Yusuf/ Cat Stevens and The Sound of Surrender

Early in the Yusuf/ Cat Stevens concert in Boston a couple of weeks ago, while he waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar between songs , someone near the front of the stage shouted something to the 66 year-old performer. “I’m reallyhappy to be here!,” came the spontaneous, ernest reply. It did not sound like ersatz showbiz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like surrender.

The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer, more than just thunderous applause.  It was an embrace.  It was a moment -- an acknowledgement by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, someone who for all intents and purposes had ceased to exist over three decades ago, was back.

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens.  In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person he now presented himself as -- hard to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy/wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved.  For a long time, the man now known as Yusuf Islam completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens, a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those of us it once meant so much to.

The man he now was was running Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, being a spokesperson for Islam.   After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for us. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of modern-day conservative Islam.

Then, in 2006, came  An Other Cup, his first album of commercial music in 28 years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, “Yusuf.” Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” set a tone of unease, paranoia and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit a much earlier composition “I Think I See The Light,” and an interesting (if forced-sounding)  reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite”  ("Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound.  Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work.  2009’s follow-up, Roadsinger, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it -- was he wary of us, or we him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to pop up here and there online. He was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path -- songs like “The Wind” and “Peace Train.”  He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, although I did not grow up listening to Cat Stevens per se, his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched Harold and Maude for the first time, and everything changed.  

I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens music obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like Numbers and Izitso, the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (Mona Bone Jakon through Foreigner) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.

Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me no longer existed.

In time, his music too would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions to remind myself of something that once meant so much to me, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me.  I did pay attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment.  It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced that he was going to perform in America for the first time in 38 years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teenager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning that they went on sale.  I did not listen to the new album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows he’d been playing of late.  I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing.  I imagined I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement.  I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer that had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first and what I figured would be the last time.

* * *

I’m still trying to come to grips with what it was like to be at that concert in Boston.  What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that.  It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was that too.  Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that he was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/ Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked on to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” Okay, in some way, that was what we’d come for and here he’d already given it to us.  All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that -- or so I thought.

What was this though?  He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket -- not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances I’d seen him do online. And the stage set -- it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and -- hardest to believe -- lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest” followed, two very early pop hits, secular love songs. Woah, he’s doing that material?  What’s going on here?  

“Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” as the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers.

Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers but that he was on his way to find them.  Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump moments in the generous, two part concert. He followed it with “Last love Song” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly pretty bad) Back to Earth, the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalog speaking volumes.

By the time he’d reached the end of the first set, closing it with "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", the message was clear -- something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.  After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam,  that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it. I’m not above admitting that I wiped tears from my eyes. As I looked around, I saw that I was not alone.

The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old oeuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles From Nowhere” (I have my freedom/ I can make my own rules/ Oh yeah, the ones that I choose”).  They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but it didn’t matter. Old faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.  

It was inspiring to hear him still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Old classics like “Where Do The Children Play?” and “Trouble”  brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naivete even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.  

 * * *

Being at this concert, hearing these songs again, sung with conviction by this man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some pre-existential, innocent moment -- with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s trip back from the dead in Our Town.

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be here.  It’s a sound I keep coming back to when I think about the experience of being at this concert, a sound unlike any I think I have ever heard.  It had mass. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of redemption.

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens may never tour again (though I hope that’s not true), may never sing these songs again (also probably not true -- I've since learned that he's been doing them for some time now), but on this tour and on this night, he made something truly magical happen: he brought back someone we loved from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgement that we’re so much better together than we are apart.   It would be wrong to call the concert a triumph, because the man that Yusuf/ Cat Stevens has become is clearly too humble to aspire to triumphing.  Instead, it felt  something like a miracle.