Artists are searchers, allowing the rest of us to draft on their need to share their joys and angst. In the 1970s, I drafted on what New Yorker writer Tad Friend describes as the “staccato vocal rhythms and scratchy, joyful acoustic guitar” that epitomized Cat Stevens. The melodies of “Morning Has Broken,” “Peace Train,” “Moonshadow” and “Where Do the Children Play” floated me through high school and college.
In 1978, Stevens dropped from the music scene, unable to resolve the tension between his religion and the requirements of life as an entertainer. But 25 years later, he chose what author Parker Palmer calls the “both-and” solution of embracing tension creatively. And last month he came full circle, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Stevens was born Steven Demetre Georgiou Adams to Greek and Swedish parents in 1948 London. When he started playing London pubs and coffeehouses, he chose Cat Stevens because he couldn't imagine fans asking for "that Steven Demetre Georgiou album," according to Wikipedia. He also thought Americans probably loved animals as much as the English did.
Tuberculosis in 1969 required a yearlong convalescence. He composed 40 songs that year, which became his 1970s hits. A second near-death experience — nearly drowning in the sea off Malibu in 1976 — yielded a lifelong spiritual quest.
After explorations into Zen Buddhism and numerology, Stevens studied the Quran and converted to Islam. He told Rolling Stone magazine, "I had found the spiritual home I'd been seeking for most of my life. And if you listen to my music and lyrics, like 'Peace Train' and 'On the Road to Find Out,' it clearly shows my yearning for direction and the spiritual path I was traveling."
In 1978, he changed his name to Yusuf, the Arabic word for Joseph. In the Quran, Joseph is bought and sold in the marketplace, which was how he increasingly felt within the music business.
Stevens’ Imam was fine with his music career, but Stevens told Rolling Stone magazine, “At the time I became a Muslim, there were two points of view about music and the prevalent one was a bit strict, so I just withdrew entirely. I eventually came around to the other view.”
Stevens’ return to the music scene epitomizes the “both-and” response Palmer espouses for holding tension creatively when trying to solve divergent problems.
“Our private lives abound with either-or problems that are best resolved with a both-and response,” Palmer writes. “We raise children and teach students who need both freedom and discipline. … We hold jobs we must keep in order to stay afloat while finding a way to lift our own spirits against the downward pull of the work we do. … Dilemmas of this sort do not yield to conventional logic. Nonetheless, we learn to embrace their tensions in ways that open us to something new.”
Stevens may not have read Parker Palmer. He credits his son, 29-year-old Yoriyos, with having a roll in his return: “I’d left a whole generation who loved me and my music ... I think Yoriyos is the guilty one, by bringing a guitar into the house.” Yusuf/Cat Stevens was soon composing again, and now tours.
Over 40 years after composing “Father and Son,” his son, who has his own band, now opens shows for his father.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.