Happy birthday to Van the Man, George Ivan Morrison, who as of today has completed 66 physical trips around the sun. The number of metaphysical trips the Belfast Cowboy has taken around the sun, or led others to take, may be too high to count. Throughout a career spanning nearly half a century, he’s pulled together threads of soul, R&B, folk, jazz, blues, and more into a magic carpet that lets him follow his muse wherever she may take him, generally leaving the world behind in the process. He’s also perhaps the most incantatory singer in rock history; the words tumble from his mouth so fast they become never-quite-meaningless sounds, or they emerge bound and struggling themselves raw, or they flow out like brook water. Truly, he’s mastered what he calls “the inarticulate speech of the heart.”
Many, many artists have attempted to learn this speech, with varying degrees of success. Here are five who found some of Van Morrison’s transcendence in themselves – a most fortunate thing for anyone to find.
Maria McKee – My Lonely Sad Eyes (Van Morrison cover)
In barely over two years with his band Them, Morrison penned one eternal classic (“Gloria”), several evergreens (“Here Comes the Night,” “Mystic Eyes”), and did several covers that are still shaping sounds in the 21st century – Beck’s “Jackass” wouldn’t be the same without its sample from Them’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” One song of Them’s that somehow found the cracks to fall between was “My Lonely Sad Eyes,” where Morrison’s lyrics show their first stirrings toward true poetry, even as they leave you wondering exactly whose eyes were the sad ones. On her 1993 album You Gotta Sin to Get Saved (which also includes a cover of Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do”), Maria McKee gives it a country feel and a vocal that leaves no doubt that the sad eyes are hers.
Jackie Leven – Slim Slow Slider (Van Morrison cover)
Morrison closed his masterpiece Astral Weeks with “Slim Slow Slider,” a rumination on death that ends the album’s life cycle with its own petite mort, frantically fluttering to a place where we can’t hear it anymore. Cult artist supreme Jackie Leven (rhymes with even) understands these little deaths too well – once deeply addicted to heroin, once mugged and strangled so badly he couldn’t speak for a year, once lost his girlfriend to the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard – but has persevered to become a prolific artist unknown by many and worshiped by a chosen few. Like Morrison, he works in so many genres that tagging him seems a fruitless endeavor; he has said that Celtic soul is “better than nothing but probably doesn’t do me any favors, given that I don’t sound anything like Van Morrison.” Nevertheless, he has the guts to cover Van Morrison, and his cover of “Slim Slow Slider” will come as close as anything to making you forget the original artist.
Glen Hansard – Hungry For Your Love (Van Morrison cover)
Glen Hansard’s Morrison devotion is well known; he’s been playing his songs since his busking days on the street corners of Dublin, and he’s frequently covered Van live, both alone and with The Swell Season. Here he covers Van’s “Hungry For Your Love,” originally on 1978’s Wavelength, on the radio station WFUV.
Jason Wilson Band with Pee Wee Ellis – Cleaning Windows (Van Morrison cover)
“Cleaning Windows,” from 1982’s Beautiful Vision, shows Van at perhaps his mostly cheerfully nostalgic, remembering the days when he was happy in his work, but happier knowing of a world of music out there for him, ready to take him in. Pee Wee Ellis, who arranged the horns on some of James Brown’s greatest records (“Cold Sweat,” anyone?), played saxophone on the track. He recorded an instrumental version of “Cleaning Windows” on 1994’s Sepia Tonality that’s very snappy, but since the words really shouldn’t be missed, we’ve included his live performance with the Jason Wilson Band.
Jennifer Jason Leigh – Take Me Back (Van Morrison cover)
When the movie Georgia came out, fans noticed that Jennifer Jason Leigh had done something special in her wrenching portrayal of a dangerous semi-loser who holds her famous folk-singing sister in too-high regard. There was a divide, however, in whether that was good for the movie. In the end, her co-star Mare Winningham was nominated for an Oscar and Leigh wasn’t. The centerpiece of Leigh’s performance – in fact, of the whole film – came in her interpretation of “Take Me Back,” from Morrison’s 1991 album Hymns to the Silence. Again, people either loved or hated it, but Leigh accomplishes the tremendous task of letting the song sing the singer. The words come out as they will, as does the pain and the feeling, leading to the recognition that while Leigh’s character doesn’t have the talent of her sister, she has the ability to reach people and make them pay attention, even against their will. She embodies the song in a way that Van Morrison surely must have appreciated.