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Article from After Dark, April 1972. This magazine appears to be a New York City based Entertainment Magazine. Courtesy of Linda Crafar.

The Many Lives Of Cat Stevens

By Peter BuckleyBlack & White close up of Cat Stevens

Photographs by Jack Mitchell

His name is Steve—Stephen Demitri Georgiou, actually—but everybody calls him Steve. At least everybody he wants to call him. The rest of the world knows him as Cat Stevens, and there’s a lot of the rest of the world because he’s a pop star, a real-genuine-millionaire-media-devoured-superpopstar. He’s also quiet, gentle, shy and introspective and probably the best single musical talent to come out of Britain since John-and Paul-and-George-and-Ringo.

Writer, musician, performer, poet, painter, consummate artist, authentic primitive sophisticate, the Cat has already been through half a dozen of his allotted lives by the age of twenty-three—and he’s probably going through three of them right now; yet, he still finds the time to talk to himself. And he knows what he’s saying. And he knows enough to listen:

Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you want to start something new,
And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving, Baby, I’m grieving.
But if you wanna leave, take good care,
Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear,
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there.
Oh baby baby it’s a wild world;
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.
I’ll always remember you like a child — girl.

"Wild World" from Tea for the Tillerman

A poem set to music, it says something to me and to you, but in reality it’s a man talking to himself. Strictly autobiographical, the "you," "Baby" and "girl" all refer right back to Cat Stevens himself. He knows about that wild world outside of the shell— he’s been there before and, in spite of his nice things to wear, a lot of things did turn out bad. But no one, not even Steve Georgiou, can remain a child forever, except perhaps in memory.

Steve was born in London, the son of a Greek father and a Swedish mother. They ran a neon-zinc sandwich and coffee bar in the heart of the West End; glamorously, if inappropriately called the Moulin Rouge, it was hard work but provided a steady living.

As a kid, our Steve grew up in the midst of the concrete city, going to school in a flatblock down the road, pitching in as a short-order cook to earn some extra cash, messing around with his guitar when he had nothing else to do. Sort of like any other urban kid— well, sort of. He worked hard, kept straight, thought right, just like they all said, and most of all he kept his eyes open.

The Moulin Rouge still sits in that triangle at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue, overshadowed by the glittering marquees of its next-door neighbor, Hair.

They still serve a good bacon sandwich there, as well as a lousy cup of coffee, and the formica and tiles are as antiseptically clean and uninviting as ever. It all looks much as it must have looked in the Fifties and Sixties, but Steve is nowhere around. Oh, he had a pleasant enough childhood and the memories are good. He still loves his Mum and Dad and everything, but it was another life, a life he looks back on with wry affection always knowing that it’s something past, real yet unrelated.

Life number two—or perhaps three—came somewhere in the mid Sixties, and he did go away.

London was riding the crest of the great 20th century media hype that had christened it the cradle of the "swinging decade," and the music industry was beside itself gobbling up new talent. No, not all of it was talent and some of it wasn’t even very new, but along the way a few good people did manage to get sucked in. One of these was young Steve Georgiou.

But Georgiou is hardly a trip-off-the-tongue label for a teenager in love, so Cat Stevens was born. Like so many of Steve’s inspirational flashes, it seemed to just come out of the air, but in fact it was always there. "I chose my own name because I feel very feline. I’m aware of the way I walk and move. I always study everything around me and I’m a bit wary."

Cat hit the English charts with a snappy little number called "I Love My Dog" ("Dog" vs. Cat, it was all a little too cute, but then things were kinda-cute back then in the yeh-yeh 60’s), and quickly followed it up with a second top hit ‘I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun." His writing talents were further exploited by a wholesome plastic package of cuddlies called The Tremeloes, who warbled Steve’s "Here Comes My Baby" into a monster hit, and Cat Stevens was becoming a name to be reckoned with in Britain and on the Continent. The writer-performer-pop idol was all of seventeen at the time, and, in spite of the fact that he looked a bit like an emaciated field mouse with a long twitching nose and beady eyes awandering, crowds of ravers swooned and wet their knickers at the mere mention of his name. And the money poured in and the pressures grew and everything got a little out of hand.

The immediate appeal of his early work was in his uncomplicated, direct, lyrical charm—simplicity, even naiveté was the key—but all too soon the producers and A & R men, the ones who knew best about that sort of thing, started drowning this simplicity in elaborate arrangements. Echo chambers, strings and boy choirs began to trip into one another in the over-production, and the Cat who loved his dog got lost in the shuffle. Out of this dizzy period came ‘Matthew and Son," a brilliant, sophisticated song and a recording that remains one of the best discs of the 60’s, but as good as "Matthew" may have been, it was also Cat’s swan song.

A big-time-popstar-teenage-idol at seventeen, a recluse at twenty. Steve contracted tuberculosis, or had a nervous breakdown, or had an overdose of his own image, or maybe he just split. Who really knows? Who’ll ever really know and does it make any difference anyway? By 1968 Cat Stevens was a washed-up has-been.

Trouble move away.
I have seen your face
And it’s too much for me today.
Trouble can’t you see,
You’ve made a wreck of me Now won’t you leave me in my misery.

"Trouble" from Mona Bone Jakon

Two years of private misery and self-pity, along with a lot of soul searching and rethinking, produced another Steve, and it was during this hiatus that he came into close contact with two people who were to have the greatest positive influence on this new life—his producer, Paul Samwell Smith, and his personal manager, Barry Krost. Calm and more at peace with himself. a brand new Cat Stevens returned to the recording studios in 1970, a post-teenager with a lot of past behind him and a sense of humor about it all. Mona Bone Jakon was a best-selling album that gave more than a few hints as to what had been going on over the quiet years, but its title song is really just a private little dirty joke he shared with anybody who bothered to listen. Mae West never did better:

Yes I got a mona bone jakon But it won’t be lonely for long.

