Cat Stevens is scanning the walls of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in London, whose school he attended as a boy some 45 years ago. He’s searching among the thousands of names that students have scratched into the bricks, looking for the spot where he etched his own name, which was then Steven Demetre Georgiou. It’s a fruitless search; too many knife-wielding lads have come and gone. Suddenly, he brightens, pointing to a sign. ”’See, they’ve put my name up there: Cat Holic!”
This is Cat Stevens the nominal jokester, the easygoing man-about-London, and almost certainly not the Cat Stevens you’d expect, which is to say, a dour, fatwa-happy zealot. He’s now neither Georgiou nor Stevens but, of course, Yusuf Islam, and for most Westerners, being Muslim isn’t exactly synonymous with levity, even before the media have lumped a fellah together with the Ayatollah.
Yet the 52-year-old figure before us chuckles easily and often. If anything, he’s more jocular than in those pop-star salad days when he was mining gold out of personal misery, enjoying international success with indelible early-’70s hits like ”Wild World,” ”Peace Train,” and ”Morning Has Broken” but, true to the cliche, finding it lonely at the top. Listen back to his more torturously soul-searching album tracks or read his vintage interviews and you may even discover that, much more than Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens could be kind of a drag.
”I didn’t know what to smile about,” he says of those spiritually unfulfilling years. ”I was confused. I don’t know where my humor came from, but it arrived one day…. That was one of the shocks that I experienced when I read the Koran. Up until that point, I’d felt like, well, nothing is as perfect as I am.” Another laugh. ”You know, Greek ego. But when I started reading those words, I realized that…hey, there is something perfect, and that’s God. And he knows how weak we are, and we just have to submit…. That’s when I began to realize that I could look back and laugh at myself.”
His fans weren’t laughing when Stevens seemingly abandoned them for Allah. He’d promised his life to God in 1975, after nearly drowning off the coast of Malibu. In 1977, he made a full conversion to the Islamic faith after reading a copy of the Koran his brother had given him. He’d decided to quit music for good by the time he released what he knew would be his secular swan song, Back to Earth, in 1978. Soon after, Yusuf Islam put his musical instruments and gold records up for auction and seemed to disappear off the face of that same earth. He somewhat reluctantly reentered the U.S. limelight in 1989, after DJs banned his records and old friends shook their heads amid reports he’d supposedly endorsed the death sentence Islamic fundamentalists had levied against novelist Salman Rushdie for the alleged blasphemy of The Satanic Verses. Feeling burned by that brouhaha, he’s rarely granted interviews since.
Now, for the first time since the ’70s, he’s attempting to reopen lines of communication with his old audience. Though he had little to no involvement with previous hits packages, Islam is cheerfully promoting the just-released The Very Best of Cat Stevens, his first really comprehensive retrospective CD, along with digital remasters of all his A&M albums. Why the sudden enthusiasm? For starters, there are the royalties the oldies bring in for the educational and refugee-relief charities he runs. It’s also an opportunity to plug A Is for Allah, a new CD/book combo he put together to educate children in the ways of the Koran, which contains a bit of a cappella music amid its poetic spoken-word dogma. But there’s also the fairly recent realization that maybe he wasn’t such a bad Cat after all.