Happy Birthday, Cat Stevens!
Cat Stevens is 64 years old today. Enjoy an excerpt from Hearts of Darkness: James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and the Unlikely Rise of the Singer-Songwriter by Dave Thompson.
Three decades after its release in fall 1970, Mojo’s Colin Irwin would seize upon Cat Stevens’s fourth album, Tea for the Tillerman, as the consummate illustration of the singer’s “search for a spiritual meaning from a mean material world . . . articulat[ing] the confusion felt by many people at that time with songs like ‘Father and Son,’ ‘Where Do the Children Play,’ ‘Hard Headed Woman,’ and ‘Wild World.’”
So had he, Irwin asked, realized what a genre-defining album he was making at the time?
Stevens shook his head. “No. I was just following my heart, and the music was coming out and was being dressed absolutely appropriately with the musicians that I had, and kept very sparse and pure. It was a very purist period of songwriting and recording. I had a feeling there was something special, but I didn’t know how people would take it.”
Discussing his UK audience in that same interview, Stevens confessed, “Some people …weren’t quite sure whether to believe what had happened when I came back. To me it was just as natural as growing the beard. I had simply matured. Other people were saying: ‘What’s going on?’ I think that’s the cynical side of the record business. They couldn’t quite understand it.”
Which, he explained, was why the United States was so important to him. “In America, where they had never really heard me before, they understood immediately. And it happened.”
Stevens’s newly acquired American representative, lawyer Nat Weiss, would be coordinating the tour, with the aid of Peter Asher, with whom he recently set up a management company. Named for the region of London that Asher still thought of as home, but stoically planted across the road from his Los Angeles abode, Marylebone Productions would now be handling both James Taylor and Cat Stevens’s American activities.
Stevens arrived in the United States for the first time in early November 1970. His maiden tour was a short hop that introduced him immediately to the sheer enormity of the country; his U.S. stage debut on November 18, 1970, saw him ambling nervously onto the Fillmore East stage, ahead of the rock band Hammer and labelmates Traffic, to fill that first half hour or so while the audience were finding their seats.
It was a terrifying baptism, preserved for posterity in the words of Rock magazine’s Bud Scoppa. “From the Fillmore East balcony, Cat Stevens and [Alun Davies] looked hopelessly tiny. Just two seated figures holding guitars; no banks of amps, no massed drums, no sparkle suits.”
Scoppa portrayed the concert as a battle of wills; an audience impatient for the headliners, talking over the “funny little songs” that the little men on the big stage were strumming, but then pausing in midsentence as the singer started talking to them, speaking “between songs as if he were in someone’s apartment for the first time—polite, friendly, warm. This kind of intimacy was practically unheard of at the Fillmore, with its reputation for toughness. The kid must be awfully naive. Forty minutes later, this unknown who called himself Cat Stevens had the audience on its feet.”
Hearts of Darkness is the story of a generation’s coming of age through the experiences of its three most atypical pop stars. James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Cat Stevens could never have been considered your typical late-sixties songwriters – self-absorbed and self-composed, all three eschewed the traditional means of delivering their songs, instead turning its process inward. The result was a body of work that stands among the most profoundly personal art ever to translate into an international language, and a sequence of songs – from “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina in My Mind,” to “Jamaica Say You Will” and “These Days,” to “Peace Train” and “Wild World” – that remain archetypes not only of what the critics called the singer-songwriter movement, but of the human condition itself.
Posted on July 21, 2013, in Music Fans and tagged Backbeat Books, cat stevens, Cat Stevens birthday, Dave Thompson, excerpt, hearts of darkness, singer-songwriter, Yusuf. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.