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This wonderful new article written in the Mojo Magazine June 2000 issue comes courtesy of Murphy Anderson.


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It's one of music's most overdue reconciliation's. Yusuf Islam has made peace with Cat Stevens.

By Colin Irwin

"Just over there was a small studio where I recorded my first demo at Regent Sound… and there, on the corner, that’s where my father had his restaurant… oh, and there is a great shop just around this corner…"Yus2000.jpg (20840 bytes)

He looks immaculate. A slim, slightly-built figure, he strides with brisk purposefulness wielding a gentleman’s cane. He is polite, formal, charming and mildly suspicious. It’s a major shock when he suddenly addresses you in a voice of conspiratorial matiness and laddish Cockney.

Yusuf Islam – the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens – is 52. Today, on a voyage of rediscovery around the West End of London where he was born and raised, he marches through his old manor with touching boyishness. His father, a Greek Cypriot, ran the Moulin Rouge restaurant and is still widely remembered locally. The proprietor of the nearby upmarket umbrella shop is delighted when Yusuf unassumingly introduces himself. "I remember your father very well. Such a fine man."

"Yes, thank you," says Yusuf humbly, genuinely pleased. Yusuf himself remembers being enraptured by the dazzling array of shows lighting up theatres all over the area when he was a child. "My greatest hobby," he says, slightly embarrassed, "was climbing up on roofs. I couldn’t believe it when The Drifters did that song Up On The Roof – it was as if someone had captured that moment and put it in a song."

He was always an outsider. It could scarcely have been otherwise for the painfully shy son of a Greek father and a Swedish mother who went to a Roman Catholic school in Drury Lane. He credits this unique environment as the stimulus for the lyrical eccentricity of early hits like Matthew and Son, I Love My Dog and I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun – surreal graphic cameos compared to the likes of Pet Clark’s This Is My Song and Engelbert’s Release Me, which were competing for the top of the charts.

He was, he admits, "a little weird". His father had a piano in the restaurant "as a status symbol" and the teenage Georgiou turned to music and art as the only means of expression for his awkward introversion. He knew from an early age he had to escape. "Everything about this place was flashing a message to me, that I didn’t want to work in the restaurant for the rest of my life. My father was a wonderful man. He was very well traveled and spoke 10 languages, but I always knew I wanted to jump out of the restaurant. I supposed I used music and art to launch me."

Living in the metropolis, he was exposed to all manner of music and cultures. His sister’s record collection also introduced him to George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole before a new world opened up via Buddy Holly and Little Richard. But it was the thriving folk scene of the early ‘60’s which helped to edge music above art in his escape route. He’d abandoned one-fingered piano after persuading his father to buy him an 8-pound acoustic guitar when he was 15 and immediately started writing songs. He started gigging during a brief spell at Hammersmith College of Art. " At first it was mainly in front of friends. There was a little kebab shop down the road and there was Les Cousins. I’d occasionally pick up a guitar there but I was too shy to play more than one or two songs." A Greek entrepreneur arranged an audition with producer Mike Hurst, who once had hits of his own with The Springfields, and at 17 he was signed to Decca, who were so impressed that they launched the Deram label – later home to David Bowie and The Moody Blues – in his honour. Steven Georgiou was clued in enough to know that the name had to go, and came up with Cat Stevens himself. "I needed a name people wouldn’t forget. My songs weren’t particularly commercial but I was very commercially minded."

His first single was the decidedly curious I Love My Dog. "I love my dog as much as I lu-huff yoooo…" with its brooding cello and dramatic arrangement. Now what was that all about?

"It was actually true, that song! Not far from here I found a little dog, one of those sausage dogs, tied to a post outside Foyles. No one was claiming it, so I took the dog home. The song was about him."Cat2000.jpg (10586 bytes)

A massive turntable hit on the pirate stations Radio Caroline and Radio London which were revolutionizing our listening habits, it reached Number 28 in October, 1966 but offered little clue that it would provide the trigger for one of the biggest international stars of the next decade. He wrote Matthew and Son after seeing a sign in a solicitor’s window while riding on a London bus. By the time he reached his stop a whole storyline had formed in his head about the entire depressing life of a downtrodden office worker. Only The Monkees’ I’m A Believer stopped Matthew and Son topping the charts in the first weeks of 1967 and Cat Stevens – now photographed in black velvet Carnaby Street suits – was ready for anything. A trendy, good-looking 18-year-old who appeared mean, moody and a little unhinged and wrote mad songs, he really couldn’t fail….

