These days, getting any sort of audience with the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens is a procedure of almost military complexity. Questions have to be submitted for prior examination. Any deemed unsuitable are removed. Of course, there’s new product to promote – a live DVD and last year’s pleasant if not earth-shattering comeback album, An Other Cup. But it goes without saying that any interest in what Yusuf is doing now is predicated on songs that he wrote as Cat Stevens. All of which makes it a little confusing when most of the questions about the singer’s past are deemed off-limits. In an email cc’d to nine other people involved in the organization of this meeting, the (as it turns out, impossible) directive issued is that our purely present-tense conversation needs to stay within “music, culture and the arts”. If I ask him about period in the wake of The Satanic Verses, when quotes attributed to Yusuf appeared to condone the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, I am told there’s every chance he will get up and go.
Because he won’t talk about those quotes, it’s impossible to ascertain whether his views on that Fatwa have also moderated over the years. Writing in response to an article which played down Yusuf’s part in the controversy, Rushdie wrote to the Sunday Telegraph with a quote from the New York Times in which Yusuf apparently said, that burning “the real thing” would be preferable to burning effigies of Rushdie. Signing off, the author then added, “Let’s have no more rubbish about how ‘green’ and ‘innocent’ this man was.”
The Yusuf Islam that bowls into his local West London café doesn’t strike you as particularly innocent or green – rather he seems burdened by the momentum that events around him have taken. On the afternoon of our meeting, he is waiting to hear whether Brent Council will grant him permission to oversee the creation of the Maqam Community Building – a £4.5 million cultural centre designed, according to architect Robert O’Hara, to “get rid of the awful image that Islam has had put upon it.” Shortly after you read this, Yusuf will do his bit to try and rid Islam “the awful image put on it” by the recent attempted bombings linked to Islamic jihadists, when he performs at the Hamburg leg of the Live Earth shows.
Despite it all though, the 58 year-old cuts a surprising dash. It’s not just the blue jeans and t-shirt with Yoriyos written on it – the name under which his eldest son Mohammed releases his own music. His speech is rich in London colloquialisms and glottal stops. But, of course, why wouldn’t it be, given that he has spent his whole life within a three mile radius of the West End? And why exactly should I start giggling with surprise when he tells me that his breakfast of choice is a bowl of Golden Nuggets – a cereal as synonymous with the 70s as the albums which brought him to prominence? The answer, of course, has as much to do with us as him. After more than three decades spent in the sanctuary of a new identity, it’s only natural to start thinking that Yusuf Islam is a completely different person to Cat Stevens. And perhaps with good reason. Wasn’t that the intention in 1980, when he followed his conversion to Islam by auctioning his guitars for charity?
So why come back now? In truth, the tunes never dried up completely. Even a few months into his new life as Yusuf Islam, the singer celebrated the birth of his son by recording a song A Is For Allah. Having renounced his guitar, this unaccompanied paean to his new child topped the charts in Turkey. Soon though, even the Islamic nursery rhymes dried up. Yusuf Islam had four more children. His public appearances were mostly restricted to talks in which he explained to other London Muslims the reasons why his old life had left him unfulfilled.
With the benefit of hindsight, several Cat Stevens songs inadvertently seem to signpost his future path. On Into White, his desire to declutter his interior world sounds like a prayer of desperation. To anyone who knew a little about the childhood of the singer born Steven Georgiou, Where Do The Children Play didn’t require too much analysis. His Greek-Cypriot father and Swedish mother ran a café on the busy West End junction adjoining New Oxford St and Shaftesbury Avenue. “It was an area that people used to go to when they wanted to have a night out, and I was there every night of my life. Where did I hang around? Well, one of the little escapades I used to take part in was climbing roofs. It was pretty dangerous, and one time I nearly fell, but it wasn’t something you would dwell upon.”
He was still living with his parents when he first tasted fame. Interviewed in 1967 on the back of his feudal pop parable Matthew & Son, Stevens pondered, “When I try to sit down and work out what I am, it worries me because I don’t know.” When he returned in earnest with 1970’s Tea For The Tillerman, after a year laid low with tuberculosis, had found a sound that better mirrored his internal anxieties. Spend an afternoon in Leicester Square 37 years after its release, and there’s every chance that you’ll see at least one backpacking busker rattling out Wild World or Father And Son to a light rain of loose change.
