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Stereo Review
Volume 29 #4 Page76
October 1972
Contributed by Linda Crafar

Cat Stevens

By Robert Windeler

The suite at New York’s St. Regis Hotel is full of the trappings and personnel that seem inevitably to surround a pop music superstar. Arrangements and musical instruments are strewn around the room. There is a manager, bearded. and dressed in a mid-morning dashiki of many colors; a press agent; another agent busily booking a U.S. tour(Hawaii is out, he and the star decide, because mainland-quality backup musicians can’t be provided in time); and a fresh-faced, long-haired American girl whose present function is merely decoration. A record player provided by one record company plays the newest Stevie Wonder record (provided by another record company, and not Stevie Wonder’s either). Musicians and friends stroll in at odd moments.

At the center of all this activity and attention sits Cat Stevens, slight, intense, black-bearded, and hiding behind impenetrable dark glasses until the final five minutes of the interview. His heritage is an exotic mixture of Swedish and Greek, and it shows in the very dark hair and eyes, the fine features, and the Scandinavian textured but olive-toned skin. He tries to think of himself as merely a singer-songwriter (not necessarily in that order however), but he is widely regarded by others as nothing short of a phenomenon.

Already, with only his fourth U.S. album in release on the A & M label, he is accounted by many the most sensational British import since any one-fourth of the Beatles. And. as a result of his album, "Tea for The Tillerman" and "Teaser and the Firecat" among them, and such singles as Father and Son, Peace Train, and Morning Has Broken, he is, to put it mildly, in demand —for concert tours in the great haIls of the world, U.S. nightclubs, and —now that his two-year A & M contract is up for renewal— by other recording companies. This trip to New York "the first time I’ve really be able to enjoy myself here") was to have been mostly fun, but The bidding among record companies has been furious. If he wants to see a show, he merely names the show; if he wants to go to breakfast, lunch, or dinner, he merely names the restaurant; or if he wants to make records for the next five years, he merely names his terms —almost. This is understandable in view of the fact that each of his records approximately doubles the sales of his previous one. Although his slightly ethereal good looks, his straightforward acoustic guitar, and lyrics that at least dance around the edges of saying something put him solidly in the current pop-music mainstream, his appeal is broad and broadening to include both the underground and middle-aged establishmentarians.

Cat Stevens accepts his lot with comparative calm, saving his nervous energy for writing, recording, and performing his music, partly at least because his present success is, in a way, a comeback. Several years ago Cat Stevens was a star in Britain. But he had little personal control, dozens of technically adept but unsympathetic backup musicians he didn’t need, and managers who treated him, as well as his songs, as just so much raw material.

His voice was younger and smaller, and his appearance and presence — by his design or that of his backers — was strictly shallow late l960's swinging London. He had a breakdown, tuberculosis, a collapsed lung, and spent several months in a sanatorium. When he came out, he discovered that the other half of being a sudden star is to be, just as suddenly, a has-been.

"It’s strange —to some people it looks like two big blocks of time," he says of his two singing careers. "But not to me. I’m short-sighted in a long-sighted way. Each song I write, for example, is a short sequence, and when I’m doing it, I think of nothing else; yet I hope all the songs add up, move along in order. All that time in the hospital, I was thinking, working, and when I came out, I was further along. My next LP for example, is very different front the others. Some people will like it, and other people will not. I’ve got this sound people associate with me, and yet I want to move and change. What I want them to see in all my work is clarity. I can’t stand music that's unclear." He gestures toward the record player and says, "Stevie Wonder is getting all wrapped up in a slightly misty sound, whereas before he was very clear. Maybe he’s going through it to get him self somewhere else, and we don’t see the end of it yet. A lot of people are getting a bit misty just now with the synthesizer. I've started working with one, but before I put my finger on it, I had to walk around it a few dozen times to see what I thought it could do. I listened to other things, and now I think I know how to use it."

He won’t talk about changing his name to Cat Stevens, what it was before, or what the name means now. I've been Cat Stevens for about seven years now, and that’s it. Talking about it is the same as trying to describe what you felt before you were born."

Cat Stevens was born Steven (Giorgiou (he’s still called Steve by close friends) in July of 1948 in the Russell Square area of central London, the second son of his parents, who own the Moulin Rouge restaurant there. "I still go there a lot, and I’d like to get a house there sometime." His parents are considering building an apartment house near Russell Square. Steve went to local West End schools, got into trouble constantly, and did poorly in everything but art. "I wanted to be a cartoonist," he says. But during a one-year course at Hammersmith College of Art all that changed: "I somehow got into music, writing my own songs. Other people didn’t feel for the songs the way I did, and so I had to start singing them myself; it was the only way I could do it. He signed with English Decca and started on his first career. Although he had to forsake art as a profession, he still designs and draws his own album jackets, and these days he is getting even more involved with painting, currently Japanese .art because it is so simple." He says, "I love the idea of sitting in some part of Europe, the Mediterranean maybe painting the Iandscape." But since he’s only twenty-four, that kind of life is at least a few years off.

