The Meaning of Yusuf/Cat Stevens

After a brilliant but turbulent career, he is reemerging on the public stage. How should we feel about him­ — and his music — now?
Cat Stevens in 1976. (Arthur Grimm/United Archives/Getty Images)

A unique feature of the destabilizing, horrifying Great Interruption of the past year and a half (and counting) is that it has nudged so many of us into a period of protracted introspection and reassessment. Superficially, we’ve discovered the wonders of sourdough starter and urban gardening, but beneath the surface something more significant has been going on. Especially during those long, pre-vaccine months of sheltering in place, it became somewhere between interesting and necessary to recalibrate, to inventory what we value, to look at who and what we surround ourselves with, and why.

Part of this process for me has involved a careful survey of what is literally on my shelves, which includes an ungainly collection of music housed on old media: vinyl, CDs and cassettes. I’ve deliberately reached for albums with which I have distant, uncertain relationships, producing new revelations. Foolishly, I’d dismissed Randy Newman as a Hollywood lightweight, but a return to the sharp, subversive danger of his 1974 album “Good Old Boys,” and the more recent “Dark Matter” from 2017, reminded me of his particular genius. The magnificent gospel compilation set “Goodbye, Babylon” from 2003 bathed me again in its heavenly glow every time I put it on, making me wonder why I’d ever consigned it to mothballs. Similarly, both Sun Ra and the Shaggs found their way back from the nether regions of my stacks and into regular rotation once again, each now making more sense than ever. And it had been too long since I’d spent time with Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha”; the relevance of its poignant, resilient finale, “A Real Slow Drag,” gave me goosebumps.

And then came Cat Stevens. I’d first heard Stevens’s music as a teenager in the mid-’80s, when friends and I watched “Harold and Maude,” Hal Ashby’s paean to nonconformity. The film, which turned 50 this year, prominently features Stevens’s songs, including one that could be called its theme: “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” I decided that I did. The very next day I acquired a cheap guitar and began teaching myself how to play. Stevens’s songs eventually led me to Bob Dylan; Dylan led me to early-20th-century blues, jazz and country music; and by my early 20s I was living in New Orleans, fronting my first band. A few years later, after I moved to Brooklyn, a series of chance encounters led to a high-profile engagement for my quartet. Critics wrote nice things about us, we began making records, and for the past couple of decades I’ve been blessed with a music career, albeit a nontraditional one. Operating under the mainstream radar, I’ve headlined on stages ranging from the fancy (Lincoln Center) to the less so (dank basements in rural Romania). If my path has never followed conventional patterns, just consider its source; in a real sense, I owe it all to Cat Stevens.

Stevens’s road has been anything but a straight line. His career began in the late ’60s as a teenage pop star in Britain, before a bout with tuberculosis nearly killed him. During his convalescence his songwriting morphed, and he emerged as the acoustic-guitar-wielding, long-haired Pan most people still conjure in their minds when they hear his name. He achieved superstardom with evergreen standards like “Morning Has Broken,” “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train,” and toured the world as a major headliner. Then, in 1978, Stevens suddenly renounced his music career, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, auctioned off his instruments and rededicated his life to being a family man and a devout Muslim.

But he didn’t entirely disappear. His new religious beliefs led him in a number of directions. On the one hand, he donated time and money to education and charity — and, while his interpretation of the religion he’d embraced suggested that playing musical instruments was forbidden, he lent his well-known voice to spoken word and children’s albums that remain big sellers in the Muslim world. On the other hand, he became embroiled in the controversy surrounding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie, leading many to dissociate themselves from his music.

Eventually, though, Stevens picked up a guitar and began writing songs again. In 2006, he returned to pop music under the name Yusuf, releasing the first of some tentative-sounding new recordings, but by 2014 he’d come around to accepting his musical past once again — at least halfway. Billing himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens (the name he currently uses; on Twitter, his bio says “Yusuf Islam the Artist also known as Cat Stevens”), he made an album with producer Rick Rubin, appeared at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and embarked on his first American tour since the ’70s. In concert, he began revisiting a broad sampling of his early work with a commitment and passion many of his fans never expected to see — myself included.

Now, he is reissuing his Cat Stevens catalogue. Last year, he released golden-anniversary box sets of what are arguably his artistic high-water marks, the albums “Mona Bone Jakon” and “Tea for the Tillerman,” originally released within seven months of each other in 1970. This fall, 1971’s “Teaser and the Firecat” will get its own deluxe reissue, and there are plans afoot to follow it up with anniversary editions of each of Stevens’s 1970s albums, sequentially (1978’s “Back to Earth” is the only one to be reissued out of order, in 2019). He’s also just completed a draft of his autobiography. For devotees of Stevens’s classic material, it can feel as though he’s making amends for having walked away from his music all those years ago.

