When I learned this past September that Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam and now simply Yusuf) would be embarking upon his first North American tour since 1976 to promote his new album Tell ’Em I’m Gone — his first release in five years — I found myself in a dilemma when one of the stops on the tour would be at Boston’s Wang Theatre.
Cat Stevens’ 1970 album Tea for the Tillerman is among my very favorites with its distinctive album cover drawn by Stevens himself. I first heard it on eight-track back in 1985 in my parents’ living room in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Yes, my parents still had an eight-track in 1985). Eight years later, while attending Carleton University, I saw the 1971 film Harold and Maude starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon on late night television. Harold and Maude, an unorthodox tale of a man in his 20s falling in love with a woman in her 80s, prominently features several songs from Tea for the Tillerman. After seeing the movie, I bought Tea for the Tillerman on cassette. (Yes, I was still buying cassettes in 1993.)
Many years after that, I would see Harold and Maude again, this time at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. After hearing those songs again, I would buy Tea for the Tillerman on CD. (No, I do not own Tea for the Tillerman on vinyl.) Regardless of the device used, I was forever struck by its innate beauty and gentleness and would be brought back to those qualities time and again. Stevens’ instinctive sense of rhythm and melody was complimented by a voice wise well beyond his 22 years. Tea for the Tillerman is a nearly perfect record.
Now it must be said here that my dilemma doesn’t concern Stevens’ decision to convert to Islam. Guitar player Richard Thompson, best known for his association with the British traditional folk group Fairport Convention, converted to Islam in 1974, several years before Stevens and remains a devout Muslim to this day. (It is worth noting that Thompson contributed to Tell ’Em I’m Gone playing guitar on the Edgar Winter cover of “Dying to Live.”) Yet I would have no hesitation to attend a Richard Thompson concert and if not for a scheduling conflict would have attended one here in Boston in 2013 in which he was the opening act for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Unlike Stevens, Thompson lets his music do the talking (take a listen to “Meet on the Ledge”) and is not known to make provocative statements or engage with questionable organizations.
The same cannot be said, however, for Stevens. In 1989, following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a fatwa was issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, called for Rushdie’s death. In an appearance on the BBC program Hypotheticals hosted by Geoffrey Robertson, Stevens endorsed the fatwa. When Stevens was asked if Rushdie should die he said, “Yes, yes.” When asked if he would be his executioner he said “not necessarily,” but would do so if he was living in an Islamic state and had been ordered to by that Islamic authority. Stevens was further asked if he would attend a demonstration where an effigy of Rushdie would be burned, Stevens replied, “I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.”
Living in Canada, I recall Sam The Record Man chain store pulling Stevens’ records from its shelves in protest of his statement. I also remember Dennis Miller on SNL’s Weekend Update renaming his album Tea for the Killerman. For his part, on his official website Stevens denies calling for the death of Rushdie or supporting the fatwa against him:
The accusation that I supported the Fatwa, therefore, is wholly false and misleading. It was due to my naivety in trying to answer a loaded question posed by a journalist, after a harmless biographical lecture I gave to students in Kingston University in 1989, which unleashed the infamous headline above.
However, Rushdie has never bought Stevens’ explanations. Rushdie was not amused with Jon Stewart when he invited Stevens to perform at Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington, D.C. prior to the 2010 midterm elections. In an interview on the CBC TV program George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight in November 2010, Rushdie said he called up Stewart to take him to task for the invitation and Stewart acknowledged that he had made “a misstep.” Rushdie noted that at one time he owned a copy of Tea for the Tillerman but that Stevens was “not a good guy.” He added, “He hasn’t been Cat Stevens for a long time.”
In the years since the outburst against Rushdie, Stevens has been far more circumspect about his political activity. For many years, Stevens has raised funds for organizations known to be fronts for Hamas, a terrorist organization whose raison d’être is the destruction of the State of Israel. Because of this Israel would not allow Stevens entry in 1990 and again in 2000 because of fundraising he did for Hamas during a previous visit in 1988. (Stevens was also denied entry into the U.S. in 2004 although that incident appeared to have been a case of mistaken identity and he has traveled to this country without incident several times since.) Stevens was due to perform in Israel in 2008, but this performance was canceled for security reasons.
