So many musical artists from my youth are burned into my memory, and soul, and I’ll be writing about a lot of them in the months to come. One artist in particular stands out not only for his music, but for his life journey as well: Cat Stevens.
He was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London on July 21, 1948. Confusion about life undoubtedly started young, as his father was Greek Orthodox and his mother a Baptist, and he was sent to a Catholic Primary school! His parents divorced when he was 8, surely affecting him emotionally.
He developed an interest in music early on in life, and by the time he was a teenager he was determined to become a songwriter and singer. When he was 19, he wrote the classic song “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” which has been recorded countless times, including by Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow. He was the fresh whiz kid and toured with several bands, including with Jimi Hendrix.
In 1968, he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and required months of treatment and recuperation. Near death experiences sharpen the mind like nothing else, and this was his first of two. He began to think more existentially thereafter, and this was reflected in his music. His next creative period would produce some of the most beautiful and profound music that I’ve heard to this day. This was the time when I first heard Cat Stevens.
In 1970, he released the first of two, in my opinion, perfect albums, “Tea For The Tillerman.” Every song on this groundbreaking album was unique, profound, and timeless. Ricky Gervais even used the title track for the introduction music for his hit show “Extras.” I was 14 years old, feeling my oats, among other things, and was trying to navigate the myriad of emotional and physical changes that I was experiencing. The first song that grabbed me was “Father And Son.” It captured the relationship that I had with my father at that time of my life, and tells the story of a concerned father and a son drifting into manhood:
(Father) ...but take your time, think a lot
Why, think of everything you've got
For you will still be here tomorrow
But your dreams may not.
(Son) How can I try to explain?
'cause when I do he walks away again
It's always been the same, same old story
From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen
Now there's a way, and I know
That I have to go away
I know, I have to go."
Wow. He wrote this when he was 22 years old. I now understand both the father and the son, but I sure as hell wasn’t able to at age 22! How did he?
I listened over and over to every song, finding new meaning each time. These were not sappy or kitchy songs–they possessed meaningful words tied to wonderful music. Songs like “Wild World,” “Miles From Nowhere” and “On The Road To Find Out” still resonate with me and my generation. I remember thinking that there could never be another album like this. Wrong!
In 1971, Cat Stevens released “Teaser And The Firecat.” The Vietnam war was raging, young men were dying, and the world was a scary place. On the album was a song called “Peace Train,” an anthem about brotherhood, understanding, and tolerance that stirred our generation. The message of the song remains unrealized, but is ever hopeful!
"Now I've been smiling lately
Thinkin' about the good things to come
And I believe it could be
Something good has begun
Oh Peace Train sounding louder
Glide on the Peace Train."
Another song on the album, “Moonshadow,” tells a secular “patience of Job” story of triumph over challenge.
“If I Laugh” is a song that offers comfort to a broken heart and resonates even today with anyone who has lost in love.
"'cause if I laugh, just a little bit
Maybe I can recall the way
That I used to be, before you
And sleep at night, and dream."
Cat Stevens released several more albums in the ’70s, with great songs like “Oh Very Young” from “Buddha And The Chocolate Factory” and “The Hurt” from “Foreigner.”
In 1975 Cat Stevens experienced his second near death experience after almost drowning in the Pacific Ocean. While struggling to survive, he has said, he promised God that he would dedicate his life to Him if he was spared. He re-evaluated his life and in 1977 converted to Islam. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam, stopped recording, and raised a family. In 2000, he ventured back into music, recording children’s albums.
Right after 9/11, he was a powerful Muslim voice against fanaticism, despite inaccurate reports that he supported radical Islamists. He began playing at peace rallies, reviving “Peace Train” and introducing his music to a new generation. He has since recorded several albums as Yusuf Islam including “An Other Cup,” in which he does a beautiful cover of the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor long overdue. And in 2017, he received, shockingly, only his first grammy nomination for Best Folk Album with “The Laughing Apple.” The songs reflect a more sober look at the world around him, yet still abound with childlike innocence and faith.
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam continues to inspire through his music, which now spans over 50 years. His search for life’s meaning has brought him full circle, back to music and back to spreading a message of peace, love, and hope.