CAT STEVENS - DEATH OF A MUSICIAN
Exploring Cat Stevens'
wild Muslim world
By Bill DeYoung
The Patriot Ledger
May 22nd, 2000
Courtesy of Kirby
Curiosity killed Cat Stevens
A singer, songwriter and guitarist whose simple melodies were artfully aligned with lyrics both whimsical and mysterious, he'd clawed out a niche for himself in the early 1970s with a string of hits including "Wild World," "Moonshadow" and "Peace Train." He had eight gold albums in a row.
The British-born son of a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother, Stevens' dark, exotic good looks made him stand out, and women everywhere found him irresistible.
Still, it wasn't enough. Admired and coddled, but troubled inside, Stevens began investigating the Koran, the Islamic holy book, and within its pages he found the answers he felt he'd been looking for. In 1977, he pronounced himself a Muslim, took on the name Yusuf Islam ("Joseph Rescued" [sic]) and eventually entered into an arranged marriage. He auctioned off his guitars, pianos and awards and bid good riddance to the secular world.
"I was always extremely committed to whatever I did," Islam said. "And sometimes I had to close my mind to everything else in order to achieve my goal. I did that when I was a songwriter. I almost didn't listen to anybody else's music, because I thought it might influence me, and I'd end up copying them.
"And I did it when I entered my spiritual discovery of Islam. It made me think only about just that, and I didn't want to think about anything else."
Reminiscing on the telephone from his London office, Islam, now 52, said those last years as Cat Stevens were marked by half-finished spiritual quests and indecision. The Koran -- a gift from his brother David -- was the answer. "I'd had many dreams of walking away," he said. "But only when I had enough knowledge of where I wanted to go could I do it."
Steven Demetri Georgiou was born in London's West End, where his musical interests included Russian choral music, traditional Greek folk songs, musical theater, the blues and rock 'n' roll. "All that formed the tapestry of my background," he said. "But one of the songs that really stuck out for me was 'Up on the Roof.' That just brought to life what I used to do. We used to climb those roofs in that part of London. And out came this song, I couldn't believe it was a direct reflection of my life. And my interests.
"One of my all-time favorite figures was Ledbelly; he had such a story to tell. And his words were real. They smacked of reality. That, I liked.
"When Dylan came along and started poetically putting in the ideas of freedom and a new lifestyle, it was just an inspiration. It all came together at once."
He was 19 when a record producer signed him up, changed his name and made him a pop star with "Matthew and Son" and "The First Cut is the Deepest," heavily orchestrated takes on songs he had written. He opened for Engelbert Humperdinck and Jimi Hendrix, before a bout with tuberculosis put him in the hospital for a year, his career all but over.
In 1970, Stevens re-emerged with "Mona Bone Jakon," an all-acoustic, introspective set of songs that sounded nothing like his teen hits. "I'd just come out of a very dark phase, and that of course gave me a great understanding that I was not immortal," he said, "that life meant hard knocks as well.
"I was coming out of that with some kind of sense of my destiny, but not really knowing exactly which direction it was going to take. But I had a great optimism, I think."
With the smash albums "Tea For The Tillerman" and "Teaser and the Firecat," Cat Stevens' new style of what he called "gentle folksinging" crossed the Atlantic; he was the dark-eyed, hypnotic European equivalent of James Taylor, who came to prominence at the same time.
Cat Stevens' songs frequently referred to God and a hunger for spiritual balance. "It was just under the surface," he said. "The nature behind the artist is not really changeable. There are those perceptions, those insights which are privately known and sometimes come out poetically, and in colors, music and sound, and in emotions.
"They're difficult to interpret when you're experiencing them, but from this perspective now, they're easier to see, and more clear." He points to the songs "Miles From Nowhere," "On the Road to Find Out" and "Sitting" as examples.
He tried Buddhism, Taoism and even numerology, changing his religious convictions as quickly as he took on and discarded musical styles. "I was always looking for something different," he said. "And like many people, I used to get bored quickly. And if I got a little bit tired with myself, or with my clothes, or with the songs, I'd try something different."
