Catch Bull At Four
After “Mona Bone Jakon”, “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat” much was changing in Cat’s world and the road forward would prove to be complex and unpredictable. “Catch Bull” reflects these challenges as Cat begins to mine further and deeper into his spiritual core unearthing fascinating lyrical content.
Oh I’m on my way, I know I am,
Somewhere not so far from here1
The title of the album, “Catch Bull at Four” is drawn from Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s ‘Ten Bulls’, a Zen series of poems and illustrations exploring an individual’s search for enlightenment and their subsequent return to society to pass on the wisdom they’ve gained. It couldn’t be more clear that Cat was consciously addressing the subject of his own spiritual progression. It’s telling that he chose to locate himself at the fourth stage of the process. This is where one must use great effort to take hold of the metaphorical bull which will use all its might to resist capture. Cat is informing us that he’s aware of the great challenges that he’s facing and that to seize control will take a determined effort. Yet, he recognises this struggle as a necessary stage before he can progress forward.
In many ways “Catch Bull” can be seen as a spiritual progression from the previous three albums and it sets the tone for the music that will follow in the mid to late 70s. Indeed, the opening track, ‘Sitting’, seems similar in content to “Tillerman’s” ‘The Road To Find Out’ with both songs addressing the experiences of a metaphysical journey. However, ‘Sitting’ goes further than its predecessor by focusing in on the details of how Cat was feeling. It would, of course, take many more years of searching for Cat to reach the point of Zen-like fulfilment – exiting the worldly marketplace and finally transcending the Bull. Nonetheless, here is clear evidence that he already feels the presence of the Divine force.
Sitting on my own not by myself,
Everybody’s here with me
I don’t need to touch your face to know,
And I don’t need to use my eyes to see2
The initial lines of this passage illustrate that Cat was feeling removed even when in the company of others. Fame and changed circumstances had started to separate him out from, not only certain friends and family but also the normal world of a young man in his mid-twenties. However, in a stylistic approach that characterises the album, he plays with a plurality of meanings. “Sitting on my own not by myself”3 shifts from being an expression of feeling alone to reveal that he’s not really experiencing solitude as we might imagine; he feels a conscious presence alongside him in this private space. It’s quite conceivable that his growing faith was also a factor in making him feel distant from others. It must have been fairly unusual, though not totally unheard of, to be fostering such spiritual concerns amid the riotous music scene of the early 70s.
“All I know is all I feel right now”4 is another crucial line of the song that further shows how Cat’s spiritual identity was forming. He appears to be acknowledging his limitations; what he knows is restricted what he feels ‘right now’ but in the future he may grow to feel and, therefore, know more. However, once again the same line can be taken in a different way, as a statement about being present in the moment. This puts more of a meditative slant upon the assertion which is consistent with Cat’s interest in the practices of Buddhism at the time.
The majority of the songs for the previous three albums were written during Cat’s post-TB convalescence. However, by the time of “Catch Bull” most of this material had been used up naturally leading to a new phase of his writing. Not only did it usher in arguably more lyrical complexity but the arrangements and overall sound of his music would expand too. A crucial reason for this development was the fact that, off the back of the colossal success he enjoyed in 1970 and 71, he’d begun to start playing in larger arenas to ever increasing crowds. In response, he felt the need to make a bigger sound.
‘Can’t Keep It In’ exemplifies this new fuller sound. As a song, it has the essence of the “Teaser” album with its uplifting musical feel and outpouring of love for all things. However, the sonic production has a grander scale. An array of keyboards, full drum kit and backing vocals all contribute to the new sound that was beginning to emerge.
I’ve got to show the world; world’s got to see,
See all the love; love that’s in me5
Once again, ‘Can’t Keep It In’ is an example of the multiple layers of meaning that characterise the album. On the one hand, it’s a love song to an individual but on the other, it’s expressing love for the whole world. Cat is able to expertly weave these two meanings together so that his words equally address both interpretations. In the line “Why walk alone, why worry / When it’s warm over here?”6 he’s almost pleading for a lover to embrace the comfort and security that he’s offering and join him in a relationship. Equally, he seems to be calling to the faithless masses, signalling that the path of enlightenment offers meaning and a release from the anguish of a materially driven existence: “Oh why? why must you waste your life away, / You’ve got to live for today, then let it go – oh”7. Again, these sentiments can be viewed through the lens of Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s ‘Ten Bulls’ where transcendence is only attained by letting go of one’s material restraints.
As the song progresses Cat appeals to his lover to acknowledge a truth that she knows in her heart but is denying. He admonishes the self-deception that is drawing her from the optimal path and goes further to warn that it “kills the light”8. Perhaps this is even a warning that by turning away from truth we risk becoming blind to God’s presence and thus prevent ourselves from fully flourishing.
Why can’t you say?
If you know, then why can’t you say?
