This wonderful article comes courtesy of Chris Abrams.
I am not quite sure from which magazine it appeared other than it is from a British
magazine in the mid 70's.
Written By: JOHN KERCHER
Cat Stevens is one of those
people you feel compelled to watch and listen to. Is it the hypnotic quality of his eyes
or the haunting lyrics he sings which keep you spellbound? Perhaps it is his face with its
almost classical features, like a bust from ancient Greece. Cats songs are a journey
through his own mysteries and observations. They are not pungent protests but subtle
cameos and caricatures of the world about us and the microcosm within us. His reluctance
to be interviewed or have his life-style exposed to the nerve ends only serves to deepen
the mystery of the man with the guitar. Yet, now and then, a pinprick of light reveals an
almost sage-like reverence for life and the people who inhabit his world. If we are all
childlike then the adage "give me a child and I will give you the man" is a clue
to the man called Cat Stevens, minstrel of the western world.
"What is childhood? An
excursion through the beginnings of time, an awakening into a strange environment? Is it
the determining of what we shall be, or the socialisation process? Or is it just adapting
ourselves to a world we have to accept which, at a later point, we may find unsuitable and
wish to change or, at least, bend a little to our own criteria. I dont know.
"What I am aware of is
my own interpretations of my childhood. A cosmopolitan environment and family, world of
exciting strangers. A multi-racial, multi-religious cosmos. You see, my father was Greek
and my mother was Swedish, so, even before I became aware of a world outside of my own
home, I already had a background of several cultures all fused into one. I think that it's
exciting to be brought up in this kind of atmosphere because you don't have a one-sided
view of life. You gauge yourself against different standards.
"I was born in 1948 in
Hammer-smith, close enough to the West End of London to be able to travel up there with my
parents, and, later, by myself. In that kind of situation, you grow up very quickly. I
never found I was bored with the same environment. There was always something new to look
at, to hear, different people walking by, and into your life. Even street signs and shop
displays had their attractions. Words created images and they all go to mould the kind of
thing you will later become interested in in life.
"I really can't say
where the artist begins in man. Perhaps some people, as children, can't focus their
attention on any one thing and, later, they wonder what they can do with the hotchpotch of
impressions which have fascinated them for so long. They feel other people ought to share
it and, consequently, they channel their energies into art, music, writing, sculpture and
what have you. Whether this is true, I don't know-it's an idea.'
Contrary to the usual, Cat
did not have a burning desire or unfulfilled ambition to be a singer or a musician from
the day he hit a spoon on a biscuit tin.
"It was art that first
attracted me in a definite direction. I wasn't what you would call academic - not that I
put that down in any way, but I just couldn't concentrate on the usual kind of things. But
I revelled in the art lessons and would be totally absorbed in my work then.
"So I enrolled at an
art college and was set with the idea I was going to be an artist.
I do think that the normal,
school education system we had, and still have in most places, is too restrictive. Kids
start out with an interest, but somewhere it is crushed. It is made to seem no more
important than any other subject on the school curriculum. Even the inventive side of our
personality is restrained. You are told that you can't go about a thing a certain way.
That there are rules, laws and procedures which have to be followed, and conformed to, in
order to get the results.
"Of course, it's not
just in schools that that's happening. We're all doing it to each other all the time. Our
entire society is built from frustration, of trying to reconcile what we want to do with
what we have to do. Perhaps that's why we've got so much violence
and I don't
mean physical assault, but violence of the tongue, of prejudice, of emotional violence.
It's finding a scapegoat for inner problems."
For Cat, resurrection came
many years after art school.
"I'd had a guitar for
some time, but my playing had been confined to other people's songs and, even then,
primarily for my own pleasure. But I began to feel a dissatisfaction with merely
imitating. I think this is probably what causes most composers or lyricists to become what
they are. It is a desire to express yourself. So I began writing and playing occasionally
for my friends. They kept telling me that I should try to get some of it recorded. Well,
it was worth a try and I made a tape of what I felt were some of my best compositions and
took them along to a record company.
"A short while later
they said they were prepared to offer me a contract."
For Cat, it meant the end
of art school and the commencement of his career as a singer/musician. It was to take him
out of the world of his own mysteries and into the blatant and commercial business of pop.
At that time, creativity was not so much a joke as an unnecessary hindrance to the machine
of hit-making. If the artist had already done the creating, no harm done. But, once inside
the studio, the atmosphere was irrelevant. The song had to be suitably packaged, according
to the laws of the market.
A Press release stated:
"His early songs, such as Matthew and Son and First Cut Is The Deepest, are melodic
and incisive and have an intimate charm all of their own. However, it is the shock
arrangements and the lyrical angles which set a Cat Stevens song outside the usual
boundaries. In no time, Stevens was a successful recording artist."
Successful in terms of
money, but as a person frustration, anger and a feeling of despair were building up within
"Once you're a
success," he says, "it becomes very difficult to judge things; people love
everything that you do. But it's important to me to try new things, different things, even
if they sometimes fail."
