Friday, December 4, 2009

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam as he is now called) appeared in the O2 in Dublin recently to receive a somewhat mixed reception.

I cannot say that I was ever a huge fan of his though I did respect the fact that he was - at his best - a superb songwriter.

When he burst on the scene in the late 60's with a somewhat overproduced sound he was hailed as a great new talent (in the singer/songwriter genre). The gimmicky - though hardly great - "I Love My Dog" was quickly followed by "Matthew and Son" and the rather similar sounding "I'm Gonna Get me a Gun". These were included on his 1st album (which not surprisingly was also a hit). Then he seemed to quickly fade from view releasing another overproduced album (like its predecessor) that attracted little notice. However this contained what perhaps was his best - and most commercial - recording "The First Cut is the Deepest" which oddly did not receive at the time the attention that it clearly warranted.

Then Stevens - who had been living at the time the life of the typical rock star - had his first brush with mortality when he developed a near fatal illness.

When he emerged again back to the recording world it was in a much more subdued and understated fashion.

I remember in the early 70's when I was doing some Summer construction work with a group of fellow students that we would put on the record player when dining together at the end of the day. The two albums that enjoyed pride of place were Cat Steven's "Mona Bone Jakon" and "Tea for the Tillerman" which were the first two that he released during his second coming. For me he was at his very best on these recordings. Indeed I would consider the former - which contains a number of superb reflective songs - such as "Lady D'Arbanville", "Fill My Eyes" (which is very much in the Paul Simon idiom) and "Trouble" as his best recording (though it did not enjoy great commercial success)! The latter for its part contains two of his best known songs "Wild World" and "Father and Son".

I would be the first to admit that our estimation of various songs inevitably contains a strong personal element. Certainly for me these enjoy a special place as they have become associated them with a certain period in my life (acting as catalysts therefore for a variety of different memories).

However, Stevens never seemed fully at home in the pop world and clearly was searching for his true identity. Then after a second brush with mortality when he nearly drowned while swimming, he began to strongly embrace Islam so much so that he eventually left the pop world altogether to pursue his new religious identity.

Unfortunately we now live in a celebrity culture that is really one full of idolatry. In other words, rather than striving to discover true spiritual meaning (in God) it is heavily projected on to people such as rock and movie stars, sports personalities and indeed anyone who happens to be in the public eye.

However this is all so shallow and superficial as this entails the elevation of mere image and appearance to a position that it cannot properly occupy. Then when - as so often - such celebrities demonstrate that they have feet of clay - we feel disappointed and betrayed.

It is to his great credit that Cat Stevens faced up clearly to the pitfalls of fame. Though his subsequent career as one of he best known converts to Islam has attracted much controversy and attention you have to admire him at least for his sincere commitment to finding spiritual truth.

Happily in more recent years he has found a way to combine his two identities i.e. as Cat Stevens (the pop star) and Yusuf Islam (the religious devotee).

However as the recent concert in the O2 demonstrated this is never going to be an easy marriage. For the fans who attend such concerts in the main want to just idolise the Cat Stevens (that had been removed from them for so long). And when they don't get exactly what they want, they are disappointed! So this is the same problem that Stevens (i.e. Yusuf) has tried so hard to avoid.

I wish him well. He always struck me as a truly intelligent, articulate and thoughtful person who now seems also to have found a substantial degree of peace. I hope for his sake that this will continue.

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