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I raise my hand and touch the wheel of change
taking time to check the dial

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Hit Parade
December 1971
Written by Larry Leblanc


   ~CAT STEVEN~Hitp1271.jpg (8156 bytes)


" I hope I never get to that point "


Cat Stevens is back with us, has a new album, some thoughts on leading the happy life, and several succinct words about coming a hype away from death.

He is either stoutly defended as one of the five greatest composers of au time or vaguely remembered as an odd name in the English music scene that flashed briefly before our eyes and then vanished. Five years ago straight out of art school, he rose to brilliant stardom with "I Love My Dog," "Matthew and Son," "I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun," "First Cut Is The Deepest."

At seventeen he was a full-fledged pop idol.

People grabbed at him at parties, pumped his hand, and steered him into corners to tell him they loved his work so much. He had rave reviews from every publication in England that could get someone into see him. He was on the cover of a tremendous number of music in papers. The photographers snapped away, click-click-click.

And then there was such a social scene, so many parties and celebrities adopting him and places to see. Managers, musicians, fans and critics built up his ego till it got to the point where he was swell-headed. When he speaks of his past, today, all his expression coming from his voice, which plays on patterns of speaking that simply don’t exist here--he makes you wish you’d been there, to see the outrageousness of the Super-star scene: the flags, the banners, the horns, the blaring ego. Talking in his dressing room in Buffalo, during a tour with Traffic, he doesn’t remind you of the fiery star of the mid-sixties.

A Cancer he has soft and gentle beauty in the features of his face, very much like an angel in a Renaissance painting, the look of original innocence joined with a genuinely shy manner and soft, youthful voice makes him outwardly appear younger than his 22 years.

His expression is darkest when he speaks of those early recording sessions in which the producer’s rules and goals conflicted with his own. The multitude of studio musicians were also apparently less than impressed with being a Superstar and consequently gave him all manner of overproduction as well as a hand, the result being you had to wade through so much plastic fluff to get to Cat Stevens.

"We had a twenty piece band," recalls Cat, disgustedly. "Everytime we were in the studio none of them were really interested in what we were doing. Nothing to do with it. They were just getting paid."

What really upset him was the most commercial, the beatiest or the simplest songs were picked by his recording company to be released. His own suggestions were ignored.

At the beginning he thought he could cope with everything. But then events were blurred, blown right out of proportion. The songs were over-arranged right into the ground. In a short time he entered into a long series of disastrous flops. The first record which missed was, ironically, "Bad Night." Physical disaster struck in the form of tuberculosis and he was hospitalized in September 1968 for three months. Then he traveled, made friends (he never had any before) and thought about his past style of life.

"I dropped everything for a time and then suddenly I realized what I wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to do it a-gain only I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do it truthfully. Before it was all messed up. I didn’t have my ideals right. I was completely upside down.

"I realized that although I’d spent all that time working and striving, I still knew nobody. I was lonely. I thought ‘what’s the point of living here if you have to live alone?’ I decided then to get myself together as a person. I was an instant public figure but had nothing to myself except what I felt. It’s all right to feel something but it’s nice to know what you feel.’’

Almost a year ago, Island Records released "Mona Bone Jakon," Cat’s first album in two years. It was a wonder summary-with-introspection and so simple. He played piano, organ and guitar; and was backed up by an additional guitar, a bass, flute and percussion. The mesh was ideal, the lyrics, voice and music caught his mood perfectly. Yet, the superb album generated less than its share of praise among pop critics and journals. One cut, "Lady D’Arbanville," reached #4 on the British chart and was a regional hit in Canada.

The recently released "Tea for’ the Tillerman," an extension of the basic idea he investigated in the previous album, is quite possible the best record, the simplest, to appear in the last five years.

Although it deviates little from the track laid down by the earlier album; it is immensely popular in North America (it was big in England before~ because of: I) the tour with Traffic; 2) individual appearances at The Bitter End in New York, and Doug Weston’s Troubadour; and the publicity devoted to it by A&M Records (island’s North American distributor).

Its success brings the possibility of Cat again being confronted with the tag superstar and its implications. "I hope I never get to that point," he says. "I keep an eye on myself and if that happens, I’ll realize it. Actually, the only thing to do is to split because it’s not for money.

"I think it had a lot to do with myself at the time. I wasn’t strong. I was ready for something like that. I see myself so much stronger now.

"Things are starting to happen with the records," and I’m going to start getting pressurized again. I think this happened with The Band. Their third album was like that. I’ll never get to that point again.

"The two albums were well received in England. It’s given me a lot of freedom to do what I want todo. The people there have always been ready to listen to what I’m doing-—even if I do, like in the old days, a bad one."

