- Hit Parade
- December 1971
- Written by Larry Leblanc
" I hope I never get to
that point "
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," "Im 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 dont exist here--he makes you wish
youd 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 doesnt 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 producers 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
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 didnt have my ideals right. I was completely upside down.
"I realized that
although Id spent all that time working and striving, I still knew nobody. I was
lonely. I thought whats 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. Its all right to feel something
but its nice to know what you feel.
Almost a year ago, Island
Records released "Mona Bone Jakon," Cats 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
DArbanville," 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
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 Westons Troubadour; and the
publicity devoted to it by A&M Records (islands 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, Ill realize it. Actually, the only thing to do is to split because
its not for money.
"I think it had a lot
to do with myself at the time. I wasnt strong. I was ready for something like that.
I see myself so much stronger now.
"Things are starting
to happen with the records," and Im going to start getting pressurized again. I
think this happened with The Band. Their third album was like that. Ill never get to
that point again.
"The two albums were
well received in England. Its given me a lot of freedom to do what I want todo. The
people there have always been ready to listen to what Im 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 wasnt even trying."
"You cant plan
it," he warns, unsmiling. "It just happens and thats the moment.
Youve got to reach that thing. You think about it: its gone completely. So you have
to let your instinct guide you. I wasnt even trying stint guide you. I wasnt
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
its not time to make a change, to relax, take it easy. The son answers that
its always been the same old story--"From the moment I could talk I was ordered
to listen, now theres away and I know I have to go. "I realized--I
lost my ego," says Stevens. "That was the main thing.
Thats how I managed
to write that song with two people in it. Theyre both right. You take a lot of songs
and maybe its only one person saying it and theyre saying one thing. And thats
quite definite. But I dont feel that definite about my ego anymore. Ive had a
very big shock and thats
I feel quite frightened
sometimes that I dont have this confidence a lot of people still have because I
dont think about that.
"First of all you do
things for yourself. Thats 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 wouldnt write it because Ive already got it in my head. The fun of
it is getting it across, to get people in saying they like it. Thats 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 youre there you can go for
miles. Its 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 theyre 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 --youre one. Thats where it all
works, when youre home. A lot of people just run around as fractional -- bits here,
He returns to pessimism and
optimism to illustrate his present position."I feel both. Its the same thing.
Like "Maybe Youre Right, Maybe Youre 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
"Its no use
being happy and every. one else being unhappy because that wont make it," he
cautions, stroking his beard. "There are so many unhappy people that weve got
to take this point of view in order to come through to their way. Otherwise if youre
completely happy, they wont be able to see or grab it quite as completely, as if
youre right there with them. Now you say: we can go up. Thats much
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 doesnt 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. Thats why sometimes I break in to the
middle, completely, suddenly. Youre got people. The moment it stops, It begins.
Its like you dont have to play so loud. In fact the quieter you play the more
people will listen."
His songs are written
during moments when he Isnt really thinking about doing It. When hes 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
thats 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. Thats what Im going
to write about.
"In the studio you
must start again," he adds, after a pause. "Youre written the song now you
have to sing It. Youre got to record it. You have to create It again. Almost have to
write it over. Its 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 theres 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.