- Stereo Review
- Volume 29 #4 Page76
- October 1972
- Contributed by Linda Crafar
By Robert Windeler
The suite at New
Yorks 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 cant 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 Wonders 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 Ive 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
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 didnt
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
to some people it looks like two big blocks of time," he says of his two
singing careers. "But not to me. Im short-sighted in a long-sighted way. Each
song I write, for example, is a short sequence, and when Im 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. Ive 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 cant 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 hes going through it to get him self somewhere else, and we dont
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 wont 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 thats it. Talking about it is the
same as trying to describe what you felt before you were born."
Cat Stevens was born
Steven (Giorgiou (hes 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 Id 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 didnt 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 hes only twenty-four, that kind of life is
at least a few years off.
Cat is hard put to analyze
what hes trying to do with music. "I just let it happen. I feel that its
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. Thats the greatest thing about music on
records: it breaks barriers down. Music has joined us together more than anything.
One of Cats 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 isnt."
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 havent done yet. My new LP contains a lot I wrote two years ago the
time wasnt right then, but they just rolled off when I recorded them this
Cat says he doesnt
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 elses songs." The
one important exception is a certain kind of standard that is in the public
domainold 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
itkeeping, 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 dont see
mewhich ought to be quite simple. Im not godly. Id 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 wont be there more than a year. I
dont like to stay in one position too long. I do homeliness, however; I like to have
a home and know its there." Hes 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 doesnt think his life has changed. "Ive been lucky. but I was. lucky
all the way through school, and Ive 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 cant stop. Theres
something thats going on inside me or outsidepushing"
"The flint of my life
is girls," he says. "They ignite me. But I dont see myself getting into
any kind of marriage scene. It would be totally impossible, too restricting and
unchangeable. Besides, I dont think Im 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 couldnt 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, tooyou 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 its a Iittle like Germany
in this respect there are so many restrictions and yet so much comes from it.
Its 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 thats 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 Americain music and
everything elseand then you look at them, dont know what to do with them, and
so you throw them away. The English dont 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
youve constantly built up. Next youll be going to Carnegie Hall to see the
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