too much typing—since 2003

8.03.2006

a partial idiot's guide to Cat Stevens - (part 1)

For some reason, after a period of forgetting his music that lasted probably twenty-odd years, I've recently become reinterested in Cat Stevens. The recent (and very faithful) cover version of his "I Think I've Seen the Light" by the Loud Family no doubt contributed, but I think it's more generally one of my periodic attempts to revisit and re-evaluate music of the past.

The problem might be summed up by the fact that the first Cat Stevens song a lot of people think of is probably "Morning Has Broken" - which has become such a central item in terrible '70s "soft-rock" compilations that it colors his entire reputation. The song is atypical (it's not his lyric, for one thing), and its perspective is rather more willfully naive than Stevens' usual. To my ears it's one of his weakest songs - although I'm sure it's kept Stevens (who's converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam - perhaps you'd heard?*) and Rick Wakeman (who played the piano track) well supported over the years.

But Stevens is no Dan Fogelberg. (Saying that, I realize I'm thinking of that dreadful "Auld Lang Syne" thing he did: for all I know, Fogelberg's done better stuff.) As "folk-rockers" go, he's a bit less smooth and more unpredictable than most. His voice, for one thing, is rather rough-edged with a bit of a rasp to it, and while his music can often be quiet and beautiful, it's seldom entirely restful, since a certain rhythmic agitation shows up in both the musical rhythms and Stevens' vocal phrasings. And Stevens wasn't afraid to draw from other musical streams: to varying degrees he sometimes incorporated ideas from psychedelia, R&B, prog rock, and even Greek folk music (Stevens was born Stephen Georgiou, of Greek and Swedish parentage).

After a period of songwriting success at a very young age, Stevens was stricken with tuberculosis and essentially left music entirely - something he would do yet again, after another brush with death in the late '70s.

The point of the biographical info is to illustrate something I hear in his music: there is always a sense of fragility, of delicacy, but also of endurance, searching, and a somewhat restive sense of ill-ease. He never seems entirely at home. That Stevens ultimately ended up a religiously dedicated man is unsurprising. Even on his first solo album Mona Bone Jakon, while the lyric of "I Think I See the Light" seems to refer to a lover, the religious (in this case Christian) metaphor of light is barely beneath the surface at all. "Katmandu" (later successfully covered by Bob Seger - okay, that's a lie), while certainly being part of the Eastern vogue of the time (1970), seems more about difference, about getting away, but not to any place certain: the first line is "I sit beside the dark." (Peter Gabriel fans will want to note that Gabriel plays the flute on this song.)

Stevens' next album Tea for the Tillerman began his hitmaking career, with "Wild World" and "Longer Boats" both becoming popular (I remember hearing the latter quite a bit on FM radio in the late '70s and early '80s as well). "On the Road to Findout" is perhaps a defining early Stevens song, although you can hear his musical vocabulary stretching out a bit, with the rhythm nearing a gallop as it approaches the chorus. Stevens was never a rocker, but his music was quite often rhythmically energetic. The other side of his personality, the more delicate, reflective side, is on display in "Into White," maybe the single prettiest song he ever recorded. He's said the rather odd lyrics are a reflection of an acid trip (despite his spiritual image, the pop-star Stevens was not at all a monk). But it also reflects a simple, elemental sort of world, a world in miniature, and one whose specific images are very textural and colorful. Stevens was also a painter and illustrator who made his own album covers and released an illustrated children's book loosely based on songs from his third album Teaser and the Firecat.

He's stated that "Teaser" (the boy depicted in the cover image) represents the "soul" of the music, while "Firecat" is responsible for the musical tricks, the shifty time-signatures, the rhythmic fire of his music. This album solidified his commercial prominence, with "Moonshadow," "Peace Train," and the aforementioned "Morning Has Broken" all hitting the charts. "Bitterblue" is maybe a better song than any of those, one which could have profitably been covered by contemporary power-pop acts like Badfinger or the Raspberries. Stevens' own version approaches rock more closely than almost anything else in his catalog. "Changes IV" is another rhythmically energetic track, using a modified Bo Diddley rhythm and a rapid-strummed guitar punctuation (even if the lyrics are a bit...early '70s).

Next time, I'll write about Stevens' next three albums.

* Contrary to common belief, Stevens did not endorse the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. He was asked what Islam taught regarding blasphemy; he replied that it stated that blasphemy was punishable by death, but went on to state that Islam also required its adherents to obey the laws of the nation they lived in. Had Stevens been a Christian and been asked what the Bible says about blasphemy, the answer would have been the same (Leviticus 24:16).

2 comments:

Tim Walters said...

My favorite Stevens songs are "Into White" and "Sweet Scarlet," so I had high hopes for "Bitterblue." Alas, I don't think it's in the same league, although it's not bad.

Paula said...

Don't even get me started. Woops, you did.

I adore Cat Stevens and his music, from every era--the 60s mod-ish stuff, the folk stuff, and even some of the late-70s pop stuff.

And I have been in the position of having to explain/defend the whole stupid Salman Rushdie misunderstanding many times... including once on LoudFans.

It's bizarre to me how seemingly intelligent and tolerant people got all bent out of shape about that, and didn't bother to read what he actually said, or look beyond the hysteria. "Cat Stevens wants to KILL Salman Rushdie!"

Cat Stevens just seems like a stand-up guy. He has a happy, quiet life, a good marriage, lots of kids, uses his rockstar money to build orphanages, etc.

In the weeks after 9/11 when all music seemed ego-driven and weird and unlistenable to me, I kept coming back to TEASER AND THE FIRECAT b/c it is the music of my childhood (and thus comforting) and also because CS's deep brown eyes and compassionate face looked so much like a bizarro-world Osama Bin Laden, and that in a dream-logic kind of way, helped a lot.

So thanks for this.