You’ve got too much deceit; deceit kills the light,
Light has to shine; I said shine light, shine light9
This passage is also easily read as a criticism of the state of the world. Concerns over Man’s stewardship of the planet were present on earlier albums but in a move that feels markedly different from the “Teaser”/ “Tillerman” era Cat here seems to zero-in on the motivations that threaten his positive vision of the world. We heard about the “lorry loads pumping petrol gas”10, “jumbo planes”11, “slot machines”12 and ‘skyscrapers”13 in ‘Where Do The Children Play’, but their destructive effects seemed more as a result of Man’s general naivety and hubris: “Get what you want to if you want, ‘cause you can get anything”14. This time Cat is alluding to something far more malicious which pollutes one’s moral character: lies and deceit.
Throughout “Catch Bull” we see that the challenges facing Cat and the world had taken on a far darker and more menacing guise than before. Indeed, on multiple occasions he appears to contemplate defeat, or at least the inability to affect the kind of change he had, up to now, been so optimistic of. ‘O Caritas’ speaks clearly of these concerns. It was written together with Jeremy Taylor, a good friend of Alun Davies and long-time folk-protest hero of London, who could speak Latin. The use of this ancient language gives a certain gravity and timelessness to its warning.
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?15
Another concrete example of this sense of impending doom can be found in the song ‘Ruins’, a sombre meditation upon a world in which “winter turned on Man”16 and “Evil destruction has taken everything”17. Cat presents a post-apocalyptic vision of the world all battered and torn, a picture that is to this day still all too familiar. Once again, the blame falls squarely upon Man’s irrepressible avarice.
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 … no18
The narrative of ‘Ruins’ may be set in the future, which clearly implies that something has to be done before it’s too late. However, it’s noteworthy that Cat doesn’t seem to be as confident of the vision of a reborn world that he presented on earlier albums. Indeed, it may only be a semantic point but there could be some significance in the fact that the dream of a healthy flourishing Earth is being located in a lost past rather than an obtainable future. Many of us will be able to identify with this idea; watching the chances of arriving at a healthier tomorrow for mankind fade with the inevitability of the purest sunset.
In an interview given after the release of the album Cat dismissed the negative visions that he was presenting.
“Catch Bull was very paranoid. I mean ‘Ruins’, that last track? It said it all”.19
Maybe, but for the purposes of our investigation into his spiritual development I don’t think we can overlook this shift in outlook. However, despite his reservations with regards to the battle for the fate of the external world, Cat still showed that his optimism would prevail in his internal battle. Although ‘Ruins’ closes the album and, consequently, carries a certain significance, it’s important not to overlook the more positive songs on “Catch Bull” such as Silent Sunlight, one of his greatest hymns of eternal hope.
There’ll be the evening in the end
But till that time arrives
You can rest your eyes –
And begin again20
There’s undeniably a heightened sense of passion on “Catch Bull” when compared to its predecessors. It’s actually most evident in Cat’s vocal style. He adopts a deeper and more gruff tone that will continue into the following albums. It’s somewhat more visceral than we’ve heard on previous records and does much to underpin the sense of yearning that runs throughout the album. However, this is not exclusively the spiritual yearning that we’ve become accustomed to. There’s great love and romantic sensuality in songs such as ‘Sweet Scarlet’ which was written written following a spirited relationship with Carly Simon, the “Gypsy with a grin from and old far away country.”21
Once she came into my room,
Feathered hat an’ all
Wearing a warm wool shawl
Wrapped around her shoulders
Two eyes like lights,
Milky marble whites looking up at me
Looking for a way; Moons in an endless day22
Like ‘Sweet Scarlet’, ‘Angelsea’ proves that his intimate songs are not tales of fleeting encounters or sexual conquest. Cat is clearly of a romantic disposition and forges strong connections with his lovers. They affected him on a deep level and were able to break through his defences “Underneath her kiss I was so unguarded”23.
She moves like and angel
And seven evening stars
Dance through the window
Of her universal house
Her voice a crystal echo
Lies humming in your soul24
But these relationships were incomplete, flawed somehow and it would seem that the key factor was that he was yearning for the deepest of connections. Cat had by this time, and even as early as ‘Hard Headed Woman’, come to acknowledge that he was searching for a partner with whom he could share a paradisiacal spiritual home.
And on my life I swear
My conscience will I follow you forever
If you meet me everywhere,
Yes if you if you meet me everywhere25
Perhaps the most challenging of Cat’s romantic visions on “Catch Bull” is the marvellously complex ‘Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head’. On the face of it, the narrative is of a man’s unfaithful encounter with a gardener’s daughter on the day of his wedding – an event that produces a child who grows to become some sort of sage. However, the tale invites multiple interpretations. It could also be that the gardener’s daughter is actually the man’s to-be-wife and that we’re witnessing their unbridled love before marriage. Perhaps the narrative is an inversion of the Christian story of the immaculate conception and that the child is a Jesus-like figure. Maybe the girl represents the love and romance that Cat will experience before he ultimately finds his ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the one with whom he will achieve spiritual unity.
