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Article contributed by Linda Crafar

 

The Guardian 26 March 1998

When Cat Stevens turned to Allah, it wasn’t just his old name that he gave up. There was no place in Yusuf Islam’s life for either music or humour. So what’s he doing with a new record? And has he really lost the scowl? Simon Hattenstone reports.

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The man on reception says he doesn’t know if Yusuf will be coming today. I’m not sure what I’m doing here — or where I am, for that matter, I think I’m meeting Yusuf Islam who used to be Cat Stevens who used to be the little Greek Orthodox boy Steven Dimitri Georgiou many, many years ago Our date has not been confirmed, though. This flat, featureless building claims to be a hotel — London’s first Muslim-friendly hotel, according to the brochure — but masquerades as an old age people’s home.

"Yusuf lslam sometimes comes here," says the man on reception. "He pops in without telling us."

Oh, I say, confused, is Yusuf a friend?

"Yusuf lslam, a friend of mine? If only,"

Why "if only"?

"Well... Yusuf Islam is a great man." He lowers his eyes.

Does he remember him as Cat Stevens? Oh yes, he says, and he has listened to the old records in the past. But not now, of course. Now he listens to Yusuf Islam’s new song, The Little Ones, a haunting elegy for the dead children of Bosnia and Dunblane.

What does he prefer - classic pop songs like Father And Son, Morning Has Broken and Moonshadow or the spartan Yusuf of now?

"Oh, definitely now. It has more... value — yes, that is the word. It’s not pop music, not part of an industry it has a message."

If he didn't speak with such awe, you’d think he’d been primed. I ask him how he knows Yusuf Islam, and he tells me the great man is his boss, owns the hotel. "Look, look, that’s him across the road."

"Salam, Salaaaaaaaam, How are you doing? Salaaaaaaaam."

Bear hugs all round. The slight man with the black briefcase and hennaed beard looks younger, less severe than in the post '77, post-retirement, post-seeing-the-Islamic-light pictures I’ve seen. He’s wearing black trousers, a grandfather shirt, collarless jacket. Trim the beard, slip off the hat, add a few curly locks, a handful of bangles, and you could be face to face with Cat.

But Cat Stevens died in 1977. He cancelled a world tour, told us he was dazed and confused by the platinum discs, the fans, the venal business of music. He said he’d become a Muslim. Ta-ta, you won’t be seeing me again on Top Of The Pops.

And we didn’t. The press wondered aloud whether he’d gone potty like Peter Green and Syd Barrett before him. Meanwhile, Yusuf Islam emerged, and the Muslim activist and patrician set to work. A nice wife was found for him, and he settled down to half a dozen kids and began to badger the authorities. We need Muslim schools, he said, Our children have nowhere to learn. And he hectored and persuaded and bullied and bored anyone who’d hear him out.

The Government wasn’t interested, Brent Council wasn’t interested, local journalists only gave him the time of day because he used to be Cat Stevens. And when they discovered he considered music a blasphemy (only Allah can shake the soul) and wouldn’t talk about his former life, even they gave up on him. The young Yusuf Islam became a treasured battleaxe for the Muslim community and a bit of laughing stock to the rest of the world— a humourless dogmatist with fake exotic accent. He may have made himself as unattractive as possible to stave off would-be admirers, but he got things done. The first school was opened in 1983. Now there are four of them and the infants’ has been granted state aid.

"You've got to admit, it’s some story," says Bobby, Yusuf’s PR machine, "the man who disappears from music just like that, and then makes his first record for 20 years. Woooowww! Everyone wants his story, but he wants to talk about serious things like religion and Bosnia and education."

Yusuf Islam is the executive producer of the album I Have No Cannons That Roar, on which he has written two songs, one of which he sings. His voice is unchanged, but accompanied by a dulling drum rather than the guitar — stringed instruments are outlawed in parts of the Muslim community. The message of his songs is necessarily morose, but you can trace their lineage back to Tea For The Tillerman—he is still singing about how to relate to an incomprehensible world. The CD is dedicated to the former foreign minister of Bosnia whose helicopter was shot down by a Serb rocket, and part of the profits will go to Bosnian charities.

Do you mind if my daughter Alix sits in on the interview? I ask Yusuf.

"Welcome," he says. "I hope she’s not too bored."

And he smiles softly, benignly. It’s distracting, almost the smile of an idiot savant Eventually I realise it reminds me of Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, a sitcom that shared its prime with Cat Stevens.

He tells me how terrible it is that Bosnia is being ignored, that the conspiracy of silence about the genocide has allowed the ethnic cleansing to repeat itself in Kosovo, how astonishing it is that the culture has survived unscathed. I’m listening, agreeing, and I can’t help thinking how well the old cockney voice suits him.

I also can't help thinking that, despite his sincerity there is another agenda. That, actually, he does want to talk about music — music of the future and music of the past, as the terrible John Miles song went. That Yusuf Islam wants to reclaim some of Cat’s baggage.

We talk about the old days. I’ve been warned that he’ll skillfully reroute the conversation back to Islam, but he doesn’t.

Where on earth did the name Cat come from? It must have taken some crazed marketing genius to invent it.

"No", he says, bashfully. "I did"

Why?

"There were all sorts of influences, films like What’s New Pussycat?, Cat Balou ...Cats are beloved things to people, and I wanted to become beloved. I wrote a song called I Never Wanted To Be A Star, and it has a glimpse of truth. I just wanted a little bit of; you know, love."

Couldn't he get it from family, friends, lovers?

"I don't know. I was good at drawing, then it grew into music, and that appreciation….I suppose you just want more of it."