And it wasn’t, but while his ‘penis song" sold by the hundreds of thousands, few realized that it was all about a guy with a hard-on (the cover illustration alone should have given it away). What they did hear, though, was Cat Stevens laying down some pretty heavy self revealing numbers: about himself in Pop Star" and "I Think I See the Light," about his dreams in "Katmandu," and about the people in and out of his life. Patti D’Arbanville came to Steve in his low period. She was straight out of Warhol’s Flesh and she became his Lady D’Arbanville. Lover-friend, one or both, he tells about it in ‘Maybe You’re Right":

I put up with your lies,
Like you put up with mine,
But God knows we shoulda stopped somewhere,
We could’ve taken the time.
But time has turned
So call it the end,
Just tell me did you,
Did you really love me like a friend.
You know you don’t have to pretend.
It’s all over now, it’ll never happen again.

No bitterness, only the wistful detachment that marked the new Cat Stevens, the Cat of the Seventies destined for bigger and better things than mere pop-star-itis. "Basically {he’s} a sophistication of your garden variety troubadours but with such scope and subtle power that he is irresistible," said The Saturday Review, and Variety went even further calling him "One of the most brilliant and important writers and artists Britain has ever produced."

Mona Bone Jakon was followed by Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, both million-sellers, and Cat Stevens’ concerts became sellout events from Stockholm to San Francisco. He hit America like a whirlwind—he was new in the States, a fresh talent without a hangover from the old days, and the only Cat they knew about was the Now-Cat. And Europe forgave him his past excesses and turned him into their overnight idol—again.

But it’s something he can handle now. "Back then, the last time I was a ‘Pop Star,’ I took the whole thing so seriously. All those image photo sessions and inane interviews with idiot teeny bopper magazines." Today’s Cat Stevens smiles out from the pages of Vogue and Paris Match as well as the teeny bopper pap, but it’s an older Cat with wise, witty eyes peering through a wind-blown, hairy face. Trendy, expensive skins cover the lean body and he looks like some sexy, wild mountain gypsy who hasn’t been quite tamed. The animal magnetism—that feline quality—is greater than ever.

The interviews, however, are another thing. He doesn’t like them, he doesn’t feel he needs them, and if he can help it, he doesn’t do them. As he told Rolling Stone—which finally trapped him in Texas after striking out four times—"l don’t do interviews because it’s exhausting. People prying into things, especially the underground . . . When I used to do interviews, I always impressed people as being nervous. And I am nervous, but it’s because of the interview." And that’s about all he had to say, even to the Green Meanies from Stone; the rest is all in his music, but it’s all there.

A private person, Steve lives pretty much by himself, playing his music, writing, listening, drawing (he’s done all of the illustrations on his album covers) and trying to work it all out. Invitations to parties, dinners, public appearances and whatever are usually turned down with a polite, "I don’t think I can make it." He lives in a modest, converted Victorian house in a less-than-fashionable section of SW London, a long way from the West End bustle of his childhood, and like Miss Garbo, he really does want to be alone.

His circle of acquaintances includes actors, artists, writers, models and photographers, those who don’t think twice about renting a private plane to hop over to Amsterdam to catch a Cat Stevens concert:

I know many fine feathered friends,
But their friendliness depends on how you do.
They know many sure fired ways,
To find out the one who pays and how you do.

"Hard Headed Woman" from Tea for the Tillerman

As for his close friends, the intimates, they number less than half a dozen.

In concert this extreme shyness (or should we call it an aggressive privacy of person, since no public performer can honestly claim to be shy?) becomes an asset. He slides onstage in his hand-tooled silk jeans, hunches over his guitar until he is almost in a fetal position and gets down so close to his mike that it becomes a part of him. As he tilts his head to one side and gives out with a little short rehearsed chat, there’s an immediate and extraordinary feeling of intimacy with the audience. When he glides over to the piano for a quick set on the keys, you feel the crowd glide with him, and when he leaves at the end of the evening, the applause is warm and truly appreciative. As sickening as it may sound, there is really a lot of love generated at a Cat Stevens concert.

Cat walking on beachMick Jagger and Rod Stewart are the hot-shot front men who belt an audience into a response; Elton John and Leon Russell wow them with the old one-two of snazzy showmanship backed up by rich, flowing melodies; James Taylor, the king of the gosh-fellows-do-you-really-mean-it school, comes on with such relentless, disarming charm, that he shams the audience into adoration. Cat Stevens is somewhat a combination of all of these, yet very much his own man. Of course, that’s what makes him a star. He’s definitely not a rocker, but then he’s certainly not a foot-tangled, back-to-nature folk singer either. His melodies tend to be on the familiar side, but his lyrics are pure poetry—simple yet sophisticated, they mix reality with imagery in a direct, uncomplicated way.

As a musician, Cat Stevens is many things, but as a performer, he is first and finally a professional. There’s nothing gimmicky or showy in his concerts; they’re clean and unstartling, warm and full of charm, and predictably brilliant. Onstage he is relaxed and confident; he knows what he is going to do and he knows that he’s going to do it well. Up until that moment when he walks out in front of an audience, you know that he’s been tuning, practicing, perfecting; he’s been working hard to make it all look so easy. And it does.

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