The song "On The Road To Find Out," from the new record, is the most autobiographical of his material. It directly relates to his experience of finding himself and concludes: "Then I found my head one day when I wasn’t even trying."

"You can’t plan it," he warns, unsmiling. "It just happens and that’s the moment. You’ve got to reach that thing. You think about it: its gone completely. So you have to let your instinct guide you. I wasn’t even trying stint guide you. I wasn’t even trying. That was the moment I was relaxed and-ready to take it."

He has also done a very nice thing for modern-pop music: he has injected into it a sense of duality. He paints his picture-songs with a dab of irony and a dash of awe, and somehow never neglects a delicate balance of pessimism arid optimism.

For example "Father and Son" gives two contrasting views of life: a wise, weary father tells his son that it’s not time to make a change, to relax, take it easy. The son answers that it’s always been the same old story--"From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen, now there’s away and I know I have to go.’’ "I realized--I lost my ego," says Stevens. "That was the main thing.

That’s how I managed to write that song with two people in it. They’re both right. You take a lot of songs and maybe its only one person saying it and they’re saying one thing. And that’s quite definite. But I don’t feel that definite about my ego anymore. I’ve had a very big shock and that’s

I feel quite frightened sometimes that I don’t have this confidence a lot of people still have because I don’t think about that.

"First of all you do things for yourself. That’s why you start. You love yourself. It would be useless for me to write songs just for me, if I thought I was just writing it and no one would ever hear it. I wouldn’t write it because I’ve already got it in my head. The fun of it is getting it across, to get people in saying they like it. That’s the pay-off!

He described the struggle it was for him to break through the ego to that forgotten naturalness.

Finding that centre, that simple thing, he says, can take a long time. "Once you’re there you can go for miles. It’s just finding that spot. It can take someone 50 years. With me I was lucky because I had an illness that helped me to get nearer to where I was originally.

"Some people are two different people when they go out and sing and when they write to who they’re friends are and who they mix with and what they say to them as well. The greatest thing to me is to bring those two worlds together. If you actually say something to somebody and they understand what you mean and they hear your record and they understand what you mean and they see you and they understand what you mean --you’re one. That’s where it all works, when you’re home. A lot of people just run around as fractional -- bits here, bits there."

He returns to pessimism and optimism to illustrate his present position."I feel both. It’s the same thing. Like "Maybe You’re Right, Maybe You’re Wrong" on the first album, I take both sides. I want to stand in the middle all of the time because that is a guide for me.

"It’s no use being happy and every. one else being unhappy because that won’t make it," he cautions, stroking his beard. "There are so many unhappy people that we’ve got to take this point of view in order to come through to their way. Otherwise if you’re completely happy, they won’t be able to see or grab it quite as completely, as if you’re right there with them. Now you say: ‘we can go up’. That’s much easier."

In this case the performer is largely his own producer--he has translated concept Into actuality with remarkable grace. Studio electronics is an extremely structured affair and the artificiality at the core of creation has stunted the artistic growth of a number of musicians. But thanks to the calm surefootedness of Stevens, producer Paul Samwell-Smith, a small number of back - up musicians, the record company, there has been no flaws; Cat Stevens has been delivered to the public fully grown (by current standards) and as still growing (standards change).

"It takes work," he says, smiling.

"Immediately you get a song you want to put in drums. You want to put in boss. You think ‘how am I going to . . .‘ That doesn’t work anymore. At least not for me. I like to be surprised. it has to fit perfectly not lust drums, rhythm. It has to be much more than that--the awareness you get sometimes Into a song. That’s why sometimes I break in to the middle, completely, suddenly. You’re got people. The moment it stops, It begins. It’s like you don’t have to play so loud. In fact the quieter you play the more people will listen."

His songs are written during moments when he Isn’t really thinking about doing It. When he’s not hung up in any particular way.

"It could be anywhere" he reveals, "but I sav, to be by myself. If I have someone In the room that’s great because you get vibes from the start--the rhythm or something. But to finish it, to get into the intricacies of it; I have to be by myself.

"The greatest thing is to sit down and write lyrics. Sometimes I have a tune and I say ‘what Is this tune and why did I write this tune and what are my feelings and what emotionally does it mean to me1 When I find out I say ‘right.’ That’s what I’m going to write about.

"In the studio you must start again," he adds, after a pause. "You’re written the song now you have to sing It. You’re got to record it. You have to create It again. Almost have to write it over. It’s never the same as when you first wrote it."

However, he has released two strangely beautiful albums, solid enough to be a collection of 45s. The images are easily real and the music is profoundly comforting; yet there’s the edge of a story that fades without ever revealing oil it has to tell. Perhaps, a third album will complete the tale.

What is important is something is happening with this British composers and people lust ought to know about it.


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