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POP MUSIC

A New Morning Has Broken

Three decades after his debut and rise to fame as Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam is reemerging from obscurity.

May 21, 2000|PHIL SUTCLIFFE | Phil Sutcliffe is a London-based writer and a contributing editor to Q magazine

LONDON — By the summer of 1975, Cat Stevens had it all. Since 1971 the singer had scored five U.S. Top 10 albums in a row, all international smashes, plus a host of hit singles--"Wild World," "Moon Shadow," "Morning Has Broken." He had also won respect for his intelligent songwriting.

He was not unprepared for stardom. He was born in the heart of London's show-biz district, and his childhood, he says, had shouted one message: "Make it!"

Ordinarily an American rather than British attitude, it came from being the son of a Greek Cypriot villager born poor but determined to work his way up and out no matter where it took him. Eventually, his father owned a restaurant. Whereas it seemed that Steven Georgiou, a.k.a. Cat Stevens, could own the world.

Then he took a swim at Malibu and nearly died.

"Without warning a strong current carried me out to sea," he recalls. "My whole life flashed in front of me, as they say, but I knew someone was there and I said, 'Oh God, if you help me I'll work for you.' Anyway, a wave came from behind me and gently pushed me towards the shore and then I had all the energy I needed to get back."

Near-death proved the beginning of the end of Cat Stevens. Two years later, in 1977, he embraced the Muslim faith, changed his name to Yusuf Islam and rejected everything he had been before, symbolically auctioning his platinum discs for charity.

He disappeared from public view for a decade, reemerging in 1989 when it was reported that he had declared his support for the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa--death sentence--against British novelist Salman Rushdie for the allegedly sacrilegious content of "The Satanic Verses."

Cat Stevens had seemed a nice hippie sort of chap, but overnight, he became such a hated figure that Los Angeles radio personality Tom Leykis drove a steamroller over a pile of his records.

Now, though, one of the rock 'n' roll era's strangest stories opens a new chapter. Cat Stevens is making a comeback with Yusuf Islam standing right beside him. The occasion is A&M/Universal Music Enterprises' newly remastered reissue of his original albums, marking the 30th anniversary of his debut. Stevens' first three albums come out Tuesday, with three more to follow in July.

While it was the label's initiative, Islam became involved in supervising the release, in part because it afforded an opportunity to draw some attention to his devotional records, including Islam's American debut, the children's religious guide "A Is for Allah."

Islam, 52, sports traditional Muslim barbering: long beard and short hair. With a trace of the old media awareness, he worries that a wide-angle lens makes him look all whiskers. But he's trim, sprightly, still smiles like Cat Stevens, and he wants to clarify a few things.

"I've 'come out' to explain myself," he says. "I think one of my biggest mistakes during the Rushdie skirmish was allowing other people to explain my life for me; one of my favorite songs is Nina Simone's 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.' "

*

Having arranged to meet on the steps of the British Museum, he proceeds to conduct a guided tour--on foot and by car--of his roots in posh Bloomsbury and seedy Soho.

See. The fire escapes he shinnied up with his best friend Andy just to walk on the rooftops and overlook the city. The Shaftesbury Theatre where he stood outside the stage door for whole evenings listening to the latest musical.

And there's the Roman Catholic school where, being Greek Orthodox, he was excluded from religious observances, but enjoyed the Irish jigs.

Look. The site of his father's restaurant, Stavros's--now a smart wine bar--where young Steven hummed his first "compositions" into life as he did the washing up. (He lived in the apartment above until he was 25, when tax exile took him to Brazil.)

The streets teemed with cosmopolitan cultures, while at home his father's Mediterranean heat balanced his Swedish mother's "cool, collected" ways--or not, since he and his older brother and sister spent a lot of their young emotional energies on ultimately fruitless efforts to hold their parents together. "I lived a lot in a few years," he says.

Strong currents seem to have been his natural milieu. At 19, in 1967, he stepped out of the folk clubs and into the U.K. Top 10 with the neatly satirical "Matthew and Son." But after a year of hits, he had his first brush with mortality. And failure. Improbably, he caught tuberculosis. In a hospital for three months, convalescing for almost a year, he was unable to promote his second album, and it bombed.

"A quick rise to fame and a sudden death," he says. "I was out of the spotlight, no longer news. I could have really died too. There comes a point where you have to ask yourself where you're going."

He began to explore, though in a fairly random way. While his prolific output of ruminative rock in the early '70s brought stardom, he read high philosophy and practiced low superstition.

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