Hardboiled Crime Fiction's Influence on Morphine & Mark Sandman

Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, 

James Ellroy... and Mark Sandman 

In this blog post I get to write about two of my favourite things; Crime Fiction and the band Morphine. The three writers above were three of Mark Sandman's pulp favourites. Morphine's bluesy, swampy low rock is the perfect accompaniment to any of these hardboiled novelists. This style of writing was a big influence on his own songwriting. They both contain a direct, vivid and often somewhat nihilistic tone. Many of Sandman's characters form his songs could have walked off the pages of say The Getaway or The Long Goodbye. Sometimes during interviews, Sandman would go off on a tangent and just want to start discussing a particular Jim Thompson novel. He loved crime fiction and shared his passion with friends and journalists alike.

 He appeared to find something in noir that moved him, just as his hero James Ellroy had- 

"I love thinking about American history, thinking about L.A history. I love brooding on crime." 

Here's some of Sandman's own lyrics- 

"Murder in the morning, yeah murder in the night. Murder every single moment of your godforsaken life. It's murder for the money." 

"Her husband he's a violent man, a very violent and jealous man. Now I have to leave this town, I have to leave while I still can."

When he formed Morphine, following on from his previous bands such as Treat Her Right, he decided on a stripped down trio of bass, drums and sax. Further stripped down was his bass! He used only two strings, as opposed to the usual four. I think this stripped down and direct essence is also something that is a key element of effective gritty crime writing. Here's a couple of great lines from Raymond Chandler-

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." 

"Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off." 

Mark Sandman had a great skill in distilling down language too and allowing his lyrics to speak directly to the listener. He said,

 "I try to reduce the words to the heart of the matter and let the music do the talking." 

Aside from the music being incredibly good, his lyrics did tell great stories too, though he was expressing himself in this minimal way. His dry wit came through clearly, just like it did with someone like Jim Thompson when he wrote, 

"Then he laughed and she laughed.  And quivering with the movement of the train, the dead man seemed to laugh too." 

Sandman also wrote about many women in his songs- Sheila, Priscilla, Lilah, Jolene etc. Many fitted very much with the classic femme fatales of classic crime fiction. His songs reference these women at parties, pool halls, smoky clubs etc. One of my top Morphine tracks is Top Floor Bottom Buzzer. It's the story of one particular party and is executed brilliantly. The music has a bluesey  swagger which is exactly right for the lyrics. Of course his smooth, humour filled baritone also suits the song perfectly. I will leave you with some lyrics from that one,

"Top floor, bottom buzzer. The middle won't work, ring the one under. It was later. It was after two. We found a bottle of good Chartreuse. The lights were green and gold. We played Latin soul. By the time Priscilla put the Al Green on, the bottle was gone." 

Simon Maltman 
For more on my own crime fiction, click on the 'My books' page. 

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