Marianne Stokes Death and the Maiden 1908
This week’s post is the second focussing on the early influences on the song writing of Van Morrison, this time using “TB Blues” as the point of engagement: it is an edited excerpt from the upcoming book Divining the Earth: Earthing the Divine.
One of several key phrases in “Cyprus Avenue”, as mentioned in my previous Morrison post, is “She’s returning from the fair”. Morrison was very familiar with “And She Moved Through the Fair”, one of several Irish folk songs recorded by the famous Irish tenor Count John McCormack and included in the repertoire of songs performed by Morrison’s mother, Violet, who was a fan of McCormack, at the family get-togethers on Sunday nights in Hyndford Street.1 The song tells the tragic story of a young girl who dies before she can marry her lover, and subsequently visits him from beyond the grave. The reference here to “ returning from the fair” brings with it the highly romantic notion of premature death; of young love; and therefore the possibility that the object of Morrison’s affection in “Cyprus Avenue” died young. If we are venturing into the slipstream of (slightly) wild, if not totally unfounded, speculation, a sideways glance at another very early song, “TB Sheets”, may not only confirm this hypothesis, but also reveal more of the topography of Morrison’s labyrinth of influence.
“T.B. Sheets” was not universally applauded or appreciated on its release in September 1967. Greil Marcus dismissed it, asking “who wanted to listen to an endless song about tuberculosis when the air was filled with the sounds of the Summer of Love?”2 Looking back now, from the vantage point of accumulated time and the hindsight which that provides, it is apparent that in this one instance Marcus’s judgement was slightly off. The innocent optimism that pervaded the summer of 1967 would soon be replaced by the darkness of Altamount and the spectre of Charles Manson which would haunt the cultural imagination ad infinitum. The saccharine pop sounds of a variety of pied pipers, luring the innocents to a pox ridden Haight Ashbury, were far removed from reality – whether that be the reality of the ‘straights’ or the chemically altered reality of the ‘heads’.
Stones and Angels at Altamount 1969
The San Francisco which Scott McKensie et al conjured up was a deceptive mirage, we know that now, and view the track accordingly; however when we listen to T.B.Sheets, in contrast it has retained its power to conjure up the ‘cool room’ of death and to transport us to it; for this is one of the most downright honest songs about the death of a loved one – as Steve LaBate says, “there is no trite drama, no nostalgic sugar coating or grand deathbed epiphany…”3 The sense of time and place, transporting the listener into the room and witnessing the horror for themselves, is so deeply embedded in the song, a sense to which both music and lyrics contribute almost on equal terms, that when Morrison recorded it on March 29, 1967 at A & R Recording Studios In New York City, it is reported that he broke down in tears at the end of the second take; so affected was he that the remainder of the afternoon recording session had to be cancelled. Now this may well be apocryphal, but Morrison’s heightened emotional state is almost palpable in the recorded performance.
As the song progresses, the building darkness becomes increasingly claustrophobic for both singer and listener, threatening to wrap both in the tuberculosis-ridden sheets of the title. Morrison recreates the room by combining the appropriately repetitive blues backing with the essentially sensory description which overload the lyric and the weedy, reedy blues harp which conveys the breath of life and of death which lies at the core of the song: the coughs, wheezes, choking, and sweet sickly smells are the foundation on which are built the selfish, apparently self centred wheedling and pleading of Morrison, overwhelmed by the horror which consumes him and trying to deflect from the consumption visited upon his ex girlfriend.
Edvard Munch Det syke barn (The Sick Child) 1907 courtesy of The Tate Gallery
Tuberculosis was a popular topic in both the blues and country traditions; both the blues and the disease springing from the poverty suffered by many living in the Southern States. The major difference between Morrison’s TB Sheets and, for example, Jimmie Rodger’s “TB Blues” is that generally the sufferer, as in most blues, is the singer; When Rodgers sings:
Lord, my gal’s trying/ To make a fool out of me
Trying to make me believe/ I ain’t got that old T.B.
