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Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens, whose songs (mostly) remain the same

The first two albums I bought were Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. I was just entering teenagehood, that mysterious new world of hitherto unknown impulses and reactions, of vast horizons that were merely hinted at, that one could arrive at, if one just knew the means of getting there

My first discovery, my chrysalis moment, was that music could take you there. It could take you outside of yourself and deep within. What strong magic. And, at first, Cat Stevens was my own personal alchemist. He took my hand and led me to endless possibilities.

And it began with Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser for the Firecat.

I first heard Stevens on the radio. I was at home in a slumbering suburb in Newcastle, when I stopped dead, stayed still, and listened, really listened to Peace Train and Father and Son as they issued, thinly, from the transistor. This wasn’t Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep or I Woke Up in Love this Morning, this was of a deeper meaning. It was serious and melodic and, as I was to discover when I bought those first two albums, had, as all the songs did, a gossamer beauty: delicate acoustic playing married to a rhythmic dynamism. (The latter is an oft-overlooked crucial element in Stevens’ songwriting.)

Almost 50 years later, Cat Stevens, now as Yusuf, is bringing his music to Australia this month. He is also bringing a new album, The Laughing Apple, of which a considerable proportion of songs are from that earlier time. Yusuf was last in Melbourne five years ago for the opening of his musical Moonshadow at the Princess Theatre. It may have featured a sparkling list of his classic songs, but it received mixed reviews and closed early. Yusuf told The Age before the premiere that “they say there are only two stories – those about leaving home and those about coming home. This musical has both.”

And home is where the heart is. It is also where the art is.

For some artists, time stands still, they are happy with the wellspring of their creativity. They don’t seek other sources. Cat Stevens was not of that ilk. Anyone can hear that in his music. He was, to borrow a cliché, on a journey. A quest. A path to find out. The material world was not the answer. He found home in the words of the Koran. He is quoted as saying: “It was the timeless nature of the message. The words all seemed familiar yet so unlike anything I had ever read before.”

He left the cacophonous world of pop and rock for the quiet chambers of prayer and Islam. He put down the guitar to raise his own awareness of the religion and thus raise its profile in the West; he set up Muslim schools and helped with humanitarian relief.

Cat Stevens fans were appalled. Non-Cat Stevens fans were appalled. How could the gentle soul of Moonshadow and The Wind condone a fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie?

But he also stepped into a controversy that has followed him for the past 30 years. In 1988, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published. It set off a firestorm of protest worldwide, there were book burnings, massive protests and without question the ultimate fatal review: a fatwa, or death sentence, was imposed on the author by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

The newly converted Yusuf Islam was asked his reaction to the issuing of the fatwa, and, being loyal to his faith, and blind to the consequences, said that if blasphemy had been committed towards the prophet Muhammad the blasphemer must, in effect, pay the price. Cat Stevens fans were appalled. Non-Cat Stevens fans were appalled. How could the gentle soul of Moonshadow and The Wind condone such an action? Yusuf tried to explain his response, that he was not a defacto executioner, that he was simply following the logic of his faith and its defences against attack. Whatever he said, however, he still lost. The atmosphere at the time was electric, charged with hate and counter hate.

What made it more acute for Yusuf was that in being a “star”, albeit one who had renounced that universe, he was targeted more ferociously than the man and woman on the street who had vehemently protested at Rushdie’s book and agreed with the fatwa.

In 2000, he told Rolling Stone: “I was innocently drawn into the whole controversy. So, after many years, I’m glad at least now that I have been given the opportunity to explain to the public and fans my side of the story in my own words. At a lecture, back in 1989, I was asked a question about blasphemy according to Islamic law, I simply repeated the legal view according to my limited knowledge of the scriptural texts, based directly on historical commentaries of the Koran. The next day the newspaper headlines read, ‘Cat Says, Kill Rushdie’.

“I was abhorred, but what could I do? I was a new Muslim. If you ask a Bible student to quote the legal punishment of a person who commits blasphemy in the Bible, he would be dishonest if he didn’t mention Leviticus 24:16.”

Yusuf’s “crime” really was his naivety. Devotion to literalism, even if it leads to spiritual paradise, cannot transcend the grim reality of the physical world. One can live in one’s mind, but one has to exist outside it. That in essence is also an intrinsic part of Yusuf’s songs.

The past decade has seen the songwriter return to mainstream music with An Other Cup and Roadsinger. Both have infused the familiar Cat Stevens style with Islamic philosophy. Both have sold well.

What audiences will see on this tour will undoubtedly reflect Yusuf’s comments about home: the leaving and the returning. What they will hear in the songs is the journey. It will also take some all the way back to that magic time of discovery when they stood at the doors of teenagehood.

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7 responses to “Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens, whose songs (mostly) remain the same

  1. Warwick McFadyen deserves credit at least for acknowledging the elephant in the room instead of ignoring it as did The Project in their recent softball interview with Stevens. But has he actually seen the video of the TV programme where Stevens made his comments in support of the fatwa against Rushdie? Asked by Geoffrey Robertson if he would attend a demonstration where he knew that an effigy of Rushdie was to be burnt, his immediate, unmediated response was “I would have hoped that’d be the real thing, but no, if it’s just an effigy I don’t think I’d be that moved to go there, no.” He also said that if he knew where Rushdie was living he would try to telephone the Ayatollah Khomeini (who issued the fatwa) “and tell him exactly where this man is”.

    Naïve? Stevens has never come close to repudiating the fatwa and should be shunned, rather than lionised, by the liberal media until he does so in explicit terms.

    1. I remember seeing that program of Geoffrey Robertson’s, and at the time I owned four albums by the former Cat Stevens, and I’d learned to play many of his songs on the guitar. Listening to him advocate the burning of Salman Rushdie ( I’d read a couple of his novels) was one of the more depressing experiences of my life. Expressing such a view not only harmed Yusuf’s reputation, it harmed Islam as a whole.

      1. It hasn’t harmed either of them sufficiently IMO. Stevens still tours successfully and is given a pass by journos who allow their nostalgia for his music to stop them making the simple acknowledgment that you have made. As for the religion – people forget that the Rushdie fatwa pre-dated both Gulf wars. For a long time there’s been a fundamentalist penumbra that shelters and enables the “real” terrorists. Thirty years on from the Rushdie affair, people like Stevens who lurk there are still not being called to account. This is a problem and articles like this mean it will get worse before it gets better.

  2. My wife and I went to one of his Melbourne shows on the last tour. It felt like seeing your long lost brother who you’d thought was dead, because 10 years earlier the idea that he’d ever be back on stage was laughable. A good mix of new and old material and the most diverse audience I think I’ve ever seen at any gig, and his voice still has that same magical quality that first caught my ears in 1971. We’ll be there again on November 27.

  3. “Devotion to literalism, even if it leads to spiritual paradise, cannot transcend the grim reality of the physical world. ”

    Well, yes. In other words, fundamentalism is nonsense, and when applied to the real world it causes human misery. This is true regardless of what specific religion is involved.

    1. While Christianity and Islam both contain in their holy books, violent injunctions and prescriptions, they are orders of magnitude more numerous in Islam and a small but significant minority of Islamic clerics promote the violent injunctions whereas Christian ministers do not.

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