It’s still baffling that Van Morrison recorded “TB Sheets” in the same session in which he recorded “Brown Eyed Girl”. The two songs couldn’t be further apart from each other. “Brown Eyed Girl” is a perfect pop song. And as much as I sometimes groan over the obligatory inclusion at weddings, there’s no doubt it belongs there with its infectious chorus. “TB Sheets” on the other hand, is a 10-minute descent into darkness. Morrison’s vocals never sounded so desperate, and tortured.
As a piece of music, “TB Sheets” is a template for the epic improvisational pieces Morrison would master just a year later on Astral Weeks. But where those songs were influenced by jazz, “TB Sheets” is pure blues. It’s a slow burn of a song. A slinky lead guitar slides its way over a constant beat and atmospheric organ. “TB Sheets” brings the listener into the late-night psyche of a man at the end of his rope. The tempo never changes, which also reinforces the drama that takes place in the narrative and gives Morrison ample room to exorcise his demons.
“TB Sheets” tells the story of a man who visits his dying girlfriend in a hospital room. He tells Julie at the beginning of the song. Throughout the entire song, Morrison feels guilty about the entire situation. There’s indication that they’ve already broken up prior to this. He references Frank Sintara’s seminal break-up album In The Wee Small Hours when he first enters the room. She stills want him (“I see the way you jumped at me, Lord, from behind the door”), which disgusts him even more.
Ironically, as Julie lies in the bed dying, Morrison demands comfort from her. “Open up the window, and let me breathe” He tells her. For extra emphasis, Morrison begins panting, as it mimicking suffocation. Feeling guilty, he attempts to comfort her but instead of offering kind words, he mentions that he will John, “around here, later with a bottle of wine for you, babe.”
At this point, he is desperate to leave and constantly tells Julie he has to leave. He wants out, and not just from the room. As the song progresses, Morrison’s vocals become even more strained and it sounds like he is the one about to die. In one final act before he leaves, Morrison offers to turn on the radio for her telling her she’ll be all right. He knows she won’t, but he has to leave for his own sanity.
According to legend (there have been varying reports on this) Morrison broke down crying after the song was finished. It certainly seems like it could be plausible, considering Morrison’s performance. Morrison has always been one of rock’s best vocalists, but on “TB Sheets” he completely takes the listener inside the narrator’s mind. On paper, the lyrics are vile and offer no sense of sympathy for him. And yet as Morrison sings this twisted tale, the listener not only feels his pain but also feels the suffocation of the room and Morrison himself.
When Morrison played Astral Weeks in its entirety in 2009, he also played songs from his entire career in the first set. During a two-night stand in New York City, on the first night he actually played “TB Sheets”, which as far as I know he hasn’t played in decades. Unfortunately, I missed this performance as I had tickets to the second show. Still, it’s great to see that Morrison finally bought this gem out.