This is a post from our guest-blogger, Peter Choyce of KXLU radio in Los Angeles
One of the most enduring mysteries of my generation is the great Cat Stevens saga. The controversy resonates to this day like a modern version of a Greek drama or the OJ trial. It has everything; celebrity, the pitfalls of being a celebrity, walking away from being a celebrity and the millions of dollars that he made in the music industry and then giving of it all away. Altruism, God, devotion, complete surrender. Blasphemy, poor judgment, bad excuses and the search for forgiveness.
I was always impressed at the part where a huge rock star gave up all his earthly possessions, only to become unceremoniously derided as an international pariah overnight a few years later. Everyone knows the story, or thinks they know. What really happened?
Let’s first go way back to 1967 when a budding young singer, born Steven Demetre Georgiou, hits the UK charts at #7 with a song which can only be heard for what it is: a rage filled revenge song of murderous intent sung apparently without irony. This debut, “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,” may unwittingly hint at things to come?
Cat Stevens was warmly welcomed into the world of pop rock just as the 60’s were finishing up and racked up eleven consecutive top 40 hits. Throughout the 70s, on the radio, sandwiched in between all of the bad bubblegum music and the banal disco hits a profound voice of gentle urgency and contemplation. Stevens hit big with songs like “Father and Son,” “Wild World,” “Oh Very Young” and he scored a #1 with “Peace Train.” The hits were supplemented by a string of stellar LPs, three that went platinum. His all-time classic, Tea for the Tillerman, was an ambitious album of songs that blended eastern thought with western rock music. Teenagers and grownups could agree about Cat Stevens.
Then, all of a sudden, everything changed.
In 1977’s Izitso album, Stevens sings “I Never Wanted to Be a Star.” It was always obvious from his music that he had an abiding interest in matters beyond this world. Having always been toying with this and that spiritual philosophy, like his brother before him, Stevens converts to Islam after a near-death drowning experience in Malibu. He jumps in head first, learning to read and write Arabic so he can get a first-hand crack at the Qur’an, and changes his name to Yusuf Islam. He then goes boldly where no rock star has ever gone before: donating all of his worldly wealth to charities from Mozambique to Morocco. Yusef Islam settled down in a modest London flat to live a private, humble existence devoid of material distractions in the 1980s and was mostly forgotten outside of oldies radio and die-hard fans.
Interested only in making the world a better place to live, the former pop star opens the Islamia Girls’ Secondary School one of the top secondary girls schools in London. This is where our hero is found and when his self-imposed exile ends oh-so abruptly.
The world was made a little worse, however, when in 1988, The Satanic Verses gets published and sets off a hailstorm in the Muslim world. Salman Rushdie’s controversial book was declared to have mocked the Prophet, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā (death sentence) upon his head. Numerous killings, attempted murders and bombings resulted. Yusuf Islam, no longer a pop star, was present at a conference at London’s Kingston University where he was asked about the fatwā.
There was little ambiguity in his response:
“He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear - if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.”
That’s what he said and it was shocking to hear the man who once sang “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” and “Sad Lisa” say such a thing. The next morning the headlines screamed “Cat Says Kill Rushdie!” Now back on the world stage, but in a much different light, Yusuf tried to take it back. He issued a response that declared he was merely translating what Rushdie’s “blasphemy” meant to Muslims to an English audience and what the legal punishment would be under Sharia law. A subsequent BBC TV appearance also showed him supporting the fatwā.
In any case, the damage was done. All around the world, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens was branded an ISLAMIC TERRORIST. From piety to pariah, all in the matter of a heartbeat. I remember how huge this all was at the time. Cat Stevens was suddenly target numero uno for aged adolescent “morning zoo” disc jockeys. In almost every radio market, “record burning parties”’ were held. People brought in their Cat Stevens vinyl so they could joyously hear them being smashed live on the air. There was a legendary LA radio broadcast of a steamroller crushing hundreds of Cat Stevens albums. Yep, the same guy who sang “Wild World.” I felt so sorry for him. To me and a few others, it smelled exactly like the infamous nationwide Beatles boycott in the mid-60s where the same treatment was ingloriously accorded to John Lennon when he famously quipped that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” (In fact the Nazis-like record burning tradition is as old as rock and roll itself: Southern DJs in the late 1950s often held rock and roll record burning parties with their Christian fundamentalist friends and KKK members to show that rock was “the devil’s music.”).
Did he really say it? Yeah, he really said it. He claimed that he was being sarcastic during the BBC program, and maybe he was, but it didn’t seem that way at the time and I’m not sure it feels that way looking at it decades later, either. In recent years, he has also claimed that he was a “young Muslim” and was perhaps a little too much of a strict believer at the time. I think this sounds closer to what really went down.
Twenty-two years after the storm, Yusef Islam has permitted himself to play music again, recording an LP in 2005 and showing up at various charitable events (and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity”) since, performing his old hits. Today the former Cat Stevens seeks to be rehabilitated with a new and younger crowd of fans. I get requests all the time to play him on my radio show, and I do, but I’m still a bit torn: I just think that with all the soul-searching eastern doctrines that he was into, he could have been a hip Zoroastrian priest. Van Morrison does well with whatever that cult is that he got himself into after Scientology. Who knows why a well-off pop star would choose such a conservative religion based on “submission,” but I am sure that he has his reasons. I won’t go there as I don’t want a fatwā on MY head. I do declare, however, that the time is here for Cat Stevens’ complete rehabilitation. I mean, fuck it. If you ask me, I think he DID lie a little when push came to shove. Sarcastic? I don’t really think so. But who doesn’t lie? And I also think he was tried to walk back his 1989 comments since then. What would you do? People do say things and then change their minds all the time (look at Mitt Romney!). I’m a firm believer in forgiveness when a decent man pays his debt, or does his time. The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens was duly humiliated and shunned for supporting the fatwā against Salman Rushdie—as he should have been—but in the end he has proven himself to be a timeless artist, with a heart of gold and a love of his fellow man. Let’s officially exonerate Cat Stevens and tell everyone to just shut up and give the guy a break.