Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Some songs have the capacity to weave a legacy greater than simply a sum of their constituent parts. “Into the Mystic” is one such song. It isn’t necessarily the best song Van Morrison has ever constructed, but somehow it strikes chords heavier than it first seems to hit. Prefacing and pre-empting Morrison’s classic mid period of dreamy treatises on humanity and higher powers, all spiritual quests and transcendentalism, “Into the Mystic” actually appears on 1970’s Moondance, that almost most commercial of his works, the follow-up to the way more cerebral Astral Weeks. But for all the FM-friendliness of many of the songs, go read the lyrics, and Van is as philosophical as he ever has been. “Into the Mystic” proves to be the epitome, a yearning hymn to the seeking of an understanding of the cosmos, within and without the body and world.
The first draft was entitled “Into the Misty”; we can be grateful he took a pen through that, the meaning so less, well, cosmic in that phrase, and so more earthbound. The effect of the song is in no small part down to the superlative musicians then at his command, and the consummate arrangements, with the guitar, keyboards, and sax of John Platania, Jef Labes, and Jack Schroer, respectively, exquisite and never bettered subsequently. Even better than the studio take is that on 1974 live opus It’s Too Late To Stop Now, with the same musicians, and a stellar string section, still a high-water mark for live recordings by anyone.
Mind you, the vocals are pretty damn good too.
“Into the Mystic” has been covered and covered and covered. At the last count Second Hand Songs, that repository of all things cover, listed 57 of them, and there are many, many more should you seek out, tucked away on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, YouTube, all those sources beloved of the covers lover. Some are better than others, some way better even than that, versions vying with each other to see which particular Van they are channeling, ‘cos he still plays it, morphing the style to fit whichsoever musicians he has that particular tour or day. Setlist have it as 27th most played song, with 224 performances in the 50 years since he first released it. To restrict it to five good ones is going to be a struggle, but let’s tear it down!
Colin James – Into the Mystic (Van Morrison cover)
Opting for a similar vibe, if with a rockier instrumentation, the vocals here are vaguely reminiscent of a higher-timbred Van the Man’s. This sounds initially like a copy, until you appreciate the paradigm shifts: guitar not sax, in fact no brass at all, the bass motif far less defining, and with the drums in a way more prominent a place. And the Hammond is a grand replacement for Labes’ rippling piano. Chugging organically away, it has me wondering: who is Colin James? Like so many of my discoveries, I find he is world-famous in Canada, an umpteen times winner of innumerable maple clad music prizes, meaning for nothing in the country one down. I was surprised to learn that he has only once returned to Morrison for his muse, with a pretty unremarkable live “Tupelo Honey.”
Icicle Works – Into the Mystic (Van Morrison cover)
Accepting it’s unlikely we’ll get any techno or bluegrass covers of “Into the Mystic,” so well does it slot into a guitar-based format, this version, from Ian McNabb’s early career helming Merseyside Britpoppers the Icicle Works, works almost entirely on the basis of the vocal. A joyous and open-throated sonic balm at the best of times, McNabb is here clearly so reverential to the subject matter as to be in awe. As he probably is. Starting with bare acoustic, bass and drums sneaking in unobtrusively, the voice soars over a slow build, an organ quietly making its presence. If his eyes aren’t closed, they sound it.
Michael McDonald – Into the Mystic (Van Morrison cover)
By the time Michael McDonald released Soul Speak in 2007, I think folk had wearied of his Motown tributes One and Two, meaning Soul Speak was possibly overlooked as being just more of the same. Whilst still the songs of others, it casts a far wider net than Motor City alone. Too far, sometimes, but this is a delight, slowed down systematically, brass and accordion vying passive aggressively for attention, McDonald’s cafe creme voice falling over and between the cracks. Without breaking any great new territory, it just quietly stakes a claim in the great blue-eyed soul stakes.
Greg Laswell – Into the Mystic (Van Morrison cover)
Proving again that “Into the Mystic” is a song for voices, Greg Laswell is the first to dispense almost entirely with any lingering recall of the initial arrangement, merely allowing his voice to fly above finger picked guitar and piano, working in unison. And he’s the first not to underpin the foghorn with any sonic representation. A nice touch is the slow descent of notes into the phrasing of ‘gypsy soul’ in the refrains. Less certain of the cooing chorale, but the whole conjures up a singer strapped to the mast in a fogbound sea.
Esther Phillips – Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)
Esther Phillips ain’t in no awe of the Belfast Cowboy, that’s for sure. Her cover of “Into the Mystic” tears up his phrasing, her singing a croaky catcall, like a funkier Eartha Kitt, on and around a backing far politer than her rendition. With a more orthodox take, this would be supper club, but her wail is so eccentric that she transcends her environment. Yet, in a way, is her stream of consciousness any different from the author’s, if filtered through the gospel of south Texas rather than the chapels of Northern Ireland? Likely to have been a singer known to, and possibly influencing even, the young Van, it must have been flattering for him to have her cover his work, something she did repeatedly over her latter career. Check out her take on “Crazy Love.”