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Cat Stevens - Life, Love and Death

Melody Maker - 11/15/75
Page 8 & 9


Cat Stevens, after a long personality crisis, has bounced back with a new album and tour. Caroline Coon meets him in Frankfurt.

Cat Stevens had his first hit, " I Love My Dog." in 1966, when he was 18. In the first folk/pop phase of his remarkable career, he became rich, a phenomenal success and , while still in his teens, he had to face up to the complex pressures experienced only by the musical elite.

Then an auspicious tragedy bundled him out of the limelight. He caught tuberculosis and spent a year recuperating from the illness. But enforced lay-off gave him the space he needed to progress.

He used the time to write the songs for ' Mona Bone Jakon ' and his comeback was a triumph. ' Tea For The Tillerman ' and 'Teaser and The Firecat ' followed, and Cat Stevens was established as one of the more richly lyrical forces of the day.

He epitomized the Gentle Thinking Man. In touch with youthful, urban bed-sit blues. He was able to express the city man's yearning for vast pastoral spaces and life-giving vibes of nature.

He became something of a lay guru, whose passive introspection and self-examination might develop into the cure all of love which would outface the baddies and save the world.

Any mortal, however, who believes he has received God's message, and is therefore a mouthpiece for mystical evangelism, is bound to run up against the limits of his own reasons. By 1973, Stevens was deep into his own personality crisis.

'Foreigner' is an example of a creative block; ' Buddha And The Chocolate Box ', for all it's glossy packaging and cryptic soul-searching, was a further disappointing indication that Stevens, in his quest for Ultimate Truth, was finding life far from easy. The possibility that he would tour again seemed remote.

It was a welcome surprise, therefore, when earlier this year, Stevens announced that he was ready for the road again. And it is even better news for his fans and friends to see him bouncing with new vitality and ready to cruise into a new phase in his career.

While he was preparing for the tour in Frankfurt, surrounded as usual by stalwarts, Alun Davies, ( guitar ) Jean Roussel, ( Keyboards ) and Gerry Conway ( drums )who have helped create the Stevens sound over the last five years, as well as Bruce Lynch, ( bass )Mark Warner, ( guitar ) and Chico Baters, (percussion )he took time off to talk about his new album, 'Numbers '.

From the sound, and the cover, of the album---a clouded photo reminiscent of the portrait on the back of ' Mona Bone Jakon'--- it seems as if Stevens is picking up the threads of his earlier inspirations.

Compared to the oblique lyrics on ' Buddha And The Chocolate Box, ' ' Numbers ' is a far more direct and personally revealing album. Was this intentional?

" I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to express on this album," he says, a glass of beer in one hand and his long feline body lying full length along the sofa in his hotel bedroom.

" I think because I was dealing with a theme I started out with the idea for a musical about numerology, and then I just went about writing it down. And it's true that I'm getting more open.

" I feeling much better than I did. 'The Greatest Hits ' album did an incredible thing. It was a full stop. A really nice was to say ' right that's that.' Though not consciously. Because it just happened. The record company would have done it anyway, whether I helped them or not.

" Recently I've been thinking about what has been happening to me since 1970 when I came back with 'Mona Bone Jakon ', and its hard to describe. But I've got this amazing feeling now, as though I'm starting all over again."

In the one song on ' Buddha And The Chocolate Box' he says, " Music is a lady I still need, 'cause she brings me the food I eat. " It sounded as if he had reached a point where he was singing only to make money.

" Yes that's true. But all the feelings has come back now because I've spent a year alone. I'd heard somewhere that 25 was where you stopped. You became a man.

" People definitely called you a man. So on my 25th birthday I knew I had to do something big. I thought I'd GOT to.

" And I shaved my head and beard and it was a really big change. Then I went to Brazil and I had a house there and I stayed alone. I couldn't even talk to the lady who cooked and kept the place clean. I really felt alone and it hurt for a long time.

" And I remember the loneliness I had in the beginning when I was suppose to be Cat Stevens. The Cat Stevens who was suppose to be incredibly lucky and wrote smart arrangements and that. But basically that wasn't me.

