By Ella Leya
(iRoM’s European Correspondent)
London, Engand. Both names illuminated Eventim Apollo, formerly the Hammersmith Apollo, one of the UK’s largest and best-preserved original Art Deco theaters – a venue that played host to many legendary acts of the past – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley. As well as to Steven Demetre Georgiou aka Cat Stevens in December of 1976, just before the free-spirited troubadour grew a long beard, auctioned his guitars, denounced his own songs, and disappeared from the music industry for almost 30 years. All for the sake of his new chosen faith.
He’s back now. Back at Eventim Apollo as an older man who walked cautiously on stage, he turned to his audience and asked: “Who have you come to see? Yusuf or Cat Stevens?”
“Cat Stevens, of course!” The roar swept through the audience. But unlike the rest of the crowd – Cat Steven’s fans from those crazy ’60s and ’70s – I had no youthful recollections about him. I was there, curious to see both incarnations: the remarkably melodic, gentle and soulful singer-songwriter of “Wild World,” with the lyrics my seventeen year old son can recite by heart; and someone who had supported fatwa, calling for the death of my favorite author and literary hero, Salman Rushdie.
Artists are vulnerable creatures, of course, easily susceptible to sometimes startling changes. That’s what makes them imaginative and expressive. That’s what makes them adopt different images and techniques. Pablo Picasso discarded his creative periods like out of date seasonal fashions. Andy Warhol ran out of prevalent art mediums and kept inventing new ones. George Harrison discovered a sitar, taking the Beatles along on a beautiful West-meets-East artistic journey. And Paul McCartney dismissed twenty years of his pop banality with the symphonic “Standing Stone.”
Steven Demetre Georgiou began his musical quest as a London coffee house bard, then changed his image to a teen pop star and his vowel-thick name to something easier on the ear: Cat Stevens. After contracting tuberculosis and spending over a year recuperating from the illness that had almost taken his life, he emerged with a different sense of perspective, drawn to yoga, meditation, and metaphysics, determined to bring his spiritual revelations to the world of music. A relatively new phenomenon at the time – a folk rock singer-songwriter performing his songs stripped down to bare emotions and minimal instrumentation.
A string of hits followed, with big-hearted lyricism spiced by romantic relationships with Patti D’Arbanville and Carly Simon, his melodies and modulations sublime. With those tunes, intoxicating, mystical, both hippy and intelligent – “Wild World,” “Father and Son,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Moonshadow” – Cat Stevens won the hearts of millions around the globe.
Then came another brush with death when he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu, California. And he took it as a sign from above to seek the destination for his soul searching. Cat Stevens was no more. Yusuf Islam condemned his music for blasphemy, rejected his armies of loyal fans and disappeared into charity work as a ‘rock star’ of the Muslim community. An immense loss for the world of music and poetry.
In his remarks at the Apollo he referred to his absence from the stage as “taking a short break.” Was he suggesting that his “short break” led to the beginning of a new artistic period?
Hardly. Not with his redundant covers of tunes such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “The Devil Came from Kansas.” Nor with his generic originals “I Was Raised in Babylon” and “Editing Floor Blues”— the latter about the supposedly misreported comments he made following Salman Rashdie’s fatwa.
And if his back catalogue (absent were his most beautiful love songs) generated nostalgic excitement in the crowd, the new material failed to channel the two sides of Yusuf/Cat, instead reflecting the inner confusion of an aging rock star and his convoluted relationship with his art. The audience listened politely and patiently. But when there were occasional cries from fans for old hits, he snapped, “You can wait until the end.”
Standing on the stage at the Apollo against the set of an old western railway station (Oh, so Neil Young), Yusuf/Cat seemed to be extending an olive branch to the U.S. that has had Yusuf Islam on their watch list. And his new release “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone,” filled with blues sensibilities, is clearly a tribute to his teenage musical inspiration: deep south R&B.
But his new material lacks what the audience clearly wanted to hear — the profound lyrics and the memorable melodies of his early career. And timid 66-year-old Yusuf could hardly compete with the memory of the charismatic Cat Stevens – a task that will grow in importance when he encounters the demanding audiences who will greet him during his forthcoming USA tour in December. Telling the crowds to “Wait until the end” to hear his old hits isn’t likely to please his American fans.