Meet Yusuf Islam - The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from “Meet Yusuf Islam: The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens” by James Sullivan, 01st October, 2010.

The name of the singer’s first single was “I Love My Dog.”  From the beginning, Cat Stevens was a star in Britain.  “Matthew and Son,” his second song to hit the charts, was kept out of the UK No. 1 spot in early 1967, only by the Monkees’, “I’m a Believer.”  The young man who would become pop’s biggest believer had the first of his epiphanies shortly thereafter.  After recording two albums’ worth of heavily orchestrated pop songs including, “The First Cut is the Deepest”, the reckless, swinging Londoner fell ill with a case of tuberculosis and a collapsed lung.  A year in convalescence led to deep self-examination.  By the time the former Steven Demetre Georgiou resurfaced in 1970, he was the quintessential earnest singer-songwriter.

In his new guise, Stevens became an international superstar.  His 1971 album “Teaser and the Firecat” went gold in America in three weeks.  He contributed the soundtrack to the enduring film, “Harold and Maude,” and he dated Carly Simon, leading to years-long inclusion on the list of mystery men who might have inspired “You’re So Vain.”  But another health scare helped push the singer toward a second awakening.  He nearly drowned while swimming at the Malibu Beach, California, home of Jerry Moss, co-owner of A&M Records.  Recalling the incident, Stevens has said he shouted, “O God, if you Save me, I will work for you.”

Having studied Zen Buddhism, astrology and numerology, he was ready for a new life.  The problem, as he once explained, was that success had felt empty to him: “I had eaten, I had drunk - I wasn’t merry.”  Soon after his brother gave him a copy of the Qur'an, Stevens converted to Islam, abandoning his musical career in the process.  He founded a Muslim children’s school in England and began devoting himself to humanitarian concerns.  After more than a decade out of the spotlight, Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, made news once again.  In 1989, he was asked to comment on the Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the execution of the author Salman Rushdie, who was accused of blaspheming Muhammad in his book “The Satanic Verses.”  The book featured a character called Bilal X, a converted pop musician who had become a “favoured lieutenant” of a Khomeini-like figure.  Some felt the character was based on Stevens.

Speaking to university students in London, Stevens quoted the Qur'an, “If someone defames the Prophet, then he must die.”  Later that year, appearing on a BBC program called “Hypotheticals,” the former singer repeated his conviction.  Asked whether he would attend a demonstration in which Rushdie’s effigy was burned, he replied, “I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.”

The backlash against Stevens was swift.  In protest, 10,000 Maniacs deleted their cover of his anthemic song, “Peace Train” from new pressings of their “In My Tribe” album.  One DJ called for a ritual burning of Stevens’ records.  Subsequent retractions only fueled the controversy.  In a letter to the UK newspaper the Sunday Telegraph headlined “Cat Stevens Wanted Me Dead,” Rushdie wrote, “Let's have no more rubbish about how ‘green’ and innocent this man was.”

It would be more than a decade before the singer's reputation was sufficiently repaired.  The attacks of September 11th gave him an opportunity to step back onto an international platform.  He was suddenly, he felt, “in a unique position as a looking glass through which Muslims can see the West and the West can see Islam.”  Nevertheless, while en route to a meeting with Dolly Parton, Stevens was detained at an airport in Bangor, Maine, and deported to England.  His name had appeared on a no-fly list.  The issue was eventually resolved. Later that year, Stevens was honoured as the Nobel committee’s Man for Peace.  Stevens eventually returned to America to support his first pop album in almost 30 years, 2006’s “An Other Cup.”  He had, he said, come to recognise music as a much more unifying language than politics.  “You can argue with a philosopher,” he said, “but not with a good song.”  The new album featured original songs, with the exception of one cover – “Don't Let Me be Misunderstood.”


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