Friday, February 7, 2020

Blowin' Your Mind on TB Sheets - Van Morrison and the Astral Weeks

I was never a Van Morrison fan. I should be, it only fits, but oddly, the first single I ever bought with my own money was Them's "Here Comes the Night." I was under the impression when I went to the record store with my Grandmother that I was after The Rolling Stones. (I was like five, what do you want?) While it remained in the stack of singles on my 45 turntable as a part of my go-to collection, I subsequently proceeded to forget about it, only rediscovering the tune with Bowie's frightening cover on 1973's Pin-ups LP.

My brother bought Morrison's debut LP, Blowin' Your Mind, and unlike the brunt of his collection, I played Side One once and put it back on the shelf. He'd storm into my room looking for The Moody Blues, The Mothers, even Switched On Bach, but never once did he have to seek out Blowin' Your Mind(Interestingly, Van Morrison doesn't consider this LP among his canon of music; Bert Berns, the LPs producer, released it without Morrison's consent or input.) I found it the other day in the budget section of a record shop, and I figure now that maybe the six year old me was wrong, at least to a degree. Still not a "Brown-eyed Girl" fan (nor do I take to "Domino," Morrison’s biggest hit), the remainder of Side One is stellar insightful blues with unmatched session players who wouldn't play second fiddle to The Wrecking Crew (Eric Gale, Al Gorgoni, and Hugh McCracken lay down what are quite possibly the best rhythm guitar tracks ever! Russ Savakus played bass, Paul Griffin played piano, and Gary Chester, drums. Those heavenly back-up singers were The Sweet Inspirations, made up of Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney and Dionne Warwick's aunt.

In particular is the epic "TB Sheets." It's the tale of a man stuck in the room of a dying friend "And I can almost smell your TB Sheets," he sings, and sniffs the air "on your sick-bed." At more than nine-and-a-half minutes, it is a song that doesn't so much play as ooze, that winds you up in a feverish, Otis Redding-style delirium, with a groggy-sounding organ, a raving harmonica and a tambourine that sounds like a rattlesnake. Lester Bangs (you know I'm not much of a fan) said, "In TB Sheets, his last extended narrative before making Astral Weeks, Van Morrison watched a girl he loved die of tuberculosis. The song was claustrophobic, suffocating, monstrously powerful 'innuendos, inadequacies, an' foreign bodies'."

On symbolism, the unparalleled Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, "The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me … is to prolong the moment of contemplation … by hushing it with an alluring monotony." (Hold on to that notion...)

I'm thinking back to my youth, sneaking into my brother's room to snag Blowin' Your Mind. It was the fall of 1967, a rainy day in L.A., and two songs into Side One an eerie dirge about death and disease spun cheerlessly on the hi-fi. "T.B. Sheets" was 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 (today we'd merely look back to the AIDS pandemic). 

This it did 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 ambiance 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 narrator 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. Woah.

"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"

Pretty Yeatsean, eh?

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 the season of Sgt. Pepper. Only the Doors’ gloomy debut and the little-noticed (at the time) Velvet Underground & Nico were on a similar wavelength. I find myself a little like Lester Bangs here; I was wrong.

With a debut that rivaled the songwriting of Bob Dylan, one would think the next offering would simply produce itself. It did not. Contractual disputes with Bang Records following the label's founder's death barred Morrison from entering the studio, though he was still under contract, and that conflict kept club and venue owners from booking the band. Crazy that we almost didn't get Astral Weeks

My wife and I only recently returned home from Ireland. Imagine a day trip on a bus to the Giant's Causeway and then deep into the real Ireland. After an eye-opening tour of "The Troubles" that was immensely disturbing and downright frightening, you head off to the gorgeous northern coast. It's a nice, sunny, cool afternoon. We stopped off at a pub in an out-of-the-way town for a late, leisurely lunch. There's a stage in the corner with no one playing, but in the background is Astral Weeks. We're lulled into a tranquil mood by the beautiful, soulful, melodious songs like we'd never heard them before. The songs aren't "polished" in the usual sense, and sound almost improvised; the lyrics vague and abstract. Lunch over, you climb back on the bus and head home. The moment is over but the effect leaves an ethereal, warm memory and a happy glow from the beautiful moment in time and space you've just witnessed.