Cat Stevens Talks To Mick Brown
- Sounds Magazine
- December 13th 1975
- Courtesty of Linda Crafar
was perhaps inevitable that Cat Stevens, of all people, should suffer the musicians'
equivalent of a mild seizure. All that earnest self - examination and revelation, burning
the emotional candle at both ends for himself and his audience. And on top of that
the actual physical demands of being everybodys favourite inner-self album /
tour / album / tour / tour, to the point where the whole thing, becomes an exercise in
self-justification, which is really no justification at all.
His albums mirrored the
impasse Stevens was rapidly falling into; moving inexorably from the sad-eyed, wistful,
love-sick romantic to the just-as-sad-eyed, wistful pilgrim, abandoning the search for
requited love in pursuit of Greater Things.
The strain of engaging in
a spiritual quest before an audience of millions would eventually have to tell and
sure enough it did. Stevens, apparently in a state of mental confusion, retreated.
It is a distressing sign
of the nadir his career appeared to have reached that, to be truthful, one didnt
actually realise he had gone until it was announced that he was back again with a
new album and plans for an English tour, his first it transpires in almost two
I met Stevens at his
management office, a slick Mayfair number, where the mechanism for the up-coming tour is
being cranked into action plans are being finalised, transatlantic telephone calls
made and flights booked.
Amidst this confusion you
notice that the office is something of a shrine to the man who makes it all possible.
There are artwork posters of Stevens albums on the wall, alongside awards from the
industry for this and that and a battered gold eight track cartridge For Teaser And
The Firecat hanging by a piece of string. The gold records are in the other office
downstairs, literally covering the walls.
Stevens seems rather
embarrassed as he leads me into this room, and exclaims. Oh Christ, he shouldnt have
brought me in here. Such are the preconceptions I have about the man, based on what I've
heard and surmised from his recorded output, that I immediately interpret this as the
remark of an aesthete, pained that a stranger should bear witness to the base material
rewards of his Art. Thinking about it, I decide he's just being every-day modest, and that
it's bad to have preconceptions.
We talk about the new
album. It is called 'Numbers, subtitled 'A Pythagorean Theory Tale. One
reviewer seizing on Phythagoras famed theory about the square of the hypotaneuse
asked whether this choice of theme meant that Stevens himself might be a right-angled
Well, no. Pythagoras
probably learned his triangle theorem from the Egyptians; his main interest was the
mystical significance of numbers, a philosophy he developed from the relativity of notes
on the Greek musical scale. Stevens was introduced to the theory by a lady named Hestia
Lovejoy, to whom 'Numbers' is dedicated.
"She came to see me
when I was in Australia and started talking about numbers", Stevens explains.
"At first I couldn't see the point of making numbers any more important than what you
use them for. Then I read this book she'd left me on Pythagoras and realised that Id
always known the importance of numbers without really being aware of it like all
songs have a natural 'three element, three being the strongest number of all (hence
third time lucky). Then you start finding out that Pythagoras developed the
Western musical scale. Then, thinking about it, you discover that the law of music is the
same law that applies to nature as a whole, that your life has octaves in .the same way as
the musical scale does. . ."
Then you go out and make
an album about it, which is, thankfully, less obtuse than the foregoing might suggest. If
you want to do it properly, the starting point for the album is the booklet that comes
with it, which sketches a Tolkienesque tale about an enchanted palace, peopled by nine
characters (Monad to Novim inclusive) who exist to give numbers to the universe.
A few of these characters
from the book crop up in the songs, but not all: and not all the songs are about
characters in the book. Some are Stevens being sad-eyed, wistful and philosophical, and
one 'Jzero', is a characterisation of the number 'Zero', which is analogous to the Tarot
card 'The Fool'.
Alternatively, you can
overlook all that stuff and just listen to the music, which, if youre not in a
cerebral mood, is probably the best idea.
Musically, this is
probably Stevens most satisfying album since Teaser And The Firecat'
lots of clever melodies, arrangements that neatly complement Stevens exaggerated
staccato phrasing and an overall production, which is full without being over-bearing.
Its an album which bears the mark of much work, expense and time.