I’ve got the T.B. blues/ When it rained down sorrow
It rained all over me.
his singing and the song is informed by experience – tragically he died of the disease two years after recording the track at the age of 36. In his song it is the girlfriend who, like Morrison, is trying to avoid the reality of approaching death; so whilst Rodgers is singing about his own mortality, Morrison is singing about an ex-lover [ or perhaps a potential lover or even an unrequited love] who is dying from the disease. As the song progresses, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that both Julie and the singer are suffering in different ways. Here it is the girlfriend who is, like Morrison, trying to avoid the reality of approaching death. But the more Morrison whinges about the conditions in TB Sheets, the more the listener is enveloped by them: the “sunlight shining through the crack in the windowpane” into the darkened room “numbs [his] brain”; the way Julie cries unnaturally “way into the midnight/ through into the wee small hours; his need to “open up the window” to let him “breathe”; the smell of her “sick bed” and her “T.B. sheets”; and most horrendously in her hour of dying he has a “few things going on too” that he needs to deal with and therefore has to leave. And finally, like Jimmie Rodgers’ “gal”, he tries to make her believe that she’ll “ be alright too”.
Morrison does not, however, just recoil from the reality of Julie’s disease which will progress steadily in one direction to her death – no, not just that; rather, he also, and perhaps more significantly turns his back on his own mortality, his own inevitable death, revealed in “the cool room” which is of course “the fool’s room” if he stays there too long and becomes infected.
The link between “TB Sheets” and “Cypress Avenue” is reinforced by a further sideways glance, this time towards the closing track on the Astral Weeks album, “Slim Slow Slider”. The obvious similarities between “TB Sheets” and “Slim Slow Slider” are immediately apparent: in both the narrator addresses a dying girl; in both he is more than a little uncomfortable [to say the least!]. If “Slim Slow Slider” is “a first cousin of ‘TB Sheets’”4, then the classic blues track “See See Rider” is a full blown sibling: a close relationship initially revealed by the similar alliteration and rhyme of the titles and the likelihood that Morrison was familiar with the track – the odds on which are reduced whenever we consider the already noted fascination which the blues held for a youthful Morrison and the vast number of blues artists who recorded the track – including Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt, Ella Fitzgerald, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Peggy Lee and, most significantly, the artist central to Morrison’s fledgling creativity, Leadbelly – of whom Morrison said “my major influence was Lead Belly…If it wasn’t for him I may never have been here”.5
Lead Belly. William Gottlieb/Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways and the Library of Congress
The triangle of influence formed by and between “TB Sheets”, “Slim Slow Slider” and “See See Rider”, resonates with the structure and content of “Cyprus Avenue”: personal experience amplified by and presented through cultural mythology- both indigenous and alien. In “See See Rider” the narrator has been spurned in love (“Well you made me love you woman/ Now your man has come”); similarly in “Slim Slow Slider”, Morrison, or the persona adopted by him, sees the girl “early this morning/ With your brand new boy”: however, whilst the singer/narrator may have been rejected by the girl, this is not confirmed.
It is commonly accepted that the girl in “Slim Slow Slider” is an addict, and heroin addiction is the disease from which she is dying. This interpretation is an easy one to make as the “horse” the girl rides is “white as snow”; “horse” being 60s street slang for heroin and “snow” for cocaine. However, in Morrison’s words, the subject of this song is “a person who is caught up in a big city like London or maybe is on dope.” Morrison is of course highly protective of his own privacy and is not adverse to employing misdirection and evasion to achieve this. As such then, his comments here may be a smoke screen, or his uncertainty may be because he is in fact unsure: of two of the other Astral Weeks songs he said:
“[‘Madame George’] just came right out…The song is just a stream of consciousness thing, as is ‘Cyprus Avenue’…I didn’t even think about what I was writing.”6
So, perhaps we need to dig a little deeper, to uncover other potential meanings, which may have drifted in on the “stream of consciousness.”
The image or symbol of a horse is an “archetypal motif symbolising life-giving but dangerous forces, as well as power and strength”7. However, if we consider the lyrics to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See that my Grave is Kept Clean” we discover “two white horses following me/ Waiting on my burial ground”; and in the next verse the narrator asks, “ Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?” Apart from the excellent pun on coughin’/ coffin, we have a reference to tuberculosis which takes us back once more, not to Cyprus Avenue, but to Julie and her TB Sheets. We seem to be increasingly, and unsurprisingly, tangled up in a web of the blues.
