goes by his much more famous musical pseudonym Cat Stevens. For a while
there in the 1970s he was one of the biggest pop stars in the world,
and he released two unquestioned masterpieces in Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecatend of the decade. Cat Stevens, perhaps more than any other pop star,
was a spiritual seeker. He saw through the hollowness of fame and
fortune, and he simply walked away from it. What he walked toward is a
matter of some controversy. But as an ongoing document of one person's
search for Truth with a capital T, those early '70s albums can hardly
be improved upon.
Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the newly introspective Bob Dylan. The music
was quieter, more contemplative, more focused on the internal warfare
of the heart.
Cat Stevens was a part of the sixties whirlwind.
He wrote a series of hits for others, and had some moderate success
with his own early albums, but the turning point came in 1968, when he
contracted tuberculosis. He emerged from a three-month hospital stay
with a new lease on life and a newfound appreciation for the deeper
issues, and instead of writing "Here Comes My Baby" he was now inclined
to write songs with titles such as "But I Might Die Tonight." Maybe
near-death experiences will do that to you.
The four albums he released between 1970 and 1973 -- Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, and Catch Bull at Four
-- remain his lasting legacy. Armed with a soulful voice, an uncommonly
facile way with melody and hooks, and a batch of deeply moving,
spiritually searching songs, he was both critically respected and
massively popular. Those albums sound as fresh and relevant today as
any albums recorded during that time.
This was Cat's basic approach:
I listen to the wind
to the wind of my soul
Where I'll end up well I think
only God really knows
I've sat upon the setting sun
But never never never never
I never wanted water once
No, never, never, never, never
I listen to my words but
they fall far below
I let my music take me where
my heart wants to go
I swam upon the devil's lake
but never, never, never, never
I'll never make the same mistake
No, never, never, never, never
-- Cat Stevens, "The Wind"
To explore, click here, and listen to the song and watch a video featuring flowers, trees, and swirling clouds. Because it's that kind of song.
was also one of those songs that could make the hippie chicks swoon,
and any decent guitarist with moderate picking and strumming abilities
and a normal sex drive took a crack at it. It was moral, but vague
enough to mean almost anything, and left the listener with the
impression of both spiritual high-mindedness and heightened emotional
sensitivity. You're damn right the dudes played it. It was best not to
delve too deeply. Swimming upon the devil's lake seemed like a sensible
and perhaps life-saving alternative after sitting on the setting sun,
but Cat seemed to think little of the notion, so most guys played it
straight. There was also that old adage about not looking a gift horse
in the mouth.
Cat left it all behind in 1978. He converted to
Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, entered into an arranged
marriage that eventually produced five children, gave away his
substantial wealth, auctioned off his possessions, and founded a Muslim
school near London. He was out of public view for more than ten years,
and then shocked the world at the end of the '80s by supporting the
death sentence ordered by the Ayatollah Khomeini against novelist
Salman Rushdie for writing the book The Satanic Verses.
Oldies stations pulled his songs. Old fans reacted with dismay, and
wondered how the author of "Peace Train" and "The Wind" could have
changed so radically.
In the intervening decades he's recorded
sporadically, mostly music heavily influenced by his Islamic faith. But
in 2006 he released An Other Cup,
a surprisingly deep, moving collection of new songs, and a welcome
return to the musical territory he left behind thirty years before. His
voice sounded unchanged; rich as ever. And the sentiments sounded
considerably more conciliatory.
But it is those early '70s
albums that will endure. I've taken out my old, scratchy vinyl records
and played them over the past few days. There is a beauty and an
honesty about them that can be heard loud and clear, even over the
clicks and pops. I'm very thankful for this music. If you missed him
the first time around, you might be pleasantly surprised by how well he