Culture

Cat Stevens: Why He Still (Sort Of) Matters

Legacy Recordings Yusuf Cat Stevens album cover

In his 1970s prime, Cat Stevens looked like Russell Brand just thinks he does.

Neither fellow is quite forlorn or angular enough to be my type, but I can certainly understand the appeal of the former, if definitely not the latter. (Ugh.)

As Dennis Miller still likes to muse sometimes on his radio show:

Can you imagine how many women were throwing themselves at Stevens back in the day?

(Except not in those words.)

Stevens has been Miller’s bete noir for a while now.

Here’s Miller circa 1989, back when he anchored “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live:

And former folk singer Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, came out this week and said he advocated the assassination of Salman Rushdie. So much for that “Peace Train” crap, huh, Cat? … Yeah, I could see this comin’ years ago on his old album, Tea for the Killerman. You, uh, you remember the big hit:

I’m being followed by a big Muslim
Big Muslim, big Muslim

Big Muslim, big Muslim
Big Muslim, big Muslim

How can I try to explain
When he do I turn away again
It’s hard
But it’s harder to ignore it
If they were right, I’d agree
But it’s them they know, not me now
There’s a way and I know that I have to go away
I know I have to go

Yeah.

Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWrOijCY7Es

Miller’s jokes about hating what Islam “has done to Cat Stevens” was still one of his big applause lines as recently as his Big Speech HBO special circa 2011, ten years after 9/11.

But at this point, does anyone still get that worked up about it?

How much did anyone — besides Miller — even really care when Stevens became “Yusuf Islam” way back in 1977?

In those days, it was cooler for musicians and other artists to take up Buddhism (or something like it), adopt neo-pagan occult practices or embrace some other sufficiently “exotic” spirituality.

A superstar was more likely to embrace the Church of Satan’s Anton LaVey than Mohammed.

But Islam?

Still, in the “do your own thing”/”find your bliss” ’70s, Stevens’ conversion didn’t attract that much derision.

His big hits remained in pretty heavy radio rotation.

It wasn’t until the singer weighed in on the fatwah against British author Salman Rushdie (after he wrote the “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses) that most people even remembered he wasn’t really “Cat Stevens” any more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePx5-yyue1k

Some people still remember, and at least seem to give a damn.

Last week, as Stevens embarked on his first U.S. tour in 36 years, Jim Farber of the New York Daily News pressed the musician on l’affaire Rushdie:

There’s a song on the new album, “Tell ’Em I’m Gone,” out Monday, that refers to a infamous incident in 1989 when the star made statements interpreted by the media to endorse a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The edict had been issued for “blasphemy,” allegedly committed by Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.”

“One day the papers rang us up/t’check if I said this,” Islam sings of the incident and its aftermath, in the song “Editing Floor Blues.” “I’d never say that!/… but they never printed that.”

The 66-year-old star says he wrote the song because “as opposed to just talking to a journalist, this lets me speak from the heart. It helps me to explain.”

But does it?

In his own lyrics, he presents the controversy as having no resolution. He compares himself to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who was put on trial, and finally died, for his beliefs.

Today, Islam says unequivocally, “I did not support the fatwa.”

At the same time, he admits that he did quote Islamic law to a journalist about blasphemy. In certain territories, a blasphemy charge can carry the death penalty. As well, making any connection between a work of art, like Rushdie’s book, and a court of law can be seen as a threat to free speech.

It doesn’t clear matters that the star now emphasizes that “I’m a supporter of law and order.”

You can almost hear the weariness and exasperation in Stevens’ voice.

Good.

I’m delighted that things he did say — despite his denials — years ago still make his life even a little bit miserable.

(Well, sometimes: Earlier this month, NPR didn’t bother bringing the subject up.)

Look: I did what I could.

Last year at PJ Media, I begged the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame not to induct him.

Then I called on the authorities to bar him from entering the U.S. to accept his statue after he got inducted anyway.

And I attracted a lot of flouncy, aging male hipster outrage in the comments, too.

(You know what I mean: “But Cat Stevens’ music was still fantastic!”)

(Hey, maybe Sweeney Todd’s pies tasted pretty good, too…)

Other than that?

The whole Hall of Fame thing turned out to be a wasted opportunity for conservatives to engage the culture.

Again.

And here’s the thing:

I can’t keep caring about the ongoing idiocy of another toxic Baby Boomer who refuses to die already.

As Dennis Miller said, above, I can’t fix Islam; Muslims have to get their own act together.

Likewise, you Baby Boomers have to take out your own garbage.

(Or “recycle,” if you prefer.)

If a performer I was particularly devoted to — a forlorn and angular one in particular — converted to Islam (bad enough), then called for the murder of another artist (worse), I’d be a lot more pissed off about it that you guys seem to be about this idiot.

I’m embarrassed to see that the North American leg of Cat Stevens’ tour begins at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

Don’t expect to see me outside picketing.

I don’t expect you’ll be doing it, either.