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                                                                      Home      Yusuf Islam     Messageboard  
The Australian Women's Weekly
May 2002
Written By William Langley
Courtesy of Ricky Nelson


To many, he wrote the soundtrack to the '70s, yet Cat Stevens turned his back on pop success and gave his life to Islam. Here he talks about the legacy of his music and his changing attitude to it.

The hour is late and a greasy rain is falling across central London, but inside ArRum, the city's fashionable new club-with-a-difference, the room is humming and the lights are bright. On a low-slung leather banquette in a corner is the singer who used to be Cat Stevens. Dressed in a loose, grey linen suit and black loafers, he is a discreet presence in this chic venue, which, he tells me in a cheery voice "is just how I like it". Twenty-five years ago, Cat walked away from one of pop's most successful careers. The son of a Greek restaurant owner, he had become a core part of the soundtrack of the '60s and '70s with classic songs such as Moonshadow and The First Cut Is The Deepest, selling more than 40 million records around the world. Yet from the middle of 1977, he slowly began to withdraw from the pop scene, shutting himself away from public view and refusing to perform or record. The gossipy fringes of the pop world crackled with rumours the he had gone mad.

So, when Cat at last emerged, heavily bearded and swathed in shite cotton robes, to delcare that he had become a Muslim and wished to be known in future as Yusuf Islam, there was a mild sigh of relief from his fans. Then, as now, rock stars were always looking for fresh ways to find themselves, but the glamour, money and adoration usually won out. Most of us reasoned it wouldn't be long before the Cat came back.

Cat Stevens never returned to pop, but after a quarter of a century, he has - in a sense - returned to Cat Stevens. Upon his conversation, and for years afterwards, Yusuf Islam spoke in bitter terms about the music business, denouncing even his own songs as worthless frivolities.

Although he still reaped a considerable income from sales of his old numbers, the bulk of the money went to support Muslim causes, and he had nothing good to say about Cat Stevens. Today, aged 53 and married with five children, he appears to have mellowed. He remains loyal to his adopted faith, but there's a little more of the lovable pop star and a lot less of the Islamic firebrand about him. The strident - sometimes menacing - rhetoric he once spouted has softened. He's no longer ashamed to have been Cat Stevens and, indeed, tends carefully to Cat's musical legacy.

"My own kids listen to those records now", he says. "They're probably more into '70s music than I ever was. So how can I deny them? (The songs) were a part of my life and they helped, in a way, to lead me to where I am now. So, sure, there must be good in them somewhere."

The difference at ArRum is that the clientele is mostly Muslim and the drinks are all soft. Drawing a young and sleek professional crowd, the club is the Islamic networking equivalent of London's celebrity Groucho Club.

To a non-Muslim, the ambience is slightly bizarre - close to midnight and not a slurred syllable or desperate chat-up line to be heard - but Yusuf is comfortable here, with his tumbler of iced fruit juice and the occasional floppy hugs from people who now him.

"You needed to be inside pop to know what it was like... It ate people up... I knew it was wrong for me... my life started when I quit".

He was under 30 when he abandoned music. Back then, no one imagined that rock stars could - and would - have careers stretching into their 60's. So I ask him whether, with hindsight, he shouldn't have carried for a few more years.

"Oh, no" Yusuf winces. "I never had a moment's doubt or regret. You needed to be inside pop to know what it was like. The assumption we lived by was that your fame wouldn't last very long, so you had to grab what you could while you could. It wasn't healthy. It ate people up. I didn't sit around thinking, 'Why is my life so empty? What am I doing here?', but I knew that it was wrong for me. I can honestly say my life started when I quit."

What about the fans, though? Cat had millions of them around the world - the most avid of all were Australians, who still buy more of his records per capita than any other nation.

With his clever lyrics and crisp, folksy tunes, he was the minstrel of the bedsit generation: a voice of youth and harmony that gelled beautifully with its times.

By the mid-'70s, his more perceptive fans might have noticed a spirituality creeping into his repertoire, with songs such as Peace Train and Morning Has Broken, but no one expected to lose him entirely. "Well," he shrugs, "I suppose that was destiny. But, look, I sell almost as many records now as I did back then (1.5million a year), so it's not as though I went away completely."

He is wary of giving interviews. Before this one was agreed to, some fairly onerous conditions were attached, although as soon as he shakes my hand in both of his they seem to be largely forgotten. He was badly roughed up by the press in 1989, after appearing to voice support for the fatwa or religious decree issued by Irans's Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the murder of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. He took a similar pasting after saying that the subordinate role of women in Islamic society was "appropriate".

