Cure for Pain: Remembering Billy Conway
by Peter Criger
The great Billy Conway passed away. Taken from us the day after his 65th birthday from cancer, his loss leaves a hole in one of the most underrated rock bands in recent memory. Billy served as the second drummer in Morphine, the low fi trio comprised of bass, sax and drums. Billy had originally served as the drummer in frontman Mark Sandman's original band, Treat Her Right, bringing a jazzy sensibility to the Boston based rock band, best known for the college radio hit "I Think She Likes Me."
After Treat Her Right broke up, Sandman moved on to start Morphine with saxist Dana Colley and drummer Jerome Deupree. Due to various health and personal differences, Deupree would come and go through the first couple of years of the band's existence. Beginning around 1993, Conway would make his way into the touring lineup while Deupree would record all but one track on the band's sophomore album, Cure for Pain. By the time the album was finished, Deupree was out, seemingly for good and Conway was able to start making his real mark with the band.
While Deupree was more of a traditional drummer, Conway was more stripped down and laid back, akin to Victor DeLorenzo of the Violent Femmes in that band's early days. In 1995, the band released their third record, Yes and presented a little more of a straightforward approach. "Honey White" and "Radar" became two of their most notable tracks. It was during this period I first became aware of the band. A dynamic performance of "Honey White" on MTV's "120 Minutes" made its way onto a CD comp from 1998 that I got for my birthday. I was blown away by the simplicity of the music and how powerfully strong the musicianship was. Conway's simple, relaxed drumming allowed Sandman's bass and seductive voice and Colley's exuberant sax work to really shine. Though Yes isn't my favorite Morphine disc, it's a nice way to show off the new guy.
By 1997, the band had signed with Dreamworks and released Like Swimming, definitely their most mainstream album by far but also has some of their best tracks. "I Know You (Part III)" and "Early to Bed" became favorites and the band continued touring. Before the album's release, Conway and his long-time partner, Laurie Sargent, former singer of the Boston '80s band Face to Face, were seriously injured by a drunk snowmobiler. Carrying on after recovering from his injuries, Conway went back on the road and the band toured successfully, including a summer run on the H.O.R.D.E. tour with Neil Young and Primus among others.
By the summer of 1999, the band had finished their next record and had some European festival shows to do. Morale was high and the band had been rejoined by Deupree, giving them a double drummer setup that was unique to some of their shows. Deupree didn't join them on the European trek and on July 3, in Palestrina, Italy, Sandman collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. The music community was rightly devastated and Morphine as we knew it immediately splintered.
In February of 2000, Dreamworks released The Night, the album Sandman had turned in before heading to Europe. The record didn't perform all that well but songs like "Rope on Fire" are amazing and served as a beautiful way to end the band's story. Live albums and compilations would fill the coffers over the next few years as the band started new projects.
Conway, Colley and Laurie Sargent started the band Twinemen and released three discs, in 2002, 2004 and 2007 before parting ways. Conway went on to become a session musician in much demand for the next twenty odd years and worked on a variety of projects. He would collaborate with his Morphine mates when the time was right. When Deupree and Colley started Vapors of Morphine with singer/bassist Jeremy Lyons, Conway would join them at various shows to play Morphine songs with a style only Billy was capable of.
Over the years, Conway continued playing even after 2018 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was determined to beat it and even after a fire in which he and Sargent lost most of their possessions, they picked up and started again and carried on. In 2020, Conway released his first ever solo album, Outside Inside. It garnered a lot of critical raves and Billy continued fighting as the cancer unfortunately began to spread.
On December 19, 2021, Billy passed away and immediately, fans of Morphine and low-fi indie rock felt the overwhelming loss. The best that can be said is that he is at peace and no longer in pain and he left knowing just how much he was loved and his style of playing was appreciated.
Also our interview with Morphine's Dana Colley
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