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Cat Stevens Takes the Lone Star State

On the road with the popular singer-songwriter

Cat Stevens, Yusuf IslamCat Stevens, Yusuf Islam

English singer-songwriter Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam), sitting in front of a map of the world, circa 1972.

Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty

Texas seemed somehow to be the ideal state in which to tour with and interview Cat Stevens. Cat may be a star in New York or California; but in Texas, well, he’s still got a ways to go.

The first concert of his recent tour was at Trinity University in San Antonio. The promoter was optimistic at the afternoon sound check. There were only five or six dozen tickets left for the night’s concert, he said. Meanwhile, Cat’s two L.A. concerts for a week and a half later were already sold out, as were upcoming dates in Denver, Berkeley and San Jose.

The sound check in San Antonio lasted three hours. Stevens ran through most of the songs he would sing that night, taking time to go out into the audience to talk with sound technicians and to listen to tapes of the previous night’s performance. He smiled and said hello to the ushers who wandered in to listen. At the same time one of Cat’s roadies tried to hustle the ushers out of the hall until the sound check was finished.

Afterwards Cat headed for the dressing room for a send-out Chinese dinner particular. “We have the energy. Everything is right. We just have to get it out there.” Whoever was nearest to him agreed. Nearest to Cat Stevens is usually his lead guitarist, Alun Davies, who has played with Stevens since Mona Bone Jakon. Before most shows, Cat and Alun will disappear to another dressing room to practice, work on new material, and musically goof around.

Bassist Larry Steele and drummer Gerry Conway sat around with roadies Carl Miller, Jock McLean, Eric Barrat and Chuck Eisler and dug into the 20 or so little white cartons of food. Larry decided that none of it fit into his strict vegetarian diet. Mimi Farina and Tom Jans, the second act on the tour, joined the dressing room feast after one of the roadies convinced a guard that they were with the show and should be let in. The talk turned to where were we last night and what did you buy today?

* * *

First of all, it’s Steve, not Cat. Not Mr. Stevens. Not even Mate. Cat Stevens is, or at least was, Steve Georgiou. His friends call him Steve.

And Cat doesn’t like to talk to reporters. “I don’t do interviews because it’s exhausting. People prying into things, especially the underground. It’s much easier doing interviews for the square magazines. They never much care about things. It’s what’s happening now. What’s happening for the moment. When I used to do interviews, I always impressed people as being nervous. And I am nervous, but it’s because of the interview. Normally, I’m quite relaxed and easygoing. I’ve already turned down an interview for Rolling Stone four times.

“Then these people at the record company said to me, ‘Watch out! That’s dangerous!’ But what pisses me off is that because some chick in some little record company office somewhere decides what you should do, then all this machinery is set into motion, and you better do it!”

The concert in San Antonio went well—as do most Cat Stevens concerts. Stevens has charm and stage presence enough to rescue himself from any mishap. He performed a set of what are rapidly becoming his “greatest hits”—selections from Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat.

Back in the dressing room, Cat went through his post-concert ritual. As soon as the door closed, he started firing accusing questions at anyone available concerning the concert. In San Antonio, it was the promoter who walked across the back of the stage during the last number. Cat was enraged.

“Did he really walk across my spotlight? He was in the fucking spotlight, wasn’t he? Who the fuck does he think he is to walk across the stage during a fucking song?”

Cat was told that the promoter had to check out a security problem and had no choice but to walk across the stage.

“Well, he still shouldn’t walk across the stage. He looks like one of those people that never had to work hard for anything. Never had to struggle at all, you know?”

* * *

Cat Stevens is alone most of the time. A crowded dressing room will slowly empty as people drift off while Cat sits quietly. In a hotel or in a car or in an airplane, he is alone. He may be drawing or writing lyrics or poetry in his notebook, or merely staring and thinking, but whatever the reason, the intensity of and a beer. He remarked to no one in his solitude seems to discourage company. Unless he wants it.

