Here is a story about a man whose names marked significant parts of his artistic and spiritual life.
He is now known as Yusuf Islam, or Yusuf, a devout Muslim slowly opening himself up again to the West, where he is known better as Cat Stevens, an intensely personal folk artist who recorded several hit albums before converting to Islam and forsaking his folk singing ways. In time his new religion made him notorious, even anathema to Western media, Western society, even Western law. And the feeling was decidedly mutual.
But before Yusuf, before Cat Stevens, there was a tiny infant baptized as Stephen Demetre Georgiou on July 21, 1948, in London, England. Stephen was the youngest of three children (older sister Anita and brother David) born to Greek Cypriot father Stavros and Ingrid (nee Wickman)Georgiou. Dad was a Greek Cypriot and Mom was a Swedish Baptist. The religiously and culturally diverse pair ran a restaurant called the Moulin Rouge on the West End of London, and lived with their family in an apartment above the restaurant. Stephen and his siblings waited tables and washed dishes.
Although Stephen was raised in the Greek Orthodox faith, he attended school at a Roman Catholic parish. Neither religion had kind words to say about Islam, a religion and culture Christianity had crusaded against for centuries, and also accused of the most heinous crimes against innocent Christian citizens.
Stephen was drawn to the piano in his parent’s apartment. He taught himself to play, and at age eight escaped into music when his parents divorced. He learned guitar and sometimes went up to the roof of the family apartment to play and sing the songs he was writing. At times music echoed back to him from nearby Denmark Street. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols had played or recorded on Denmark Street.
Stephen cites early influences as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the musical West Side Story. By age seventeen (1965) he was playing in coffee houses under the name Steven Adams. One year later he signed a contract with Decca Records and underwent another name change, this time to Cat Stevens. Why? Well, his girlfriend said he had eyes like a cat, but mostly because, as the artist himself put it, “I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for ‘that Steven Demetre Georgiou album.'”
Stevens and Decca released his first album, “Matthew and Son,” in 1966. Two singles from the album reached the UK top ten, and so did the album. A follow up album contained “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” a song Stevens later sold for $50. The song made millions for four other artists, including Cheryl Crow and Rod Stewart.
Just when Steven’s star began to shine he contracted tuberculosis, and dropped out of the music scene for two years. It is his bent to put a spiritual meaning to events, and here is how he viewed his TB diagnosis:
“I felt I was on the brink of death. At the same time I had incredible hope. I kind of made the best of it as much as I could. Now I had a break I could review myself and decide where I wanted to go and not necessarily where my agent felt I should go.”
In fact he was on the brink of death, and recovered only slowly. The next two years were spent becoming a vegetarian, taking up meditation, studying metaphysics – oh yes, and writing about forty songs. When he got back in the studio the songs became albums, and Cat Stevens became a world wide mega star.
The albums: Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, Catch Bull at Four, and others, vaulted Stevens into super stardom as the quintessential sensitive singer songwriter. He joined the ranks of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, who had a relationship with Stevens and wrote two songs about him. One, “Anticipation” (also known as “the ketchup song”) has the great line: “These are the good old days.”
Steven’s had his share of singles too: “Father and Son,” “Wild World,” “Peace Train,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Moon Shadow,” “Where Do the Children Play,” “Tuesday’s Dead,” “But I Might Die Tonight,” “The Hurt,” and “Miles From Nowhere,” among others. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Cat Stevens did the artwork for all his album covers.
Tuberculosis marked one turning point in Steven’s life, and almost drowning marked another. He was swimming in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Malibu, when the current prevented him from returning to shore.
“Suddenly I was petrified,” he recalled. “I thought: ‘This might be it.’ I said: ‘God, if you save me, I’ll work for you.’ It was without hesitation that I knew that, instinctively, there was a power that could help me. And then a little wave, you know, came behind me — a little wave, it wasn’t very big. But it was that miraculous moment when suddenly the tide was going in my favor. I had my energy, I could swim back. I was on land. I was alive. Wow, what next?”
Next was another sea change (no pun intended) in the life of Cat Stevens. Open as never before to spiritual currents, he began reading a book his brother David gave him for his birthday. It was the Koran.
“This was before Islam was a headline,” Yusuf says. “The Iranian Revolution wasn’t even on the horizon. I felt like I was discovering something that was an amazing and immense secret.” For Stevens, the Koran had answers for questions he had been asking for years. In December 1977 he formally became a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Could he be a Muslim and a pop star at the same time?
“Yeah, when it came to trying to balance you know, this knowledge, this discovery (Islam), with my lifestyle (pop star), you know, I’ve been singing about trying to find who I am. Now I’ve found out, do I have to keep singing? I mean, that was the question.”
The answer was No. Yusuf Islam lost all interest in his career. He sold all his guitars and gave the proceeds to charity. He used the royalties still pouring in (he sold an estimated 6 million albums) to establish the first Muslim school in England. Then he started the small kindness charity helping orphans around the world.