" To be able to write with feelings, you have to know yourself. Writing has to be an affair with yourself and you have to be able to live with yourself and get through all your hang-ups. And I did.

" There was me, alone, and it helped me and I wrote a lot of songs. And I've got back, it seems, to what I consider to be the source, which is myself."

In the song, ' Majiks of Majik' the first track on ' Numbers' he talks about a power, a war that " fight no more, that leaves me weaponless and nails me to the floor." What power does he mean?

" That song is basically about the power of zero. When you think you've got everything together and then along comes some Irishman, say, and beats you up. And you go ' hey, I haven't really got it that together.'

" The song is about when you think you're smart and you've got it planned and then along comes this silly little accident and you're put back to square one.

"And I'm talking about the ego having to face death finally. This whole album has a lot to do with the power of non-being.

" And another thing about this album is that I'm able to change my identity. I'm able to move myself around and be whoever I want to be. Because that's the privilege you get after a while. You can be anything, right ?

" You just have to get to the point where you understand things and then you can be anything you want. People say ' Oh, I can't do this, ' t it's only because they don't understand it.

" Like ballet. You can't possibly be a ballet dancer if you don't visualize yourself as a ballet dancer. That's all it takes.

" You have to see yourself as what you want to be. See the space and fill it. Lose your inhibitions and your idea of clumsiness in all areas and just do it."

He talks with the fervor of someone who has been through fire to find his identity.

" Yes, that's right. You see, I never really saw myself doing what I'm doing now. On the other hand, what I am doing is so natural because it is just an extension of who I am.

"That's the thing about being a musician. Every note that you play is coming straight from the sound of yourself. That's what music is about and that's what determines what kind of songs you write.

"Now I feel that I've found my identity, I feel free to move and hop around in different areas because in the last four years I've been traveling a lot."

Stevens recorded ' Numbers ' in Canada, and last summer he spent in Brazil. Apart from tax reasons, had he been traveling around because he is basically a very restless person ?

" That has a lot to do with it. And a feeling that I'm missing something and that I'm not in the right place. A feeling of rootlessness.

On another track on ' Numbers ' he says, ' Where are all my brothers now, they are all around me and keeping me out,' which seems to indicate that Stevens feels an outsider wherever he is. " Oh yes, I think a lot of people feel like that but don't admit it.

" It comes down to looking at yourself and figuring out that your either in love and that's everything, or you're thinking about life so deeply that you get incredibly lost.

" I believe the only way to be, is to fall in love and really live that, or be spiritual. I'd like to have an ordinary life but can't now. I've gone too far to have an ordinary life and ordinary relationships, the kind which I use to dream about.

" I'd fantasize about a relationship, about me and a girl and I wanted to offer myself and give myself to another person completely. But I don't know if I can do that now. I find it hard, because the only person I believe in now is God."

A look of cynicism must have crossed my face because he continues a little defensively: " Oh, I'm not putting any kind of religious tag on it. I'm just talking about the ultimacy of this, the plan, and the incredible thing that everything has its own justice.

" You must admit that everything you do has a consequence and everything you don't do has a consequence. The plan is so incredibly full that there is hardly room to move -- unless you get to the centre."

For a man so devoted to finding the ultimate meaning to life, Stevens still seems to lack spiritual contentment. In ' Novims Nightmare." on ' Numbers ' he sings about a' drunken guillotine lingering just about my head.'

" Yes, its a vision I have often in dreams. There's something so strong about that guillotine. The moment your born, and through the whole of your life, there's a guillotine waiting. Its as if from the moment you pop out," and he sweeps his hand through the air in a chopping motion, " that's what life's going to do to you. And you've got to be ready for that because a lot of people dismiss the idea of death."

Much of Stevens' writing reveals his preoccupation with death. " The centre to the story of 'Numbers ' is that really you're in a place where everything seems immortal, eternal and everlasting. And suddenly along comes this question of death, which has never entered before. And then you start to question everything.

" I have thought about suicide before, but I'm much too much of an Englishman to do it. And really there's no point. You can't really think about death even, because death is area-less, it has no width. When you think about death, what you 're really thinking about is your situation and your problems.