* * *

Gruelsom Way
Yes it’s the more I am accepted
is the further I am to find
as the most untold mystery
can only be known by the blind
if it is obvious, then the meaning
is no longer seen; as is the
man who paints by numbers who
always remembers his dream

—© 1971 Cat Stevens

While the rest of the band had breakfast at the San Antonio airport, Cat Stevens sat outside alone in the sun listening to a classical station on a portable radio-phonograph that he carries around constantly.

Cat liked San Antonio and planned to come back. He related a dream that he had the night before that seemed to incorporate everything from his tour to the river.

“I had a really strange dream last night. I dreamt that somehow I had been on tour so long that I missed Christmas; or got confused about it. I hadn’t gotten any presents or anything. I was one day late. So in my dream, I was able to turn back about seven days. So I went out shopping for presents. I went out shopping in town. There was a river running through the town. On one side were the Americans and they were all living in wigwams. My relatives and I were on the other side. I was shopping around for presents when I saw that every way I turned was a road and each road led to a certain death. I haven’t had a nightmare like that in a long time.

“Finally I decided and I went down one of the roads and I landed in a kind of court with a big door on one side and a judge sitting up in a big chair up front. In order not to go through the door, you had to do something exceptionally entertaining for the judge. Well, I was there with my relative and we were waiting to perform.

“In the meantime, this heavy-set woman got up in front of the court and took out this kind of round instrument. She got all ready to play and she played two bars and—aaugh! It was terrible. And off she went through the door to certain doom.

“So then my relative got up to perform. And all she had with her was an electric tea kettle. She took it up front by the judge and plugged it in. Everybody was waiting and waiting for it to boil. Finally it came to a boil and my relative opened her mouth real wide and blew out a huge cloud of steam. Everyone applauded and applauded. So I was let go on the basis of what my relative had done. Then somehow we got back home and everything was OK.

“I used to have trouble understanding my dreams, but lately I’ve been able to work them out.”

* * *

Just as eyes look at one area at a time
They cannot see all sides at once
So man’s mind has to focus
This can only lead to frustration
So it is better to let eyes look to the sky

—© Cat Stevens 1971

* * *

The scene backstage in Houston is frantic. The groupies appear in full force and full regalia. Cat is courteous but plainly unavailable. Alun lies that he’d love to fuck but is “all clapped up” at the moment. Later he relates the difficulty of trying to explain his long absences to his three-year-old daughter. The tour is nearing its end and everyone is anxious to get back home.

“This tour is going very well,” Cat said later. “It’s the best we’ve done. I’m very happy about it. Sometimes you get into problems. Personality problems. But this time we seem to have it all worked out. Each of us has found a place. Not just during the show, but at other times as well. Some of us are always late, but we’ve learned to compensate for that. We’ve learned to compensate for lots of things.

“Actually, touring has affected my writing a lot. Teaser and the Firecat came from touring. I don’t think the album would have been the same if I hadn’t been touring.”

* * *

“One of the hottest young singer-composers in the business wings his way into Big D Nov. 21 for a concert at Memorial Auditorium. Cat Stevens, with an interesting style and some interesting songs, has developed a massive following.”

—Don Dallas in Night Beat

The Dallas Memorial Auditorium, with 7,500 seats within eyesight of the stage, is one of the largest halls on the tour. The acoustics are ideal for a roller derby match. Even so, word is that it’s one of the nicer halls in which to put your “massive following.” The police thought so, too. A massive amount of them, helmets-and-riot sticks, were in attendance. Several wandered about backstage, gawking at groupies.

Ignoring the cops and chaos, Cat was particularly relaxed in Dallas.

Onstage he performed very loosely and very well that night. He rambled through lengthy introductions to his songs, which may or may not have confused his audience. To wit:

“Americans try to make too much of my songs. They’re just songs. I don’t know why I write them. I just write them. But you try and find all kinds of hidden meanings. There’s no point in even thinking about the point of a song.”

“Wild World”: “You might think that ‘Wild World’ was written about some girl. Would it surprise you to know … well, it could be written about a man. In fact, ‘Wild World’ was written about me. I was writing to myself saying that I knew that I was going to turn into what I was before, a pop star. Only this time I knew what that was.”