The diffidence makes sense. Cat Stevens never really enjoyed the pop game. Yes, he was Che Guevaraishly sexy, and wore an open-necked denim shirt like no one else. Yes, he had stacks of money and a girlfriend, the actress Patti D’Arbanville, who became the heroine of one of his songs and went on have an affair with Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, not to mention a tattoo on her bottom. But the real Cat Stevens was just a heaving soul of neuroses. The bedroom angst of the records — pretty, melancholic songs about flowers, love, fathers, mothers, dying, honesty, coping and not coping — was stamped in his heart.

"After the initial success, I found myself a fantasy figure," he says. "My whole life became exaggerated, and based on people’s idolisation. Unless you have experienced it, you can’t understand how terrifying that is. I needed to talk about my fears and my weaknesses, but despite the fact that I was surrounded by people all the time, there was no one for me to talk to."

He thought he was cracking up. Even the earliest cuttings talk about a man plagued by doubts, stammering and lisping away towards embarrassed inconclusiveness. He worried he had nothing to say to anyone because he’d said it all in his songs.

Did he like Cat Stevens?

"It was a name I had to learn to live with, and I never quite, hee-hee-hee, managed it." He giggles like a coy girl.

One day he ignored the danger warnings and went for a swim in the sea. He found himself lurching further and further into the depths. He found a prayer: if you save me, I will dedicate my life to you, God. A wave flung him round and he managed to swim back to safety. Soon after, his brother gave him a book about Islam.

Did he need to make such a violent break from his former life? He says that it rejected him as much as he rejected it.

"I cut myself off from many people because they refused to understand. If you only like me because I am like you, then what kind of friendship is that? If you like me for who I am, then you can still be my friend. There were many breaks I had to make because people wouldn't accept me for who I was."

Like so many converts, he became inflexible, extremist. He wanted to follow the letter of the law to I prove that even a former pop star could quote the Koran with the best of ‘em. He decided his former philosophy — love can cure all —was na´ve.

"Justice has to have a place before one can achieve peace and love."

He weaves an intricate moral maze with the concepts of justice, mercy, peace and love as Alix walks over to him with a picture of a man wearing a hat not unlike his own. "Oh, that's lovely...Why’s he wearing a flowerpot on his head?"

He regards Rushdie as a criminal, said he should be sent to Iran for his just deserts.

Does he feel the author of Satanic Verses is deserving of mercy?

"I don’t want to talk about that"

But it’s important, I say. Should he be allowed to live?

"Again, this is one of those things that once mentioned, becomes a headline... My views were misrepresented."

How?

"Again, I don’t really want to get into this. I think we should move on"

Why?

"Because it might focus people on it."

So we should forget the fatwah?

"It distorts Islam, its precepts, its conditions, its values. Law itself has so many aspects it cannot be narrowed down, Oh, Aliix, that’s very interesting"

She’s drawn a pair of flags.

"Wow, look — two opposites, Opposites mean they are on different sides... but the wind is blowing the same way."

She walks back to her little desk happy. His language may sound tortuous and obfuscatory, but on its own terms he is treading a new path every bit as radical as when he suddenly announced he was Cat Stevens and then Yusuf Islam. He does not seem interested in condemning and dividing these days. But he’s in a tricky position. He can’t be seen to be too critical of old friends — the traditionalists or fundamentalists, call them what you will —who remind us at every opportunity that Rushdie should be dead.

I mention that he seems more at peace with himself these days, more willing to embrace the paradoxes.

"I think I've had the time and space to look at what I’m doing, and today I suppose what I represent is British Muslim. I came to Islam after an extraordinary journey and in the end I had to discover a balance between who I am and the image — the things I stand for."

The war in Bosnia and his visit there helped bring about the transformation.

"You look at Bosnians and they’re all white, most of them blond Muslims from Europe, and they sit comfortably in their own surroundings."

He no longer blushes with dismay and anger at the life of Cat Stevens. He accepts it as a valid part of his life, his growth.

"It is the backdrop to who I am today."

Does he ever sing the old songs in the bath while scrubbing up for prayers?

"More than I used to. I’ve been revisiting songs from out of the archives because they want to release some unreleased material. So yeah, occasionally I find myself thinking about it - more thinking than singing."

Some of the songs still move him, and he screws up his eyes to quote from distant memory.

"Let me think. Well, there were sentiments like, like... If-I-ever-lose-my-eyes-uhm-If-I-ever-lose-my-eyes-I-won’t-have-to-cry"

It’s difficult to recognise when he quotes in monotone, but I sing anyway. His eyes light up and he smiles the Frank Spencer smile.

"That’s it, yeah—Moonshadow."

I tell him he seems desperate to be involved in music again.

"It’s not just music, it’s a matter of balance."

Is music really wrong? The point I’m trying to make is that culture, something quite natural, is a part of life.

"I may be criticised by some elements within the Muslim community but I feel confident enough to know that at certain times in certain places you do something to provide for the needs of the people. That’s why I went into schools. Now I’m moving past that to a cultural need, especially for an identification of something good with Islam."

What if he found himself in the charts again?

"Embarrassing" he whispers.

Why?

"This kind of music is for a selective audience. I’m not sure whether it would sell in large numbers. Today, a lot of it is hype, and this is nothing to do with the hype, it’s the real cause."

But there are millions who believe in the cause.

"Well, who knows what may happen. But it’s not what we’re after... Oh, Alix, those suns are lovely. But why are the clouds crying?"

Because they don’t want to rain, she tells her new friend. And they walk off together.

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