Yusuf remains guarded and defensive about these matters, referring to them as "misunderstandings". He blames them on his relative inexperience as a Muslim spokesman. "The media came after me for comments because I was well known. I tried to be helpful and explain the issues as best I could, but they were complex and I wasn't qualified to answer properly."

Now, as Yusuf doesn't need reminding, there is the backlash of September 11 to deal with. And here the mellowing - you might call it maturity - can be detected. "I unhesitatingly condemn what happened," he says. "It was a crime, and the people who did these things have no right to justify them in the name of Islam.

"My heart goes out to the victims, but remember, we - the ordinary Muslims - suffer, too. We suffer the mistrust and the resentment. Our communities get hurt. Our beliefs are traduced. Everybody loses. This is a dark period in history."

Today he helps run - and substantially finances - four Islamic schools in London. All are highly regarded and have long waiting lists. "Thats what turns me on now. Seeing kids happy, growing up, doing well, becoming decent people," he grins.

By the beaten-up standards of most vintage rockers, the ex-Cat still looks astonishingly good. His soft brown eyes are clear and mobile, his skin smooth and his dark hair barely traced with grey. The unruly black beard he favoured for years after his conversion has been pruned back, and with his slender frame wrapped in its just-crumpled-enough linen outfit, he still cuts the fashionable dash of a man who should be at home in the pop business. Would anything tempt him back?

"I'm not anti-Cat Stevens, but it simply wouldn't be possible for me to go back to being that person again. I'm not even sure now who he was"

He clasps his hands and pauses. Yusuf's learned the cost of making statements he might regret, so he wants to get this right. "Heres what I honestly think," he says. "By the time I got out, my best work had been done. After Tea For The Tillerman (his most famous album, released in 1970), my songs, in fact my whole creativity, was affected by other things happening in my life and there was a little less of Cat in each of them. I'm not anti-Cat Stevens, but it simply wouldn't be possible for me to go back to being that person again. I'm not even sure now who he was."

So who was he? The boy who would become Cat Stevens was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948. His parents, Ingrid, who was Swedish, and Stavros, who was Greek, ran a popular restaurant in London's New Oxford Street, on the edge of the theatre district. He helped out in the kitchen from an early age and says his most distinct childhood memory is of "never being hungry".

Their eaterie often hosted bouzouki bands and the family regularly gathered for feasts and singsongs. These were the first live performances Cat was exposed to and, although it's hard to spot Greek influences in his later songs, he acknowledges that the music's vitality and exuberance must have had an effect on him.

He thought first of being a clothes designer but, while studying at art college, casually began to write and perfrom songs, mostly at student pubs under the name of Steve Adams. One day, in the mid-'60s, he was introduced to Mike Hurst of The Springfields (a singing group fronted by the late Dusty Springfield). "His band had broken up," says Cat. "He was planning to go to the States to become a record producer. But when he heard my songs, he decided to stay in London to produce me."

The pair recorded a selection of Cat's songs, but they still needed a record label, and Mike Hurst thought the name Steve Adams - while more marketable than Steven Demetre Georgiou - lacked pizazz.

"I picked Cat because a girlfriend had once said that I had feline eyes and cats were popular at the time - Cat Ballou, Whats New Pussycat? I kept Steven from my own name."

"He turned up at my place one day," recalls Mike, "and he said, 'Can I play you some songs?' I said, 'What? Right now?' And he said, 'Yeah'. So he came in, sang me a song and it was pretty good, and the second song was good, too, but the third was brilliant. I said, 'Blimey! That's a hit'."

The song was called I Love My Dog. It came out on Decca's new Dream label in November 1966 and reached No. 28 in the British charts.

Three months later, Cat's Matthew And Son reached No. 2 - kept from the top spot by the Beatles' double sided classic Pennylane/Strawberry Fields. During 1967, the hits kept flowing. A young American soul singer, P.P. Arnold, had an international smash with Cat's First Cut Is The Deepest.

He was 18, famous, newly rich - and headed for disaster

In late 1967, after a year spent indulging himself in the fruits of his success, he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. "It didn't seem possible," he said. "Here I was enjoying the Swinging '60s, and I'm down with this medieval disease."