" But at least we've got something waiting for us that we've never done before. The younger you are, the more things there are to find out and the more there is to know. Then you get to the point where you think you know a lot. But you forget that there's still this one ace waiting for you--death. And there's something nice about that.

" I think that what preoccupies me more than death is the fact that I'm not living the right life yet. You know, sometimes when you're listening to something and you know that the person's talking right out of his ass. You know that, but you go along with it because you have to and you put up with it. But there comes a point when you either keep on going along with it or you stop.

" You have to stop sometime. You can't just keep on lying to yourself, I know --- I tell myself a lot of lies. "

Does he lie to himself about being a better musician than he really is ? " Oh,no, that would get you nowhere. Ultimately, to play music you have to be music. And any lie before that creates no music. On the other hand I don't know. Maybe I do lie in my music. But then the lie is so laid down that it becomes a kind of truth."

Earlier on, Stevens says he feels very much an Englishman but his father, who owns a restaurant, is Greek Cypriot and his mother is Swedish. Although he was born in London, surely his childhood was steeped in Greek culture ?

" I was brought up close to Soho but really I was isolated from both the English and the Greek community. Our family was totally an island. And we still are in a way. Our family is very closed and hard to penetrate and I'm only just starting to realize what a shield we're putting up.

" I was brought up with English hang-ups, though, and English good fortune, too-- like their sense of fairness.

" In the last couple of years I've wanted to find out where I came from and I went with my father to his village in Cyprus. But my dad's so secretive about his life. He doesn't like to talk about it. "

Why wasn't he more influenced by Greek music? " Because I've been influenced by a whole lot of music and to be Greek isn't enough. A bouzouki player by tradition has to be incredibly egotistical. And there are other things about the Greek character that are just too heavy and I don't want to get into it."

It's almost as if from the start of his career, he had made a conscious effort to deny his Greek heritage: " I did, I did ! Because I didn't think anybody was interested. And I thought that it had nothing to do with me. I thought I was separate from it."

What does Stevens remember most about his childhood? " That It was incredibly lonely. And another of the strongest influences in my childhood was the fact that I never went hungry.

" I've found out that one of the reasons I do sing is because in the Greek community you cannot say what you want to a woman outright. If you want to say something to a girl you're in love with, you have to sing it. You sing things that you just can't say talking naturally."

Stevens grew up in a community where there were more than the usual inhibitions about relationships with women. " Oh, yes. In that situation, if you're gonna get to know a girl you've got to go through the ceremony. And the parents have got to know that she is a virgin and that's IT."

Does he like women? " I love them. It's everything and yet it's the frustration of life. I feel a lot of woman in me, too, which is weird. You can't deny that we're all made up of the same basic thing, only somehow the road turned and I was a boy."

Had he ever wanted to be a woman? " No, I never did." and he laughs. " I use to think ' this is really incredibly lucky !' I started seeing all these problems girls have. But they can live with them just as you have to live with the problems of being a man. Then again, There is a kind of complete thing about being a woman and having children which is indescribable. You can't get that kind of fulfillment being a guy. You can't ! I have this amazing feeling of wanting to have a kid."

Stevens' love hassles throw light on the reason why he wraps his music around a weak, intellectual structure of naive, yet complex, over-simplifications about the cosmos. He seems to be searching for the perfect woman who he knows doesn't exist. He therefore surrounds himself with a smokescreen of spiritualism as a substitute for talk about his real problems and real relationships.

" Well," say Stevens, digesting but not rejecting the analysis, " the real problem is basically I feel that my life is already sewn. Although I have this fantasy that I'm going to meet the perfect woman, and I can't remove that thought from my mind, I know ultimately that it will never be."

Does he think he will always live alone?

" Yes I do. I can't see myself ever settling down properly, unless something incredible happens. "

" I've got to be alone and I don't believe anything is achieved without sacrifice. I'm sacrificing the happiness of my non-thinking self. The self that is really happier than the self that wants to be on T.V. and make records. "

Where does he channel his passion? " It goes either on cutting an album or, well, I'm always doing an album, it seems to me, or I'm on the road. All my physical passion goes into that. My joy, my climax all comes in that process. It's the stage that does it. Being, singing live does it."

