As Yusuf/Cat Stevens reemerges on the public stage, how should we feel about his music — and his legacy?

A novel characteristic of the destabilizing, horrifying Nice Interruption of the previous yr and a half (and counting) is that it has nudged so many people right into a interval of protracted introspection and reassessment. Superficially, we’ve found the wonders of sourdough starter and concrete gardening, however beneath the floor one thing extra vital has been happening. Particularly throughout these lengthy, pre-vaccine months of sheltering in place, it grew to become someplace between attention-grabbing and essential to recalibrate, to stock what we worth, to have a look at who and what we encompass ourselves with, and why.

A part of this course of for me has concerned a cautious survey of what’s actually on my cabinets, which incorporates an ungainly assortment of music housed on outdated media: vinyl, CDs and cassettes. I’ve intentionally reached for albums with which I’ve distant, unsure relationships, producing new revelations. Foolishly, I’d dismissed Randy Newman as a Hollywood light-weight, however a return to the sharp, subversive hazard of his 1974 album “Good Old Boys,” and the newer “Darkish Matter” from 2017, jogged my memory of his explicit genius. The magnificent gospel compilation set “Goodbye, Babylon” from 2003 bathed me once more in its heavenly glow each time I put it on, making me surprise why I’d ever consigned it to mothballs. Equally, each Solar Ra and the Shaggs discovered their method again from the nether areas of my stacks and into common rotation as soon as once more, every now making extra sense than ever. And it had been too lengthy since I’d hung out with Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha”; the relevance of its poignant, resilient finale, “A Actual Sluggish Drag,” gave me goosebumps.

After which got here Cat Stevens. I’d first heard Stevens’s music as a young person within the mid-’80s, when associates and I watched “Harold and Maude,” Hal Ashby’s paean to nonconformity. The movie, which turned 50 this yr, prominently options Stevens’s songs, together with one which may very well be known as its theme: “If You Wish to Sing Out, Sing Out.” I made a decision that I did. The very subsequent day I acquired an inexpensive guitar and started educating myself the best way to play. Stevens’s songs ultimately led me to Bob Dylan; Dylan led me to early-Twentieth-century blues, jazz and nation music; and by my early 20s I used to be dwelling in New Orleans, fronting my first band. A couple of years later, after I moved to Brooklyn, a sequence of likelihood encounters led to a high-profile engagement for my quartet. Critics wrote good issues about us, we started making information, and for the previous couple of many years I’ve been blessed with a music profession, albeit a nontraditional one. Working underneath the mainstream radar, I’ve headlined on levels starting from the flamboyant (Lincoln Middle) to the much less so (dank basements in rural Romania). If my path has by no means adopted standard patterns, simply take into account its supply; in an actual sense, I owe all of it to Cat Stevens.

Stevens’s highway has been something however a straight line. His profession started within the late ’60s as a teenage pop star in Britain, earlier than a bout with tuberculosis almost killed him. Throughout his convalescence his songwriting morphed, and he emerged because the acoustic-guitar-wielding, long-haired Pan most individuals nonetheless conjure of their minds after they hear his identify. He achieved superstardom with evergreen requirements like “Morning Has Damaged,” “Moonshadow” and “Peace Prepare,” and toured the world as a serious headliner. Then, in 1978, Stevens all of a sudden renounced his music profession, modified his identify to Yusuf Islam, auctioned off his devices and rededicated his life to being a household man and a religious Muslim.

However he didn’t completely disappear. His new spiritual beliefs led him in a variety of instructions. On the one hand, he donated money and time to schooling and charity — and, whereas his interpretation of the faith he’d embraced recommended that enjoying musical devices was forbidden, he lent his well-known voice to spoken phrase and youngsters’s albums that stay large sellers within the Muslim world. However, he grew to become embroiled within the controversy surrounding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa towards the author Salman Rushdie, main many to dissociate themselves from his music.