But is that really fair? Or true? Meditating on this during the pandemic made me think about what responsibility, if any, artists have to their audience. If we agree that art has the power to reveal us to ourselves, to help us make sense of the world and our place in it, do we then have the right to expect artists to be faithful stewards of that relationship? There may be no musician who prompts this question as directly as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. And since Stevens now appears to be in legacy-tending mode, it seems appropriate to wonder what exactly that legacy is — for me, for him, for us.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens with, from left, daughter Asmaa, his granddaughter, and wife Fauzia in 2007, when he received an honorary degree for his humanitarian work at Britain’s University of Exeter. (Anthony Devlin/PA Images/Getty Images)

In December, during the darkest winter many of us have ever lived through, I began digging through the new box sets of “Mona Bone” and “Tillerman. Listening to those records again, and having recently turned 50 myself, a creeping realization began to take shape: that more than just being professionally indebted to Stevens, I might actually not even be the person I am today had I not been exposed to his music. But not just any of it. This music. These albums, from which the bulk of the “Harold and Maude” soundtrack had been culled.

I suspect that this has to do with the crucial developmental juncture I was at when I first encountered them, at that time in life when just existing can feel like one big, adolescent hurt. The world stops making sense; the relationships we have with our families, friends and ourselves are constantly being dashed against the rocks. It’s a time when many of us first grasp for the anchor of music and hold on for dear life.

More than anything, Stevens’s pair of 1970 albums are about searching for authenticity in a culture that does not assign great value to it. (For my high school yearbook quote, I’d chosen a lyric from a later song, “Drywood,” that went: “Throw down your mask and be real.” Old friends still tease me about it.) If the lyrics have a rebellious streak, it isn’t one with a political ax to grind, but a personal one. The questions Stevens asks are the result of objectively noting the decisions we’re prompted to make as individuals, and as a society.

On songs like “I Think I See the Light,” “Miles From Nowhere” and “On the Road to Find Out,” Stevens is trying to sort through what is real and what is not. On “Where Do the Children Play?” his Socratic questioning of the status quo continues to be relevant:

Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air

But will you keep on building higher

’Til there’s no more room up there?

Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?

Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

The recordings of these songs are full of feeling, full of seeking and longing. They express a kind of hopeful loneliness, what Victor Hugo called “the happiness of being sad.” Embedded in them too is that sense that initially resonated so deeply with me: the promise of eventual and ecstatic release. This was the sensibility that, in my case, fueled spontaneous road trips in search of new experience, and epic bouts of music-making that eclipsed basic needs like food and rest. Stevens’s songs supported these ways of thinking and being, encouraging me to live as fully and freely as possible.

On “Hard Headed Woman,” “Wild World” and “Maybe You’re Right,” Stevens offers variations on the themes of love and loss, again yearning for something pure, faithful and sustained. His words may not reach the poetic heights achieved by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and they’re not richly allusive like Dylan’s, nor wryly resilient like Paul Simon’s. There’s none of the detached cool found in the songs of Bill Withers and Jackson Browne, nor the Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship of Carole King and Harry Nilsson. What sets Stevens apart from his contemporaries is the way he is able to inhabit a space that exists smack in between earnest innocence and earned wisdom.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the pièce de résistance of these records, “Father and Son.” It’s a song that, in the abstract, seems easy to dismiss as a trope of the early ’70s singer-songwriter era. But listening to the original recording again has the power to burn off any sense of treacly nostalgia. There’s a simplicity to the way the recording’s various elements combine — the composition, the performance, the production — that is breathtaking, surprisingly soulful and still packs an emotional wallop.

After my reunion with those two 1970 records, I listened to “Teaser” and its follow-up, “Catch Bull at Four” — and I had the sense that much of the artistic success of this particular clutch of albums had to do with the deft, understated touch of the producer he collaborated with: the former Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. The chamber ensemble palette Samwell-Smith employed, consisting mainly of acoustic guitars, piano, upright bass and hand percussion, and the refined arrangements he crafted, perfectly complement the interior landscapes that Stevens was exploring. Stevens had the pure, raw talent, certainly, but it was Samwell-Smith who seemed to understand how best to transmute and position that talent for maximum artistic impact. These remain gorgeous records and deserve a place among the most beautiful, satisfying pop albums of their day.

But after “Catch Bull” in 1972, Stevens’s music devolved. He became a stylistic dilettante, venturing awkwardly into the realms of R&B, fusion, prog-rock and electronic music, and offering spiritual sample-platters — a little Buddhism here, some astrology there, half-baked helpings of Taoism, numerology and Christianity. It was as though Stevens was trying on one outfit after another, mixing and matching in the hope that some combination would eventually work.

