I Wish, I Wish
Cat Stevens entered Islam in 1977 and chose to adopt the name Joseph, but after a Muslim elder suggested that he use the Arabic pronunciation he acquiesced and became Yusuf. From both contemporary news articles and the public response it’s clear that there was considerable misunderstanding and no small amount of prejudice regarding this significant step in his life. Indeed, there are those today who still find it hard to reconcile the long haired troubadour of the 1970s with the man of faith that he has become. However, even a passing investigation into the content of Cat Stevens’ lyrics, alongside a look at some of the statements he made during interviews, reveals that the progression was much more of a smooth curve than the sharp turn it appeared to be.
I intend to focus upon the first three albums of his 1970s period; “Mona Bone Jakon”, “Tea for the Tillerman”, and “Teaser and the Firecat”. Hopefully by exploring some of the material in which he spoke of his early spiritual leanings the reader will see that the foundations of his commitment to faith were clearly present in the most seminal period of his career. There’s a message contained within Cat’s songs that’s inextricably linked to the profound internal changes he was going through. That message has resonated with listeners across the globe for decades, inviting them to close the gap between their material lives and their higher aspirations.
Don’t you feel a change a-coming?
From another side of time
Breaking down the walls of silence
Lifting shadows from your mind (1)
The transformative experience which saw Cat Stevens develop from a teen pop star of the 60s into to a sage-like spiritual adventurer in the 70s began with his contracting TB in 1968. This was an immensely powerful wake up call for the young artist. Being stricken down and forced into a period of convalescence right at the time that his pop career was blossoming was clearly a huge turning point in his life. It was during his recovery that Cat began to look inward and this introspection helped to inspire many of his classic songs. By looking at the lyrical content of the songs that flowed out after his illness I believe we can chart the progress of his internal transformation.
I think I see the light coming to me,
Coming through me,
Giving me a second sight.
So shine, shine, shine (2)
It’s fairly clear that this chorus from ‘I Think I See The Light’ has a revelatory aspect to it. However, the song’s verses presents more of a traditional romantic song narrative “My heart was made of stone, my eyes saw only misty grey, / Until you came into my life girl, I saw everyone that way”. Two things strike me as worth highlighting. The first is that Cat was using a romantic relationship as a metaphor for his relationship with God, or at least allowing for the double meaning. He uses this device a few times on “Mona Bone” and occasionally later on in his career, however, it becomes less prominent as his spiritual confidence grows. It may be that he was trying to obscure his spiritual feelings somewhat by blurring the romantic and the divine, but it’s also worth remembering that he’d already had great success with songs like ‘Here Comes my Baby’ and ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’. These songs were centred upon clear romantic themes and it’s understandable that, at a time when he wasn’t guaranteed of being accepted back into the limelight following his illness, he’d want to continue this winning formula.
The second point to highlight is that he’s charting the very earliest steps of his new spiritual journey. As a result, there’s a discernible level of uncertainty regarding this new path. The assertion ‘I think I See the Light‘ is not total in its conviction and the following repetitions of “shine, shine, shine, shine” seem to be calling out to a higher force, hoping that this new perspective will take a firmer grip and illuminate him more fully.
Another consequence of being at the early stages of an awakening is that Cat questions his prior understanding of the world and the lessons that he has thus far been taught – lessons that are now starting to unravel. Although this is only really evident in ‘I Wish, I Wish’ it feels like an important element of the narrative as it clearly shows the contrast between old ideas and new truths.
I wish I had, I wish I had
The secret of good and the secret of bad
Why does this question drive me mad? ahhh
‘Cause I was taught when but a lad, yes,
That bad was good and good was bad, no! (3)
In a 1971 magazine interview Cat was asked about his growing sense of enlightenment. His answer demonstrates aspects of what I’ve so far suggested. He alludes to a new way of perceiving both himself and the world at large but it’s clear that he didn’t yet have satisfactory answers to the internal questions he was facing.
“It’s something I’m constantly aware of. I never forget it. It happens sometimes. I can never forget it. It happens anywhere. Sometimes when I look in the mirror and I see myself. I really do say ‘phew’. I can’t see it for too long because I’m not ready to quit yet.” (4)
It’s fascinating that he brings up the notion of quitting the music industry as this clearly foreshadows events that will take place later in his career. It indicates that the decision to step away from music was a concept that grew over an extended period of time and one that may have started with his enforced hiatus due to ill health.
As we move into the lyrics of songs on “Tea for the Tillerman” I perceive a growing acceptance of his new spiritual destiny. There’s a resignation to being at the start of a journey that will be laborious and challenging. However, Cat is happy to acknowledge that he has much to learn and far to go and is ready to embrace the obstacles that lie ahead with a strength of conviction that wasn’t as evident on the previous album. Interestingly, he again hints at the possibility of his ditching the ‘star’ persona at some point after his journey has reached its conclusion.
Miles from nowhere,
I guess I’ll take my time
Oh yeah, to reach there
Look up at the mountain
I have to climb
Oh yeah, to reach there.
Lord, my body has been a good friend
But I won’t need it when I reach the end (5)
The “Mona Bone” and “Tillerman” albums weren’t actually recorded that far apart – both were released in 1970 – but some significant developments occurred in the interim. Crucially, “Mona Bone Jakon” and particularly the single ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ found favour with audiences and to some extent with the critics also. Cat proved to himself, and the outside world, that he was still a force majeure and that his music was still able to enchant audiences. Not only that, but he’d also shown that he could do it on own his terms. Gone were the days of being shaped into a pop star and having the sounds of his records dictated to him by industry bigwigs. The modest success of “Mona Bone Jakon” was a colossal personal affirmation and supported a growing conviction over the strength of his natural instincts, a conviction that finds its way into the songs on “Tillerman”.