“On the Road to Find Out”: “In the last line of this next song, I say ‘the Good Book.’ That’s not meant to be the Bible. I just meant a good book. The last time I opened the Bible, I opened it to the end and read ‘The End.’ I figure that’s it.”

“Longer Boats”: “This song is about flying saucers. I’ve added another verse at the end to make it clearer:

So if you stop to look around
You may see them looking down on a lonely asteroid
In a vacant void
Dying, but not destroyed”

“Father and Son”: “I used to have a very narrow view of things. I used to think that I was it. I think I’m it now, too, but in a different way. There are two kinds of changes. One going up and one staying where you are; and I know where I am now. Sometimes when I sing this song I take the father’s part. Sometimes the son. I don’t think anything that’s going on today is going to stay the same.”

* * *

Backstage after the concert, Cat sat alone sipping on a beer and biting his nails.

“It’s difficult to judge, now once you’re a success,” Cat has said. “People love anything you do. It’s important for me to try new things. Even if they fail. In fact, I must fail sometimes. I don’t listen to Number One songs. Because that’s made it and it’s tired. I listen to people that are struggling. But I don’t want to copy anyone else. My guitar playing is horrible. People have wanted to teach me to play better, but I never studied from anyone. I enjoy how I play.

“I was just thinking today of when I got started in this business for the first time. It was a real bitch. The people at EMI wouldn’t even talk to me. Nobody would. I remember the first time I got close to that feeling of fame. It was a party that Brian Epstein was at. I was just overwhelmed.”

* * *

Cat’s eyes seem to be saying that he is afraid. While looking at a drawing of himself, he said that the right eye is the vacant one, the one that shows him enjoying himself. The other eye is always plotting, always thinking, always scheming.

Cat began writing songs during a one-year stay at Hammersmith College of Art in London. A producer at Decca heard a demo tape, liked what he heard, and signed Cat to the then-fledgling Deram label.

Within a year he had made the British charts with his own composition, “I Love My Dog,” and “Matthew and Son.” The Tremeloes had a hit with a Stevens song, “Here Comes My Baby,” and Cat, at 17, had become a boy wonder of sorts in England and on the Continent.

He confined his touring to England, Belgium and France. It wasn’t until he recorded his first album on A&M, Mona Bone Jakon, that he began to build a following in the U.S. And the music was different, too; simplified, refined, and then simplified even further; songs he’d written during a long recuperative stay in the hospital after he discovered he’d contracted tuberculosis.

And his new music had a strange, oblique edge to it. Songs like “Miles From Nowhere,” written during that period, reflect some of his feelings. Other songs like “Longer Boats” affirm Cat’s belief in flying saucers. Some like “Moonshadow” incorporate the two. The themes of his body falling apart and being watched by aliens weave constantly through Cat Stevens’ songs.

Caught in the right mood, Cat will explain some of his fears. The right mood was a crowded club between sets after a half bottle of red wine, described by the waitress as “not real good, but not too bad.”

“I don’t have any actual fears of having a relapse or anything like that. The body takes care of itself. If something goes wrong with it, it repairs itself. What I am afraid of is my mind. You know, of going crazy. Because your mind is something that you really don’t know about. I don’t think I will go crazy, but the chance is always there. I like going up to the edge, to get as close as possible, and knowing the feeling of it. But I don’t want to go crazy and disappear. If I went crazy there would only be a few people that would know why and would be affected closely by it. My family … No, I hope I won’t go crazy.

“The flying saucers aren’t any indication of going crazy. I believe that they exist. You know, I feel them around sometimes. People watching. Maybe it’s just something that keeps my mind off of all this craziness.

“I had an experience once while I was lying in bed. I saw this flying saucer shoot across the sky and stop over me. And it sucked me up into it. When it put me down, I shot up in bed. I know it wasn’t a dream. It didn’t feel like a dream. It was real. I know it was real.

“My whole interest in flying saucers is … I’m not obsessed with them. My whole interest in them is something to occupy my thoughts. Because I need something to think about. If I thought about how silly my life is, I’d go mad.

“I’m working on another song about flying saucers.”

In This Article: Cat Stevens, Coverwall

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