"It was all very exciting," he laughs now. "Every day there was something new, a different challenge. I felt I thoroughly deserved it. I lapped it up."

Catm2000.jpg (6023 bytes)In fact, he lapped it up a bit too much. By his own admission he was often unreasonably temperamental and avidly indulged the many excesses on offer. He appeared in shows with Georgie Fame and Marc Bolan ("He was too far out for me to understand") and went on a package tour with The Walker Brothers, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jimi Hendrix. "Actually I got on well with both Engelbert and Jimi. Jimi was a very warm and friendly man, a soft-spoken fellow and a gentle man. It was only when he got on stage that all hell broke loose. It was like he was on one of those rapids – he just couldn’t stop himself. After the show I’d mostly hang around with Jimi and we’d go to clubs and discos, Engelbert wouldn’t go to the same clubs as us!"

Cat Stevens lived the rock’n’roll cliché. He drank too much, smoked too much, didn’t eat properly and couldn’t resist a party. But he was encountering problems with the company suits. Already a respected writer of hits for others (Here Comes My Baby for The Tremeloes, The First Cut Is The Deepest for P.P. Arnold) he disowned a violent gun-toting poster promoting his I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun single – a song he’d written as part of a projected musical about his childhood hero Billy The Kid (I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun is conspicuous by its absence from the latest Remember Cat Stevens collection). Then they suggested it would be a good career move to go into panto and play Buttons in Cinderella. "Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard did that sort of thing then, but I said, No, that’s the end."

Within 18 months he’d gone from awkward teenager to wide-eyed pop heart-throb to disillusioned physical wreck. Early in 1968 he caught a cold. It turned into a nasty cough. Then he started coughing up blood. He was rushed to the hospital and almost died. He had pleurisy. "Death is the great reminder. There’s no better way to sober up than to think about death."

Duo2000a.jpg (13954 bytes)Convalescing in the hospital, his writing took on an acoustic direction totally at odds with his previous image. The idea of a washed-up teen idol trying to make it as a serious songwriter seemed laughable, but Chris Blackwell had faith and signed him to Island. He went into the studio with ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith as produce to record his next two albums, Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman. "Now I could do it without the horns and the back-up session men, and that was so liberating. In the Decca days I was doing three tracks in a session, but now I could spend an evening doing one track, which showed they believed in me. Nobody was happier than Chris Blackwell when it all started happening."

Cat Stevens, now a reborn singer-songwriter who’d swapped his old sharp suits for jeans and T-shirts, became a huge success in America and had a major hit with the ambitious Lady D’Arbanville – inspired by his then girlfriend Patti. He even provided Jimmy Cliff with an international hit when he covered Wild World. Peace Train, his deepest and most telling song to date, gave him a US Top 10. "America was a whole new experience. The package they perceived as Cat Stevens was very different from the UK, which knew me as the velvet-clad young teenybopper." Also included on Tea for the Tillerman was Father and Son, a moving dialogue song that took on a startling new life when Boyzone revived it and took it to the top of the charts in ’95. Yusuf Islam chuckles at the absurdity of it all. If nothing else it gave him cachet with his kids: "I wrote Father And Son in connection with an idea I had about a musical based on the Russian Revolution: the son was about to join the Revolution, the father was a farmer who wanted him to stay at home. I was in a Turkish restaurant one day and it came on the radio. One of my children said, ‘Dad, isn’t that your song?’ I said, ‘Why, yes it is!’ It turned out to be Boyzone. It’s a nice version and I’m grateful it was a clean-cut group who did it. I went to meet them at Top Of The Pops and we had a nice time. They’re a good bunch of lads."

Tea for the Tillerman ultimately spent 79 weeks in the US chart, a feat almost repeated by its successor Teaser and the Firecat, which included two of his most famous hits Moon Shadow and Morning Has Broken. Today he nominates Moon Shadow as his favourite of the old hits for its lyrical message, while still somewhat bemused at the way Morning Has Broken, featuring Rick Wakeman on piano, had become such an institution. "I found it in a hymn book. I was looking for inspiration and went into the religious section in Foyles down the road and came across the song. But I’m very surprised it took on such meaning. It was on of the few songs I didn’t write. Another Saturday Night was another. And one they may want to release sometime is my version of Fats Domino’s Blue Monday – it’s in the vaults somewhere and they’re trying to get it out."