Finally, although, Stevens picked up a guitar and started writing songs once more. In 2006, he returned to pop music underneath the identify Yusuf, releasing the primary of some tentative-sounding new recordings, however by 2014 he’d come round to accepting his musical previous as soon as once more — a minimum of midway. Billing himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens (the identify he at present makes use of; on Twitter, his bio says “Yusuf Islam the Artist also referred to as Cat Stevens”), he made an album with producer Rick Rubin, appeared at his Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame induction, and launched into his first American tour because the ’70s. In live performance, he started revisiting a broad sampling of his early work with a dedication and keenness lots of his followers by no means anticipated to see — myself included.

Now, he’s reissuing his Cat Stevens catalogue. Final yr, he launched golden-anniversary field units of what are arguably his inventive high-water marks, the albums “Mona Bone Jakon” and “Tea for the Tillerman,” initially launched inside seven months of one another in 1970. This fall, 1971’s “Teaser and the Firecat” will get its personal deluxe reissue, and there are plans afoot to observe it up with anniversary editions of every of Stevens’s Nineteen Seventies albums, sequentially (1978’s “Again to Earth” is the one one to be reissued out of order, in 2019). He’s additionally simply accomplished a draft of his autobiography. For devotees of Stevens’s basic materials, it might probably really feel as if he’s making amends for having walked away from his music all these years in the past.

However is that actually truthful? Or true? Meditating on this throughout the pandemic made me take into consideration what duty, if any, artists need to their viewers. If we agree that artwork has the facility to disclose us to ourselves, to assist us make sense of the world and our place in it, can we then have the suitable to count on artists to be devoted stewards of that relationship? There could also be no musician who prompts this query as immediately as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. And since Stevens now seems to be in legacy-tending mode, it appears applicable to surprise what precisely that legacy is — for me, for him, for us.

In December, throughout the darkest winter many people have ever lived via, I started digging via the brand new field units of “Mona Bone” and “Tillerman. Listening to these information once more, and having not too long ago turned 50 myself, a creeping realization started to take form: that extra than simply being professionally indebted to Stevens, I’d really not even be the individual I’m as we speak had I not been uncovered to his music. However not simply any of it. This music. These albums, from which the majority of the “Harold and Maude” soundtrack had been culled.

I believe that this has to do with the essential developmental juncture I used to be at once I first encountered them, at the moment in life when simply present can really feel like one large, adolescent harm. The world stops making sense; the relationships we have now with our households, associates and ourselves are continually being dashed towards the rocks. It’s a time when many people first grasp for the anchor of music and maintain on for pricey life.

Greater than something, Stevens’s pair of 1970 albums are about trying to find authenticity in a tradition that doesn’t assign nice worth to it. (For my highschool yearbook quote, I’d chosen a lyric from a later tune, “Drywood,” that went: “Throw down your masks and be actual.” Outdated associates nonetheless tease me about it.) If the lyrics have a rebellious streak, it isn’t one with a political ax to grind, however a private one. The questions Stevens asks are the results of objectively noting the choices we’re prompted to make as people, and as a society.

On songs like “I Assume I See the Gentle,” “Miles From Nowhere” and “On the Street to Discover Out,” Stevens is attempting to type via what’s actual and what’s not. On “The place Do the Kids Play?” his Socratic questioning of the established order continues to be related:

Nicely you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air

However will you retain on constructing larger

’Til there’s no extra room up there?

Will you make us chortle, will you make us cry?

Will you inform us when to stay, will you inform us when to die?

The recordings of those songs are stuffed with feeling, stuffed with in search of and longing. They specific a sort of hopeful loneliness, what Victor Hugo known as “the happiness of being unhappy.” Embedded in them too is that sense that originally resonated so deeply with me: the promise of eventual and ecstatic launch. This was the sensibility that, in my case, fueled spontaneous highway journeys searching for new expertise, and epic bouts of music-making that eclipsed primary wants like meals and relaxation. Stevens’s songs supported these methods of pondering and being, encouraging me to stay as totally and freely as doable.

