Back To Wide-Eyed Childhood, Back To Earth

Back To Wide-Eyed Childhood, Back To Earth

“My concern for many years of my life has been about the earth and the people who live on it” – Yusuf

Following the release of 1978’s “Back to Earth” Yusuf / Cat Stevens hung up his glittering cloak of fame, handed back the keys to his musical success and refocused his sights upon a life of humble service. The title of this final album as Cat Stevens was a clear statement about his thinking at the time. On a personal level he wanted to descend from the stratospheric heights of celebrity but also, crucially, he wanted to demonstrate to his audience that we ought not be blinded by the disorientingly multi-coloured artifice that surrounds and distracts us, but instead attend to that which lovingly sustains us all; our home the Earth.

©Ed Cooper. Avalanche Gorge, Montana 1972 – The image adapted for the Back To Earth cover

Of course, Yusuf’s concerns for the state of the world and those who occupy it – especially for future generations who’ll come to inherit it – did not start at this transitional moment in his life. In fact, they originate from a previous life-changing moment; his contraction of TB in 1968. This brush with death was the catalyst for a spiritual epiphany that set Yusuf – or Cat as he then was – ‘On The Road To Find Out’. He experienced an awakening of his internal convictions to live life positively and for the benefit of the wider world. From the start, his preferred way of expressing this enlightenment was to draw upon the symbolism of nature.

Well, in the end I’ll know, but on the way I wonder
Through descending snow, and through the frost and thunder
I listen to the wind come howl, telling me I have to hurry
‘On The Road To Find Out’ – Tea For The Tillerman (1970)

The truth he pursued was the same truth that he saw in the purity of the natural world. He sought to align himself with it, foster the natural goodness within himself and also to encourage it in others. This admiration of nature actually stretches back to 1967 with his debut single, ‘I Love My Dog’, where he celebrates the unquestioning fidelity of his canine companion. 

I love my dog as much as I love you
Though you may fade, my dog will always come through.
‘I Love My Dog’ – Matthew & Son (1968)

However, with the release of Tillerman Cat had adopted a more serious tone when handling the theme of nature. He could clearly see that mankind was compromising its connection with the natural order and was explicitly using his songs to warn of the potentially perilous consequences. The clearest example of this came with ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, a song that feels perhaps even more relevant today than it did upon its release.

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas
And you make them long, and you make them tough
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off
‘Where Do the Children Play?’ – Tea for the Tillerman (1970)

At times Cat’s songs invoked apocalyptic visions of what was to come should we not temper the ever increasing voracity of our selfish desires. Chillingly, these visions, that may have seemed somewhat fanciful at the time, have proved to be an all too accurate prediction of the dangers of a climate crisis that now presents the greatest and most pressing risk to all life on this planet. 

I don’t want to lose the harmony of the universe
I see all things – burning, I hear me – shouting
Now is the light of the world and the stars are going out
Now does the blame for the disaster fall upon men
Grief is heavy with sadness and tears
Great is the noise from the earth and the seas
‘O Caritas’ (translation from Latin) – Catch Bull at Four (1972)

At the peak of his fame Cat was filled with a sense of social and natural injustice.

The song ‘Ruins’ from 1972’s “Catch Bull at Four” shows with crystal clarity that the devastating effects of our pollution is not something that stealthily crept up on us as if out of nowhere. The warning signs stretch back for many decades and were in plain sight for those, such as Cat, who were looking. Unfortunately, mankind has a worrying capacity to turn a blind eye to such problems, a tendency to sweep them under the carpet and leave them for another day. All too often we become servants to our egos and fail to recognise how self-defeating this is. Cat’s lyrics allude to the simplistic ideologies, consumerist desires and hubris that have stoked the fires of this unfolding disaster.

Where’s it leading to, freedom at what cost?
People needing more and more and it’s all getting lost
I want back – I want back,
Back to the time when the earth was green
And there was no high walls, and the sea was clean
Don’t stop that sun to shine, it’s not yours or mine … no
‘Ruins’ – Catch Bull at Four (1972)

The album that coincided with Yusuf’s determination to begin walking the walk of his convictions, 1978’s “Back to Earth,” takes one last stab at highlighting the path of destruction that he could see was not only wrecking the environment for adults but, more tragically, for the children too. By this stage his tone had lost a little bit of the gentleness and subtlety of tracks such as ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ but this is perhaps understandable considering that in spite of the counter-culture message of the 60s and 70s, the world had continued to accelerate down the road of consumption with little to no regard for the consequences. Furthermore, on a personal level Yusuf had reached his limit. He was exhausted from his time riding the merry-go-round of celebrity, disheartened by its general vacuousness and frustrated that the positivity of his message gained little traction in the media. 

New York, poor New York, ooh
New York, poor New York, ooh
Cars choking your child to death
But you don’t wanna see
‘Cause you only think about yourself
How blind can you be?
‘New York Times’ – Back To Earth (1978)

Cat was deeply affected by his early charity work. Shown here with people who lived in the slums of Dacca, Bangladesh.

Back To Earth can be taken as a statement of intent, a commitment to return to the true and natural essence of being away from the construct of stardom. And in the years after the album’s release Yusuf would demonstrate that this dedication to a more humble existence was not a fleeting whim or fad. Following his departure from the music industry he poured his time as well as the wealth he’d acquired into good causes. His main focus was to bring humanitarian aid and support to some of the most vulnerable victims of conflict and natural disasters. However, he has always maintained a deep passion and concern for the natural world. His charitable efforts have continued since his return to the global spotlight and performing has actually presented new avenues and opportunities to be of service to the planet. As we find ourselves in the midst of a climate crisis Yusuf’s focus has returned to the Earth itself. He is seeking to explore as many ways as possible to support the movement toward ecological sustainability and environmental responsibility. It is time that we all, like Yusuf, reject the seductive dreams of fame and material wealth and turn instead back to Earth.

Learn more about one of the most transformative moments in Yusuf’s career with the Back To Earth box set: https://cat-stevens.lnk.to/BTED2CWE