As with Rushdie, Stevens denies “having knowingly supported Hamas or directed money to them.” However, in 1998, Stevens traveled to Toronto to deliver a speech before the Jerusalem Fund for Human Services, which the Canadian government subsequently identified as a Hamas front. During the speech (which surfaced on video a number of years later), Stevens described Israel as a “so-called new society” created by a “so-called religion.” When asked about his thoughts on Hamas in a 2007 interview with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times shortly after the release of An Other Cup (his first album in nearly 30 years), Stevens became very defensive:
So would you say you have contempt for a terrorist group like Hamas?
I wouldn’t put those words in my mouth. I wouldn’t say anything on that issue. I’m here to talk about peace. I’m a man who does want peace for this world, and I don’t think you will achieve that by putting people into corners and asking them very, very difficult questions about very contentious issues.
If Cat Stevens truly wants peace for the world then he should have no hesitation in condemning an organization like Hamas that promotes destruction. Where is the difficulty in being asked if you have contempt for Hamas? The fact he “wouldn’t say anything on that issue” speaks volumes.
How is it that a man who sings about the “Peace Train” can call for the murder of another human being? How is it that a man who makes such beautiful music unwilling to condemn a violent terrorist organization such as Hamas? Yet is it also possible to appreciate a man’s art without appreciating the man himself?
Cat Stevens is certainly not the first artist to provoke these sorts of questions nor will he be the last. One can admire the innovation of Joe Meek, who wrote and produced “Telstar” for The Tornados in 1962 using a distorted tape of a flushing toilet and a clavioline, a forerunner to the synthesizer. It was the first song by a British group to hit number one in the U.S. and was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s favorite songs. In a 1987 interview, the Iron Lady described “Telstar” as a “lovely song.” However, Meek, who was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, was anything but lovely when he shot and killed his landlady before turning the gun on himself. In more recent times, there is record producer Phil Spector, famed for his Wall of Sound, who is spending 20 years to life behind prison walls for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.
Then, of course, there is the notoriously anti-Semitic 19th century German composer Richard Wagner whose music and hatred for Jews was a source of inspiration for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Yet Wagner’s music is undeniably brilliant. But when Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim performed Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan und Isolde” in Israel 20 years apart it would provoke a furious reaction each time.
Of course, Israel itself provokes a furious reaction among entertainment’s elite and some have joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Jewish State. Top performers such as Elvis Costello, Annie Lennox and ex-Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters refuse to appear in concert there. While I enjoy their music, I have no interest whatsoever in attending their concerts. If they refuse to play in Israel then I refuse to see them play.
Given that Stevens, despite his denials, has given support to an organization that seeks the destruction of Israel, one would think that I wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to parting with my money to see him perform. Yet unlike Costello, Lennox, and Waters, Stevens was willing to perform in Israel. In the current BDS climate, there is something to be said for this even if his intent is ultimately to bring Israel to its end.
But what it came down to for me was the music. To be precise, it was Tea for the Tillerman. I simply could not pass up an opportunity to hear a few of its songs live and in person. Tea for the Tillerman takes me to a place that few other albums ever have. Given that Stevens hasn’t performed in this country since the Ford Administration, there is a fairly good chance that such an opportunity might never come around again. So forty-eight hours before the curtain went up, after nearly three months of hemming and hawing, I decided to sit down and have tea with the tillerman.
Now when one wants to get tickets to a sold-out concert one goes through a ticket broker like StubHub. Stevens, however, insisted that tickets to his show be paperless, which aren’t transferable from one party to another. They are viewed as a means to prevent scalping. Stevens rails against the high prices of scalped tickets and is such a strong advocate for paperless tickets that he cancelled his appearance at New York City’s Beacon Theatre because New York state law permits consumers to choose paper tickets.
