Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Well this cat has certainly run a ragged path around his image(s) over the decades, so as good a candidate as any for this thread, even if he is surreptitiously slipping back out of the more severe incarnation of his current given name.
Born Steven Georgiou, of joint Greek Cypriot and Swedish stock, in 1948, one recurring theme throughout his careers has been an apparent sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness, never proving himself comfortable within the confines and constrictions of the music industry, and uncomfortable with the adulation of his fans, with repeated searches for solutions to the mysteries of life. How much of this could be explained by the polar opposites of his Greek orthodox and Baptist parents, who, effectively, split the difference in their ideologies, and sent him to a Catholic school, remains open to conjecture, but it seems he was an aloof and lonely lad, happier in his own company, tinkering with those musical instruments made available to him. Like many later musicians of his generation, Art School became the obvious next step, which clearly was not entirely without merit, as he was responsible for the design of many of his album covers. Originally seeking a musical career under the name Steve Adams, his first success came as a songwriter. If he had stalled there alone, he would probably still be remembered fondly, if only for this song, covered memorably by PP Arnold, Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow and many more. He sold it to PP for £30, currently about $50.
Performing solo in pubs and clubs, a name change was more seriously applied to, with some insight as to what may help, believing the US marketplace was full of animal lovers. Thus Cat Stevens was born, and he swiftly picked up a recording contract of his own. Furthering the animal metaphor a step ahead, his first UK top 30 hit was with, ironically, "I Love My Dog", and here his first image is outed, the swinging 60s fingerclicking hipster, velvet suit, dark glasses and a hideous over-produced backing. A couple more hits followed, "Matthew and Son", again subsequently much covered, including a reprise in the 2nd stage of his journey, and the now somewhat arch sounding, "I'm Gonna Get Me a Gun", a song I don't suppose still likely to feature in his act.
The contracting of tuberculosis in 1969 ground this early start into the ground, the long hospitalisation instilling in him a hunger for some spiritual fulfillment, as he gave up meat and took up meditation and yoga, growing long both hair and beard. It was a very different Stevens that re-launched in 1970, as a lovelorn folkie troubadour, with Mona Bone Jakon, getting his first US gold record with "Lady D'Arbanville", his appearance now perfect for the 70s singer-songwriter boom. Successive LPs became bigger and bigger, through Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat and Catch Bull at Four, these 3 being my personal favourites in his canon. And, because I can, this was my favourite song, and still is, perhaps revealing quite what a shy and introspective boy I was........
Disillusion was seeping in, and he relocated to Brazil in 1973, in part as a tax exile, developing a more "varied" style, of additional electric instrumentation, with synthesisers and a funkier feel to the fore. It didn't work for me, and he and I parted ways. During this time he began to explore other religions, converting to Islam in 1976 after a(nother) near-death experience. Changing his name again to Yusuf Islam, in 1978 he turned his back on the music industry, in part believing the vanities thereof were contrary to teachings of the Koran, devoting himself to philanthropy and education, opening several Moslem schools in London, and working with a number of equivalent charities. Unwittingly, given his prominence amongst Islamists, hindered by some unhelpful and possibly misquoted commentary on 9/11, he was, in 2004, denied entry to the US and sent back to the UK, arousing a transatlantic political furore between the respective governments. He was later able to return to the States in 2006.
In the latter part of the 90s there was a gradual return to music, albeit originally purely secular and without the adornment of instrumentation, and initially in Arabic. Now I am sure I would be wrong in suggesting that commercialisation had anything to do with it, seeing as his income, in 2007, was estimated at still being $1.5 p.a. from U.S.royalties alone, but perhaps his fanbase were delighted when he suggested that his wholesale retreat from western music had been hastier than he had wished, and returned to admitting to and acknowledging, and playing songs from, his Cat Stevens years. His new material has not been a vast catalogue, nor, it's true, perhaps received to the level of his glory days, but he remains a world player, playing often for charitable causes close to his heart and faith. As a way of concluding this chameleon's chronicle, here is his version of someone else's song, the lyric presumably ringing true with his post-conversion experiences with the media and more. I am no expert and unqualified to discuss the intricacies and inconsistencies of (any) faith, but I would too chime in with the sentiment. Hell, I think he is just a great singer, who has written a shedload of a lot of good songs. It's good to have him back.
Here is quite a good documentary from a couple of years back.
So what am I going to point you to? Actually you can't goo wrong with any of his Greatest Hits collections, but for overall consistency it is, for me, Tea for the Tillerman and/or Teaser and the Firecat.