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The Cat in his lair
– An exclusive NME interview by Roy Carr
Putting an artist on a pedestal has always been a common practise and the worship of the graven star image a much exploited cult. Once it was the magnified animated reflection on the silver screen, today it is the contemporary singer-songwriter whose every word and gesture is taken as gospel by those seeking some kind of substitute spiritual fulfilment. Such is the frailty of the human ego that many of those directly subjected to this phenomena allow their life-style to be moulded beyond recognition by the lip-service bestowed upon them.
Not Cat Stevens. For he states with down-to-death directness “I find that it`s all really nothing more than a great joke.
“As far as anything is concerned, be it politics, generals…whatever, it`s all a great big game and you play it the best that you can. That`s as far as it goes.” He stresses: “The important thing is not to take anything seriously.
“Like the general who thinks that he is the `Father of the Army` has got to be crazy, because most of them hate his guts and you`ve got to remember that. You`ve really got to look at it with a sense of humour.”
However, Stevens admits that when he doesn`t think along this line, it brings him down.
“My most depressing time is when I start getting serious with myself,” he states with complete honesty. “I find that it comes through in my music. I`ll get all wound up in a particular line and I`ll start thinking about it while I`m putting it down on tape.
“Then when I listen to it a couple of days later, I say, `Forget it…that`s not what I`m thinking about, that`s hitting stone! You go as far down as you can possibly go and then inevitably you hit stone.”
Despite his success, which is still a source of amazement to him, Cat Stevens has remained levelheaded. The paradox is that he is almost the antithesis of his vocation. This trait is revealed in the simplicity of his domestic life, for Stevens has just bought himself a new home.
It`s not the expected sprawling multi-roomed mansion complete with a swimming pool hidden away in the green and pleasant heart of the English countryside. It`s a converted split-level terraced dwelling, a mere stall holder`s cry from the busy North End Road street market down at Walham Green. Outside, kids kick a football at the silent crocodile of parked cars – a queue of old ladies with bursting shopping bags form outside the brightly lit Top Rank Bingo Palace – the aroma of freshly baked bread that emits from the corner shop tempers the chillness of the air.
When I arrived at Chateau Cat, a gang of workmen were busy bashing, plastering and hammering everything in sight with a maximum of noise. Surely this was not a conducive atmosphere for a prolific songwriter, I commented when I initially came across Stevens seated cross-legged on the floor amongst a heap of books, paints and guitar cases busily cooking scrambled eggs and burning toast on a small electric ring plonked, for the time being, in the stone fireplace on the first floor.
“Ahhhh well, being a city lad,” Steve chortled in mock tones, as he looked up from his culinary duties, “I enjoy living in London…in actual fact, I like all cities. Apart from London, the only other city that I`d like to live in though is Toronto. Now that`s a really fantastic place.” Having been exiled myself in that city of his choosing I had to agree.
“I would never live in New York,” he commented, while continuing his whisle-stop appraisal of the capitals of the world. The reason for this statement was: “New York finally eats you up. No matter how long a stretch you have there, you always get eaten up.”
Strange as it may seem, this urban atmosphere of almost perpetual motion in which Stevens exists, nay positively thrives in, acts as a stimulus for his numerous creative outlets.
“I like to be as close to the city as possible,” says Stevens, “having all these workmen around me is creating a constant stream of movement…only in that way is my mind free to move.
“For me, it`s great to write in a car.” That`s a somewhat surprising statement which I`m sure will immediately destroy any mental visions you may harbour of Stevens seeking inspiration in an aura of etheral tranquility.
“It`s great, `cause if I`m being driven somewhere in a taxi, I find that my mind is being constantly taken over by new sights. Therefore, I haven`t got the time to concentrate on any one thing and get lost in it, so I have to think and consequently my ideas are constantly changing. “A car is a great place to write in,” he concluded.
Totally aware that the contents of his music reflects the inverse of his turbulant environment, Stevens who until recently lived above his parents restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, feels that subconsiously it`s his natural reaction against this background of continual noise.
“I`ve had lorries outside my window for the last ten years,” he recalls. “I guess it`s that which I am combating.”
Be that as it may, Stevens takes great and personal care to safeguard his mental equilibrium from the constant pressures which beset an artist of his rapidly growing stature.
He admits: “I am my worst judge, or if you like, I am my best judge,” a wry smily etching deeply across his face. ” I`m very self-critical of what I`m constantly doing, all it needs is for someone to say something to spark me off and I`ll most definitely react against myself as to what I`m doing then.
“It`s just a safety catch that I have in my head that says when I`m being flattered and when I`m not being flattered. That`s how I change so much, I get involved with what other people are doing and what I think I`m doing.”
However, Stevens still finds time to allow for everyday idiosyncrasies, his most recent being his beard, which he is hurriedly regrowing after having taken razor firmly in hand and succumbed to the overwhelming compulsion to see what lays underneath.