The studios had other ideas
that wore less extravagant.
"At that time,"
says Cat, "an artist, had little or no control over how the material was put
together. I found my songs being recorded with large orchestras to back me.
"I used to dread
recording sessions. I'd spend sleepless nights in what seemed like a waking nightmare of
dreading having to walk into that studio and face a mass of blank, uncomprehending and,
quite often, unsympathetic session musicians. They'd go mechanically through their chore
and put down a technically ported, but totally antiseptic, recording of my music."
tensions built up for Cat until he felt it difficult to reconcile what he wanted to do and
what he felt was being done to him. The pressures of the business are tremendous and this,
coupled with his own frustration at having his freedom to create restricted, brought some
"With the hit records
came the usual intensity of promotion; more recording, television shows, concerts, tours
and personal appearances. It's sort of necessary when you are starting out, but I overdid
it. I was trying to do too much in too short a time. I found that I barely had time to
"One minute I would be
running about the country and trying to write songs-the next minute I'd be in my bed,
worrying myself sick that the song wouldn't be put out right and that everything would
"It reached the point
where I was getting physical pains. I didn't give much attention to it at first, but they
persisted and so I took myself off to the doctor for a check-up.
"He didn't take too
long to give me his diagnosis. And when he did I felt the world fall in about me. He
ordered me to take a complete rest and informed me that if I chose to ignore his advice,
then I'd be dead.
contracted tuberculosis. One lung had already collapsed and the other was dangerously
close to following suit. I knew that rest would be out of the question if I tried to stay
in my present environment with all the pressures. So, I packed together a few belongings
and a stack of books and took myself off to a sanatorium.
"It was a different
world. A peaceful isolation. No telephone calls harassing you, no frustration about
recording sessions-just hours and hours to think in the country with plenty of fresh air
"I read such a lot and
became interested in yoga and religions. It didn't take me long to see that there was a
lot more to it than adopting unusual positions like a contortionist. It helped me relax,
enabled me to focus my attention on just one thing at a time instead of being lost in a
sea of ideas.
"I began to look into
myself and see who I was, what I was trying to do and relate myself to the world rather
than let things impose themselves upon me.
"Gradually, as I got
better, I began to be flooded with ideas for new songs, all totally different. In fact I
do not repeat the way I write a song. Doing that gets you into some kind of rut and you
find you keep turning out the same songs with different words.
"Each song is an
entity in itself. It says something different and, therefore, the music is complementary
to the feeling of the words. The music is just as image-evoking as the lyric. With me, the
music is the image-it dominates at the beginning and the words give an added impetus. In
fact, I can't think with words, only with images. 'I become totally involved with the song
I am working on. Usually, if I'm on a terrific high or a terrible low, the images come
more quickly. I'm far more creative in emotional extremes than when Im on an even
keel. But, I guess, this can apply to anything of an artistic nature. You have to work in
bursts of emotionalism.
'I can get opinions from
friends afterwards as to whether I have gone on the tracks with the songs. But I am
probably my own sternest critic, and always try to assess the importance of written
criticism in reviews."
What Cat learned in those
long months at the sanatorium was to put himself in perspective and the flow of images
that came to him were realised in the album Mona Bone Jakon.
The songs were different
from others I'd done in as much as, previously, I had relied on external imagery. Here I
was concerned with inner reflection."
He put the songs down on
tape and sent them to Paul Samwell Smith who immediately got in touch with Cat and told
him he'd like him to record them. An added bonus for Cat was being told that he
could put the songs down in whichever way he felt was best. This was the moment he had
been waiting for; he had shaken off the antiseptic and unsympathetic atmosphere of his
former recordings and was able to project musically as he wished. The album was a huge
success, leading Cat to do a full-length special in France for TV.
Tea For The Tillerman
followed and, once again, the accolades were poured upon the album, which gave Cat his
maid, opportunity to tour America.
"I played the Fillmore
East. New York and Los Angeles before returning to score the music for the film."
Meanwhile, Wild World had
fast established itself as a major hit in the US. But, for Cat, things were moving in
different directions, as he was in his personal life. "I'd never been one for wanting
to stay in the same place too long. I guess it all comes back to that feeling of being
static. There's the world out there and the world in here and I've got to get to know it
as intimately as possible and effect some kind of harmonisation.''
Teaser And The Firecat was
the result of his yearnings for a peripatetic existence. This also found its way into
print and was published in book form with special colour illustrations by Cat. Eventually,
it was produced in over a dozen languages. But Cat has described this as being no more
than a 'minor detour'.
Everything I have recorded
is just like a set of cameos. They are little projections of myself at a particular point
in my development-diaries, if you like which a lot of people can read. It's like opening a
book on someone else's thoughts. But I find that they are all valuable to me, also.