On “Arduous Headed Lady,” “Wild World” and “Perhaps You’re Proper,” Stevens gives variations on the themes of affection and loss, once more craving for one thing pure, devoted and sustained. His phrases might not attain the poetic heights achieved by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and so they’re not richly allusive like Dylan’s, nor wryly resilient like Paul Simon’s. There’s not one of the indifferent cool discovered within the songs of Invoice Withers and Jackson Browne, nor the Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship of Carole King and Harry Nilsson. What units Stevens aside from his contemporaries is the way in which he is ready to inhabit an area that exists smack in between earnest innocence and earned knowledge.

Nowhere is that this higher exemplified than within the pièce de résistance of those information, “Father and Son.” It’s a tune that, within the summary, appears straightforward to dismiss as a trope of the early ’70s singer-songwriter period. However listening to the unique recording once more has the facility to burn off any sense of treacly nostalgia. There’s a simplicity to the way in which the recording’s varied components mix — the composition, the efficiency, the manufacturing — that’s breathtaking, surprisingly soulful and nonetheless packs an emotional wallop.

After my reunion with these two 1970 information, I listened to “Teaser” and its follow-up, “Catch Bull at 4” — and I had the sense that a lot of the inventive success of this explicit clutch of albums needed to do with the deft, understated contact of the producer he collaborated with: the previous Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. The chamber ensemble palette Samwell-Smith employed, consisting primarily of acoustic guitars, piano, upright bass and hand percussion, and the refined preparations he crafted, completely complement the inside landscapes that Stevens was exploring. Stevens had the pure, uncooked expertise, actually, however it was Samwell-Smith who appeared to know how finest to transmute and place that expertise for max inventive impression. These stay attractive information and deserve a spot among the many most stunning, satisfying pop albums of their day.

However after “Catch Bull” in 1972, Stevens’s music devolved. He grew to become a stylistic dilettante, venturing awkwardly into the realms of R&B, fusion, prog-rock and digital music, and providing non secular sample-platters — somewhat Buddhism right here, some astrology there, half-baked helpings of Taoism, numerology and Christianity. It was as if Stevens was attempting on one outfit after one other, mixing and matching within the hope that some mixture would ultimately work.

Nothing did, which can be one motive Stevens is never talked about in the identical breath as a few of these different outstanding singer-songwriters from that period. When, in 1978, he abruptly withdrew from the music scene, he severed not solely his relationship along with his profession, however with the numerous followers who nonetheless felt linked to his finest music.

Billy Joel stopped releasing albums of latest work in 1993, however he didn’t cease performing, or ask his report firm to cease promoting his music, as Cat Stevens did at one level after he grew to become Yusuf Islam. Stevens didn’t simply break up along with his followers; by denying the worth of the music he’d made, he insulted our aesthetic sensibilities — and our judgment.

“Artists owe no person something,” the tradition author Greil Marcus advised me in no unsure phrases, in response to a immediate I despatched him about artists’ tasks to their viewers. “Folks make investments themselves within the artists they care about. … However finally I believe artists’ followers have an obligation to not betray themselves via what Robert Christgau as soon as named ‘autohype.’ Which means convincing your self that whoever’s clearly inferior, faux, corrupt, silly or simply plain uninteresting work is pretty much as good as something they ever did — that if one simply seems to be onerous sufficient, the flowers of genius will blossom.”

Which is to say that it’s a mistake to conflate artists with their work. After we elevate folks to the sort of heroic pedestal that many, together with me, put Stevens on, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Artists are imperfect, like all of us, and sure to vary. As Ruth Gordon’s Maude says to Bud Cort’s Harold in Ashby’s movie: “Consistency isn’t actually a human trait.”

However what about artists who cease sharing their presents? Did Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison or J.D. Salinger deprive us of one thing we in some way deserved after they stopped publishing extra work throughout their lifetimes? Is Elvis Presley’s spellbinding 1968 “Comeback Special” damning proof that we had been cheated by his choice to dither away years of his expertise making dangerous motion pictures? Is Daniel Day-Lewis responsible of a cultural crime for having walked away from performing?