Cat is hard put to analyze what he’s trying to do with music. "I just let it happen. I feel that it’s so much more reliable that way than to try to apply whatever intelligence measurement to it. The best thing about what I am doing is that I can release a record and it can create vibes all ever the world at the same time. That’s the greatest thing about music on records: it breaks barriers down. Music has joined us together more than anything.

One of Cat’s own compositions, Peace Train, is sometimes interpreted as a meaningful plea or as a profound expression of optimism. Not so, says Cat. "The lyrics are used strictly as a vehicle for the melody. I had the melody, liked it, and wanted something a little happy and upbeat for a change, and nothing too specific, which Peace Train isn’t."

In composing he almost always starts with the melody first. "Sometimes maybe a title and then the title and the tune become interwoven, but the lyrics are always last. I still have lots of old songs which I haven’t done yet. My new LP contains a lot I wrote two years ago —the time wasn’t right then, but they just rolled off when I recorded them this time."

Cat says he doesn’t record the work of other composers "for the same reason as in the beginning nobody did mine —I am not the best person to interpret somebody else’s songs." The one important exception is a certain kind of standard that is in the public domain—old hymns. He found the beautiful Morning Has Broken in an old church hymnbook one day, "had no doubt about its loveliness," and put chords in it—keeping, however, its original lyric intact. His own favorite musicians include Sly. John Lennon ("he always seems to come through for me"), Biff Rose on his first album, and Leo Kottke.

The worst thing about stardom, Cat feels, is that "people look at me as if to say 'are you human?’ They see an image, not me. Even at a party, standing before me, they don’t see me—which ought to be quite simple. I’m not godly. I’d like people to see godliness in me, but not a god."

The most noticeable change in Stevens’ life since his second success is a large house he bought in Fulham, Southwest London. "It's all done up, but I won’t be there more than a year. I don’t like to stay in one position too long. I do homeliness, however; I like to have a home and know it’s there." He’s installing a recording studio in the house now, and one of his dreams is to provide all the music on every track for some of his recordings.. He even played drums on a track for his first American album, "Mona Bone Jakon," though he had never played before, I just picked up the drumstick; and used my natural instinct."

Other than the new house, he doesn’t think his life has changed. "I‘ve been lucky. but I was. lucky all the way through school, and I’ve always been in a position where people were following me and observing what I was doing. In school I was. ‘the artist boy.’ I was beat up, but I was noticed." The pop-music marathon and the night person lifestyle suit him. "I'm too nervous to get tired. I can’t stop. There’s something that’s going on inside me —or outside—pushing"

"The flint of my life is girls," he says. "They ignite me. But I don’t see myself getting into any kind of marriage scene. It would be totally impossible, too restricting and unchangeable. Besides, I don’t think I’m very easy to live with — I find it difficult even for myself."

His current album was still unnamed at the time of this interview. "It took a lot of time to do, about three months constantly. But I saw this LP more clearly before, during and after making it than any of the others. One day in my office I almost went berserk I saw it so clearly and was so afraid I couldn’t do it. Then I got more and more relaxed, in a position to say ‘this is what I want to do, to forget what everybody else says. Lyrically this album is very visual, a series of little pictures and stories. ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ had that, too—you could see the settings.

"The freedom to do what you want to do comes from the discipline of whatever you're doing," he says. "One reason I love Britain and London is that —it’s a Iittle like Germany in this respect —there are so many restrictions and yet so much comes from it. It’s like Russia in the time of the czars. There was so much royalty and repression, and yet there was all this beautiful freedom in music and the ballet.

"I love America and have always, constantly, been more aware of America than England. I think that’s why I am accepted so totally here. I have been embarrassed by some of the things about English music. Sometimes you go to ridiculous extremes in America—in music and everything else—and then you look at them, don’t know what to do with them, and so you throw them away. The English don’t ever reach those extremes."

Cat feels that America, which he has toured from Carnegie Hall to the Troubadour, will in time become less self-involved. "It is seeing itself for the first time from other countries' point of view." But like most lovers he also has a scathing criticism or two. Cat walked out of the Carnegie Hall program "An Evening with Groucho Marx" at intermission not long ago, feeling that Groucho was playing the wrong hall to the wrong audience on the wrong night. "You Americans have this lust for demolishing something you’ve constantly built up. Next you’ll be going to Carnegie Hall to see the President die."

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