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Rolling Stone Magazine
Issue 143
September 13, 1973
By Paul Gambaccini

A Happier Cat Stevens Explains ‘Foreigner’ and Other MysteriesRs73.jpg (13644 bytes)

LONDON—Cat Stevens is happy these days. "Happier now than I can recall being," he said. "Not laughing-happy. I don’t go ‘Haha!—oh, I must be happy.’ It’s a feeling. I’m very happy."

Stevens rarely grants interviews, fearing misrepresentation. The opening words of his "Foreigner Suite" apply to fans, lovers and writers alike: "There are no words, I can use! Because the meaning still leaves for you to choose! And I couldn’t stand to let them be abused, by you."

But it was precisely because of Foreigner that he recently chose to speak to a few reporters on an individual basis. "I thought I should do some interviews because Foreigner might need some explaining," he said.

Stevens is a person who obeys his instincts. He went to Jamaica to record Foreigner not so much for studio facilities as "for sunshine. I couldn’t get it in England, and I didn’t want to go to America." He didn’t work with longtime producer Paul Samwell-Smith because, "I wanted an immediate feel to it. He is a great producer, but he is very clean, if a note is wrong he wants to fix it up. This time I wanted to do a certain part, I wanted to just play it, and let it be."

Veteran musician Phil Upchurch was selected to play because, "I was listening to the radio and this long track was playing and it was just getting better and better and I wanted it to end so I could see who it was by and yet it just kept getting better. They said it was Phil Upchurch and I went out and bought an album. I knew from that that he was right to work with."

"Foreigner Suite," he said, was not a pre-planned opus. "It happened. I wrote fragments that came together and as they did I said, what’s happening here? And it turned out to be what I now consider to be not the many parts, but one song."

The only thing left to do was to title the work. Although the word never appears in the suite, "foreigner" was chosen, because: "We’re all foreigners. Say to a foreigner that he’s a foreigner and he’ll say you’re a foreigner! We’re all foreigners here, in a wider sense. One hundred years from now I won’t be here, there’ll be nothing left of me, but the earth will still exist. People ask me, ‘Who is The Foreigner? Is it a guru? A person?’ It’s wider than any single person."

The songs on Foreigner are unlikely to be covered by many artists, but Stevens is unworried. "It used to bother me very much," he admitted. "I’d say to myself, what’s the matter? Now I’m flattered by it, because I think it means that what I put into my songs is a necessary part of the songs, that without my performing them they are missing part of their meaning."

A further reason recent works may not be covered is that other artists cannot grasp the meanings behind them from a mere reading of the lyrics. In the second cut on Catch Bull at Four, "Boy with a Moon and Star on His Head," it is the child and not the married adults who utters truth. Stevens explained:

"Children are closer to it, whatever it is, that we are from. I hate it when they are ruined by things like fashion. I love kids. Some of the kids in my neighborhood just gave me a cat." He looked down and spoke thoughts aloud. "What a very, very great cat. I love it. I can’t wait to get back to it."

"Morning Is Broken" is one Cat Stevens hit that other artists did record. "And that, of course, is one I didn’t write," he said. "I was in a bookstore and I heard there was a religion section upstairs and something said, yes, go up there, and I went and came to this book of hymns and opened it up and started to read the words. It took me about 45 minutes to really understand them. Then it was all getting very heavy so I left and learned the melody later, because I can’t pick up a melody from looking at printed music.

A Stevens hit single played a part in a recent controversy in Britain. A music newspaper printed a picture of Stevens, and two readers who noticed he was wearing a swastika wrote the paper advising Stevens he could "shove his ‘Peace Train’ up his ass."

A flood of correspondence deluged the editor, most writers defending Cat. One reader cited the claim that the male swastika represented "the power of Light among Aryan peoples, whereas the female kind signified the power of Darkness." Stevens himself replied in print that, "The symbol called the swastika is much older than you think, It was a sign of light and peace for thousands of years during the early Chinese-Indian-Greek-Roman cultures, before Hitler chose the dark side."

He doesn’t regret the affair. "I’m glad it happened in that it showed the good behind a symbol that some might think represents evil. Of course, it was an opportunity for someone to say that Cat Stevens is a cunt."

Misunderstanding also has characterized listener response to "Father And Son." "Some people think that I was taking the son’s side," its composer explained. "But how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too? I was listening to that song recently and I heard one line and realized that that was my father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father speaking."

Stevens is aware that "Father And Son" and several other songs mean a great deal to a large number of fans.

"I do get letters from people saying that I mean a lot to them. That’s nice. There are people who mean a lot to my life, so I know what they’re talking about. And I do hear from people saying that I’ve said something they’ve been trying to say, it’s just that I was able to say it. Why me? I don’t know. I do ask myself that sometimes. But I can’t stop."

So he avoids looking backward, and is taking almost everything as it comes. "I don’t work on a schedule now. I am working on the next thing, and words are coming and I’m excited about it, but I’m not saying I’ve got to make it by a certain time. I have to wait until the time is right."

The conviction that whatever happens is meant to be permeates his conversation. "I love my father. I kiss him. I hug him. But if he dies before me, then that is right."

Occasionally, he is willing to look at his career in a chronological perspective. "In the old days, and I was very young [17], I was more concerned with melody. Now it’s what I have to say. I do realize that I am using more words. And sometimes I stop the melody, I stop singing almost and make a statement.

"I don’t think I’ll reach my peak in this life," he said. "Probably the next life, which we don’t know anything about yet. But maybe in this life. And it’s that maybe that keeps me going. Because if it wasn’t for that, why try?"

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