Stevens stopped making pop music for nearly three many years, and now he’s come again. I wished to convey up these points with him immediately, however I first needed to be vetted by his handlers, one among whom is his son and supervisor, Yoriyos Adamos. Then I used to be given a sequence of circumstances: Yoriyos would even be on the decision with Stevens, which might be restricted to 45 minutes, and the Zoom session may very well be audio-only, although this remaining restriction was lifted once I advocated for the significance of nonverbal communication.

A couple of days later, there Stevens was, on my display, beaming in from his house in Dubai. We started our dialog speaking about his early work. “The songs had been higher than I used to be,” he advised me. After the massive success he’d had with Samwell-Smith, he’d moved to Rio de Janeiro for a couple of years “to cover away … to empty myself, to flee. I used to be alone, completely alone … like a cat that you simply get too near,” he advised me, with none obvious irony.

After which we obtained into his relationship along with his viewers. He now feels that he may have dealt with his exit from the music world in 1978 extra gracefully, and he advised me that till not too long ago he had solely a restricted understanding of the extraordinary emotional attachment folks nonetheless need to his songs. This didn’t sound like false modesty; he appeared genuinely shocked by the truth that, throughout his current return to touring, his outdated songs may provoke the sort of catharsis he witnessed from one present to the subsequent. “I imply, I knew that there was a loyal listenership,” he mentioned, “however I simply didn’t notice how a lot folks’s lives modified as the results of listening to my music.” He acknowledged that his return to energetic music-making has been pushed largely by the duty he feels to share the inventive abilities he’s been given. And never simply with some audiences, however with everybody.

Stevens introduced, convincingly, as a reasonably common man, and I used to be nonplussed to listen to him discuss messing round with GarageBand at house, and concerning the regular food plan of streaming content material he and his spouse absorb at night time. They’d not too long ago screened the South Korean TV drama “The Empress Ki” and Ashby’s “Being There” (each of which he beloved), in addition to “Recreation of Thrones” (which he didn’t look after in any respect), and he admitted to being a giant fan of motion movies. (“I really like to look at Tom Cruise leaping over the roofs,” he advised me.) He was straightforward to speak with, freed from the sorts of defensive posturing I’ve seen him assume in different interviews. I believe he was as shocked as I used to be when Yoriyos chimed in to announce that our time was up.

This was too dangerous. It felt like we had simply gotten began, and I wasn’t even midway via my questions but. After I later requested Yoriyos about the opportunity of scheduling a follow-up, he was receptive to the concept.

Making the argument for a second interview, I advised Yoriyos — simply in case this was a priority — that I wasn’t serious about speaking concerning the Rushdie fatwa, and that it was not a spotlight of my piece. Stevens’s place on that had been made clear through the years in public statements, in his 2014 guide, on a bit of his web site known as “Modifying Ground Blues,” and in a tune by the identical identify. The subject, I believed, was prone to be a useless finish. When requested, at a 2017 TED convention, whether or not he regretted how the Rushdie controversy performed out, he raised his eyebrows and replied testily, “I remorse the query.”

As an alternative, what I actually wished to do was to get right into a extra nuanced dialogue with him about how audiences and artists are likely to the connection they share, what occurs when it breaks down, and what the method of restore seems to be like.

Yoriyos advised me that his father was open to a different chat, however due to his schedule, I must be a bit affected person. However as one month became two, and two into 4, and as I reported, researched and labored on drafts, I started to comprehend that in a narrative wrestling with what Stevens’s work meant to me — and what it’d imply to the broader world, given his profession arc — it will be irresponsible to disregard the Rushdie episode, a subject that rapidly arose in lots of conversations I used to be having about him, each with my editor and my sources.

