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Topcat.jpg (15469 bytes)THE SUNDAY TIMES
5th. March 1972



Philip Norman talks to Cat Stevens, singer, composer, survivor.


To discuss brilliance in Pop music is difficult; for there you are a genius by proclaiming yourself one, and the greatest of them all, Elton John, sounds no more than a baby howling for a treat. Of Cat Stevens’s songs, two at least are already precious, Moonshadow and Father and Son, but is that enough? We below are so innocent. We live on in hope that, when our idols open their mouths to speak, our hearts may not sink.

Stevens gave a charity concert at the Drury Lane Theatre. That he is nowadays directed by a theatrical agent is one of several indications that he has, somehow, been reborn. The concert began in a most enthralling way: on time. Stevens hitched his guitar across his knees, and with the hollow bump it made the audience wanted, almost physically, his every word. He spoke little, except to say what he would sing: the audience at such a phenomenon, gasped. He declined to give an encore and they, though renewing the demand out of politeness, seemed to acknowledge he was right. Pop is either starvation or surfeit. Only rarely is it satisfactory.

Since his illness, Stevens has made three albums. They have brought him back so far as to be, in the flatulent over-productivity of his profession, one of a tiny number whose new work is genuinely awaited. Yet, late every morning, he appears to wake up to an entirely new beginning. There is the new management, a new house, a great many new clothes, since Stevens has not yet discovered the affected shabbiness of an habitual rich man. In his house, only one enlarged upper room is finished. It has no furniture: the floor is covered with presents he has bought for himself but not fully unwrapped, being too busy buying further presents.

He lives to do very little but write songs. He is mercifully free, however, of the dread conceit of lesser musicians - they and their "double-albums" and "maxi-singles". How they love to imply that the things which drop from them without effort all form up somehow, like heavy volumes, into a palpable body of art. Not even the lowest are exempt from this delusion - the disc-jockeys. At his concert Stevens did all the songs from the three albums: the lively ones in calypso segments like Tuesday’s Dead, the tender ones, like Morning Has Broken, with their quality of beautiful hesitation. Then he appeared to regard the work as disposed of. "I don’t see why you can’t make an LP and then go back to being a bad dustman." He qualified: " Well, not a bad dustman. But there’s always this terrible fear of losing ground."

The ground which he himself lost was considerable. After a hit record, Matthew and Son, he disappeared. One of his lungs had collapsed. He submitted to hospital and a long convalescence which would have been longer, but he escaped and camped above a deserted garage to show that he was well. Well, but forgotten. No-one wants to know an idol if he coughs, and there are limits to the goodwill of popularity charts.

His illness is widely supposed to have been the spring of Stevens’s present music. That is to suggest, however, that his early work was inferior when it wasn’t - I Love My Dog and other things. Their humour was as uncommon to their times as his new compositions to ours, with their tunes that are tunes, their rhymes that rhyme. The truth is that he came back from something far more serious than sick lungs. He has recovered from 1967.

When was that? Can anyone remember? Quaint notions existed then. One was that Tony Blackburn was a mere boy. Another suggested all British music was good - this being shortly before ‘Pop’ (the invention of the BBC) and the production of actual music became entirely separate occupations. Arriving in such as monstrous world, Stevens had no choice but to obey it. He says he was innocent. "I thought people liked me." They dressed him up; put him in front of an orchestra. And once he went on tour with those death-roll names - Engelbert Humperdinck, The Walker Brothers. "I ran and held the door open for Scott Walker, just to see if he was really there. He was. He was combing his hair."

As if in reaction to all that, his life now has a slow beat - getting up late, taking his time, contemplating the presents strewn over the floor. Ownership of a car - that Citroen modeled on the visor of a knight - seems to make him more solitary rather than less. His bathroom has also been finished, with figments of cornelian pink, and he can boil a kettle in there. Occasionally he goes out at night, to The Speakeasy. Someone he sat next to asked if he was a Pop singer: he said he was. Then he comes home, usually alone, has a bath and goes to bed. The hot water system, as he points out, will permit only one bath at a time. His health is now perfectly recovered. "I’ve started to sweat at nights again," he admitted, "but I think that must be the wine, or the eiderdown’s too heavy."

He mostly eats at cafes - a particular one in the North End Road where fried eggs, before eating, must be drained, like fens, of surface moisture. Stevens’s family keep a café in New Oxford Street: this is the "Shaftesbury Avenue Restaurant" to which, in their classlessness, the fan magazines sometimes allude. There, in an upper room, Stevens has literally locked away his past, the relics of 1967 in parts of unsatisfactory guitars. He also has an affection for the place, unlike the children of most small-time caterers, because, in its fashion, the café held his parents together. His father Mr. Georgiou is separated from his Swedish mother. They still operate the business together, and Mr. Georgiou goes back to another home at night.

