Putting Cat in a box
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 15, 2002) -- A rock critic goes out on a limb confessing his affection for the music of Cat Stevens. But to quote the folk-rock singer-songwriter, “I can’t keep it in, I’ve gotta let it out.” Cat Stevens is one of the most critically underappreciated artists of the rock era. The recent release of a four-CD, retrospective box set tracing the arc of his remarkably diverse and intriguing recording and performing career from 1966 to 1978 is both an occasion to celebrate that legacy and to revisit its significant accomplishments.
The Cat Stevens that most people know, probably including the majority of those considering themselves his fans, is the man who made those gentle, wistful folk-rock albums, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Childlike songs such as “Father and Son,” “Wild World,” “Moon Shadow” and “Morning Has Broken” were a staple on FM radio, and a few attained play on pop stations in the early- to mid-1970s. His song “Peace Train” has lived on in subsequent versions by other groups, most notably in the version by 10,000 Maniacs that introduced that group to the world. Even grunge-rock godfathers Pearl Jam have been known to cover a Cat Stevens tune in concert.
But as the Cat Stevens box set makes clear, his music was about a lot more than those guitar-based, quiet soft-rock tunes. In the short, dozen years that Stevens was active in music, he explored various musical styles, including highly orchestrated pop, Sixties psychedelia, jazz fusion and progressive rock.
The box set attempts to divide Stevens’s career into neat quarters, giving each a poignant, thematic name: “the city,” “the search,” “the hurt,” and “the last.” More significantly, the programming of the set and the text of the 96-page booklet that accompanies the package -- clumsily titled In Search of the Centre of the Universe (A&M) (oh to have been a fly on the wall in the executive suites at the record label when the word came down from Stevens: use that title or forget the whole deal) – suggests a particular reading of Stevens’s overall career: that it be understood as the narrative of a spiritual journey, one that began in the crass commercialism of the English pop scene of the late-1960s, then led to a period of questioning, one of disillusionment, and finally to the gift of enlightenment he found in the religion of Islam, which ultimately led Stevens to abandon music, change his name to Yusuf Islam, and devote his post-Cat Stevens life to teaching the Koran to children.
Leaving aside for a moment all the many questions this narrative raises, let’s return to the music. My guess is that even the vast majority of those who consider themselves Cat Stevens fans -- those who owned Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat and maybe even his earliest American album, Mona Bone Jakon, and one or more of those that followed his bestselling Teaser, including Catch Bull at Four, Foreigner and Buddha and the Chocolate Box (all of which have also been re-released in single CD format) – have no idea that Cat Stevens had a previous career.
By the time Cat Stevens was 20, he had already lived the full arc of the stereotypical, rock-star career: an overnight sensation with pop hits on the English charts at age 18, recording sessions with backing by members of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, and concert stages shared with the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, Jimi Hendrix and the Who. Just shy of age 20, he wound up in hospital knocking on heaven’s door with a diagnosis of tuberculosis aggravated by too much smoking and drinking.
So before anyone stateside had ever even heard of Cat Stevens, he was already lucky not to have been a casualty of the rock ‘n’ roll life, and just a mere footnote in the history of English pop music.
But those two years are importnt to understanding Cat Stevens, both in terms of where his music from the 1970s came from, and what he was running away from. Fortunately, the four-CD set devotes an entire 65-minute disk to the music from this period. Previously available only on hard-to-find import LPs like New Masters and Very Young and Early Songs, the music of this period is wild in a pre-psychedelic way, full of the energy of the Swinging Sixties, colorful Carnaby Street fashion and the rush of rock ‘n’ roll innovation. One of his first hits, “I Love My Dog,” boasts a tympani-and-viola arrangement; “Here Comes My Wife” opens with a full-fledged medieval brass fanfare; others boast full symphonic backing with theatrical horn and keyboard parts.
While the liner notes suggest that Stevens wasn’t always happy with the production of his early songs, they also make clear that he harbored some grandiose musical ambitions – he was a huge fan of Leonard Bernstein’s music, particularly the score to “West Side Story” -- and some of his songs were written for a Mexican-themed musical. “A Bad Night,” recorded in July 1967, shows that Stevens and producer Mike Hurst were mining similar experimental territory to that which George Martin and the Fab Four were working on nearby at Abbey Road Studios.
But even in the midst of these busy production numbers, shades of the folksinger to come are found in a few numbers, such as on the guitar-and-vocals only arrangement of “Portobello Road,” and the proto-folk-rock of “The Tramp.”
When Cat Stevens introduced himself to American audiences on Mona Bone Jakon, the crowded, urban hysteria of his pop records was gone, replaced by a very distinctive, pastoral, acoustic guitar-based sound. Its closest relative at the time was probably the English folk-rock of groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. But Stevens wasn’t mining old Anglo-Irish folk ballads so much as transmuting his cosmopolitan influences, key among them being jazz and the Greek music that was part of his personal heritage, having been born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London to a Greek Cypriot émigré father and a Swedish émigré mother.
It is particularly the Greek influence that colors so much of Cat Stevens’s music and makes it unlike anything anyone else was doing then or now. At its most obvious, it is apparent on the song “Rubylove” from Teaser and the Firecat, much of it sung in Greek and featuring a bouzouki part right off of a Greek folk dance record. (This song is one of three omissions from the box set that are inexcusable, the others being the late-career single, “Two Fine People,” and the instrumental named for his ancestral homeland, “Kypros.”)
But the Greek influence is also apparent throughout much of his work in less obvious ways, in the unique, chugging, syncopated rhythms of “Peace Train” and “Tuesday’s Dead,” in the mandolin line of “Novim’s Nightmare,” and in the ethnic instrumental break in “Life.”
Stevens was also heavily influenced by soul and r&b music, and he paid tribute to that tradition variously in his hit cover version of Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night,” in the “Foreigner Suite,” and in a previously unreleased version of Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday” he recorded in 1975.
As to that “Foreigner Suite,” that extended, 18-minute piece of music that comprised the whole first side of his 1973 album, Foreigner, Stevens reveals here that it was actually recorded as three separate songs that only afterwards were pieced together into a whole. Its inclusion here is welcome, as it remains one of Stevens crowning achievements, a full-fledged r&b symphony that resisted categorization when it first came out.
The box set includes plenty of treats for fans, including 17 previously unreleased tracks, among them live versions from an artist who never released a live album and songs that never surfaced on albums.
Towards the end of his career, Stevens lost interest in his music as he increasingly became obsessed with Islam, and the music suffered for it. Disc four, “the last,” is the weakest, but there are still hints of Stevens the iconoclast in the songs from Numbers, in “Doves,” the jazz-rock, piano-based theme song to his final tour, and in the plaintive, minor-key piano ballad “Never,” from his final album, Back to Earth.
The liner notes to the box set are full of previously unavailable biographical details, and Stevens himself contributes a running commentary on his life and the songs. Much of it is placed in the context of his lifelong spiritual search, culminating in his conversion to Islam, and the lack of a critical evaluation of his unique musical achievements is the set’s greatest omission.
Stevens reputation has suffered over the last two decades as much due to bigotry as to the relative merits of his music. That this collection came out just weeks after 9/11 didn’t help efforts to resurrect interest in the career of a man who now goes by the name of Yusuf Islam. But for those who remember the few years of pleasure they got from the recordings of Cat Stevens in the 1970s, In Search of the Centre of the Universe is more than mere packaged nostalgia – it’s proof that there was a rich body of work by an artist of singular vision, one who refused to pander to prevailing trends and fads, and one who had the great wisdom when the time finally came to exit gracefully, without becoming an oldies act or a parody of himself.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 25, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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