Hearse and white horses – North Carolina burial ground [courtesy of Southern Breezes Carriages]
Death then is the main theme of “Slim Slow Slider”, mixed in with spurned or, perhaps, unrequited love; indeed the spurned love of “See See Rider” seems to become more undeclared, and therefore more likely unrequited in Morrison’s remake. If we are following the ‘dying junkie’ reading of the song, the line “You’re out of reach” is a simple statement of the hold the drug has on her, nothing can be done to bring her back. An alternative, more imaginative, reading of those particular lines could be that our narrator/ persona accepts that the girl is “out of reach”, that is out of his league in common parlance, and he can only look on as she rides about town with her “new boy” in her “Cadillac”. The reference to the archetypal US luxury car brand, the Cadillac, reveals once more the predominance of a romantic mythological interpretation of the US and its influence on Morrison in his formative years. When we consider that Hank Williams suffered his fatal heart attack in the back seat of a “big black Cadillac” a fact which Morrison as a Hank Williams fanatic would have known, the placement of a Cadillac in Central London in the song connects, albeit on a subconscious level, not only with US myth but also directly with death.
The bassist Tom Kielbania, with whom Morrison had been playing in the months leading up to the recording of Astral Weeks in 1968, revealed that at that time the only song Morrison talked about was TB Sheets:
Basically, that was about a girl that he went to high school with, and she was dying of tuberculosis, and I guess he really liked her and he wanted to see her in the hospital, and she really didn’t care about him as much [as wanting to know], ‘Did you bring my radio?’ That’s why I think [the] radio pops up in a lot of his songs.8
The reference here to them attending “high school” together is questionable as Morrison attended Orangefield Boys Secondary School; but, of course, Kielbania could be filtered the anecdote through his own experience, adding the “high” to the original “school”and assuming that it was a co-educational establishment.
Slim Slow Slider etching by oponok 2011 [Deviant Art]
So, in both “TB Sheets” and “Slim Slow Slider” we have dying girls, both (possibly) the object of the narrator/writer’s unrequited love, and when he sees each of them he “just don’t know what to do”; this coupled with the fact that Morrison is still talking about “Julie’s” dying days several years later, would suggest that he was still affected by her death and the way in which she died. Indeed, in a 1997 interview, quoted by Clinton Heylin in his Morrison biography Can You Feel The Silence?, Morrison confirms the importance of “TB Sheets” and, thus, the importance of the event to him, by going to considerable lengths to dismantle any notions of biographical content in the song:
This thing about songs being about you all the time is absolutely absurd… [Something] like ‘TB Sheets’…is complete and utter fiction. I think that someone at some point had written that this song was about me…It’s nothing to do with me. It’s total fiction.9
However, like all writers, Morrison constructs his lyrics from a mixture of influences – some conscious, some not: so whilst any song may contain autobiographical content it may only be a trace, and it may not be apparent to the writer – this is the very nature of the stream of consciousness which is how, as I have already noted, Morrison described the creation of “Cypress Avenue”.
The following lines from “Slim Slow Slider”,
I know you’re dying, baby
And I know you know it, too
I know you’re dying
And I know you know it, too
Every time I see you
I just don’t know what to do
could quite easily be tagged on to the end of “TB Sheets”, especially the final couplet – and perhaps this is the purpose of “Slim Slow Slider”, an attempt to bring more than Astral Weeks to a close.
Further Down the Rabbit hole
- Divining the Earth: Earthing the Divine: Psychogeographic (and Other) Influences on Poet and Lyricist is due to be published on Wyrd Wolf Howl Press in November 2022. The chapter from which the excerpt comes has as its focus Van Morrison’s track “Cyprus Avenue ” and the various influences (topographical,temporal, cultural and emotional) which were central to its creation.
- Morrison later recorded the song on his collaboration with the Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat.
- The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976, edited by Jim Miller https://greilmarcus.net/2015/02/03/van-morrison-1976
- Steve LaBate: Van Morrison: TB Sheets Paste Magazine March 29 2010 https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2010/03/van-morrison-tb-sheets.html 27/04/2017
- Clinton Heylin: Can You Feel the Silence? Penguin 2004 Page 196
- Clinton Heylin: Can You Feel the Silence? Penguin 2004 Page 20
- Ritchie Yorke: Into the Music London: Charisma Books 1975 p61
- Signs, Symbols and Dream Interpretation p90
- Clinton Heylin: Can You Feel the Silence? Penguin 2004 Page 141
- Clinton Heylin: Can You Feel the Silence? Penguin 2004 Page 141