It took him almost two years to fully convalesce. It was during those months of lonely confinement, he says, that he first began to ask questions about "myself, my life and what I was doing here".

Back from deaths door, the '70s pop start became a poet, releasing a series of acclaimed albums, including Tea for the Tillerman, Catch Bull at Four, Teaser and the Firecat and Buddha and the Chocolate Box. However, the tone of Cat's music had changed markedly since his illness. He was no longer signing for the pub crowd, but to a sophisticated niche audience of apoirational, like-minded 20-somethings - girls in their first Laura Ashley dresses, young men with university degrees and a foot firmly on the career ladder. With uncanny precision, Cat hit the chords that touched their lives.

He conquered America and enjoyed a phenomenal sales success in Australia. By the mid-'70s, he was in every sense an international superstar.

And then, he was gone. Embarrassingly prone as rock types are to embrace causes and embark on "personal journeys", no star of Cat's magnitude had ever walked irrvocably away from a career.

"I never doubted, once I made the decision, that it would be permanent ... The only difficulty I had was trying to explain to people who didn't want to understand."

People in the music business greeted his announcement with an ill-concealed scepticism. In his old London drinking haunts, rock friends sniggered, adjusted the tilt of their sunglasses and awaited his chastened return.

That it never came, he says, is evidence not of obstinacy but of certainty. "I never doubted, once I made the decision, that it would be permanent," he tells me. "The only difficulty I had was trying to explain to the people who didn't want to understand the beauty and importance of what I had discovered."

The discovery came after David, his older brother, an important factor in Cat's rise to fame, have him a copy of the Koran as a Christmas present in 1976.

Cat spent a year reading it reflectively, finding within it the key to the serenity he was looking for and a code by which he could live his life.

Even rock stars have the right to follow their consciences, but many Cat Stevens fans felt betrayed by the vehemence of his departure and the scorn he heaped on his old songs. He accepts now he should have handled things better.

"It was like the first rush of liberty," he says. "I'd been dreaming of freedom and here it was. I'd been given the cell door key. The real anger I felt was probably against the people who ran the business.

"But, looking back and realising what my music meant to my fans at the time, I can understand how they felt and I'm sorry that we lost that link. I think it's being rebuilt, I'm still very involved with Cat, and I'm actually chuffed to see him going so strong."

I ask him if songs still come, unasked, into his head, and whether it's frustrating to have to usher them out again. Yusuf grins and shakes his head.

"No," he says softly, "because, you know, I'm involved in music a lot more now. God has given me a new voice. I did not set foot in a recording studio for 17 years, and then I came back to make The Life of the Last Prophet [a CD consisting of songs, verses and recitations from the Koran, made in 1995]. Now I'm doing more things all the time. And I get both the enjoyment of doing the work and knowing that it supports my faith."

During his pop years, Cat romanced a series of beautiful women, most famously American model Patti d'Arbanville (who later left him for Mick Jagger), Cat's inspiration for the song Lady d'Arbanville.

For the past 24 years, however, he has been married to Fawzia Ali, a Muslim from central Asia with whom he has four daughters and a son. Fawzia keeps a very low profile and Yusuf declines to talk in any detail about his home life but admits their marriage was essentially arranged in the Muslim fashion.

"I remember," he says, "bringing these girls home to meet my mother. We were having dinner and afterwards I said to my mum, 'Which one should I marry?' and she said, 'That one'. And she was right."

It's hard to doubt his contentment or the depth of his commitment to Islam. Still, a question remains; did he really have to walk so completely away from pop music? Dr Zaki Badawi, dean of the Muslim College in London, who has known Yusuf sonce his conversion, thinks not.

"When he arrived," says Dr Badawi, "I said to him, 'Well I hope you'll still be able to sing', and he said, 'No, no, I've given it up'. I said, 'What have you done that for?' He said, 'Well, it's not allowed in Islam', and I told him that this was not really a sound view."

Most probably, believes Dr Badawi, Yusuf sensed that it would be almost impossible to follow his conscience while still rooted in the excesses of the pop world. The only way out that the singer could see was to embrace not simply Islam, but its most austere and disciplined form. And this, in turn, led to his furious disavowal of everything Cat Stevens had been and stood for.

Yusuf's better now. Looks it. Sounds it. He closely oversees the marketing of all Cat Steven's records, and takes it as a real compliment when you tell him you've always been a fan.

Yusuf and Cat, you could say, are friends at last. Just don't expect to see them on stage together.


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