Monitoring the historical past of the controversy, I went again to the 1989 look that Stevens made on the British TV present “Hypotheticals.” Earlier that yr, after Rushdie had formally been focused due to his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in his novel “The Satanic Verses,” Stevens had matter-of-factly confirmed that the Koran prescribes demise because the punishment for blasphemy. Now, on “Hypotheticals,” Stevens was requested immediately whether or not Rushdie deserved to die. “Sure, sure,” he replied, with out a lot hesitation. Have been Rushdie, a marked man, to come back to him for assist, how would he reply? With what he subsequently insisted was nothing greater than an ill-advised try at dry humor, a straight-faced Stevens mentioned: “I’d ring any individual who would possibly do extra injury to him than he would really like. I’d attempt to telephone the Ayatollah Khomeini and inform him precisely the place this man is.” When requested whether or not he would take part within the burning of an effigy of the creator, he replied that he would as an alternative hope it had been “the actual factor.”

When this system aired, a furor ensued, compelling Stevens to challenge a press launch indicating that his feedback had been manipulated within the enhancing room and brought out of context (this, although the New York Instances reported that Stevens had “watched a preview of this system as we speak and mentioned in an interview that he stood by his feedback”). However the injury had been completed. Radio stations boycotted Stevens’s music, and copies of his information had been destroyed in public demonstrations.

“For a few years, Yusuf Islam has been pretending he didn’t say the issues he mentioned in 1989, when he enthusiastically supported the Iranian terrorist edict towards me and others,” Rushdie wrote to me in an e-mail. “Nonetheless, his phrases are on the report, in print interviews and on tv packages. … I’m afraid Cat Stevens obtained off the peace practice a very long time in the past.”

Stevens has mentioned he by no means agreed with the fatwa, and that he needs folks would merely “transfer on” from this decades-old challenge. However the fatwa was not some historic footnote. There have been bombings of bookstores; folks related to the guide had been killed or attacked.

I additionally realized that the incident was not an remoted instance of Stevens making public statements at odds with the light, liberal-minded nature of his music. In a 1987 look on the College of Houston, he described the Jewish religion as “a distortion of monotheism,” and questioned primary ideas of recent science, together with the speculation of evolution. In a 1993 lecture, he known as those that would hurry to Rushdie’s protection hypocrites for giving America a go for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In one other look archived on YouTube (eliminated because the time I started scripting this piece), he defended the punishment of amputation for thievery, and in a 1997 interview with Andrew Anthony for the U.Okay. newspaper the Observer, he performed down studies of deaths by stoning of adulterous ladies in Afghanistan — arguing that this penalty has worth as a deterrent.

It now felt essential to observe up once more and to see whether or not Stevens would possibly speak to me about Rushdie in any case. In an e-mail, I advised Yoriyos that what I had written had advanced within the ensuing months, and, on condition that, would Stevens wish to touch upon the lingering discrepancies between what he mentioned again then, and the way he’s characterised these remarks since? At that time Yoriyos made clear his father wouldn’t be speaking to me once more.

Stevens’s publicist referred me to the FAQ part of his web site, during which Stevens bemoans the way in which he has been written about within the press. Elements of the location deal immediately with Rushdie, with headings that learn: “Did Cat Stevens Say, ‘Kill Rushdie!’?” and “Yusuf Islam Desires to See Salman Rushdie Burnt, Proper?” The location says: “I by no means known as for the demise of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini — and nonetheless don’t.”

Ultimately, my pandemic ruminations on Yusuf/Cat Stevens didn’t end in the kind of clear, satisfying conclusion I’d hoped for, however pondering once more concerning the movie that launched me to his songs led to an thought I can a minimum of stay with. In “Harold and Maude,” a mentor seems to a younger man in misery. She helps him to face on his personal two ft and guides him ahead. Then, unexpectedly, she departs, rupturing their relationship, however leaving him a present: the permission to be himself, to search out his personal method. Someway it’s taken me all these years to comprehend that this might additionally describe my relationship to Stevens.

At some point, this terrible time shall be behind us, and we’ll look again on the reckoning it impressed. We’ll keep in mind what it was wish to confront our decisions, to ask ourselves whether or not they proceed to have integrity and to be reminded that we’re all the time free to make new ones. The very best songs of Cat Stevens would have us do no much less.

Howard Fishman is a author, composer and performer primarily based in Brooklyn. | As Yusuf/Cat Stevens reemerges on the general public stage, how ought to we really feel about his music — and his legacy?


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