Somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee, some time in 1971, riding around in a car with friends during a break while attending a B’nai B’rith conference, we turned on the radio. I heard a song called “Wild World,” and I fell instantly in love with a singing, songwriting pop star named Cat Stevens.
That love affair continued when I drove that same year, my fifteenth, an hour down the road to Knoxville, from my home town of Morristown, Tennessee, with a boy named Mike Crabtree (what on earth was my mother thinking?) to a Cat Stevens concert where he performed with a seventy-piece orchestra. It was one of those concerts that imprint indelibly on a young person’s mind: I can still, when I close my eyes, see it like it was yesterday.
While I didn’t plaster my bedroom with Cat Stevens posters, I did fall asleep with his record albums — his soulful good looks staring back at me (I was also convinced he wrote “Sad Lisa” just for me). And some time during the next couple of years I collected every one of his albums, including the first ones he had recorded in Great Britain before anyone knew he'd be huge. Those albums are very funky, let me tell you. They remain with me, in the crate with all my other old vinyl. (I have no idea what to do with any of them.) And I listened to Cat Stevens regularly through the late seventies, until his sudden conversion to Islam, his name change, and his end to recording what was arguably some of the best pop music ever.
The Salman Rushdie controversy in 1989 left a bad taste in my mouth, although Stevens, known since his conversion as Yusuf Islam , insists he did not call for a fatwa against the author. It was only when I finally happened upon “Peace Train” re-recorded by Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs that I was able to revisit Cat Stevens and realize once again what a brilliant songwriter he was.
When I received Cat Stevens – Tea For The Tillerman Live, a DVD of a studio concert recording made in 1971 at KCET Studios in Los Angeles, I had to set it aside for a few weeks. It was just as well. Somehow viewing it in the post-election week made it more fitting, with the youth vote combining with old Baby Boomers to elect the country’s first black president in a voter turnout not seen since 1960: it all seemed so retro. And so the concert’s “stuck in time” element, absolutely jarring, with a young and gorgeous Cat Stevens, his hair jet black and flowing, sitting on a stool, strumming his guitar, didn't seem quite as out of place.
Backed up by a couple of other musicians, the concert is all acoustic, and Stevens plays some of his most beautiful, memorable, and classic songs, including: “Moonshadow,” “Wild World,” “Where Do the Children Play?,” and “Hard Headed Woman”, among others. “Father and Son,” particularly, reminds us of how brilliant Stevens was, with its back and forth dialogue and its stunning lyrics which include “You will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not.”
Stevens laconically introduces each song (“this one was a hit,” “this one I wrote before I became a pop star”) in his British accent and then just plays, reminding the viewer what was so wonderful about his music and his lyrics, but also how accustomed we have become to sound engineers playing around with our music. He is listened to with rapt attention and applauded enthusiastically but not wildly, by a small audience of, well, hippies, sprawled out in front of him.
The DVD ends with a short animated film of Teaser and the Firecat pulling down the moon and chasing it around the world in a seemingly Peter Max-inspired psychedelic journey to the music of “Moonshadow.”
The concert itself is a trip down memory lane: beautiful, sad, and interesting, but all in all it is an odd bit of filmmaking and one doesn’t know quite what to make of it, as charming as it is. I suppose, I for one, shall give Cat Stevens – Tea For The Tillerman Live to my fifteen-year-old singer-songwriter daughter, so that she can see what brilliance is. She has, after all, attended her share of concerts, but never with a strange young man her mother has just met. At least, not yet.Powered by Sidelines