CAT STEVENS: Full Circle

One of the ’70s most beloved and enduring singer/songwriters, Cat Stevens, pulled a disappearing trick worthy of Houdini. By the mid-’70s, a festering dissatisfaction with the spiritually hollow nature of fame led Cat on a spiritual quest for redemption. Gone was the momentary thrill of a gold record or a sold out concert performance, and in its place a disconcerting sense of ennui tore away at the fiber of his being. One thing was clear; Cat Stevens was tired of being a pop star.One of the ’70s most beloved and enduring singer/songwriters, Cat Stevens, pulled a disappearing trick worthy of Houdini. By the mid-’70s, a festering dissatisfaction with the spiritually hollow nature of fame led Cat on a spiritual quest for redemption. Gone was the momentary thrill of a gold record or a sold out concert performance, and in its place a disconcerting sense of ennui tore away at the fiber of his being. One thing was clear; Cat Stevens was tired of being a pop star.

In 1975, after a near death experience in Malibu where he almost drowned, struggling in the treacherous currents of a raging Pacific Ocean, Cat had an epiphany–a major life change was around the corner. But it would take an additional two years before he would break free of the chains of his pop stardom. Retreating and recovering from the moral and ethical emptiness of his chosen profession, Cat became a Muslim, embracing the Islamic faith and quitting the music business altogether. He did, however, release one final album, 1978’s Back to Earth.

Over the last two decades, Yusuf Islam, as he is now known, has dedicated himself to increasing awareness of Islam and raising a family. A respected worldwide emissary of the Islamic faith, Yusuf has devoted his energies to educational, humanitarian and charitable endeavors. Islam credits his older brother David for introducing him to the teachings of the Koran.

“It opened up a whole new world of knowledge for me,” he explains. “My belief in God became absolutely confirmed when I read this book. And in a way it was a confirmation of all the things that I instinctively felt and also those things which I had been brought up with through the Bible, through my Christian education and upbringing. Even things from my Buddhist journeying….this Koran was weaving it all together in a wonderful picture of unity and oneness.”

But where did Cat Stevens’ music career fit into his newfound adoption of the Islamic faith? “I never read anywhere in the Koran anything to do with music,” Islam asserts. “I mean, I couldn’t find one word that said music in quotation marks, so I never thought it was a problem. [What was problematic] was connected with lifestyle, frivolous and temporary relationships, and obviously those kinds of things are not quite sanctioned by the Koran–not at all. So drinking, partying…all those things that really quite honestly gave me a headache anyway…were problems, things I wrote about. Like in ‘Hard Headed Woman’ I sing [recites lyrics] ‘I knew a lot of fancy dancers/people who can glide you across the floor/They move so smooth but have no answers/when you ask them what you come here for.’ But you know what they come here for. It’s not the real thing; it’s the fleeting life. So in other words, I realized there was a problem with remaining in the business and trying to purify my life and get myself on the right track. Then I heard some severe warnings about the music business itself explicitly coming from scholars–people who were teaching me–so I decided to just quit. And that I did in a kind of dramatic fashion. I suppose again that reflects my urge for one hundred percent maximum commitment. Whether I’m a musician, an artist or a Muslim, I’m gonna be committed. At that point, I couldn’t see any place for music at that time in my life. It was not necessary. I had done that been there sort of thing. So that’s when I sold my instruments for charity and walked off. It was a sad moment in a way for many of my fans and perhaps [laughing] it was one of those things I now regret, perhaps doing it in that way. But I needed to envelop myself in my new life, and I had to learn basics like a child going to primary school again. I was just beginning at the very lowest level. I wanted to be at that level. I felt it was my chance to escape the limelight and to get human again.”

Let’s backtrack over half a century and rewind to the year 1947. Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, the budding musical star drew profound inspiration from the sights, smells and sounds of his thriving environment. Living in the heart of London’s bustling theatre district, Stevens’ exposure to the arts fired his creative imagination. He remembers the West End district as “one of the major influences of my life and career. I grew up in the hub of the West End where theatres and coffee bars and jukeboxes played throughout the night. So in a way it was natural that I fell into the entertainment world. It was a natural step. I grew up quite fast in the West End. You’ve got to learn life quick if you’re gonna survive in an environment like that. Maybe I felt a bit wizened because of the street experience and the survival game, I suppose. Somehow there was something of the ‘wise man’ within me even as a child.”