Nothing did, which may be one reason Stevens is rarely mentioned in the same breath as some of those other prominent singer-songwriters from that era. When, in 1978, he abruptly withdrew from the music scene, he severed not only his relationship with his career, but with the countless fans who still felt connected to his best music.

Billy Joel stopped releasing albums of new work in 1993, but he didn’t stop performing, or ask his record company to stop selling his music, as Cat Stevens did at one point after he became Yusuf Islam. Stevens didn’t just break up with his fans; by denying the value of the music he’d made, he insulted our aesthetic sensibilities — and our judgment.

Stevens and singer-songwriter Dave Matthews at a Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner in 2019 in New York. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall of Fame)

“Artists owe nobody anything,” the culture writer Greil Marcus told me in no uncertain terms, in response to a prompt I sent him about artists’ responsibilities to their audience. “People invest themselves in the artists they care about. … But ultimately I think artists’ followers have an obligation not to betray themselves through what Robert Christgau once named ‘autohype.’ That means convincing yourself that whoever’s clearly inferior, fake, corrupt, stupid or just plain dull work is as good as anything they ever did — that if one just looks hard enough, the flowers of genius will blossom.”

Which is to say that it’s a mistake to conflate artists with their work. When we elevate people to the kind of heroic pedestal that many, including me, put Stevens on, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Artists are imperfect, like all of us, and bound to change. As Ruth Gordon’s Maude says to Bud Cort’s Harold in Ashby’s film: “Consistency is not really a human trait.”

But what about artists who stop sharing their gifts? Did Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison or J.D. Salinger deprive us of something we somehow deserved when they stopped publishing more work during their lifetimes? Is Elvis Presley’s spellbinding 1968 “Comeback Special” damning evidence that we were cheated by his decision to dither away years of his talent making bad movies? Is Daniel Day-Lewis guilty of a cultural crime for having walked away from acting?

Stevens stopped making pop music for almost three decades, and now he’s come back. I wanted to bring up these issues with him directly, but I first had to be vetted by his handlers, one of whom is his son and manager, Yoriyos Adamos. Then I was given a series of conditions: Yoriyos would also be on the call with Stevens, which would be limited to 45 minutes, and the Zoom session could be audio-only, though this final restriction was lifted when I advocated for the importance of nonverbal communication.

A few days later, there Stevens was, on my screen, beaming in from his home in Dubai. We began our conversation talking about his early work. “The songs were better than I was,” he told me. After the huge success he’d had with Samwell-Smith, he’d moved to Rio de Janeiro for a few years “to hide away … to empty myself, to escape. I was alone, totally alone … like a cat that you get too close to,” he told me, without any apparent irony.

And then we got into his relationship with his audience. He now feels that he could have handled his exit from the music world in 1978 more gracefully, and he told me that until recently he had only a limited understanding of the intense emotional attachment people still have to his songs. This didn’t sound like false modesty; he seemed genuinely surprised by the fact that, during his recent return to touring, his old songs could provoke the kind of catharsis he witnessed from one show to the next. “I mean, I knew that there was a devoted listenership,” he said, “but I just didn’t realize how much people’s lives changed as the result of listening to my music.” He acknowledged that his return to active music-making has been driven in large part by the responsibility he feels to share the artistic talents he’s been given. And not just with some audiences, but with everyone.

Stevens presented, convincingly, as a pretty regular guy, and I was nonplussed to hear him talk about messing around with GarageBand at home, and about the steady diet of streaming content he and his wife take in at night. They’d recently screened the South Korean TV drama “The Empress Ki” and Ashby’s “Being There” (both of which he loved), as well as “Game of Thrones” (which he didn’t care for at all), and he admitted to being a big fan of action films. (“I love to watch Tom Cruise jumping over the roofs,” he told me.) He was easy to talk with, free of the kinds of defensive posturing I’ve seen him assume in other interviews. I think he was as surprised as I was when Yoriyos chimed in to announce that our time was up.

This was too bad. It felt like we had just gotten started, and I wasn’t even halfway through my questions yet. When I later asked Yoriyos about the possibility of scheduling a follow-up, he was receptive to the idea.

From left, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sheryl Crow, Father Guido Sarducci, Stevens and Mavis Staples at Comedy Central’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall in Washington in 2010. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Making the argument for a second interview, I told Yoriyos — just in case this was a concern — that I wasn’t interested in talking about the Rushdie fatwa, and that it was not a focus of my piece. Stevens’s position on that had been made clear over the years in public statements, in his 2014 book, on a section of his website called “Editing Floor Blues,” and in a song by the same name. The topic, I thought, was likely to be a dead end. When asked, at a 2017 TED conference, whether he regretted how the Rushdie controversy played out, he raised his eyebrows and replied testily, “I regret the question.”

