A unique feature of the destabilizing, horrifying Great Interruption of the past year and a half (and counting) is that it has nudged so many of us into a period of protracted introspection and reassessment. Superficially, we’ve discovered the wonders of sourdough starter and urban gardening, but beneath the surface something more significant has been going on. Especially during those long, pre-vaccine months of sheltering in place, it became somewhere between interesting and necessary to recalibrate, to inventory what we value, to look at who and what we surround ourselves with, and why.
Part of this process for me has involved a careful survey of what is literally on my shelves, which includes an ungainly collection of music housed on old media: vinyl, CDs and cassettes. I’ve deliberately reached for albums with which I have distant, uncertain relationships, producing new revelations. Foolishly, I’d dismissed Randy Newman as a Hollywood lightweight, but a return to the sharp, subversive danger of his 1974 album “Good Old Boys,” and the more recent “Dark Matter” from 2017, reminded me of his particular genius. The magnificent gospel compilation set “Goodbye, Babylon” from 2003 bathed me again in its heavenly glow every time I put it on, making me wonder why I’d ever consigned it to mothballs. Similarly, both Sun Ra and the Shaggs found their way back from the nether regions of my stacks and into regular rotation once again, each now making more sense than ever. And it had been too long since I’d spent time with Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha”; the relevance of its poignant, resilient finale, “A Real Slow Drag,” gave me goosebumps.
And then came Cat Stevens. I’d first heard Stevens’s music as a teenager in the mid-’80s, when friends and I watched “Harold and Maude,” Hal Ashby’s paean to nonconformity. The film, which turned 50 this year, prominently features Stevens’s songs, including one that could be called its theme: “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” I decided that I did. The very next day I acquired a cheap guitar and began teaching myself how to play. Stevens’s songs eventually led me to Bob Dylan; Dylan led me to early-20th-century blues, jazz and country music; and by my early 20s I was living in New Orleans, fronting my first band. A few years later, after I moved to Brooklyn, a series of chance encounters led to a high-profile engagement for my quartet. Critics wrote nice things about us, we began making records, and for the past couple of decades I’ve been blessed with a music career, albeit a nontraditional one. Operating under the mainstream radar, I’ve headlined on stages ranging from the fancy (Lincoln Center) to the less so (dank basements in rural Romania). If my path has never followed conventional patterns, just consider its source; in a real sense, I owe it all to Cat Stevens.
Stevens’s road has been anything but a straight line. His career began in the late ’60s as a teenage pop star in Britain, before a bout with tuberculosis nearly killed him. During his convalescence his songwriting morphed, and he emerged as the acoustic-guitar-wielding, long-haired Pan most people still conjure in their minds when they hear his name. He achieved superstardom with evergreen standards like “Morning Has Broken,” “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train,” and toured the world as a major headliner. Then, in 1978, Stevens suddenly renounced his music career, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, auctioned off his instruments and rededicated his life to being a family man and a devout Muslim.
But he didn’t entirely disappear. His new religious beliefs led him in a number of directions. On the one hand, he donated time and money to education and charity — and, while his interpretation of the religion he’d embraced suggested that playing musical instruments was forbidden, he lent his well-known voice to spoken word and children’s albums that remain big sellers in the Muslim world. On the other hand, he became embroiled in the controversy surrounding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie, leading many to dissociate themselves from his music.
Eventually, though, Stevens picked up a guitar and began writing songs again. In 2006, he returned to pop music under the name Yusuf, releasing the first of some tentative-sounding new recordings, but by 2014 he’d come around to accepting his musical past once again — at least halfway. Billing himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens (the name he currently uses; on Twitter, his bio says “Yusuf Islam the Artist also known as Cat Stevens”), he made an album with producer Rick Rubin, appeared at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and embarked on his first American tour since the ’70s. In concert, he began revisiting a broad sampling of his early work with a commitment and passion many of his fans never expected to see — myself included.
Now, he is reissuing his Cat Stevens catalogue. Last year, he released golden-anniversary box sets of what are arguably his artistic high-water marks, the albums “Mona Bone Jakon” and “Tea for the Tillerman,” originally released within seven months of each other in 1970. This fall, 1971’s “Teaser and the Firecat” will get its own deluxe reissue, and there are plans afoot to follow it up with anniversary editions of each of Stevens’s 1970s albums, sequentially (1978’s “Back to Earth” is the only one to be reissued out of order, in 2019). He’s also just completed a draft of his autobiography. For devotees of Stevens’s classic material, it can feel as though he’s making amends for having walked away from his music all those years ago.
But is that really fair? Or true? Meditating on this during the pandemic made me think about what responsibility, if any, artists have to their audience. If we agree that art has the power to reveal us to ourselves, to help us make sense of the world and our place in it, do we then have the right to expect artists to be faithful stewards of that relationship? There may be no musician who prompts this question as directly as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. And since Stevens now appears to be in legacy-tending mode, it seems appropriate to wonder what exactly that legacy is — for me, for him, for us.Yusuf/Cat Stevens with, from left, daughter Asmaa, his granddaughter, and wife Fauzia in 2007, when he received an honorary degree for his humanitarian work at Britain’s University of Exeter. (Anthony Devlin/PA Images/Getty Images)
In December, during the darkest winter many of us have ever lived through, I began digging through the new box sets of “Mona Bone” and “Tillerman.” Listening to those records again, and having recently turned 50 myself, a creeping realization began to take shape: that more than just being professionally indebted to Stevens, I might actually not even be the person I am today had I not been exposed to his music. But not just any of it. This music. These albums, from which the bulk of the “Harold and Maude” soundtrack had been culled.
I suspect that this has to do with the crucial developmental juncture I was at when I first encountered them, at that time in life when just existing can feel like one big, adolescent hurt. The world stops making sense; the relationships we have with our families, friends and ourselves are constantly being dashed against the rocks. It’s a time when many of us first grasp for the anchor of music and hold on for dear life.
More than anything, Stevens’s pair of 1970 albums are about searching for authenticity in a culture that does not assign great value to it. (For my high school yearbook quote, I’d chosen a lyric from a later song, “Drywood,” that went: “Throw down your mask and be real.” Old friends still tease me about it.) If the lyrics have a rebellious streak, it isn’t one with a political ax to grind, but a personal one. The questions Stevens asks are the result of objectively noting the decisions we’re prompted to make as individuals, and as a society.
On songs like “I Think I See the Light,” “Miles From Nowhere” and “On the Road to Find Out,” Stevens is trying to sort through what is real and what is not. On “Where Do the Children Play?” his Socratic questioning of the status quo continues to be relevant:
Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
But will you keep on building higher
’Til there’s no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
The recordings of these songs are full of feeling, full of seeking and longing. They express a kind of hopeful loneliness, what Victor Hugo called “the happiness of being sad.” Embedded in them too is that sense that initially resonated so deeply with me: the promise of eventual and ecstatic release. This was the sensibility that, in my case, fueled spontaneous road trips in search of new experience, and epic bouts of music-making that eclipsed basic needs like food and rest. Stevens’s songs supported these ways of thinking and being, encouraging me to live as fully and freely as possible.