Islam reflects that being elevated to a pop stardom was not his original intention. “I was looking at not necessarily being a performer but being a songwriter. That’s an important point really, which maybe some people don’t know. I thought I could stay in the background, write songs and have other people sing them. Unfortunately, the songs that I wrote were so quirky [laughs]. ‘Matthew and Son’ was a fusion of many different things at that time. I saw this sign somewhere in the city that said ‘Matthew and Son’ and that kind of stuck. Then came the little riff for that, which is a very obvious kind of suspension riff. I think the musical element came out great because that was my influence from things like West Side Story, which had been in the West End. If you listen to the follow-up to that, ‘I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,’ that again is very Bernstein-ish in some respects, a staccato.”

By his mid-teens, after receiving his first guitar, Stevens began to compose songs. A natural storyteller graced with a velvety, full-bodied voice, Stevens caught the attention of record producer Mike Hurst, who quickly landed him a deal with Deram Records, a new division of Decca at the time. A flurry of wickedly inventive pop songs followed-“Matthew and Son, “Portobello Road,” “I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun” and “I Love My Dog”-rocketing the artist, now christened Cat Stevens, to the upper echelon of the British music charts. Stevens also found major success as a songwriter with “Here Comes My Baby”, a smash No. 4 hit for The Tremolos, and Rod Stewart‘s soulful interpretation of “The First Cut Is The Deepest” rose to No. 1 on the U.K. chart. More recently, Sheryl Crow recorded the song and released it as a single to critical acclaim. “I always wanted someone like Percy Sledge to sing that song,” shares Islam. “I didn’t know the song was that special when I wrote it. My producer, Mike Hurst, and P.P. Arnold thought it was a great song and was particularly special. I had a kind of feel for that having a slow rhythm and blues type of thing. Again, I was writing songs that I thought other people would be singing. Eventually I had to sing them myself.”

While Stevens was having pop hits as a solo act and writing songs for others, he stresses that the distinctive folk style that characterized his ’70s work was always present in his writing. “There were always hints of my folk roots anyway, even in my early albums-songs like ‘The Tramp,’ ‘Blackness of the Night,’ ‘Portobello Road.’ When you hear those they’re kind of folk songs in a way. It’s only when the producer and the arranger got together that really my songs started changing. I was starting to write in a way also for my arranger that became a bit too poppish. I wanted to get away from that. In fact, one of the last songs that I recorded with Mike Hurst was an attempt to get him on board that kind of style, and that was a song called ‘Where Are You.’ It never made it and so we parted. I knew that was the way I wanted to go. It was only later that I met Chris Blackwell. I had an idea of writing a musical on the Russian Revolution. One of these was ‘Father and Son,’ and suddenly he said, ‘Why don’t you sign with Island Records?’ It was a great offer.”

In 1968, Cat hit a wall, a bout with tuberculosis causing the rising music sensation to seriously reevaluate his current path as a dandy pop star. “I loved trying out new ideas–thinking and pondering this world from different angles-and I suppose that all began for me back when I had my first crisis in life with getting tuberculosis. After an initial year of success and flashbulbs and adoring fans, my seat was vacant and I was in bed thinking about this world whizzing by me and where I was going. It was my first brush with death. That made me think more seriously. At that point, I started reading books about the self like The Secret Path by Dr. Paul Brunton. It’s a very interesting book for anyone who’s of western mind looking for a place of peace within his life. For me it was a revelation.”

Abandoning the light, cheery nature of his pop-oriented material, Stevens’ songwriting increasingly drew from a deeper source of inspiration. Betraying a marked folk influence, he began to craft sensitive, introspective fare that drew favorable parallels with singer/songwriters like James Taylor, Paul Simon and Neil Young. Indeed, Stevens’ new music resonated with the ongoing pursuit of a spiritual seeker, as if the artist was on a quest for enlightenment that his fleeting pop star success could never fulfill. Islam agrees, stating, “It wouldn’t be difficult to decipher my spiritual ambitions through listening to my lyrics. So therefore, I think people would have already had a premonition that I was on my way somewhere but it wasn’t quite clear where we were going.”