The Greek of his father is strongest in Stevens - the rich hair, the duelist’s bearded mouth, the habit of belching as a sign of approbation. He has some of Mr. Georgiou’s unabashed liking for money and, last Christmas, planned to give him a lot of envelopes, each with a small amount in it , to elongate the pleasure. But his good fortune has been in the ability to please both parents. Even in the café steam, his mother gives an impression of complexity and shyness. She is teased gently by Stevens - he recently made her some chocolate fudge with an unlawful ingredient which she, to humour him, sampled. In her flat upstairs, some of the furniture got spoiled by the overflowing of a bath, so he went and got her a set from Harrod’s. The sympathy between them is his voice mimicking hers when she exclaimed: "Oh Stev-en!"

The café also gave him the best feeling of childhood; the freedom of a locality. His was in all the streets roaring with taxi’s, twisting with grimy Gothic, around St Giles’s Circus, which can often be empty as Sunday. "They were just Mum and Dad. They were always there, in the shop. But even when I was doing Art and wouldn’t eat, they said ‘You should eat’…they never interrupted." He used to climb across the roofs and over the top to the Shaftesbury Theatre. "I used to love", he says, "just dry London nights." Mrs Georgiou remembers he could always describe a thing quickest with a picture; and there it is, in the painting he did for the Teaser and the Firecat album. A boy and cat sit together at the edge of a clean pavement which the moon is warming.

Not that he is in the least a hermit. At his Catholic School in Drury Lane he was hit over the head; at his smart day school near Hyde Park he and other Greek boys ran a protection racket. "It folded up when someone wouldn’t pay." His unusual power over an audience is simply projection of the spry type of young Londoner who has a sort of Soho in the voice. But, by using his money to buy not people but release from them, he remains a serious contradiction to the habits of his profession. In sycophants and superfluous people, Pop music may not have been rivaled since the days of Versailles.

Someone very good around him is Alun Davies, his guitarist. They have the same style of play- plectrum with a slight rip across the strings as the Everly Brothers used to. There are also a couple of road-managers, a drummer; one of Stevens’s greater freedoms seems to be from an awful saraband of ‘helpers’ by which so many in his position are unhappily enchained. His work appears to benefit from mobility, as work tends to do. Moonshadow and The Boy with the Moon and Stars on his Head were both written in Spain. "And I went to Sicily. I just thought I’d go to Sicily, and stayed in a place with dead dogs on the beach and flies in the room. I wasn’t going to make friends with anyone but I ended up making fantastic friends with people. A lady who had this love affair going with Mount Etna. I’m writing a song about her."

Twice, he has had to give up women with whom he was happy, to concentrate on his music. If this sounds affected, consider that to strike of the rhymes of Moonshadow took him three weeks: nothing so perfectly simple can have been easy. The second of the separations was especially painful: from Patti D’Arbanville, the girl in the song. Stevens was absorbed in the girl; and the song, two summers ago, began his return from the shades of illness and of 1967. He still loves Patti D’Arbanville. From time to time, he sees her.

There are plenty of girls, of course, but not very nice ones, waiting for him with their child mouths and staring croupier eyes; the girls who ride against a superstar’s fur coat like toy dogs being carried. Stevens wants nothing to do with these, he says, not even the better type, often willing to forget themselves for him. And there are, in particular, schoolgirls. They stalk him at the door of his parents’ café or through the dignified spaces of the Tate Gallery; fan worship achieving its largest impact across a parquet floor.

In fact he is of the minority which exercises fascination over both sexes. Not in the way of Mick Jagger, who merely gratifies the universal fondness for circus clowns, but in seeming to possess what may be prized above sexuality - wisdom. There are middle-aged men whom Father and Son can bring close to tears, with its descanting young and old voices, its feeling of desperately trying to understand too late. Among the things on Stevens’s floor was a letter, most correctly written in ink from North Wales. "I know I love you," it said, "And I must talk to you." For a moment he was uncertain if the sender was a girl or a boy.

There was also a copy of The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster. Stevens had not read it, or any book he could remember. "Why should I base my life on what other people say? It’s like basing your life on the lists people make. At school: they’d show me bridges and I’d want to build them for myself. They’d show me a map with ‘The Nile.’ Full-stop. The Nile doesn’t have a full-stop after it. I don’t read. I don’t know much. But what I know, I feel."

At his house, some weeks after the concert, the builders’ rubble was tidier. So was his room upstairs, although several new presents had been added, including an electric blanket in a box lettered "Slumber-down. Surrender to it’s warm embrace." Stevens had begun to work in earnest again, producing sessions for Jimmy Cliff and Alun Davies as well as new songs for his own next collection. The songs lay everywhere, copied painstakingly on exercise paper.

Suddenly the Fulham sun appeared and awoke purple lengths of heather in the land bordering the railway-track. Stevens dived for his camera as if it was the first time of using that, or the sun. There was never a sign of anyone else in the house but himself. Once, he produced a packet of contraceptives in various bright colours, with one of them missing - aha, where was that?

"Blew it up, didn’t I?" he answered, "To show the lads on the session".


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