Instead, what I really wanted to do was to get into a more nuanced discussion with him about how audiences and artists tend to the relationship they share, what happens when it breaks down, and what the process of repair looks like.

Yoriyos told me that his father was open to another chat, but because of his schedule, I would have to be a bit patient. But as one month turned into two, and two into four, and as I reported, researched and worked on drafts, I began to realize that in a story wrestling with what Stevens’s work meant to me — and what it might mean to the wider world, given his career arc — it would be irresponsible to ignore the Rushdie episode, a topic that quickly arose in many conversations I was having about him, both with my editor and my sources.

Tracking the history of the controversy, I went back to the 1989 appearance that Stevens made on the British TV show “Hypotheticals.” Earlier that year, after Rushdie had officially been targeted because of his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in his novel “The Satanic Verses,” Stevens had matter-of-factly confirmed that the Koran prescribes death as the punishment for blasphemy. Now, on “Hypotheticals,” Stevens was asked directly whether Rushdie deserved to die. “Yes, yes,” he replied, without much hesitation. Were Rushdie, a marked man, to come to him for help, how would he respond? With what he subsequently insisted was nothing more than an ill-advised attempt at dry humor, a straight-faced Stevens said: “I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is.” When asked whether he would participate in the burning of an effigy of the author, he replied that he would instead hope it were “the real thing.”

When the program aired, a furor ensued, compelling Stevens to issue a press release indicating that his comments had been manipulated in the editing room and taken out of context (this, despite the fact that the New York Times reported that Stevens had “watched a preview of the program today and said in an interview that he stood by his comments”). But the damage had been done. Radio stations boycotted Stevens’s music, and copies of his records were destroyed in public demonstrations.

“For many years, Yusuf Islam has been pretending he didn’t say the things he said in 1989, when he enthusiastically supported the Iranian terrorist edict against me and others,” Rushdie wrote to me in an email. “However, his words are on the record, in print interviews and on television programs. … I’m afraid Cat Stevens got off the peace train a long time ago.”

Stevens has said he never agreed with the fatwa, and that he wishes people would simply “move on” from this decades-old issue. But the fatwa was not some historical footnote. There were bombings of bookstores; people associated with the book were killed or attacked.

I also learned that the incident was not an isolated example of Stevens making public statements at odds with the gentle, liberal-minded nature of his music. In a 1987 appearance at the University of Houston, he described the Jewish faith as “a distortion of monotheism,” and questioned basic concepts of modern science, including the theory of evolution. In a 1993 lecture, he called those who would hurry to Rushdie’s defense hypocrites for giving America a pass for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In another appearance archived on YouTube (removed since the time I began writing this piece), he defended the punishment of amputation for thievery, and in a 1997 interview with Andrew Anthony for the U.K. newspaper the Observer, he played down reports of deaths by stoning of adulterous women in Afghanistan — arguing that this penalty has value as a deterrent.

It now felt crucial to follow up again and to see whether Stevens might talk to me about Rushdie after all. In an email, I told Yoriyos that what I had written had evolved in the ensuing months, and, given that, would Stevens want to comment on the lingering discrepancies between what he said back then, and how he’s characterized those remarks since? At that point Yoriyos made clear his father wouldn’t be talking to me again.

Stevens’s publicist referred me to the FAQ section of his website, in which Stevens bemoans the way he has been written about in the press. Parts of the site deal directly with Rushdie, with headings that read: “Did Cat Stevens Say, ‘Kill Rushdie!’?” and “Yusuf Islam Wants to See Salman Rushdie Burnt, Right?” The site says: “I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini — and still don’t.”

In the end, my pandemic ruminations on Yusuf/Cat Stevens didn’t result in the type of clean, satisfying conclusion I’d hoped for, but thinking again about the film that introduced me to his songs led to an idea I can at least live with. In “Harold and Maude,” a mentor appears to a young man in distress. She helps him to stand on his own two feet and guides him forward. Then, unexpectedly, she departs, rupturing their relationship, but leaving him a gift: the permission to be himself, to find his own way. Somehow it’s taken me all these years to realize that this could also describe my relationship to Stevens.

One day, this awful time will be behind us, and we’ll look back on the reckoning it inspired. We’ll remember what it was like to confront our choices, to ask ourselves whether they continue to have integrity and to be reminded that we’re always free to make new ones. The best songs of Cat Stevens would have us do no less.

Stevens during a sound check before a performance in Los Angeles in 2009. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Howard Fishman is a writer, composer and performer based in Brooklyn.

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