In 1977, shortly before retiring from pop music, Cat Stevens would write a song called (I Never Wanted) To Be a Star. His gripes with the music industry were genuine and he took his retirement a lot more seriously than most others who threaten to do so. But for the time being, in 1970, he was happy enough to speculate about stardom. By that point, of course, Stevens had already experienced pop success, and the stress of it nearly killed him. Being a teen idol was decidedly not for him, but he was still willing to pursue the spotlight as long as it was on his own artistic terms. I’m not sure if there’s an element of irony here, but the song paints the game of chasing success in pretty innocuous terms. Nor was Cat Stevens ever much of a one for irony, anyway.
Watch Cat Stevens be adorable and full of optimism. If the whole ‘chugging towards a better future’ message grinds on your cynical nerves, you must be very immune to charm. Granted, the idea of a future-bound train of peace is better suited to a children’s show than as a grownup anti-war commentary, but that shouldn’t make it less charming to grownups. Also I doubt that it’s intended as any kind of a serious commentary. He’s just saying that peace is nice and we should be aiming for it. In fact, don’t think of it as a protest or anti-war song or a political message of any kind; you should just think of it as an invitation to personal optimism; try to make the world a little bit better than you found it, and good things will come to you.
This is a song I would recommend for children. Cat Stevens is an artist I would recommend for children. Not least because I loved him when I was a child, but that’s neither here nor there because I was also a fan of many, many non-age-appropriate things when I was a child. Cat Stevens is a young person appropriate artist in general because his music usually had a positive message (not always always, but more often than not.) But this is just outstandingly child-friendly. It has a super positive message about getting out there and finding yourself, which is great, but then in the final line he throws in the line about how you really should pick up a good book. That’s some PBS, Reading Rainbow, Scholastic shit right there. That’s an educational message wrapped up in pop song giftwrap, and with no corporate sponsors. He just felt like he had to put that in there. I can’t say that Cat Stevens gets five stars in the role model department; he’s said some regrettable things that I’m sure he deeply regrets now. But small children don’t need to hear the whole story about how he found god and converted to Islam and changed his name and retired from music and publicly supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and then kinda recanted and finally decided to play music again and now he’s a cuddly old man again, and whatnot. That’s a story for slightly older persons. (And, to be clear, most of those things are A-ok just fine except the fatwa thing, and I’m willing to write that off as a rookie mistake that could easily befall an overly enthusiastic fresh convert.) Little kids just understand friendly, catchy tunes with positive messages about reading books.
Cat Stevens always identified way too much with the older side of the generation gap. At a time when the gap was a thing of considerable contention, Stevens wrote songs not of rebellion but of sympathy towards the mature and responsible. Even his love songs take the position of weary and older. Perhaps it’s his peaceable nature and knack for empathy, perhaps he was always an old soul. But now that he actually is a crotchety old man, he’s one of the few who can revive his old hits without an uncomfortable disconnect between the spirit of the song and the reality of the singer (and it’s a great thing that he’d decided to finally do so, after so many years.) His music has really weathered well in a way that more youth-specific music has not. Anybody can enjoy Cat Stevens at any time in their life. Unlike, let’s just say, The Sex Pistols, whose output is so tailored to the needs of angry twenty-somethings that any fan has to grapple with either the fact that the men who made the music are either dead or too old to live their own message, or the discomfort of admitting that they’re just too old for this shit themselves. Or My Generation, a song that was timely for a year or two and now presents a conundrum for both its creators and its fans; whose generation is it about now? Although today The Gap is just a place to buy reasonably priced sweaters, there’s still a chafe between the olds and the youngs. In fact, that chafe and discomfort is more pronounced today than it has been in decades, as politically active youth reject their Boomer grandparents’ ongoing delusion that their can’t-we-all-get-along humanist utopia has been achieved. (But we have a black President! Don’t we all bleed red? White men matter too! etc etc) Political strife and differences in values aside, there still will always be the philosophical aspect of contemplating the condition of being old vs. the condition of being young. It’s pat but true to say that not every young person makes it, but every old one has been there. That is the matter that remains interesting and relevant regardless of where you are in your own life or how your particular real-world context colors your experience.
I love it when other languages besides English invade the pop lexicon. Cat Stevens didn’t entirely walk away from his Greek heritage when he changed his name. He would, on occasion still dip there for inspiration, not least of all here. He sounds so convincing it’s almost disappointing when he adds an explanatory English verse. It’s more interesting not to know! The world, apparently, is burning fast. Is that some kind of apocalyptic call to righteousness? End days coming, and so forth. Stevens could get a bit heavy with that stuff even before he took to religion. It’s relevant, of course. That call is sounding out, in various phrasing, from every corner of society. But the world has always burned, hasn’t it?
On one hand, Cat Stevens’ Numbers is basically a musical children’s book. On the other, it’s pretty existential. Because all of the numbers are characters, one through nine, and their orderly existence is thrown into chaos by the arrival of ‘Jzero’. On this track, ‘Novim’ questions himself and his place in the world. Since the concept of the album was not very well developed, I’m not really sure how the story ends, but as I understand it 0 is some kind of prophet introducing a new world order of higher mathematics. Which is actually not a bad concept, and should have been adopted by someone more given to grandiosity than Cat Stevens. Numbers should have been a Rick Wakeman album.
Spiritual epiphanies come to us in odd and unexpected places. Cat Stevens has had a few, the most famous being his conversion to Islam after almost drowning. On a less life-changing scale, the album Buddha and the Chocolate Box was inspired by an epiphany Stevens had when he found himself boarding a plane with no carry-on but a Buddha tchotchke and a box of chocolate. What if, Stevens mused, he were to die with those two things as his only possessions. It would make for great symbolism; the spirituality and wisdom of the Buddha on one hand, the sensuality of chocolate and all the material pleasures it represents on the other. As he went to write the album, those themes were strongly on his mind. It wasn’t the first time Cat Stevens thought about the balance of the spiritual and the earthly, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Eventually, he shocked the world by taking a fully spiritual path and renouncing most of the material perks that came with stardom. He also renounced music, which, unlike merely seeking God, is strange. Strange because it’s perfectly acceptable to be a practicing Muslim and still play guitar and write songs and sing them (though maybe not in hot pursuit of extravagant wealth or in egotism.) Strange also because up until his conversion Stevens viewed music as a positive form of spiritual self-expression, and it seemed just plain uncharacteristic to renounce that view. Thankfully, he’s since found a path that includes both Islam and a musical career, and he seems happy enough about it.