Views & Reviews Medical Classics

Sister Morphine

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b3806 (Published 16 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3806
  1. Marina Hill, general practitioner
  1. marina.hill{at}btinternet.com

Sister Morphine, written and composed by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Marianne Faithful, was released on the Sticky Fingers album in 1971, one of the most critically acclaimed of all the Rolling Stones’ albums.

It is a song about drug addiction. The song has credibility and integrity, written by those with painful experience of the events it describes. It is a stark confessional: a man at the end of the road of drug addiction wakes up in hospital, with a ravaged body and undergoing cold turkey. He repeatedly begs the nurse to give him a fix.

The song starts in a dazed, gentle way: “Here I lie in my hospital bed / Tell me, sister Morphine, when are you coming round again?”

Mick Jagger’s washed-out voice is accompanied by the gentle, restful strumming of a single acoustic guitar, evoking a mind waking from sleep.

Then a jolt of reality is brought in, with a harsh strike of a chord from the acoustic guitar, and then Mick Taylor’s electric slide guitar steps in with edgy, longing, whining blues notes accompanying the increasingly pleading vocal, until the singer finally screams in desperation: “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?”

The piano playing is angry and confused, giving a harsh, messy, out of tune accompaniment, and the frustration crescendos as Charlie Watts comes crashing in on the drums.

There is a short reverie, in which the singer tries to reason and persuade: “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?”

In the end the junkie has given up all hope and cries: “Ah, come on, sister Morphine, you better make up by 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.”

What is this but the manipulative behaviour of an addict? Most doctors will be all too familiar with it. The image is pathetic.

Sister Morphine was ahead of its time. It marked a total departure from the playful “turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream” lyrics of bands and singers who had been honeymooning with drugs, such as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. It conveys the reality of drug abuse and has a social relevance that marks the end of flower power. But its message is just as relevant today as it was in 1971.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3806

Footnotes

  • Sister Morphine

  • Song by the Rolling Stones

  • Released in 1971

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