what assholes. He’s earned the right! 

AD: It’s so commendable to me that he had to withhold information about his life so that he could protect his family from having their horrible tragedies aired out in the public. 

Ryan H. Walsh: Yeah, and look, you and I know a lot of people who have released press releases that blare some real tragedy in their life as the lead talking point of their new release. And some people do it. Well, some people without naming names. I could go on for a long time about that. But it’s interesting to me that it was off the table for him. I think he wanted his art to stand on its own.

AD: It does make me wonder if we will see some sort of reckoning in the indie-rock world where some musician is exposed like that disgraced comedian Steve Rannazisi who got his name from some 9/11 stolen valor in his act. What if there is a musician who fabricates a tragedy in their press release to get positive coverage? 

Ryan H. Walsh: [Laughs] In his last round of interviews, David Berman said something… I’ll find it for you. He’s like, “I feel bad for bands nowadays who have to be like, ‘we’re putting out a nice new EP, I feel like I have to leverage the recent death of my pet.’” People mining for new tragedies because they have to fucking tell their PR agent something for a hook. It’s the singer-songwriter industrial complex.

AD: I saw you post recently on Instagram a video of you doing a gang vocal session for a new Hallelujah the Hills with cue card instructions for patrons at a bar to sing. Was this for the new Deck project? How’s that going? 

Ryan H. Walsh: Oh, yeah, it’s going so great. Right on schedule. So like by the end of winter, the diamonds and the clubs albums will be done. And half of the hearts and spades albums have been written.

AD: For clarity, can you explain the scope of this project?

Ryan H. Walsh: Yes, sure. So it’s it’s a four-album 52-Song project called Deck. One song for each card and a deck of cards. Each “suit” album has a different feel and theme, lyrically. Diamonds is probably the biggest studio production, for instance. So we’ve been in the studio a lot. But for the final, you know, there’ll be an actual deck of cards you can buy and they’ll have original art for each song on the cards. We’ll put codes in there you can scan to get right to the albums or whatever. What I’m excited about, is you can listen to this any way you want. You can pull 13 random cards, and then make that playlist and that’s like a Tarot in album form that you could do. I’m excited. I’ve had the idea for like 20 years, and I’ve always threatened to do it. But I finally put my money where my mouth is. We’ll see. I think I think it actually will happen. We’re gonna finish it.

Only the good shit. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.