By the time he recorded Catch Bull At Four in 1972 he was getting more and more spiritual – the title itself was named after Kakuan’s Ten Bulls, a 12th century Buddhist treatise about the steps to self-realization. The Foreigner album was even more philosophical. A whole side was devoted to the deeply complex Foreigner Suite; Stevens himself, meanwhile, was becoming ever more reclusive.

As Yusuf describes it now, the great staging post was another near-death experience in the mid-‘70’s. "I’d gone for a swim at my friend Jerry Moss’s house in Malibu and didn’t realize the current was so strong. When I tried to swim back to land I found I wasn’t going anywhere – just backwards into the ocean. I feared death again. It was that moment of truth when we all realize how incredibly weak we are. I called out to God and the answer came. I was given a push and the waves suddenly turned in my favour and I was swimming back. I’d always believed deep down in God because I had a private religious side. People often do have a sense of the sacred but are too busy with life to give it any credence. It’s only when they really need it that they call it up and it’s right there, right on the surface.

His brother David returned from Jerusalem with a copy of the Koran, and from that point Cat Stevens’ days were numbered. Subsequent albums Buddha And The Chocolate Box, Numbers, Izitso and Back To Earth became increasingly obtuse and, though they continued to sell to a devoted fan base, Stevens himself became virtually invisible, even leaving the UK to live in Brazil at one point. Catmo2.jpg (11663 bytes)

"I was still going on tour and making music after I became a Muslim. There’s nothing in the Koran to forbid music, it’s just showing off that’s not accepted. God must be the object of our devotion, but music isn’t banned. But there is a certain school of thought which looks upon music and entertainment as something frivolous, so I stared to think again. There is music in the Muslim world but I didn’t make the equation. I was looking strictly at scripture interpretation, and it took me a long time to understand the differences. So I decided to make the break."

In 1979, Cat Stevens ceased to be. He auctioned off his guitars, gave the money to charity, changed his name to Yusuf Islam and announced that his music career was over and that he’d be dedicating the rest of his life to Islam: "The only thing I regret was the way I did it. I was unable to express myself and perhaps it looked illogical and bizarre. I was trying to convey the message that this was what was important to me now and I hoped it would also be important to people who liked my music and listened to my words. But I was so wrapped up in my new life I didn’t give enough time to try and explain myself. Perhaps I needed to feel comfortable as a Muslim. It’s not an easy thing to do.

"Islam is still looked upon as something alien to the Western way of life but what I was discovering was that all the incredible links that make us human and provide us with optimism and hope for tomorrow are all in Islam. Explaining that to someone else is very difficult."

Still regarded with suspicion by many Westerners, Yusuf has worked vigorously in his new role. In 1984 he set up Muslim Aid for famine relief in Africa; in 1990 he went on a peace mission to Iraq and successfully returned with four hostages. He runs an Islamic hotel in Willesden and is also passionately involved in education both as a teacher and in setting up schools for the Muslim underprivileged. One of his proudest achievements recently has been to get state aid for one of them. "I was on my way to Sarajevo when I got the news. I’d landed in Vienna and they rang and said, ‘We’ve got it!’ I jumped into the air."

He also started recording again. He released The Life Of The Last Prophet in 1995, a 65-minute 2-CD mainly spoken word biography of the Prophet Muhammad, but it took the Bosnian conflict to shock him into writing and singing a brand new song, The Little Ones – accompanied only by drums – featured on the I Have No Cannons That Roar collection of Bosnian music dedicated to the children of Sarajevo and Dunblane. Bosnia’s foreign minister Irfan Ljubijankic had given Yusuf a Bosnian song and asked him to "do something with it". When Ljubijankic was killed in the war shortly afterwards, Yusuf knew he must complete the project. He has another new album, A Is For Allah, just released on his own Mountain Of Light label, and has also published a beautiful book of the same title.

Most surprising of all, though, is his active involvement in an ongoing Cat Stevens reissue programme: "My view of my past has changed since I embraced Islam. In the early days I wanted to forget about it and move on. But now I’ve come to a more balanced view of my music. There’s good and bad in it, but there are still some messages and words that are valid today so I look on the positive side.

"I received a letter recently from somebody who said she was on the verge of suicide, but heard my music and it changed her mind. She was about to end it all but saw hope through my songs. That’s good enough for me."

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