“Before I shaved it off, I found that my beard was almost ruling me,” confessed the demon barber. “I was almost frightened to see what was underneath, it got so much that I thought I`ve got to beat it.” A brave man indeed, for I myself have never had the courage to do likewise.
“Well, I eventually did it,” he continued, “and I felt so clean, it was the first time that I have actually felt rain on my chin for I don`t know how many years…it was fantastic. But then I realised I didn`t want it like that so I`ve started to regrow it again.”
Elaborating on the virtues of facial fungi, Stevens is of the opinion, “you find that you can conceal things, not internally, but when you have an open jaw you automatically find that you conceal things within yourself…mainly in your head.
“Now normally, you`d take it inside of yourself when reacting to something, with a beard you can react quite openly and as you have a covering it doesn`t affect it too much…it`s not so internal, it`s an outgoing reaction.”
Success has turned more heads than a good looking woman, but again Cat Stevens is adamant in his determination to retain a sense of priorities and avoid being sucked up by the destructive superstar syndrome. Even the immediacy of his Stateside acclaim – being one of the few artists to actually show a profit on an initial expeditionary trip to the New World – hasn`t clouded his personal credo.
“The trouble is, that many artists become performing puppets, but they don`t know it. They still think they are in control which can be very dangerous because they`ll suddenly blow up and they won`t know why.
“The thing I found is trying to get as much control over my life as possible. It`s just a question of you working and struggling for that moment when you`re on top so that you can then do what you want. It doesn`t matter what thing you`re into, it`s just that you`re constantly working to reach that peak.
“There are those people who give up at a certain point and that`s something I haven`t done yet. In fact I don`t feel that I`m going to do it for a long time because I have so much energy to give myself that actually works.
“I don`t know what it is,” then with a hearty laugh suggests, “probably it`s just sexual frustration.” Still laughing, he makes a point to pass that remark off strictly as a joke. “Just recently I`ve had so many offers for life-long security as far as record companies are concerned, but I`ve said, `No.`
“Then it would just be like being fed through the mouth – I wouldn`t have a thing to do – so what`s the use. That`s not what I work for…to suddenly be given a throne and have people say, `Hey Man, you`re a success, we can forget about you.”
“I don`t want to forget about myself. I`d rather struggle as much as I can and get totally involved with the stupid things that really bring me back.”
Conscious of his audience, Stevens is forever striving to present a good concert in the best possible surroundings. To this end, he still avoids performing in those vast American stadiums, where the name of the game is: See How Many People We Can Pull In.
“I don`t go in for all that,” says Stevens taking a stand. “They`re only in it for the bread, it`s definitely a bread thing. The only thing is that you do get heard by a lot more people, but then you don`t really because you sacrifice the quality of your performance. They only see the event, that`s all. Now that`s what I call a drag. That`s not what it`s about.
“Records are private things, personal things and it doesn`t always mean the same thing to everyone who is listening, yet it has to be heard.
“You see, in America a large proportion of the audience comes for the event instead of the artist, now Elton John got caught up in this trap and he didn`t know it at the time.
“I guess that`s what festivals were really all about. It didn`t matter who was on, it was a nice summer and you`d go along to dig it because you knew other people would be there.
“Honestly, I didn`t expect things to happen in the States like they did. But when I got there everything just felt right. Though I was angry at the time that `Mona Bone Jakon` didn`t get off the ground, but then it didn`t get off here or anywhere for that matter except in France.
“I was really upset about that, so when I went over I was really determined to make it on my first trip. I wasn`t into like doing three trips and like they say earn money gradually. I earned money on the first tour, even though it was only 100 it was enough to come out and say, `I`ve done it.` You don`t have to do loads of tours and like you don`t have to go through all that hassle. Not if you really mean what you say.”
Stevens yet again admits as an afterthought that he still is very much surprised by the reaction. “And that`s why I don`t want to get too hung-up on it, and let`s face it so many people do.”
With astute know how Stevens is instigating his own demand by only doing four week Stateside tours of selected dates at any one time. “I don`t want to play before 40,000 people in a football stadium, because that`s it…what`s the next thing?
“The only alternative then is to do jingles.”
The performer and writer of such classic music as “Wild World”, “Moonshadow” and “Morning has broken”, Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam as he calls himself today) will rightfully be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
http://youtu.be/-xLfxNuW-xo (Listen to “Wild World” here)
Loon pants were hot fashion at the start of 1972.
And Black Sabbath were busy on tour, just like today. 🙂
This number of the NME also contains articles/interviews with these good people: Siffre, Ginger Baker, Rick Grech (Traffic), Marmalade, Sandy Denny, Osibisa, Robert Fripp, Keith Moon and Roger Cooke.
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