"You see, a lot of the
material on the albums is telling of things I would like to achieve. For, example, its
possible for me not to have inner peace and yet compose a song about it. And, through this
process, I come a little closer to achieving it. The song has been a meditation process
"Even now, I sometimes
listen to an old song I did and it bears no relation to how I feel now. But what I can
determine is the direction I was trying to take. Now that I am there, it is merely an
interesting exercise to listen to what began the developmental process.
"But I don't like
listening a lot to my albums. Once I've completed the set, then I put it aside. Otherwise,
it's like repeating the experience twice.
"I wouldn't even say
that I begin with a fixed formula for an album, either. For example, I don't sit down and
think: Ah, yes, I'll take this as a theme and churn out an album around it. It just
doesn't happen like that.
"My song writing is a
continual process, which is automatically geared to how I'm thinking, the emotions I'm
going through at that particular point in my evolution. So I'm not aware of a whole. But
somewhere along the line there is an album, which, if you like, is another month in the
The next album was Catch
Bull At Four, which was dominated by experiments in narrative, romantic and naturalistic
But Cat moved on yet again.
No one is capable of predicting what will be the rough idea of the next Cat Stevens album.
Only Cat himself can do that when he's completed the songs, because they are so
intricately wound up with his own mental development. But does it give him a sense of
elation to make it all public when it is essentially an introvertive process?
"Albums are necessary
if you are to achieve a wide audience. There is a limit to the amount of people I can play
to and create the atmosphere I want to.
"I used to lay down
such meticulous plans for perfection in my concerts. I would strive for perfection in the
studio and then attempt to recreate it for an audience. It didn't work. I soon realised
that the perfection came from my emotions. There had to be that complete sincerity and
an immediate affinity between myself and the song.
"If it didn't click
then it was just like singing any old song and the special meaning was somehow lost. I
knew it and that was what mattered. That's why I try to avoid the old songs as much as
possible for the simple reason that I was singing about things that were from a much
earlier part of my development; emotions I don't have such strong feelings for now and,
consequently, it would all be a bit synthetic. But people can still listen to the albums
and I can present the new material live in concerts."
Cat's next album was
Foreigner, which set out his feelings about himself in relation to others and the outside
"I don't like pinning
nationalities on people. We are all basically foreign to each other. We are aliens to our
own nature. We are a planet of foreigners. We are all lost children."
Cat produced this album
himself in an effort to change the direction. A lot of it was, consequently, done in
Jamaica, which Cat enjoyed.
In fact, it has been said
that this album partially quenched his thirst for total expression. But in his album
Buddha And The Chocolate Box, he changes direction again and underlines the force of love
and understanding, which is reflected right through his work.
The album is people with
wide-eyed children just beginning their travels and sad-eyed elders nearing the end of
theirs. These two, far apart but integrally related, contain the paradox which is Cat
He seems, at once, to be
the cheerful innocent thrilled by the world and the aged sage, dying from it. He
understands and feels both edges of life and bridges them.
"I feel I am getting
closer and closer to the true meaning of my life all the time. I find a great peace in
But what of friends, of
relationships-do then help to alleviate the low periods?
'They do and they don't.
You can tend to bring them down to your emotional depth rather than being brought out of
it. My songs are my outlet."
Despite Cat's life with his
parents in their home, where he stayed for many years because "we all understand each
other", he has now moved into his own house, structured around his personality.
"It's a working house. Three floors, basement ground and upper. The first thing I did
was to get the workmen in to knock down the walls so that each floor was just one large
"The top floor, which is
completely white, and the ceiling, which is the natural roof of the house, is light and
airy. I like working in these kind of conditions. In fact, there is no furniture in the
room at all, except for a piano. That's where I compose and paint when the mood takes me.
'My bed rests on a piano
platform, which is set into the wall on one side of the studio, and you reach it by going
up a short flight of open pine steps.
"The ground floor of
the house is where I've installed my hi-fl and stereo system around a sunken wall, and
I've scattered the floor with large cushions. Then I've got an illuminated tank of
tropical fish, too.
"Down in the basement,
I've built a complete recording studio. It's capable of handling eight tracks.
and I use it for making demos, which will later be recorded in a more sophisticated
"But I'm not using it
just myself. I intend to let other song-writer/composers come down here and work in peace
and turn out their demos. So I've got an engineer who can control all the gadgetry working
there and he handles all that side.
"As for the garden,
well, it's mostly Japanese influenced, with bamboo screens covering one wall, and there's
also a pond, fed by a constantly running stream, which I find soothing and refreshing. The
sound of water is so beautiful.
I've got lots more ideas
for the garden so that it really will be like a Japanese setting. But it'll take time.
"Right now, I've got a
tour of the States and then I fly to Japan. From there, I'll take a rest. I've just bought
this plot of land on a Greek island.
"I said I'd never do
that once, because all I'd want to do would be to laze in the sun. Well, that's what I
want it for now. So I'm having a house built there for me to spend a few months in each
Any bets on a future album
being Hellenically inspired?