A Million Ways to Be: Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam & Our Always Searching Selves

“Oh baby baby it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh baby baby it’s a wild world
I’ll always remember you like a child, girl.”
“Wild World” - Tea for the Tillerman

Yusuf/Cat Stevens was the soundtrack of my adolescence. From the time I was in junior high, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat were piped into my consciousness as cosmic elevator music for the soul. He spoke to me in a way that other music didn’t. I listened to Shaun Cassidy as much as the next person—but only because he was the Zeitgeist. I had a lot of moments with Simon and Garfunkel, Donovan, and the Beatles. Those folks served some other place in me, closer to the surface. Yusuf/ Cat Stevens was about searching, I was searching, everyone I knew was searching for something that we couldn’t put our fingers on, but it was big, and it was complex, and no one talked about it.

Now, I would call that feeling longing. Longing got a bad name in the Midwest in the ‘70s. Everything was fine, on the surface, in the land where shoes and purses matched, and we all had Shaun Cassidy records and rainbow stickers on our portable turntables. We were all looking for something that would make being thirteen less painful, and I was mostly looking for anyone who would admit it was painful in the first place. I played that song “Wild World” like it was on repeat. But, there was no repeat. I had to very delicately lift the needle from the record and replace it right before the track started.
“It’s not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to know.”
“Father and Son” - Tea for the Tillerman

I had no way to contextualize longing. It was both religious and sexual and also human and messy and enormous. It just was, and somehow, I knew it was bad. I should not be doing it. Just not right in the context of the rest of my life of oboe lessons and sleep-overs and youth group. I wasn’t satisfied with any of the answers I got anywhere about anything, and definitely not about G-d.

I had this secret longing for G-d, but that was so unseemly in comparison to teenagers who did things like win swim meets or girl scout badges. Yusuf/Cat Stevens made it okay to hang out in the longing for a while and to know that through his songs, which were always a little mournful, even when they were happy, that I could long for something and be too young to know what it was.

“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.”
“Miles from Nowhere” - Tea for the Tillerman

In every interview I’ve heard, Yusuf/Cat Stevens says he was looking for something, too. “If you listen to my lyrics, you’d have heard that I was on a path and was definitely looking. . . And if I found something I’d have to grab it, otherwise I’d be a hypocrite.” The satisfaction for my thirteen-year-old self at hearing an adult say that they have to do something difficult and anti-establishment to have integrity is enormous.

My step-dad, when I asked him about Yusuf/Cat Stevens said, “His songs were part of my spiritual education. ‘Miles from Nowhere,’ ‘Wild World,’ ‘Father and Son,’ are up there with the big ones—Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan.”

My step-dad taught me everything I knew about music, sitting in our living room on the brown corduroy couch listening to records he stored in the rattan Victorian cabinet. He chose “Wild World” as the father-daughter dance at my sister’s wedding. I cried while they danced, feeling the longing again, as though I was back in the living room.

In the next text, he went on to say, “He left the worldly pursuit of rock stardom at the peak of it. He denounced it, and I believe was somewhat manipulated by clerics to do so.” The anger and hurt was palpable through the phone. I was perplexed by his response —and perplexed by how many people shared that response.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens himself said he would be a hypocrite not to grab the truth when he found it. That truth for him was Islam. He was handed a Quran, and he read it. All the desire to understand himself and the world, to get to an answer, it happened to him, and he grabbed it. It’s apparently fine to long for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but not fine to long for, and find, G-d.

“I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?”
“Where Do The Children Play” - Tea for the Tillerman

He says of his own songs before he found Islam, “They had this simple, childlike outline and primary colorization. All the songs had that childlike feeling.” His songs are not what anyone would call children’s music, but they are simple, to the heart, and straightforward. They took me seriously as a searcher also.

Perhaps this is why they appealed to me so much as an adolescent and still appeal to me as an adult, an adult who found what I was looking for as a sixth grader, in ways I could have never understood then.