Stevens found that the sudden multiplicity of choices opened up by success didn’t necessarily make him any happier. Fame had merely complicated matters. “I’ve gone too far to have an ordinary life and ordinary relationships,” he told one interviewer in 1975. “I can’t see myself ever settling down properly, unless something incredible happens.” Reminded of the utterance, Yusuf lets forth an amused nod. That was also the year he shaved off his hair and beard and decamped to Brazil, Ethiopia and Malibu for an extended sabbatical. “I knew how many sins I was accumulating and… there was a sense of waiting for an epiphany or something.”
Perhaps his faith was already there, seeking an outlet. Certainly, when Yusuf says, “I was one of those people who probably even thought of becoming a priest at one point,” you take him to mean that God – or a propensity to believe in God – was already inside him. And yet, talking about the moment which saved him, Yusuf is clearly describing what he feels was a physical act of divine intervention. “I was in serious trouble [swimming] in the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, and I had lost all power to swim. Suddenly I called out for God’s help. And then a wave came and helped me get back to the shore.”
Throughout the 1980s, you would have been more likely to find the former Cat Stevens “establishing schools, being very hands-on in the management process, helping to develop a structured curriculum.” As his own children grew up, it must surely have been a source of intrigue that their father used to be a pop star? Or did he try and withhold that information? “There was no question of doing that,” he smiles between long, measured sips of tea, “They had been in the audience at enough of my lectures to be fully aware of what I had done.” They were also in the audience this March, at the singer’s first UK show in 28 years – the same show that was filmed for the new DVD, entitled Yusuf’s Café. With his role in Father And Son having switched, how strange must it have been for Yusuf to find himself singing lines like, “Look at me/I am old but I’m happy?”
It turns out that Yusuf has every reason to remember the last time he performed the song. “It was in 1979 at the UNICEF Year Of The Child Concert at Wembley. My wife was expecting, but we hadn’t told anybody. And when I sing it now, I sing it from the point of view of someone who still has a lot to learn from his children.” Indeed, the sight of 27 year-old Mohammed playing the instrument his dad renounced at the height of his fame has allowed Yusuf Islam to be more accepting of his younger self. “Mohammed is like me when I was young, and yet he’s assertive of his own identity – which is exactly what I was like. So he helped me see myself with younger eyes. Also, [the guitar] had not been accepted by a conservative school of thought [within Islam]. But, on analysis, I discovered it wasn’t so long ago that Islamic culture thrived in Europe. Then, you get to find out that – guess what? – the guitar was introduced to Europe through Islamic Spain.”
If Yusuf supported the Ayatollah’s stance then but not now, why might that be? Comparing interviews from the late 80s, to those he has given in recent years, his relationship to Islam might be likened to driving a car. When you’ve passed your test, you drive very much as you’re taught to in the book. Some years down the line though, you learn to relax a little and trust your instincts. Whatever Yusuf might have once condoned in the name of Islam, the terrorist atrocities of recent years appear to have clarified his outlook. In the wake of 9/11, he flew to New York and sang Peace Train and the all-star benefit concert for families of the firefighters who lost their lives in the attacks. Even prior to 9/11, he was part of a mission to deliver $33,000 to refugees on the Kossovan border. In the light of his recent efforts, it’s perhaps no surprise that, four days after our meeting, Brent Council give his cultural centre the go-ahead
But even if the wider world has gradually warmed to Yusuf’s peaceful overtures, US securities forces have been more cautious. Three years ago, a United Airlines flight on which Yusuf and his 19 year-old daughter were traveling was diverted, following the discovery of his name on a no-fly list. With “refuelling” cited as the reason, the singer suspected nothing until the plane landed in Maine – “and six or seven tall, uniformed FBI agents walked on board. My daughter and I were separated through the whole ordeal.” Though he was due to meet Dolly Parton with a view to having her record one of his songs, Yusuf was deported, with the United States Transportation Security Administration voicing “concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities.” Challenged to deliver proof of their concerns though, US authorities failed to produce anything.
Months later, when the time came to make a new album, it was perhaps no surprise that one of the first songs Yusuf recorded for it was a cover of The Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. If the song is a response to what he sees as his typecasting at the hands of “others”, the decision to step back into music is fuelled by the same impulse. “As long as you’re singing,” he explains, “there are no interfering bodies trying to corrupt what you’re doing.” Calling his album An Other Cup was a symbolic act. “Tea and coffee are drinks that unite almost all people all over the world. “Therefore, there’s a whole lot more we have to share from this cup of life, regardless of faith.” To realize that was to realize that, far from being completely different people, Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam had an awful lot in common. If one sang while the other played, then why shouldn’t they spend the rest of their days making music together?