I AM OLD ENOUGH to have bought Cat Stevens's albums the first time around, when Cat was a rather geeky-looking Greek who loved his dog. It pays to love your dog, it went well after that. Cat ditched the mod clothes and grew the trademark beard and hair.
A friend of mine attended a Cat Stevens concert in the USA in the early 1970s and was disappointed. Cat complained about audience noise and threatened to walk off. Frankly, I cannot fault a musician for that. A theatre full of tripping college students wouldn't be my ideal soundboard.
I'll admit I never liked a Cat Stevens album the first time I heard it, perhaps because every one was quite different. It was a bit like hearing a new artist twice a year.
Didn't everyone have the Tea for the Tillerman album? I recall buying copies of Numbers for quite a few friends who were wary of buying it. I listened the second time and was transported. I played Catch Bull at Four at the opening of a four-person art show which featured my work (I rarely paint now, in case you wondered). I played Foreigner over and over and bought the sheet music so a friend could have a go at the piano music in the Foreigner Suite. While sick as a dog, recovering from glandular fever, I managed to improve my mood with Izitso.
A friend with a guitar would serenade us with Into White, still one of my favourite tunes.
Cat Stevens had a difficult early career. Stoned, drunk and cold, as he put it in the song I Never Wanted to be a Star. He caught tuberculosis. He left Britain for Brazil. One day he was swimming out of his depth and was being carried out and under. He says that he prayed that if God would save him, he'd devote the rest of his life to God. A big wave came up behind him and pushed him suddenly ashore.
What next? He auctioned his guitars for charity and funded a school with his song royalties. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam. The Bible and Koran character Joseph (Yusuf) was a favourite of his. And Yusuf vanished pretty much until the fatwa issued for Salman Rushdie. At that time, Yusuf was asked his opinion on the fatwa and he said that the Koran called for such things. He didn't tell Muslims to go out and get Rushdie, though the Press decided that he had. Pretty soon people (particularly the US Government, which has been terrified of bearded men ever since Walt Whitman) decided he was a risk to national security. While being awarded a prize for promoting peace by Europeans, Yusuf was prevented from travelling to America.
A couple of years ago, Yusuf's son brought a guitar home and left it in the family living room. Yusuf saw it there and picked it up. Tempted, one might say. He plucked and strummed and found that even after 25 years he still knew the tunes.
I'd like to think a long night had ended. Not necessarily a bad night, because we all need sleep. Yusuf realised suddenly that making music need not be contrary to Islamic laws and culture. Perhaps the opposite.
The man once known as Cat Stevens has been making music again.
I bought Yusuf's album Roadsinger last week after seeing a preview on the television. The first time I listened to it I wasn't sure that I liked it. Some things don't change. The second time I played it I was over the moon.
The lyrics are peace and love, pictures are painted. Yusuf's voice is not quite Cat's voice, but it is remarkably close to it. The man is my age and he's not been on the road and in the studio for going on 30 years. The melodies and the working of the instruments are, I think, reminiscent of Mona Bone Jakon, Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman. Rather than Matthew and Son or Buddha and the Chocolate Box.
These are songs I'd love to have a friend play and sing to me in front of the fire on a cold winter's evening or in a balmy summer's twilight in the courtyard.
What should you do? Try and listen to the Roadsinger album by Yusuf, the man you might have known as Cat. Listen at least twice.