His seminal ’70s albums, Tea For The Tillerman, Teaser & The Firecat, Catch Bull At Four, Buddha And The Chocolate Box, Izitso, Numbers and Foreigner, introduced the world to a remarkably moving storyteller. “My first period of success was an inoculation [laughs] towards preparing me for the next phase of exposure to fame and fortune,” explains Islam. “I was on a secret mission, perhaps not everybody could see it, but through my words they could kind find my story and my longings and yearnings for peace and enlightenment. My albums illustrated that also. For instance Catch Bull at Four was taken from a kind of ten-stage enlightenment process from Zen Buddhism, and my music evolved to the point I suppose. I tried many different styles as well. I mean, Foreigner was one stage; it was me saying, ‘Look, you can’t nail me down [laughs]. I don’t want to be nailed down in this particular style or format or package or box. I want to be free and say it from another part of my soul.'”

Perhaps Stevens’ quintessential release is 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman album. Thirty-six years onward, he remembers that the album “represented a picture of childhood and childish wonderment–I would say also the spirit of inquiry. I think that was the representative album of those kinds of qualities and sensitivities. To me, the childish picture on the front told the story. The album had the feel of being homemade. It wasn’t overly produced; it was minimalist when that word wasn’t even known at that time. There was a lot of space, which was also kind of the touch of Paul Samwell-Smith, who gave a lovely aesthetic air to the studio and to the productions. So I think that was one of those special milestone albums, which conforms itself out of the blue and suddenly it’s there.”

An example of his constant spiritual search was “On the Road to Find Out.” “It had a driving feel to it and the words were reflecting the drive that I had in my life towards knowledge and towards understanding,” remembers Islam. “And I was talking about all the options I was being offered, like the marketplace of ideas. I was listening to [recites lyrics] ‘Robins telling me not to worry/listening to the wind telling me to hurry.’ So it was that journey and listening to all the voices telling me which way to go.”

As a lyricist, Islam explains that “musicals influenced me–all of those musicals were part of the story. So painting stories with words was like my art. I liked to do that. I suppose I loved the stories behind certain blues songs, Leadbelly’s songs, songs about the days of slavery when people were struggling for freedom. Those are real songs, real words. I think Dylan came and made everybody think again about how words can be used in a contemporary music genre. I think that that helped. And along that vein came Paul Simon and various people.”

Of his singer/songwriter contemporaries, Islam cites James Taylor and Neil Young as two artists he enjoyed. “At one point I think Neil was extremely unique with his sound and his laid back mellow style. That was appealing. I used to admire James Taylor’s guitar picking skills [laughs]. He was a perfectionist in that area, and he was so clean sounding and I love that kind of sound. His words were pensive so you could listen to them.”

The messages found in Cat Stevens’ songs remain timeless. “‘Wild World’  mirrors that kind of paternal advisor that you find in ‘Father And Son,’ giving words of caution to the young hearts going out to grab this world and go and taste the excitement of this world. Maybe it was a reminder to myself about the need to be cautious.”

For Islam, songs can often come from the most unlikeliest places. “I found ‘Morning Has Broken’ in a hymn book when I was going through a dry period. I hadn’t written a song for a week or two and I was worried. I had to write something. I was looking for something to complete the album and then I discovered “Morning Has Broken.”

Throughout the early ’70s, success came fast and furious for Stevens. The artist racked up a number of worldwide hits with “Peace Train,” “Wild World,” “Where Do the Children Play,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Lady D’Arbanville,” “Morning Has Broken” and others. Yet always a reluctant pop star, Stevens’ discomfort with stardom was plainly evident. “I wrote a song once called ‘I Never Wanted to Be a Star.’ You can believe it or not as you wish [laughs]. But there is some element of truth in it. I said in that song that [recites lyrics] ‘I only wanted a little bit of recognition/a little bit of love.’ And often times that’s what young artists are; they’re frustrated. They want to be recognized. They want to be acknowledged. They want attention so people will not dismiss them. It’s a simple as that. I suppose there was some kind of a truth in that song.”

