- Rolling Stone Magazine
- Issue 143
- September 13, 1973
- By Paul Gambaccini
A Happier Cat Stevens
Explains Foreigner and Other Mysteries
Stevens is happy these days. "Happier now than I can recall being," he said.
"Not laughing-happy. I dont go Haha!oh, I must be happy.
Its a feeling. Im 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 couldnt 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 couldnt get it in England, and I didnt
want to go to America." He didnt 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
Suite," he said, was not a pre-planned opus. "It happened. I wrote fragments
that came together and as they did I said, whats 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: "Were all foreigners. Say to a foreigner that hes a
foreigner and hell say youre a foreigner! Were all foreigners here, in a
wider sense. One hundred years from now I wont be here, therell be nothing
left of me, but the earth will still exist. People ask me, Who is The Foreigner? Is
it a guru? A person? Its 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. "Id say to myself, whats the matter? Now
Im 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
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
cant wait to get back to it."
Broken" is one Cat Stevens hit that other artists did record. "And that, of
course, is one I didnt 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 cant pick up a melody from looking at
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 doesnt regret the
affair. "Im 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 sons side," its composer explained. "But how could I
have sung the fathers side if I couldnt have understood it, too? I was
listening to that song recently and I heard one line and realized that that was my
fathers fathers fathers fathers fathers fathers
fathers father speaking."
Stevens is aware that
"Father And Son" and several other songs mean a great deal to a large number of
"I do get letters from
people saying that I mean a lot to them. Thats nice. There are people who mean a lot
to my life, so I know what theyre talking about. And I do hear from people saying
that Ive said something theyve been trying to say, its just that I was
able to say it. Why me? I dont know. I do ask myself that sometimes. But I
So he avoids looking
backward, and is taking almost everything as it comes. "I dont work on a
schedule now. I am working on the next thing, and words are coming and Im excited
about it, but Im not saying Ive 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 , I was more concerned with melody. Now its 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 dont think
Ill reach my peak in this life," he said. "Probably the next life, which
we dont know anything about yet. But maybe in this life. And its that maybe
that keeps me going. Because if it wasnt for that, why try?"