These sorts of lyrics carry the feel of the Romantic poetry associated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Christina Rossetti which lives and thrives by its ambiguity; symbols and images mix in the ether to stimulate the audience’s imagination and emotions. What can be said for certain is that it’s consistent with the sensuality that’s present throughout “Catch Bull” and marks a blossoming of Cat’s passions.
The central image of the star and moon that adorns the boy is maybe a little easier to interpret, though no less intriguing. If we take the star to be the sun then combined with the moon it would suggest a balancing of opposites; a reconciliation of dualities. Indeed, it’s hard not to read the boy as a sort of self-portrait. Throughout his spiritual process Cat has been wrestling to bring harmony to his existence and retain a childlike wonder and appreciation of all things. Fascinatingly, there’s even an ambiguity within the song regarding what the boy actually says to those seeking his word. It could be that “‘Love’ is all he said”26 in which case it feels like an instruction, or “‘Love is all’ he said”27 which makes it sound like a comment on unity; that we’re all made from the oneness of a divine love. These two interpretations are certainly not mutually exclusive but it’s quite amazing, considering all the layers of meaning we’ve explored in the lyrics, to find such a deliberate ambiguity surrounding the message of this sage child.
Whatever meaning is taken from ‘The Boy With the Moon and Star on His Head’, there’s a clear sense that it’s the image of the child that offers hope and promise for the future; children have the wisdom from which the adults must learn. He expanded upon this notion in a Rolling Stone interview from the period.
“Children are closer to it, whatever it is, that we are from.”28
This love for children will grow as a theme in Cat’s work and also fits with the notion that the greed and sin of Mankind can only be cleansed by future generations. Adults are warned not to hinder their growth or ruin the world that they’ll inherit.
As years went by the boy grew high
And the village looked on in awe
They’d never seen anything like
The boy with the moon and star before
And people would ride from far and wide
Just to seek the word he spread
‘I’ll tell you everything I’ve learned,’
And ‘Love’, is all he said.29
Before we draw this overview of the spiritual content of “Catch Bull” to a close it’s worth reflecting upon the album art. The three previous records featured cover designs that were drawn by Cat himself and that originated from his imagination; they were born of his internal reflections. As such, they illustrate a very personal and individualised sense of his spirituality at that time. It’s poignant that the “Catch Bull” cover, though still penned by Cat, breaks this tradition by depicting the fourth of Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s ‘Ten Bulls’. In the practices and teachings of Zen Buddhism he had found a sense of guidance that was worth honouring in this way. His personal journey was being, to an extent, nourished and supported by an external doctrine. Indeed, where the previous three album covers were two-dimensional images, this new design introduced a third dimension. The circular image of the figure and bull sits on a brick wall (it was actually a photo that Cat himself took in his Fulham home where the “Catch Bull image hung above his white piano). It acts almost as a window through the wall. It’s not inconceivable that the wall represents the limitations of one’s awareness and that the central image implies that if we are able to look through or beyond these limits, we might see our position in a grander design.Lastly, there’s an interesting progression in the photographs of Cat that have accompanied these four post-TB albums. On “Mona Bone” the portrait was of a reflection in water. The ripples on the water’s surface almost totally obscure the image. The metaphor of reflection is fairly straightforward to interpret but it follows that his sense of self is blurred and not yet fully defined. On “Tillerman” he’s posing in nature which echoes the naturalist concerns of the album. However, there’s a sense of mystery in the shot where he appears deep in contemplation. By “Teaser” the image meets us face-on which parallels the confidence that colours the album. That being said, there’s an air of vulnerability to the photograph; though he believes in his path, by sharing his feelings and thoughts he leaves himself exposed and at the mercy of his audience. On “Catch Bull”, however, we have Cat at his happiest and most relaxed. The portrait captures the charming smile and self-assurance of a man whose message has resonated in the hearts of millions and who is in touch with his profound spiritual momentum.
As we reflect upon the increased complexity of “Catch Bull” it’s important to acknowledge that some fundamental and inescapable changes had occurred in his world prior to its recording and release. “Tillerman” had made him a star in most of Europe and the English speaking world but “Teaser” had propelled him to a new stratum of superstardom. He had fame, critical acclaim, and wealth to an extent that even his most optimistic boyhood self would have struggled to imagine. Life would never, could never be the same. The trappings of success had a bearing on his state of mind and spiritual reflections. They would also led to a new degree of introspection that informed a closer scrutiny of both the internal and external worlds. With notable support from his interest in Zen Buddhism Cat found a way of channelling his bewildering experiences into his songs; he had managed to grab the bull by the horns and pit himself against its wild and untamed force.
– Hallam Kite