- Cat Stevens - Life, Love and Death
Melody Maker - 11/15/75
- Page 8 & 9
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
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
" 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
" 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
"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
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
" You have to stop
sometime. You can't just keep on lying to yourself, I know --- I tell myself a lot of
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
" 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
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
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
" 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
" 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
" 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
" 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,
" And I've also learnt
to hold myself back instead of letting the horse gallop until it drops."