In talking to a friend, a music fiend who knew longing like I did as a kid, he reveled in the gap when Yusuf / Cat Stevens left the music world: “It got him so hard that he had to step away from his former love (music) in order to fully embrace, ponder, and eventually try to articulate how that longing hit him.”

“I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up, well, I think only God really knows.”
“The Wind” - Teaser and the Firecat

There was a quote underneath one of the YouTube interviews with Yusuf/Cat Stevens, in which the adult writer spoke about drawing his face on the ceiling of her childhood bedroom. First, she painted a yellow circle and into it she drew his face. She said, “He sings and plays such meaningful music to reach people’s hearts and minds, especially when as a teen it seemed we were all alone in the darkness.”

Finding G-d in a place he would have never thought to look means he turned over every stone, and looked in every closet, and left nothing aside that might help him find his way. We went with him on that journey to find some kind of center. Buddha and the Chocolate Box explored Eastern philosophy. Numbers is a spiritual musical exploring alien life. Catch Bull at Four is about Zen Buddhism. I loved it all. I loved the depth and breadth of the longing and the need and the search and the openness with which we shared it all.

“There’s an empty space inside me now
A wasteland deep beneath the snow
So cold, nothing’ll grow.”
“Fill My Eyes” - Mona Bone Jakon

Yusuf/Cat Stevens got sick, he almost died twice. He made a bargain with G-d that both he and G-d kept—if you save me, I will find you. Within a year, his brother handed him a copy of the Quran, bought in Jerusalem. The story that spoke to him the most, that he describes as breaking open his heart, was the story of Joseph. Joseph is a very Jewish story from Genesis, read by a man raised Catholic, in a Quran brought from the homeland of all three peoples of the book. Yusuf/Cat Stevens saw Joseph as a fellow entertainer and performer, so Joseph must have ripped Yusuf’s heart out. Getting famous, living large, and then being able to forgive his brothers, save people with his power and fame. But lonely, alone, except for G-d.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens says that after he found Islam, he was able to make his life into art. “I’d been singing about doing great things and changing the world while the Quran said to me, ‘If you don’t change what’s within you, you can’t change anything.”

Oh trouble set me free
I have seen your face
And it’s too much too much for me.”
“Trouble” - Mona Bone Jakon

The media savaged Yusuf Islam when he began to speak publicly about Islam. It was a confluence of events. First, the conceptualization of Islam changed after the Iranian Revolution, and we saw it as a force for destruction of all that is modern. Next, we just don’t have respect for people of faith in this culture. We don’t believe that Yusuf Islam could be the same guy that Cat Stevens was, even though Cat Stevens was longing for Yusuf Islam through every song he wrote. Finally, we just cannot believe that someone would give up the things that we all dream of, to follow G-d. It goes against all of our capitalist ideas of how things work. The Beatles and Dylan got a pass on that because they continued to make music that made money. It takes something huge, faith, to walk away from what the world tells to want—fame fortune, and yes, the Rolls Royce he really did buy. He walked.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens said in an interview, “It means I discovered something beyond what we have been taught to believe about others, particularly the Muslim world.” He found G-d as the first word of the Quran, and that was that.

“Cause I’ve been running a long time
On this travelling ground
Wishing hard to be free.”
“Bitterblue” - Teaser and the Firecat

The longing was always for freedom. Freedom in God. His and mine, and maybe all of ours, though I don’t know many kids who could possibly tell you that. I knew that I wanted something way bigger than I could never ever have put words to it in my teens, or my twenties for that matter. I can’t help but respect that. He quoted the Quran saying “Say to the people of the book, your G-d and our G-d is one G-d.” What could be clearer?

He didn’t really abandon the world, he went deeper and tried to understand the world. He said he was not so sure what part music would play for him and so he let go something he loved deeply till he understood better. That is faith.

“Baby I’ll try to love again but I know
The first cut is the deepest, baby I know
The first cut is the deepest.”
“The First Cut is the Deepest” - Best of Cat Stevens

In the 1970s, before finding Islam, Yusuf/Cat Stevens put out seven albums that made it to the top ten. He was everywhere. He was in every house I knew with a record player. He was on the radio in the car. He was in the movie Harold and Maude. He set a cultural tone that reached everyone. Then, he was gone.