As the ’70s progressed, Stevens found his record sales slipping while his disenchantment with the showbiz game became increasingly more pronounced. “Disappointment is part and parcel of the competition game, which is played in the music business. You’re never ever able to maintain that titillating moment of success when things are going so well–when you’re at number one. It doesn’t last. And then people ask you and expect you to come up with something as equally unique, and sometimes they want you to repeat. That’s where I realized to satisfy my own artistic desires, I couldn’t stay in one place at the same time or continuously. I had to risk a certain amount of sales in order to progress artistically. At the same time I think I was one of those artists that people went along with and there were a continuous number of fans who enjoyed whichever way I went.”

Stevens once exclaimed, “I used to be a singer of songs, my songs…a lot of the time I would be singing about finding the truth and about peace, but I wasn’t living it, so I was a hypocrite.” Islam remarks today that “it was very difficult to see it directly at the time. I was almost veiled from my own identity. It was only when I read the words of the Koran that I started becoming challenged and my soul was suddenly exposed. I knew that life was full of in some ways deceit. People deceive themselves. The most explicit description of this in the Koran was in the chapter called ‘The Poets’ where it says, ‘Don’t you see the poets, how they say which they don’t practice.’ Wow, bang on the head, that’s me. I was then able to realize that one doesn’t have to act to create an illusion about one’s self. To find peace and security you just have to be yourself. When I read the Koran I realized that I’m just one of your average human beings.”

Today Yusuf Islam has come to terms with his life as Cat Stevens, happily reconnecting with his music. After years of disowning his past as a pop star, Islam credits his older brother, David for inspiring him to embrace his musical legacy. “David wanted to help me maximize my ability to shape the musical inheritance I was going to hand over. When I pass away, obviously that’s what a lot of people are going to still remember. I remember in my song called ‘Sitting,’ I said, [recites lyrics] ‘I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes only for that light I see/’cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave/that’s going to be the only thing that’s left of me.’ So in a way, I had an idea of the purity of the soul and the need to guard it against corruption, against becoming lost in the world. So that was already in my songs. Coming back to that I realized, looking at my songs, that there is a value and an explanation in a way of why I am who I am today. And if I don’t fill in those gaps, people will not read between the lines. The lines that have been written are so scarce and often so distorted that nobody will ever understand. That, I felt, was almost criminal. I said, ‘No, I’ve got to get involved.’ Not only that, but there were a lot of friends and fans that in a way I’ve been slightly unjust to, and I wanted to make amends and so here was my chance.”

And how does Islam evaluate his canon of material today? “I had gone through a phase of actually separating my songs into two groups,” Islam reveals. “The first group was what you might call the amoral or moral, social, spiritual, family, ecological…those kinds of songs which quite frankly nobody can argue with. Other songs, I call them love songs, songs of [laughs] unfettered love and symbolism of that sort. Those kinds of songs I brought to another side. But I always recognized that the majority of my songs were thinker songs, songs that didn’t make people dance. In fact, that was one of the things that upset me when my records came on in a disco [laughs]. People would sit down and stop dancing and start contemplating.” [laughs] Of Stevens’ work, “‘Sitting’ remains a favorite. “The melody of ‘Sitting’ is almost Gershwin-like if you analyze it, but the words stand out still–extremely strong today.”

The artistry of Cat Stevens resounds with today’s contemporary music makers; Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, Sarah McLachlan, Maxi Priest and Natalie Merchant are among the acts who have covered his songs. The silver screen has also beckoned.”Sitting” was featured in Cameron Crowe’s ’70s rock epic, Almost Famous. Meanwhile, Stevens’ essential output and a career spanning double box set (Cat Stevens) is now available on CD.

The most exciting news for fans is that Stevens is finishing up his first new CD of original material in over 30 years. His first album since 1978’s Back To Earth, the record, produced by Rick Nowels (Dido), reportedly harkens back to the stark acoustic stylings that framed his groundbreaking releases. As a teaser to his anxiously awaited new album, an impressive new track, “Indian Ocean,” is included the recent 2-CD set Cat Stevens-Gold.

Yusuf Islam is quietly proud of his extraordinary body of work. Nearly 40 years since Cat Stevens emerged on the music scene, the positive message that infuses his work continues to resonate with first, second and third generation fans. In summing up his legacy, Islam singles out a lilting ballad found on his 1971 album, Teaser And The Firecat. “‘Moonshadow’ is what I call the eternal optimist’s anthem, which is fine. If that’s the final word on my music, I think that’s what should be remembered.”