by Norm Nason
© 2004 Norm Nason. All rights reserved. No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without prior approval from the author.
On February 22nd, 1976—at the height of his career as a pop superstar—Cat Stevens completed his most elaborate North American tour to date, titled Majikat. The last concert took place at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, and featured a ten member band including acoustic guitarist Alun Davies and keyboardist Jean Roussel. The elaborate production involved live magicians, synchronized film projection and a large, innovative stage set. By the time Stevens played his last encore, his career boasted numerous hit singles including Peace Train and Wild World, 12 top selling albums including Tea For the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat and Catch Bull at Four, and the soundtrack to the cult film, Harold and Maude. Unknown to his fans and perhaps even to himself, the Majikat tour was to be Stevens’ last—for soon after he quit the music business entirely, embraced Islam, and was nearly lost to the public eye.
But why did he do it? How could Cat Stevens simply walk away from superstardom — with all its trappings of money, power and fame? Did it have something to do with becoming a Muslim? Are the music business and Islamic tradition somehow incompatible? The answers to these questions are poignant, especially in light of the 9/11 terrorist attack and current problems in the middle east. The Cat Stevens story is a mystery worth unraveling.
Stephen Demetri Georgiou was born in London on July 21st, 1948. The child of a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother, he lived together with his brother David and sister Anita above his parents’ café, The Moulin Rouge, just around the corner from the British Museum and down the street from Piccadilly Circus. At age seven Stephen worked as a waiter in his father’s restaurant and dreamed of becoming a famous painter like his Uncle Hugo in Sweden. When he was ten years old, however, he heard Laurie London’s version of He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands and decided that music was his destiny. Four years later an African musical, King Kong, opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre opposite his father’s restaurant, where young Stephen hung around the stage door and got to know the cast. In 1963 he persuaded his father to give him enough money to purchase his first guitar, and by age 16 he left school and spent most of his time practicing Leadbelly licks. “I found it easier to write my own material rather than using someone else’s,” he said, “because I might get theirs wrong. But also I had a lot of ideas—I think because of the background, the musical textures that I was surrounded by in this area—be it Spanish music, or South African, or Rock, R&B…everything was here. And then The Beatles came to crown it all.”
Renamed Cat Stevens (allegedly by a girlfriend who recognized his cat-like eyes), he made his first demo tape, haunted agents and publishing houses, and became possessed by the goal of making money and becoming a pop icon. Finally he met up with agent Mike Hurst, who had a friend with enough faith in Stephen to back his first single, I Love My Dog.” Other hits—Matthew and Son, and The First Cut is the Deepest—were soon to follow, and the money came pouring in. “So what happened,” he later said, “was that I became very famous. I was still a teenager; my name and photos were splashed in all the media. They made me larger than life, so I wanted to live larger than life and the only way to do that was to be intoxicated with liquor and drugs.”
Only 19 years old, the fast living soon caught up with him. “I became a victim of my own success within one year,” he said. Overworked and over-medicated, he contracted tuberculosis, was hospitalized, and almost died. “Suddenly, there I was,” he said, “whisked out of the limelight.” Recuperating for a year, he had time to re-examine his life, contemplate death, and set about making new career goals. “It was then that I started to think,” he said. “What was to happen to me? Was I just a body, and my goal in life merely to satisfy this body? Why am I here?”
While in the hospital he was given a book called The Secret Path, about a convert to Buddhism, and he began reading about Eastern mysticism and the premise that the soul survives death and moves on. After many months he emerged from the hospital not only healthier but with a new set of priorities. He resolved to adopt a more spiritual live-style and to follow his own heart, rather than be merely a puppet of the music business. He grew his trademark beard, began to meditate, and soon wrote many of the songs that would fill his next several albums because, as he put it: “At the same time I wanted to earn a million dollars—and went on to do so. There were these paradoxes. You can’t want to be a pop star without wanting to be number one. It was time now to hit the road, but this time it was to the States—the big time. And this is where things really changed.”
It was the early 1970s, and in America Stevens’ career skyrocketed. His songs did indeed reach number one in the billboard charts and he finally attained the status of Superstar. “But internally,” he said, “I was going through a whole different set of circumstances, which were more privatized and much more insular.” He felt a great conflict within himself. On the one hand there was his giant, self-recognized ego—pushing him to greater and greater levels of fame and fed by the constant adoration of his fans. On the other hand was his increasing dissatisfaction with the empty trappings of his materialistic lifestyle. “I really had a difficult time,” he later said, “because I was getting rich and famous, and at the same time, I was sincerely searching for the Truth. Somehow things got so big…and I got lost. I wanted to look elsewhere for my fulfillment.”