Does he think now that he'll be touring as far as he can see into the future? " Now, when I look into the future, I don't see very far. Which is making me feel much better.

" Touring had become such a conscious effort that I told Barry Krost ( his Manager),' I don't want to do another tour in my life.' And he said 'O.K.' because he's a very understanding. Then he let me alone. And from that moment I felt the freedom and the space to sit down and play the guitar, to myself, for me. And it felt so good that I remembered what it was like to play.

" So I rang him up and said ' we've got to do another tour'. . . and this is the fastest tour we've ever put together. And it's great, because it's spontaneous."

Being a millionaire, though, means that Stevens is wealthy enough to live in luxury, even if he never did a day's work again.

" Yes. And that's it. That's what the whole thing was leading to. Two years ago I'd got all that money, what that money brings, and it started to fool me. It seemed as if that was all I was doing it for. But then I realized that the whole reason I was making money was because I love music more than anything and people love me to sing or to write and to pull whatever little string it is that I pull.

" And I realized--- That's my meaning. I'm always going to have money but I'm always going to be happy, because even if I don't have money, I can still sing.

" My main secret, I think, is that I don't want ever to live in L.A. I don't like L.A. and I don't like that kind of life. I love natural places. A lot of people are moving over to L.A. and it's wrong. When did they last read the bible ! It's not just coincidence that all the same kind of people are going to live in L.A."

Stevens is something of an avowed aesthete. He has the money to be as frivolous as he wishes but he consciously avoids the glossy American way of wealth. Nevertheless, when his contract was due for renewal last year, he took on the business side of pop with a vengeance. Why?

" Only because I had to. Only because that's the name of the game. In order to be successful you've got to earn money. In order to get your music and sleeves exactly the way you want, then you have to be big enough to play the game. So O.K., I'll be big enough. As big as I have to be in order to do what I want to do. And I'll increase with my size."

Has there been a time in his life when he felt he would never write another song? " I've been through that lots of times, but I've learned to work through times like that.

" We all have cycles, we all come to a certain point where we feel everything's falling apart, when in fact it's just the earth being torn up ready for the next seed. When that happens to me, I have to get up and do something, anything, the most menial job, the better, because the more you put yourself on a pedestal the harder you fall.

" Take who ever you like--- Burt Bacharach, for instance. He had everything, number ones. But he put himself up and believes his Hollywood life, his Hollywood wife and then he loses it. And now he's playing tennis.

" I don't know. . . the greatest thing I did was when I shaved my head and split. I went to Ethiopia when the generals were in jail and people were starving. And I went just to see that. And that was it. It didn't matter who I was. I was nobody because I didn't look like who I was suppose to be! I was really nobody and it felt so,not good, because it was frightening, but I didn't have to live up to anything. I just had to be me and it was like a warm glow coming from inside me and not my identity."

Stevens has learned to cope with a great deal in his life but is there still something he is afraid of? " I'm still afraid of the thing I get most, and that's misinterpretation."

What then does he most want people to understand about him? " That's difficult, because it's not really for me to be anybody who is important. I don't think I'm that important for people to start sitting down and wasting their time trying to understand me and think about my problems.

" People have a lot of problems themselves. But maybe that's what I have to do. Perhaps, in fact, I'm meant to be there so people can sit down, think about me and understand themselves via me."

After some lean and desperate times , Cat Stevens is getting more positive feedback from his creative drive than he can remember in a long time. He is smiling, having fun, and his friends are waiting in the hotel bar to take him out on the town. He looks set trim for the another decade in the music industry. What is the biggest change in his character since he cut his first single?

" Well to be truthful, I think I've got a bit too use to luxury. I think it is a luxurious life I lead. I've got used to going somewhere and having people talk to me as though they know me. That's one of the nicest things. Most people go somewhere and they walk into a room and have to go through a whole number.

" But I have this incredible invisible carpet laid before me. And it's made me a bit, I don't know, lazy, with relationships.

" And I've also learnt to hold myself back instead of letting the horse gallop until it drops."


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