He moved to Brazil in the mid-'70s, to escape Britain's crippling tax laws, and his love of the polyrhythms of South America gave his music a harder, more syncopated edge. "I was balancing between many different demands," he explains. "One was my artistic expectation of myself, and from that point of view I was always trying to go past new boundaries."
His audience, however, did not follow, and by the time of the last Cat Stevens album, 1978's "Back To Earth," his sales had fallen sharply.
His earlier material remains in demand; this week, MCA Records will issue re-mastered CDs of "Mona," "Tea" and "Teaser," with the rest of the Cat Stevens catalog to follow later in the year. Islam is helping to assemble a box set for release this fall.
The father of five children, Islam is the chairman of the Islamic Schools Trust, which he set up in 1983. He runs the Islamia primary and secondary schools for boys and girls in London, and recently issued a children's CD, "A Is For Allah," which blends a spoken-word explanation of the Islamic alphabet with a capella singing (Western musical instruments are frowned upon in Islam).
Islam was internationally vilified when he appeared to support Iran's 1989 fatwa, or sentence of death, on author Salmon Rushdie, whose book "Satanic Verses" Muslim leaders consider blasphemous.
He won't discuss the matter any more; however, in a statement issued at the time, Islam said he'd been misquoted. While he supports the Muslim idea of supreme punishment for blasphemy, he said, he didn't think it was right to hunt someone down and kill them.
"I've always been fairly misunderstood," he said. "And life's been a struggle to explain myself."
Only in the last year or so has he felt comfortable discussing Cat Stevens again. "I see the value more these days in the kind of heritage which I've left in the music and lyrics," he said.
"I can separate in my own mind that which is good and that which is bad, and not only that, but so many people still gain value from those songs. I'm always receiving letters from fans and people who my music has touched. Recently, there was a letter from someone who said literally they were on the verge of suicide, and then they listened to one of my songs and it changed them. And that's really positive."
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has banned Western music from Iran's radio and TV stations, reviving one of the harshest cultural decrees from the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Songs such as George Michael's "Careless Whisper," Eric Clapton's "Rush" and the Eagles' "Hotel California" have regularly accompanied Iranian broadcasts, as do tunes by saxophonist Kenny G.
But the official IRAN Persian daily reported Monday that Ahmadinejad, as head of Iran's Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council, ordered the enactment of an October ruling by the council to ban Western music.
"Blocking indecent and Western music from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is required," according to a statement on the council's official Web site.
Ahmadinejad's order means broadcasters must execute the decree and prepare a report on its implementation within six months, according to the newspaper.
"This is terrible," said Iranian guitarist Babak Riahipour, whose music was played occasionally on state radio and TV. "The decision shows a lack of knowledge and experience."
Music was outlawed as un-Islamic by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini soon after the revolution. But as the fervor of the revolution started to fade, light classical music was allowed on radio and television. Some public concerts reappeared in the late 1980s.
Western music, films and clothing are widely available in Iran, and hip-hop can be heard on Tehran's streets, blaring from car speakers or from music shops. Bootleg videos and DVDs of films banned by the state are widely available on the black market.
After eight years of reformist-led rule in Iran, Ahmadinejad won office in August on a platform of reverting to ultraconservative principles promoted by the revolution.
Since then, Ahmadinejad has jettisoned Iran's moderation in foreign policy and pursued a purge in the government, replacing pragmatic veterans with former military commanders and inexperienced religious hard-liners.
He also has issued stinging criticisms of Israel, called for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map" and described the Nazi Holocaust as a "myth." (Full story)
International concerns are high over Iran's nuclear program, with the United States accusing Tehran of pursuing an atomic weapons program. Iran denies the claims.
During his presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad also promised to confront what he called the Western cultural invasion and promote Islamic values.
The latest media ban also includes censorship of content of films.
"Supervision of content from films, TV series and their voice-overs is emphasized in order to support spiritual cinema and to eliminate triteness and violence," the council said in a statement on its Web site explaining its October ruling.
The council has also issued a ban on foreign movies that promote "arrogant powers," an apparent reference to the United States.
The Associated Press.
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