Since paperless tickets are relatively new and thus quite complicated, StubHub stayed out of selling tickets to Stevens’ show. But where there is high demand, low supply, and there is money to be made, there will also be people willing to pay high prices. I paid $275 for my ticket from Vivid Seats. I was lucky. Some seats were going for more than $3,000. Because it was a paperless ticket, I would have to be escorted into the theater by an agent from the ticket broker. Unfortunately, this paperless ticket system that Stevens insisted upon caused tremendous chaos at his shows in Toronto and in Philadelphia, where many were turned away at the door having been sold a bill of goods.
Naturally, I feared I might face the same fate. Complicating matters was when Vivid gave me an incorrect phone number for the agent who was supposed to escort me into the theatre. This would be resolved, but when I contacted the number the guy answering phone sounded like someone out of The Godfather. When I arrived at the Wang Theater and placed the call, the agent had me follow him into an alley and I thought to myself, “I hope I’m not getting fitted for cement shoes.”
Turned out I had nothing thing to worry about. The agent was there to escort a number of people into the theater, including a family consisting of three sisters, their parents, and two of the sisters’ husbands. Their seats were distributed throughout the theater. Long story short, I ended up seated next to the youngest sister and, for all intents, ended up on a blind date. Her name is Amina. She identifies herself as Persian and is a recent graduate in psychology from Worcester State University and I think we’re supposed to get married next week. Well, not exactly. But she was pleasant company and it was nice not to see the show alone.
The stage was designed like an old-fashioned train station in keeping the Peace Train Late Again theme of his tour with an obligatory Boston sign. When the 66-year old Stevens hit the stage, he was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation; one of several he would receive that night. Many of those participating in this standing ovation, including my blind date, weren’t even born when Stevens last performed in Boston.
The audience, young and old, were treated to a wide cross-section of Stevens’ career. There were the songs from his teen idol years — “I Love My Dog,” “Here Comes My Baby” (which became a huge hit for The Tremeloes) and “The First Cut Is the Deepest” (I suspect many of the people in the audience singing along thought Sheryl Crow wrote it). There were the covers — a strong interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” “Dying to Live” by Edgar Winter and, of course, the Sam Cooke classic “Another Saturday Night” (albeit with different lyrics which nonetheless got people dancing in the aisles).
There was also his more recent material. I was particularly impressed with “Thinking ’Bout You” from his 2009 album Roadsinger. The one song from Tell ’Em I’m Gone that got my attention was the autobiographical “Editing Floor Blues,” which made an oblique reference to the Rushdie controversy: One day the papers rang us up t’check if I said this?/I said, “Oh boy! I’d never say that!”/Then we got down to the truth of it/But they never printed that! Rushdie would undoubtedly consider such sentiment rich coming from Stevens.
Then again, the audience didn’t come to see Stevens complain about Rushdie. They came to hear “Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken,” and, of course, “Peace Train,” which the audience had been clamoring for throughout the evening and Stevens did not disappoint. Yet the songs which evoked the most emotional response were from Tea for the Tillerman. In all, Stevens played five songs from Tea from the Tillerman — “Where Do The Children Play,” “Wild World,” “Father & Son” and in the encore performed “Miles from Nowhere” (my favorite Cat Stevens song) and ended the night with “Sad Lisa.”
By the end of the night, Stevens was visibly exhausted and his voice was not as strong. Yet the musical qualities Cat Stevens possessed in the early 1970s are still with him now. His music’s innate beauty and gentleness and its instinctive rhythm and melody remained constant enough to transport me back to the first time I heard Tea for the Tillerman on that eight-track in my parents’ living room nearly 30 years ago.
I suppose I could have been content to simply listen to Tea for the Tillerman on my MP3 player when the mood arose. Yet too many of the musicians I have wanted to see play live died far too young. Despite my contempt for Cat Stevens, my enjoyment of his music would not be complete without seeing him perform just this once. Whatever my views of the man, I am both glad and grateful I got to see and hear the musician. A couple of hours having tea with the tillerman did no harm.