In this memorable passage from ‘On the Road to Find Out’ Cat speaks of the discovery of the new perspective that has emerged from deep within. He then goes a significant step further by turning his own experience into advice for others.
Then I found my head one day
When I wasn’t even trying
And here I have to say,
‘Cause there is no use in lying, lying
Yes the answer lies within,
So why not take a look now?
Kick out the devil’s sin, pick up
Pick up a good book now (6)
This is demonstrative of a clear progression in his journey. On “Mona Bone Jakon” he was only just realising some critical life lessons for himself and yet now, having made significant personal progress, he is able to encourage his listeners to make similar changes in their own lives. The texts he was exploring were clearly crucial in helping him to shape his beliefs and he expresses the hope that others too might be able to discover similar wisdom.
There are other important developments from “Mona Bone” to “Tillerman”. I mentioned earlier the idea of romantic relationships being used as a metaphor for his relationship with God. This seems to have evolved significantly by the time of “Tillerman”. The subject of relationships has become a prominent theme of the whole album. ‘Father and Son’ explores the paternal bond with a son, ‘Wild World’ speaks to the end of a relationship with a lover but also has undertones of a mother speaking to her daughter as she gains independence in the world, and ‘Hard Headed Woman’ signals a shift from a preoccupation with fleeting romantic encounters towards the desire for a strong life partner. All could still be interpreted as metaphors of a relationship with God but there’s far more nuance and complexity than we saw on “Mona Bone” and there definitely seems to be a wider scope that is less inwardly focussed.
“Tea for the Tillerman” reveals the emergence of a more mature Cat Stevens, a man who was looking deeply at the structures of his world. He was exploring the connections between people and some of the challenges and conflicts they present. The album also shows development in Cat’s acceptance of his spiritual experiences which seems to directly enhance the sense of responsibility he feels towards the state of the external world. This is demonstrated most clearly in ‘Where Do the Children Play?’
Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
Will you keep on building higher,
‘til there’s no more room up there? (7)
We can see from the following interview, given after the release of “Tillerman”, that Cat was really beginning to expose the hidden core of his approach to life. He’s clearly focussed upon truth and his statement alludes to an acceptance that everything has its place in some, as yet undefined, grand scheme. All things are perfectly positioned in the balance of life.
“Now my basic philosophy is truth, that’s all. I mean that runs through everything, you know; never underestimate anything or anybody, from a rock to an elephant, anything. Don’t take it for granted. That’s what a lot of people do (…) you should think of everything as being incredible, just accept it.” (8)
“Teaser and the Firecat” couples nicely with “Tea for the Tillerman”, like the Moon and the Sun suspended high up in the heavenly sky enjoying their own individual but complementary domains. There is, however, still a clear progression from one album to the next and the overarching theme of relationships doesn’t really figure on “Teaser”. In its place we find joyous expressions of the conviction that Cat now has regarding his new sense of identity. It’s apparent that he sees himself as serving a higher power and that he’s beginning to be liberated from the vanities of personal ambition. He’s focused on contributing towards something greater than himself and is rejoicing in this new and wonderful sense of purpose.
If I make a mark in time,
I can’t say the mark is mine
I’m only the underline of the word
Yes, I’m like him; just like you,
I can’t tell you what to do
Like everybody else I’m searching through…(9)
There’s a humbleness and an optimism in the lyrics of ‘Tuesday’s Dead’ as well as in other songs on “Teaser”, such as ‘Changes IV’, that’s reflected in their upbeat tempos and celebratory musical styles. There’s also a theme of hope and new beginnings that runs through the album. It’s clear in the two songs just mentioned but also in Cat’s choice to revive the traditional hymn ‘Morning Has Broken’ which welcomes the coming day with its promise of new opportunities and rejuvenation.
Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world (10)
I perceive clear parallels between Cat’s personal reinvention and the possibilities he sees of rebirth for the world. He has experienced the reality of positive change in his own life and is now expressing a desire for it to manifest in the external world too. However, far from just wishing for this new dawn he’s actively calling to his listeners to join the movement towards peace and happiness.
Get your bags together,
Go bring your good friends too,
‘Cause it’s getting nearer,
It soon will be with you,
Now come and join the living,
It’s not so far from you
And it’s getting nearer,
Soon it will all be true (11)
To conclude, the lyrics of Cat’s first trilogy of albums after his near-fatal bout of tuberculosis reveal a clear and undeniable progression in his spiritual awakening. It starts with tentative steps towards a new perspective on “Mona Bone Jakon”, develops through a personal maturation on “Tea for the Tillerman” and arrives at the acceptance of his position within a greater design and his desire to spread the good message on “Teaser and the Firecat”.
I listen to the wind,
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up?
Well I think only God
Really knows (12)
I have no doubt that a similar investigation of the albums that followed “Teaser” would reveal more about his unique and fascinating journey. However, the pattern that I’ve presented here demonstrates that there’s a strong consistency between some of Cat’s most beloved music and the path that he ultimately committed to at the end of the 1970s – when he embraced Islam and moved away from the music industry. There’s an enduring message that runs throughout his work encouraging personal growth. He wants us all to flourish within ourselves and to do so in harmony with the world around us. My hope is that listeners will continue to hear this message in his music and draw strength from it so that they, like him, might develop along a positive path.
– Hallam Kite