- THE SUNDAY TIMES
- 5th. March 1972
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
Stevenss 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
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 Tuesdays 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 dont see why you cant make an LP and then go back
to being a bad dustman." He qualified: " Well, not a bad dustman. But
theres 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 Stevenss present music. That is to suggest,
however, that his early work was inferior when it wasnt - 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. "Ive started to sweat at nights again," he admitted,
"but I think that must be the wine, or the eiderdowns 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. Stevenss 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 duelists bearded mouth, the habit of
belching as a sign of approbation. He has some of Mr. Georgious 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 Harrods. 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 taxis, twisting with grimy Gothic, around St Giless 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 wouldnt eat, they said You should
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 wouldnt 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 Stevenss 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 Id go to Sicily, and stayed in a place with dead dogs on the
beach and flies in the room. I wasnt 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. Im 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 DArbanville, 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 DArbanville. 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 superstars 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 Stevenss 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? Its like basing
your life on the lists people make. At school: theyd show me bridges and Id
want to build them for myself. Theyd show me a map with The Nile.
Full-stop. The Nile doesnt have a full-stop after it. I dont read. I
dont 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 its 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
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,
didnt I?" he answered, "To show the lads on the session".