There was the Salman Rushdie mess, from which Yusuf/Cat Stevens apologetically retreated, but no one was listening. Neophyte in faith, Yusuf tried to explain Islam to the West, and made mistakes. It got bad enough that 10,000 Maniacs reissued an album to take “Peace Train” off of it. Rod Stewart introduced “The First Cut is the Deepest” in concert by saying “a song by Terrorist Number One” and then goes on to play it with the audience screaming along with him. We know the fear-based spin now, we live with it as an alternate reality. When I hear politicians in my car radio, using Islam as the universal metaphor for evil, I think about Yusuf/Cat Stevens’s response: he put together an album to introduce the Prophet to the world. He trusted us to want to know. We didn’t want to.

People were angry. They wanted the old “just plain Cat Stevens” back to play the old songs. David Spero, who managed a mini-comeback for him, said all the fans wanted to hear was the old stuff. The familiar stuff. They didn’t want him to be this new person.

Not so long after I stared at the hanging fern in my parents’ living room, meeting Cat Stevens for the first time, I discovered sex. Anyone who has fooled around with someone as a teenager knows longing made manifest is a dangerous force. It’s safer for longing to stay longing and not be actualized. When our idols demonstrate how that force can change lives, and they are unrepentant about it, we can’t pretend it might not change us, too.

“Yes the answer lies within
So why not take a look now
Kick out the devil’s sin
Pickup, pickup a good book now.”
“On The Road to Find Out” - Tea for the Tillerman

In a TED interview, Yusuf/Cat Stevens turns the table on the interviewer and asks him, “DO you believe we worship the same G-d?” The interviewer has a complex and fascinating answer. He was raised in Pakistan by Christian missionaries. His father grew to love and respect the Muslims and believed with all his heart that they worshipped the same G-d. The two men sit staring at each other on the stage. There was nothing else to say.

“I used to serve the Empire
On which the sun set, never
Oh! Now times have turned
We thought our white skins would save us - then we got burned”
“I Was Raised in Babylon” - Tell’Em I’m Gone

In 2014 he put out Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, an album that he made with Richard Thompson, who has deep songwriter street cred. They leaned heavily into American Blues music to bring the story of who Yusuf/Cat Stevens is now. It’s a telling choice, to use the music of the disinherited to tell the story of giving in to the mess of being raised in Babylon and still finding the truth.

This man performed in Bosnia to help bring peace. He created non-profits that educate, feed, clothe, and care for people, and he travels as a peace ambassador. His friends say he is busier now than when he was famous.

I was sitting with my stepdad and my sister in our local hangout, the Thanksgiving when that album had just come out. We were having lunch, everyone having the same sandwiches we had in 1981, bantering with the owner, and feeling safe in the Cleveland that never changes. My sister held a french fry up in the air and pointed it at her dad, “I am so relieved he’s back. I missed him so much.”

“And 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”
“On The Road to Find Out” - Tea for the Tillerman

The Cat Stevens of my childhood wanted us to come on his journey. He wasn’t particular about who we were. If you could buy the album, or record it song-by-song off the radio on your tape deck, you were in it with him. He gave us permission, one song at a time, to long for things, so big we couldn’t name them. A lot of people couldn’t follow him all the way to freedom, because he found it in a place they couldn’t go.

The faith life I want to live is his. A life where sticking with the longing, for years and years, brings answers. A life where when you suffer for what you believe, you come back to give your gifts to the broken world. A life where we can find each other, we people of the book, and hold each other as beloved—that we can live out our lives communicating that love through word and action. His longing took him there, and it can take us, too.
Michelle Auerbach

Note: The title of this piece comes from the song “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” from the Harold and Maude soundtrack. Born on July 21, 1948, Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens is a British singer and songwriter whose career spans from the late 1960s until the present day.  catstevens.com