Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman (1970)

It's been a life-long rollercoaster: How am I supposed to feel about Cat Stevens?  Is he up, or is he down?

As a kid, Stevens was the perennial campfire song fixture; at overnight camp in the midwest, back in the seventies, we'd invariably end up with one of the counselors pulling out an acoustic guitar for a mandatory "Moonshadow" sing-along.  Indeed, pretty much anyone with an acoustic guitar was required to know a few Cat Stevens songs.  In my family, that was my cousin Jeff, who at family gatherings would pull out the guitar for a little Cat -- which I'll forgive, as it was Jeff who later introduced me to Squeeze when I was in high school and visited him at the University of Michigan, as may be familiar to the 2-3 of you who have checked out Jittery White Guy Music.  (Wait, you haven't checked out the book?  Please do.  Leave a nice review.  And tell your friends!)

Plus, that Stevens' 1975 Greatest Hits collection was omnipresent, the sort of thing that, alongside America's Greatest Hits, seemed to be one of those records that every American family was required to own.

So, naturally, as I started discovering rock & roll, and its rebellious spirit, I instinctively shunned Cat Stevens.

Later, however, it became evident that girls really liked Cat Stevens.  Pulling out one of my King Crimson or Clash records was getting me nowhere, but Cat Stevens?  Plus, a lot of girls seemed to like guys who were into Harold & Maude, which made excellent use of Stevens' music, so...

Then, of course, Stevens became persona non grata.  Having embraced fundamentalist Islam and rejected his pop past, the newly-designated Yusuf Islam publicly expressed support for the fatwa that had been called against author Salman Rushdie.  So, yeah, he was out again.

And now?  Stevens/Islam seems to have made peace with his past, cautiously dipping a toe back into pop music.  

And me?  As a middle-aged man, I'm happy to listen to what I like.  And I sorta like Cat Stevens.  He's got some great songs, particularly on this, his best album.  "On The Road To Find Out," a lengthy, dynamic epic of spiritual journey that presaged his religious conversion, is a banger.  Probably his best song.  "Miles From Nowhere" has a similar vibe that I've always enjoyed.  And "Where Do The Children Play" is really sweet, as is the traditional folk of "Longer Boats."  

I have a harder time with the big hits that were part of the old Greatest Hits collection ("Wild World," "Hard Headed Woman," and "Father and Son"), as they just carry too much childhood baggage for me to truly enjoy today, though I can handle "Wild World" in small doses because, heck, it's just a great song.  But I can't deal with the maudlin "Father and Son" (see also Harry Chapin's "Cats In The Cradle"); that said, it became a little more interesting once it became the basis for a copyright infringement suit against the Flaming Lips.  While the latter's "Fight Test" definitely tracks the same chord pattern, the fact that nobody in their right mind could confuse the two songs illustrates the limitations of copyright law in dealing with the relatively finite palette of rock music.

Anyway, yeah, I play me a little Cat Stevens from time to time. Whether or not this gets filed in the "guilty pleasures" bin turns on who you ask, I suppose.  But I'm cool with it.  And the girls still like it.

Here's "On The Road To Find Out" (live):