"It took a long time
because I produced it", says Stevens. "It was the old thing that if youve
got two days to do something you'll take two days; if youve got three youll
take three. I didnt have any time limit at all so we ended up taking four
The album was recorded in
Canada with string arrangements added in New York and mixing completed in Paris. Stevens
chose Canada because we had heard the studio had a big window overlooking a lake.
"I hate coming out of
a studio at night and you dont know what you've missed. . "
He admits that hes
happier with Numbers than he has been with an album in a long time. The
respite from touring and recording has clearly done him good, restored some of the
equilibrium which his music and perhaps he himself seemed to be losing.
"I certainly reckon I
lost my way somewhere along the line", he says. "The whole thing was getting too
regimented the need to make albums and do tours, not necessarily, because I wanted
to do 'em but because they had to be done. It was getting really silly. I was saying to
myself 'What is this?', because Id forgotten what I was doing it for. And what I was
originally doing it for was to make myself happier, because basically I'm not all that
happy. Im kind of one of these. . . solitary people
He looks wistful for a
moment. . .
been like that, and Im beginning to realise that that's the way l am and I can't
change that I dont think. I think I was meant to be like this, a bit more
solitary than . . just through circumstances."
He pauses. I am by now
growing accustomed to Stevens manner of talking; the fragmented sentences, a new
idea crowding out the old one before its been fully developed. Not so much a
presentation of thoughts as an unravelling. Anyway, he continues.
"Thats not the
point. The point is I was losing the line somewhere. And then I found it again; just as if
it was lying there, waiting for me to see it. . ."
He found it, he says, in
Brazil. Alone, cut off from the associate ideas. England, everything with just the
music, the mountains and the sea. He says he knows it sounds like hes trying to be
poetic, but thats how it really was. It is necessary, he says, for any musician to
get back to the source of their original inspiration for making music before its
lost in the sheer mechanics of being 'a performer' and al that entails.
"It's like that club
they have in New York which is just for session musicians to go and have a jam.
Thats really important because if you begin to think that music is just being booked
into a session for three hours you're getting a totally wrong conception of what it's all
about. Its easy to do that though. You get people coming up to you waving pieces of
paper, saying 'This is where youve got to be on such and such a date, and you
start believing that that's the truth of the situation. It's difficult to keep
everything balanced. It can be done if you dont block off your head to new ideas and
keep changing things around. It's basically what Mao said about communist society
that it has to change every seven years or it becomes stagnant . . ."
Drawing on established
sources to illustrate or shore up his ideas is something else you become accustomed to
Stevens doing during a conversation. Mao, Carlos Casteneda, Paul Repps (author of the book
'Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which inspired Stevens' 'Catch Bull At Four
itself a Zen dictum) Stevens obviously spends a lot of time reading and
When I ask him whether, in
view of what he has said about the danger of musicians losing their sense of direction, he
now feels that he personally has a clear sense of purpose, he paraphrases 'Desiderata':
"Everybody has a
right to be here that's really all you have to know. Just understanding that you
are necessary to the universe or whatever the scheme of things that
fulfils my purpose. Even if l wasn't singing Id be doing that." (It says
something for his conviction that Stevens makes it sound like a piece of wisdom chiselled
on a 15th century gravestone, rather than a piece of schlock, pushed out to corner the
Why then does he carry on
"Cos I like it more
than anything, it gives me more. . . not money, but everything else I need. Yeah, the
recognition is important. It gives me a reason for being there. If I didnt have that
I'd have to find some other way of getting my fulfillment from people. I need that
feedback. We all do."
Money, he hastens to add,
is not important; a familiar cri de coeur of rock stars who are nailed to the floor
by the weight of greenbacks, but Stevens insists its true. It's true also that
hes wealthy enough to be a tax exile, (I did it quietly, he explains), to buy
land in Brazil, to build a house, and to facilitate his passion for travel. But as he
says, it's only as important as you make it.
"I can go first class
everywhere. But that isn't necessarily the best way of doing it, The best times Ive
had have been when Ive roughed it. I can have a limo waiting for me when I arrive at
an airport but its better to get a taxi and have a conversation with the
driver. Money is the difference between two worlds: one is basically illusion, unreal.
