Steven Demitre Georgiou is an almost forgotten man these days, even when he 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 Firecat. But even on those unmistakeable triumphs there were signs of the discontent and restlessness that made him abandon music entirely at the end 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.
His music arrived at the perfect time. The cockeyed optimism of the 1960s had given way to the deaths of some of music's brightest stars, and the violent and senseless debacle of Altamont had tolled the death knell for the simplistic preachers of peace and love, man. There was a growing realization that rock stars were not only incapable of saving the world, but that they couldn't even save themselves. Into the breach stepped Cat Stevens, Joni 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.
It 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 has endured.