Nobody was expecting much from Yusuf Islam at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The press had fixated on Nirvana’s reunion and the endless soap opera that is Kiss, mostly overlooking the fact that the former Cat Stevens was about to play his most prominent American gig since quitting music in 1978.
After a cheerful acceptance speech that avoided any mention of religion or politics, Yusuf took the stage with an acoustic guitar and delivered a stunning rendition of 1970’s “Father and Son” that silenced the rowdy crowd at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. By the time a gospel choir joined Yusuf for a euphoric “Peace Train,” it seemed like the entire arena audience was on its feet, singing along to every word. “It was glorious,” says Yusuf. “It was great to sing without any barriers, and the choir really made the end very climactic. My son turned me on to Nirvana years ago, and their performance at the end was just explosive.”
It’s now eight months later, and Yusuf, 66, is sipping tea in a conference room high atop the Sony Building in midtown Manhattan. His ever-present bodyguard, a beefy dude who stands at least six feet four, is perched on a nearby piano bench. Yusuf’s 29-year-old son, Yoriyos, is seated and gazing at a laptop. Yusuf’s salt-and-pepper hair is saltier than ever, and he’s wearing sunglasses, a gray peace train 2011 T-shirt and a stylish blue jacket. More than at any other point since his return to secular music eight years ago, he looks like a rock star.
Yusuf is relaxed and friendly, but everyone else seems a little on edge. His son anxiously looks up from his laptop when the conversation veers from music, and two publicists sit outside the door. Prior to the interview, they urged me to be “sensitive” when it comes to “religion and past controversies.”
The conversation starts on solid ground: Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, Yusuf’s R&B-flavored new LP, his third disc since 2006. Yusuf moved to Dubai in 2010 (“I like the sunshine”) but traveled to Los Angeles to cut the album with Rick Rubin. “We did the whole thing in a week,” Yusuf says. “A couple of songs were first takes. I don’t like hanging around studios. There was a couple of times where he wanted to go over bits again, and I said, ‘I’ve done it, Rick. I don’t want to do it again.’ ”
Yusuf recently wrapped his first North American tour since 1976. A show at New York’s Beacon Theatre was guaranteed to sell out, though he canceled it when he learned that New York outlawed paperless ticketing, causing tickets to sell for hugely inflated values on the resale market. “It just institutionalizes the scalping business, and that’s not fair,” Yusuf says.
The Beacon cancellation is just the latest bold, principled and (many feel) self-defeating move of Yusuf’s long career. He was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London, the son of a Greek father and Swedish mother. Georgiou came of age just as his hometown was becoming the center of the rock universe. “I was very lucky,” he says. “I lived on the same street as the 100 Club, and [Beatles publisher] Dick James Music was four doors down from my father’s cafe. Everything was in this small radius in the West End of London.”