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POP MUSIC

Now Yusuf rides the inner-peace train

The former Cat Stevens has a new CD, 'Roadsinger,' and plans for an L.A. concert.

May 03, 2009|Randy Lewis

Cat Stevens, one of the superstars of the sensitive singer-songwriter movement, experienced a spiritual epiphany some three decades ago that led him to turn his back on rock 'n' roll and embark on one of the most radical personal reinventions in recent pop music history. He reemerged as a devout Muslim who called himself Yusuf Islam and went a couple of decades without so much as touching a guitar.

In recent years, the creator of such deeply felt pop hits as "Peace Train" and "Oh Very Young" has been finding his way back into the wild world he left behind. These days, he has a new vision and understanding of his place in that arena, though his voice and his musical philosophy remain very much the same.

The songs on his new album, "Roadsinger," which he's releasing Tuesday under the single name Yusuf, are as spiritually attuned as old Cat Stevens songs such as "I Think I See the Light," "On the Road to Find Out," "Miles From Nowhere," "Home in the Sky" and "But I Might Die Tonight." Anyone listening closely back then might have anticipated that the musician's inner quest would lead to some kind of transformation.

"I left a lot of clues, but I didn't make them totally obvious," Yusuf, 61, said in his backstage dressing room on a recent visit to Hollywood to tape an episode of the new "Chris Isaak Hour" for the Biography channel. "There are subtleties to life, and not everybody picks up the subtleties."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, May 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Yusuf Islam profile: An article about singer Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, in Sunday's Arts and Books section said that his "Boots and Sand" song would be offered as a bonus track at Amazon.com. The song will be available as a bonus track on iTunes and Best Buy but not Amazon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 10, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Yusuf: An article about Yusuf, the former Cat Stevens, last Sunday said that his song "Boots and Sand" would be offered as a bonus track at Amazon.com. The song will be available as a bonus track on iTunes and Best Buy but not Amazon.

Many fans were confused by his decision to give up music; some were outright angry. "I'm still not sure that everybody gets it," he said. "Some do, and that's fine."

A working-class accent born of his upbringing in London's East End as the son of a Greek restaurateur contrasts with the ever-so-genteel singing voice that's still reassuring, although it's grown a bit deeper, a bit duskier than it sounded three decades ago. Also gone are the raven curls that flowed to his shoulders, and the close-cropped beard and mustache, replaced by inch-long salt-and-pepper hair and the long beard Muslim men traditionally wear.

His return to music-making has unfolded in accordance with his ongoing study of the Koran. Initially, he was unsure what role music played for Muslims, so he simply gave it up. But as his understanding grew, he discovered that an early form of guitar existed in the Islamic world. Several years ago, his son brought home a guitar and Yusuf heard the call of an old friend.

"My fingers remembered what to do," he said. "Having that rest which was -- 17 years? I don't know how many years it was that I put away the guitar -- it enabled me to get back to my pure music-loving space. I would just write a song because I wanted to, because it pleased me. I wasn't doing it for business, or for a manager."

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Taste of stardom

Business always has been something of a necessary evil for Yusuf, as it was for Cat Stevens, who was born Steven Demetre Georgiou. His first taste of pop stardom came in the late '60s, when as a teen he wrote and recorded a U.K. pop hit "I Love My Dog" as well as what is perhaps his most-recorded song, "The First Cut Is the Deepest." But soon after, he contracted tuberculosis, and the illness landed him an extended stay in a sanitarium.

That down time in a darkened hospital room fed his search for what he calls "another kind of light," and sent him on explorations of Buddhism, Zen, Taoism and other spiritual teachings. He emerged with new thoughts, and new songs, that first flowered in 1970's "Mona Bone Jakon" and fully blossomed in his 1971 breakthrough, "Tea for the Tillerman." Many of the songs from those collections were used by director Hal Ashby for his 1971 film "Harold and Maude," which became a favorite on the midnight movie circuit and helped Stevens' music reach a broader audience.

More releases followed. On "Teaser and the Firecat," the follow-up to "Tea for the Tillerman," he transformed an age-old hymn into a pop hit with "Morning Has Broken"; he then spent three weeks atop the national sales chart with "Catch Bull at Four," his only collection to reach No. 1. As the decade went on, though, Stevens' pop following began to wane, with his 1978 album "Back to Earth" peaking at No. 33.

During that period, while swimming off the coast of Malibu, Stevens got caught in a riptide that made him fear for his life. He offered up a fervent prayer, vowing to better serve God should he survive. A wave came seemingly out of nowhere and helped him reach the safety of shore; after that, he said, he discovered a new life direction, one that didn't involve recording studios, concert tours or radio station promotions.

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