Alone & Forsaken: Van Morrison’s T.B. Blues

 Cristóbal Rojas: "La miseria" (1886) (Galería de Arte Nacional, Caracas; Wikipedia)

Cristóbal Rojas: “La miseria” (1886) (Galería de Arte Nacional, Caracas; Wikipedia)

The cool room

“The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me … is to prolong the moment of contemplation … by hushing it with an alluring monotony.”
— William Butler Yeats, The Symbolism of Poetry

“Oh Lord” — Van Morrison, “T.B. Sheets”

In the fall of 1967, an eerie song about death and disease spun cheerlessly on the hi-fis of hippies and rock fans, dulling the Summer of Love’s already fading lysergic sheen to a sobering gray. “T.B. Sheets” by Van Morrison was a new song about an ancient ailment – a hypnotic blues sung from the point of view of a young man spooked by his lover wasting away from tuberculosis. Modern in sound, it looked backward for content, mining a centuries-old motif that by the mid-‘60s was fading from historical reality – the dying loved one, stricken with incurable, infectious disease, and the accompanying bedside vigil.

Eugeen van Mieghem: "Augustine Sick" (1901) (Van Mieghem Museum, Antwerp; Artmagazin online)

Eugeen van Mieghem: “Augustine Sick” (1901) (Van Mieghem Museum, Antwerp; Artmagazin online)

It did so with harrowing intensity. Countless songs, books, and films tell of lovers parted by premature death and the attendant sorrow of partners left behind, but “T.B. Sheets” stands out for its oppressive ambience and the inner turmoil of its anguished yet unheroic protagonist. Dying lover narratives often portray surviving partners as heartbroken paragons, steadfast and true. But Morrison’s singer is all too shamefully human: unable to cope with his lover’s illness and approaching death, he comforts himself with false promises and abandons her.

Now listen, Julie baby
It ain’t natural for you to cry in the midnight
It ain’t natural for you to cry way in the midnight through
Into the wee small hours long before the break of dawn
Oh Lord

Van Morrison: “T.B. Sheets” (1967)

Tucked halfway through an LP that opened with the jaunty “Brown-Eyed Girl” – one of the era’s sunniest songs and a hit single the previous spring – “T.B. Sheets” no doubt shocked listeners expecting an album’s worth of “Sha-la-la, la-la, la-la, la-la, l’la-te-da.” Harrowing and hopeless, the song’s stark realism rested uneasily next to groovier fare in that season of “Sgt. Pepper.” Only the Doors’ doomy debut and the little noticed Velvet Underground & Nico charted similar territory. But rock’s other Morrison was a self-conscious romantic and the defiantly anti-bluesy Velvets eschewed emotional engagement for cool detachment.

Claude Monet: "Camille on her deathbed" (1879) (Musee d'Orsay; Wikipedia)

Claude Monet: “Camille on her deathbed” (1879) (Musee d’Orsay; Wikipedia)

Less romantic than expressionistic, “T.B. Sheets” is a nine-minutes-plus, two-chord groove for drums, bass, guitar, and organ that pulls the listener deeper into the singer’s claustrophobic state of mind with each successive bar. Instrumental accompaniment varies little; tempo and dynamics are constant, making Morrison’s irregular vocal interjections sound all the more desperate. A tambourine beats time like a Reaper-ish metronome, counting breaths or heartbeats. Occasionally a harmonica shrieks. Morrison’s largely free-verse lyrics are half awkward conversation, half taxing internal monologue, semi-improvised but neither jazzy nor artful, and spat out with long pauses in between. He stutters and gasps for breath. He’s in the room with the dying girl, trembling, sweating, and to sit through the song is to join him there.

And the sunlight shining through the crack in the windowpane
Numbs my brain
And the sunlight shining through the crack in the windowpane
Numbs my brain
Oh Lord

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