He participated in an arranged marriage to Fawzia Ali, and begin a family with her (they now have five children). Islam stayed out of the spotlight for a decade. Then the spotlight found him.
British author Salmon Rushdie wrote a book called “The Satanic Verses” that was highly critical of Islam. In 1989 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. It was natural for the press to seek out Britain’s most famous Muslim for his reaction. Yusuf told an audience at London’s Kingston University:
“[Rushdie] must be killed. The Quran makes it clear: If someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” Later Yusuf would soften the blow a bit, but even when he sugars the pill he is speaking as a devout Muslim – a tongue alien to freedom of speech loving Westerners:
“I’m a firm believer in the law. I was never a supporter of the fatwa [against Rushdie], but people don’t want to hear that because they keep saying that I believe in the law of blasphemy. All I’m saying is, how can you deny the Third Commandment? It’s an Islamic principle that you must follow the law of the land where you reside.”
Yusuf was slammed publicly as a rabid Muslim by the Western press, a perception that had legs, as they say in the media. To this day Rushdie and Britain’s literary establishment have not forgiven Yusuf for his remarks.
In America his songs stopped getting airplay. Even though Yusuf publicly condemmed the terrorism of 9/11/2001 he was put on a “no-fly” list. In 2004 Islam was flying to Washington D.C. to participate in a charity. He was pulled off the flight and denied entry into America.
Then Yusuf – the man who wrote “Peace Train” – was accused of funding the terrorist Hamas group. He denied doing so knowingly, a response seen as weak and equivocating by his critics, which by this time were many.
Then there was another turning point, a “Father and Son” moment, except that now Yusuf was the father. His son, who had been trying to get dad to play guitar for years, pointedly brought a guitar home. After his family had gone to bed it was just Yusuf and the guitar staring at each other. He recalled:
“When everybody’s asleep and nobody’s watching, I pick it up … and lo and behold, I still know where to put my fingers. Out comes this music. I said, ‘Maybe I’ve got another job to do.'”
In doing his ‘job’ Yusuf found himself between two worlds. On the one hand there was a mistrustful, baffled West who did not understand or appreciate Yusuf’s conversion to Islam. On the other hand there was a mistrustful, baffled Muslim community who saw no positive religious purpose in Yusuf picking up his guitar again. Nevertheless, in 2006, after twenty eight years of musical silence, Yusuf released his album An Other Cup. Of it he said:
“The cup is there to be filled…with whatever you want to fill it with. For those people looking for Cat Stevens, they’ll probably find him in this record. If you want to find Yusuf, go a bit deeper, you’ll find him.”
An Other Cup received positive reviews. Later that same year Yusuf earned an ASCAP award for “The First Cut is the Deepest.” In 2007 Yusuf was awarded three times by three different bodies (an Echo award, an honorary doctorate by Exeter University, and the Mediterranean Prize for Peace) for his work increasing understanding between Islam and the West.
In 2008 Yusuf was nominated for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He continued to make music, releasing two other records after An Other Cup. On subsequent records he has quietly dropped the “Islam” from his name, so musically he is now known as Yusuf.
Fast forward to 2014, and Yusuf/Cat Stevens is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yusuf the gray headed sensitive singer songwriter is totally overshadowed by Kiss, and Nirvana’s reunion, and the usual last minute craziness of rock and roll.
Yusuf gives a gracious acceptance speech that does not touch on religion or politics. Then, almost unnoticed, he sits down and starts playing his guitar.
The buzzed crowd is there for Nirvana, not some creaky gray head thumbing an old folk song. Then something starts to build. The singer’s voice is focused, intensely present. Suddenly the lyrics are happening in your heart. Yusuf is singing “Father and Son”, and he delivers the climactic couplet like a rifle crack:
“If they were right I’d agree
But its THEM they know – NOT ME!
The song ends as it started, quietly. But now the crowd is intently quiet, suddenly as present as the singer.
“Peace Train” had to be the next song, and it was. Yusuf’s body relaxed and he strummed away as a gospel choir boomed and soared in back of him and the audience rose as one, arms waving, singing along to every word. “It was glorious,” Yusuf said later. “It was great to sing without any barriers…”
Speaking of peace and no barriers, Yusuf has this to say about religious conflict:
“I don’t think that God sent us prophets and books to fight about these books and these prophets. But they were telling us, actually, how to live together. If we ignore those teachings … whichever faith you belong, you profess, then I think we’ll be finding ourselves in an even deeper mess.”
And for today’s threat to peace that ISIS brings, Yusuf points out: “The positive side is that it has brought together these factional voices to say in unison that [ISIS] has nothing to do with Islam.”
From peace in the world to peace inside, here is Yusuf/Cat Stevens (as he now bills himself at concerts) on himself:
“When you’ve been running for so long, you might realize you’ve run too far. There comes a time to say, ‘Hang on. I’ve lost my way a little bit.’ ”