It's made to look better, but in fact people are the only thing that really change your
life in important ways. Money hasn't ruled me. It's ruled by other people only because
they haven't had the advantage of being able to keep a hold on the other side, see what's
happening in the real world, and see themselves from both perspectives. I had that
chance when I was missing for a little while after 'Matthew And Son'. That illness was
perfect; it enabled me to see that the whole thing wasnt real."
The illness was
tuberculosis and it checked Stevens career in mid-stride. He had had his first hit record,
'I Love My Dog' a year before, when he was 18.
As Steven Dimitri Georgiou
he had had an unusual childhood. The son of a Greek restaurant owner, growing up in the
closely-knit parochial Greek/Soho community his main recollection is of loneliness.
Even before the halcyon days of hippiedom he was a drug coterie of one. All things were
available when you lived in Soho; we'd go to school stoned behind dark glasses, with
everybody wondering what the hell he was giggling about.
He was discovered in 1966,
renamed Cat Stevens and his first record, 'I Love My Dog', released. He appeared on
'Ready, Steady Go in the same week as the Troggs and Kim Fowley singing 'They're
Coming To Take Me Away'. He became a star. He remembers himself on the radio, for the
first time and realising that at that instant he was being heard all over the country. It
was, he says, the most incredible sense of power.
"It all went to my
head a bit. I wouldn't go out anywhere unless everything was laid on for me in advance:
everything had to be the best It started changing me, because I was too young to
cope with it. I suppose I should have been more aware, but I wasn't."
The ensuing lay-off after
Matthew And Son', gave Stevens breathing space to reflect on the changes success had
wrought in him. It obviously tempered his escalating ego, and when he re-emerged a year or
so later with 'Mona Bone Jakon' and then 'Tea For The Tillerman', a more acutely developed
awareness of self was evident in his music.
The lightweight, if
evocative observations of his first two hit singles had given way to more introspective,
carefully thought out ideas. Nothing profound, mind, but perceptive enough to strike a
sympathetic chord with enormous numbers of people, and establish Stevens as a kind of
pilot through the emotional chops and swells of life.
"I'm just a reflector
for other people," he says. "If I'm going through hassles people can see that
and say 'Right, well I can recognise that one, I wont do that. That's the role
I seem to play. I get a lot of letters and stuff from people a lot of feedback
about what I'm writing. But I know that scene from when I was looking at the pop scene
from outside myself. I'd dream about certain people and it was like I knew them
personally. We all know each other basically through music it's the fastest way
there is to get to know someone."
By the time of 'Buddha And
The Chocolate Box', however, it was apparent that Stevens development of ideas had led him
farther away from his audience, not closer to them; his reflections had become more highly
personalised, less obviously universal, and had begun to smack of evangelism.
"As you change your
ideas get finer", he says. "You get more oblique to the public, so they
dont really know what you're doing. It gets to the point where do something thinking
it's a giant step forward whereas it's very minute in the picture of things."
Stevens had reached that
point, and it was his realisation that this was what was happening that made his retreat
to Brazil and the temporary lay-off from recording all the more timely. Certainly from his
audience's point of view it has been beneficial. It has meant that Stevens has
rediscovered the impulse for performing and is back on stage something which seemed
unlikely to ever happen again I8 months ago, and his obvious delight to be touring and
recording again augers well for the future. He says he already has enough material to
record another album, and being on the road will probably bring forth more.
"I find I write more
when I'm moving. I need different impressions to feed me, and that comes a lot from
touring and just being with musicians all the time not thinking about anything
The new material, he says,
is likely to be less complex.
"The lyrics are
getting simpler perhaps. Things that I can sing and enjoy singing without worrying too
much about what the lyrics are saying. There's probably a danger of my audience thinking
my songs were getting too philosophical, but really I don't know how I can stop that
completely; that's me. It's the way I think, and it's the way it comes out. To stop it and
try something else would be even worse."
A lot of people make
out they're complicated. At least I'm honest I am complicated