The Cat Stevens box set essay: Did it Take Long to Find Me?

Did It Take Long to Find Me?

Of the singer-songwriters who appeared on the world stage at the dawn of the 1970s, Cat Stevens made perhaps the most lasting impression. His songs of longing, love and the search for truth in an increasingly difficult and embittered world spoke to a generation hungry for answers; the whimsical and childlike feel of many of his songs revealed a man for whom innocence, and its loss, were crucial issues.

His gentle purr of a voice – which could become a soul-rattling roar over the turn of a phrase -underscored the deep emotion and commitment that ran through his work. To his friends, Cat Stevens was known as a man who took everything seriously, and he believed to his core in the music, and the lyrics, and the messages they conveyed.

Although he certainly composed his share of songs that aimed for nothing more mundane than the record charts, particularly in his brief incarnation as a ’60s pop star, the overwhelming majority of Cat Stevens’ lyrics were deeply personal, and questioning, and with hindsight can be interpreted quite plainly as markers along the spiritual path that would eventually lead to Islam and his abandonment of the music business.

He began to study Eastern philosophy during his long hospital stay and convalescence during 1968, and although the early poetry of I Love My Dog and Matthew and Son had a somber edge to it, it was only after staring death in the face – death blinked first – he began to seriously re-assess who he was, looking for something, somewhere:

I know I think a lot

But somehow it just doesn’t help, it only makes it worse

The more I think, the more I know, the more it hurts

With only solitude to meet me like a friend,

Oh, where are you?

He emerged from the shadow of TB with no answers but a burning desire to find them. His instincts were sound, but spiritual satisfaction eluded him for nearly a decade as he searched, adapted and all the while honed his art.

His songs were exquisitely constructed, like sturdy ships in glass bottles, like miniature worlds carefully built on a snowflake.

Cat Stevens’ delicate and romantic sound found a waiting and wanting audience, particularly in America where musical understatement and enigmatic, deeply felt lyrics were taken as antidotes and lucid countermeasures to the progressive rock, bombast and overkill that dominated.

Even the titles by themselves told the tale of tentative conviction: Maybe You’re Right, I Think I See the Light, On the Road to Find Out, Miles From Nowhere, How Many Times, But I Might Die Tonight, Home in the Sky.

Cat Stevens’ imagery was unique, even when he turned his focus from personal matters and wrote about the world around him. Into White paints a minimalist portrait of an English country garden in colorfully descriptive detail; in Katmandu, the picture is wintry and clean, the beauty of the scene metaphorically buried beneath the snow and its “strange, bewildering time.” You can practically smell the fire roaring away in a corner of the cabin.

Children – the very definition of innocence making its way through a wild world – became a recurring theme. The singer in Moonshadow enjoys a joyous nighttime dance as the “faithful light” follows him over hill and dale; If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out talks about a limitless future for anyone who’s willing to embrace it. Because who was he, after his illness, if not a child starting his life all over again?

I know we’ve come a long way

We’re changing day to day

But tell me, where do the children play?

But the search for his own adult identity was never far from his thoughts. The protagonists of Father and Son, two conflicted sides of the same personality, have different ideas about how one another should think and conduct their lives, and in On the Road to Find Out, another song of tactile searching, he decides that the way to contentment is to “pick up a good book,” although he didn’t yet know what that book would be. It seemed as if he was merely waiting for his destiny to reveal itself to him, to explain the meaning behind life’s riddles:

Oh preacher, won’t you paint my dream, won’t you show me where you’ve been?

Show me what I haven’t seen to ease my mind.

As his fortunes swelled, Cat Stevens found that pop music – the notion of getting by “just upon a smile” – was a lot less satisfying than he’d imagined. Increasingly, he retreated from the show business circus that grew up around him, rarely giving interviews, preferring to live a solitary life where he could compose and paint without distraction.

All the while, he read theology, philosophy and spiritualism and thought about how to apply their principles and mandates to his own, increasingly disenfranchised life.

The paradox of Cat Stevens was that as his fame increased, as he became a more proficient musician and studio architect, the more true happiness eluded him. Fame, fortune and the trappings of success were all very nice, thank you, but deep inside he wanted, needed something more. The poet in him found ways to describe feelings he didn’t completely understand. As the Buddhists say, the farther one travels, the less one knows.

Life is like a maze of doors and they all open from the side you’re on.

Just keep on pushing hard, boy, try as you may

You’re gonna wind up where you started from.

As the ’70s progressed and Cat Stevens grew into England’s folk/rock elder statesman, his words became even more introspective; as his public found it increasingly difficult to understand or puzzle through the riddles of his poetry and his unfocused spirituality, he was drawn, by blind trust, into questions whose answers he knew down deep had to be within his grasp.

Certainly, it wasn’t all soul-searching; as a craftsman, his creations held their fragile and mysterious beauty until the very end. There were the “rainbows and twenty thousand tears” of Angelsea and the runaway R&B train of Foreigner Suite, with its intricate, overlaid keyboard fills and soulful vocals. The sweet, spectral pleasures of Sun/C79 (“Who can explain the light in your dreams?”) and the poignant Just Another Night, in which Cat Stevens – now a committed Muslim called Yusuf Islam – seems to bid farewell directly to his beloved audience:

 I remember standing here

right on this very same site

I was dying, but for you

it was just another night.

You once rocked me in your world

You bought me my first shoes

I was just another lonely child

Oh and you were much amused.

Once his spiritual vacuum was filled, being a craftsman and expressing himself through music and poetry didn’t hold the same resonance. Yusuf became a devoted family man, a speaker, author, educator and humanitarian, fulfilling many of his dreams and ideals. And his period as a star called Cat Stevens became fixed in time, irrefutably just something he’d done once.

Cat Stevens found what he was looking for, in the pages of the Qur’an, so he put down his guitar and walked away from popular music, closing the door behind him. As with all artists who’ve moved from one spiritual plane to another, his work remains, its message crystallized in time and space, and there for all who seek inspiration from it.

Once his long road brought him to the place where dreams meet reality, he knew the journey – or at least part of it – was over.


@2001 Universal Music Enterprises