December 8, 2021

Music Review: Sister Morphine (Rolling Stones)

The Rolling Stones are the greatest rock band in the world. 

Shut up. Yes they are.

I’ve seen them three times in my life, most recently in Philadelphia in July 2019 during one of the late Charlie Watts’ final shows. In honor of the completion of their “No Filter” tour in Miami this week, this Venomous Media Review will be a discussion of one of their lesser-known but more infamous songs. Drugs and alcohol have a rich influence on rock and roll music. The Stones have had their share of heroin, cocaine and marijuana-related incidents over their 60 year career. Released in 1971, Sister Morphine is the third song on the second side of the US release of Sticky Fingers, the 11th studio album from the band and arguably one of their best. There was at least one previous version recorded with Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and protege at the time, given writing and background vocal credits, but her name was removed from the US release. She sued and was eventually credited as co-writer of the song in 1994. Faithfull’s contribution to the song is important, given her fractious history with the band and her own battles with losing custody of her son, homelessness, miscarriages, suicide attempts, anorexia, and cocaine, alcohol, heroin and other substance abuse which destroyed her once melodic voice, leaving it cracked and hoarse and which some critics describe as “permanently vulgarized” and others as “whiskey soaked” and “interesting.” 

Sister Morphine can therefore be interpreted as somewhat autobiographical.  As Faithfull explained to The Guardian: “The story is about a man in a car accident in hospital, who’s very damaged and wants to die. It isn’t exactly what happened to me, but my feelings about it are probably the same. I was hospitalized in Sydney after an attempted suicide after Brian Jones died. It was a terrible time.” In other interviews, Faithfull has credited the Velvet Underground for influencing the lyrics. Yet one other explanation for the last line of the song comes from pages 165/166 of Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography: "What may have triggered the idea for the song (and "the clean white sheets stained red") was an incident on the boat to Brazil with Mick, Keith and Anita (Pallenberg, Keith Richards girlfriend at the time). Anita was pregnant with Marlon at the time and after a few days at sea she began bleeding badly and she panicked. She called the doctor and he eventually gave her a shot of morphine. I remember that Keith and I were very proud of her in that idiotic junkie way. "Wow! You managed to score a hit of morphine!" 

By 1968 when Faithfull first recorded the song, all the Rolling Stones had experimented with heroin so the genesis of the song is likely multifactorial. The victim of a car accident lies in a hospital bed waiting for the doctor with no face to bring the next dose of morphine and with it blessed, amnestic relief (or death it really doesn’t matter).

Here are the lyrics and you can view the performance below

Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, sister Morphine, when are you coming round again?
Oh, I don't think I can wait that long
Oh, you see that I'm not that strong

The scream of the ambulance is sounding in my ears
Tell me, sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here?
What am I doing in this place?
Why does the doctor have no face?

Oh, I can't crawl across the floor
Ah, can't you see, Sister Morphine, I'm trying to score

Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem
Please, sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can't you see I'm fading fast?
And that this shot will be my last

Sweet cousin Cocaine, lay your cool cool hand on my head
Ah, come on, sister Morphine, you better make up my bed
'Cause you know and I know in the morning I'll be dead
Yeah, and you can sit around, yeah and you can watch all
The clean white sheets stained red

View the Performance

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