Please don’t DM me about this, supportive friends and family. I am not sad. (Also, learn the correct spelling of my name.) That having been said, this is totally my sad-girl jam. It’s a certain spirit-raiser and makes me feel fuzzy. Of all the people to get a headpat and a hug from in sad times, a young Cat Stevens would be pretty high up on the list, I think. Some people just have that natural soothing quality, like a human bowl of soup, which is both enviable and attractive. That’s who you want to have around when you’re weepy and inconsolable for whatever reason, like this person Lisa, who sounds clinically depressed and should probably see a doctor.
It’s hard to believe that in 1972 Cat Stevens’ albums were the kind of bestsellers that nearly everyone went out and bought. I mean, that’s hard to imagine just logistically, because in their day they had to physically walk to the record store, in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. But also, it’s weird to think of a time when it was guileless thoughtfulness and gentle melody that floated people’s boats. Songwriters like Cat Stevens still exist, people who want to write about love and finding meaning in the world. But being thoughtful and spiritual and positive-minded and just nice is not what you’d call the dominant aesthetic. Maybe it’s because our times are more troubled than 1972 was. The early seventies were all peaceful and golden, right? RIGHT??
What rock music has always needed is more bouzouki. Just step away from the three-guitar format and let some other instruments take the spotlight. Obviously, I enjoy diversification, which rock’n’roll sometimes needs a good shot of. Up steps Cat Stevens with his Greek heritage and bouzouki. Stevens liked to inject his music with touches of Greekiness, including singing in the language, using instruments not usually heard on the Top of the Pops, and the occasional cultural reference. It never made his songs any less accessible, but it definitely made his seem deeper and more interesting than other folky singer-songwriters around him. Win-win!
Remember when everybody seemed to own at least one Cat Stevens album? Usually it was Tea for the Tillerman, but there were others and there was at least one in every stack of vinyl. It was a phenomenon. Cat Stevens himself no longer exists as such; he took a very very long sabbatical from the music industry before recently coming back as Yusuf Islam. Nonetheless, everybody still knows him and his hits, and despite some problematic things he’s said and done, everybody still loves his music. That’s partly because it’s hard to think of a more likable fellow, and mostly because Cat Stevens’ music is inoffensive and broadly appealing in the best possible way. We usually use the word inoffensive as a veiled insult, meaning that something is bland, toothless, stripped of any potential rough edges. In this case, inclusive might be a better word. Cat Stevens’ music is thoughtful and positive and aims to speak to everyone. The guy had the light of God on him way before he ever realized it.
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.