He tried Zen Buddhism and the I Ching, numerology, tarot cards and astrology. Still, he was not ready to abandon superstardom. Then, in 1975, another scrape with death changed his course forever. While visiting a friend’s house in Malibu, California, Stevens took to the ocean for a swim. Caught in a rip tide while utterly alone, he fought against the current to the point of near-exhaustion. He realized that no one—not his manager, not even his thousands of adoring fans—could save him from drowning. He shouted aloud: “God, if you save me, I’ll work for you!” According to Stevens, it was at that moment that a little wave came from behind, pushing him to forward; he found the strength to swim safely ashore. “I was alive!” he said, recounting the story with great emotion, nearly 30 years later. “It was like being born again. I said ‘God…thank you! But now what? What was I supposed to do next?’”
It was while on the Majikat tour that Stevens’ brother gave him a copy of the Qur’ran, the Islamic holy text. As he read, things gradually began to change in his mind. He came to feel that his reason for being was not his own greatness. “I started becoming aware of all the weaknesses in my own self,” he said. “There was something in the Qur’ran that made me realize that I’m not as perfect as I thought I was. I had a lot of things to reform within myself.”
Stevens last album, Back to Earth, was, for him, a mere fulfillment of his contractual obligations; for as he put it, “My heart was moving away very rapidly.” He decided to visit the Islamic mosque in Jerusalem. Upon entering, he sat down and took in the atmosphere about him, finding it peaceful and comforting. When a man approached and asked him what he wanted, Stevens replied, simply: “I am a Muslim.” It was the first time he spoke the words.
On December 23, 1977, Steven Georgiou a.k.a. Cat Stevens entered the London central mosque and formally embraced Islam. “They didn’t know who I was,” he said, “and as far as I was concerned I was just an ordinary human being who wanted to start to make a connection with God—the way I had promised.” He was asked a few simple questions: Did he believe that there was only one God? Did he believe that the profit Mohammad was the messenger of God? He was asked to repeat his answers in Arabic—and was then pronounced a Muslim. He adopted a new name, Yusuf Islam, and felt that a great weight had been lifted from him. Having at last reached this critical decision, he happily set about the task of informing his manager and record company that he had quit the music business. All of his musical instruments were auctioned off, as well as his gold records and other artifacts from his past life. He felt—perhaps naively—that others would join with him in celebrating his conversion to Islam. It was not to be.
The public—and especially the press—had difficulty understanding what had happened. To them, their favorite pop star had simply abandoned them. There was so much negative reaction to his conversion that Stevens eventually became bitter and resentful. He declined every interview, and withdrew from the public eye for many years. Rumors circulated that Cat Stevens had become a monk, a beggar—or even worse. In 1989, a statement he made during a lecture at Kingston Polytechnic University was quoted out of context. The newspaper Today reported that the former pop star supported the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa, calling for the death of British novelist Salman Rushdie. Yusuf has vigorously refuted that claim (http://catstevens.com/articles/00013/index.html).
In truth, Yusuf Islam has lead a humble, peaceful, contemplative life. A prominent and respected member of the British Muslim community, Yusuf founded and operates the Islamia School System in London. He works with a variety of Muslim Charities and also operates the Mountain of Light production for Islamic Resources. He remains in London, married to a central Asian woman (introduced to him by friends while visiting an Islamic mosque), and has focused on raising a family (he currently has four daughters and one son, while a second son died at birth). In recent years he has become a more outspoken supporter of Islam—and has even ventured back into the recording studio. His latest CD, In Praise of the Last Prophet, was released in the Spring of 2002. As he put it: “It’s difficult for people to understand what you have to offer, unless you start talking…or singing.”
On September 12th, 2001, Yusuf posted the following message on his official web site:
I wish to express my heartfelt horror at the indiscriminate terrorist attacks committed against innocent people of the United States yesterday. While it is still not clear who carried out the attacks, it must be stated that no right thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action: the Qur'an equates the murder of one innocent person with the murder of the whole of humanity. We pray for the families of all those who lost their lives in this unthinkable act of violence as well as all those injured; I hope to reflect the feelings of all Muslims and people around the world whose sympathies go out to the victims at this sorrowful moment.
Film and tapes of Cat Stevens’ last concert, Majikat, were stored in a vault, unedited and almost forgotten for 28 years. On May 18th, 2004, the footage was resurrected and released as a DVD. Titled: Cat Stevens – Majikat – Earth Tour 1976, the disk includes a lengthy and candid interview with Yusuf Islam.