A hot night with Cat Stevens (transcript)

Published October 8th, 2016

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Hello babies, it’s Michael Phillips beaming into your cranium with another THIS IS NOT A TEST. It’s been a hot summer here in the city of angels, as they call it, but the first week of October it began to actually cool down a bit, so I thought I’d be able to talk about Cat Stevens without calling it “a hot night with.” But the night of the show was warm and humid in Hollywood – I’d call it “sticky,” but I don’t like to use sticky and Hollywood in the same sentence – so here you go. Another “hot night” concert report. It didn’t help that the show had what they call “credit card entry,” or “credit card ticketing,” and extra-tight security. The combination of those things made for a line that was about three blocks long outside the Pantages theater. We rolled up 10 minutes before the show was scheduled to start because I thought, why not be clever. It was reserved seats, a small joint, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, the thing about Los Angeles is everyone shows up five minutes before something is supposed to start. And a lot of them five minutes after. Or 30 minutes after. That’s just how crowds roll around here. Carol and I usually show up early so we can be leisurely about things, because that’s how we roll. But like I said, I thought we’d be clever this time. But as we rounded the corner at Hollywood boulevard and Argyle to park, you could see what looked like the entire audience for the show queued up and waiting. I don’t know the capacity of the Pantages, it feels like maybe 2,500? But it looked like all 2,500 were still outside waiting to get in.

Why Cat Stevens felt the need for metal detectors and credit card verification to get in to see him perform might become a little more apparent as we go along here, but I suppose people are getting used to walking through metal detectors everywhere. At least we didn’t have to take off our shoes and belts and get scowled at by some angry TSA dink. It was still a ridiculous ordeal to go to a hippy concert in a theater. I think NWA had less security when they played.

I expected the audience to be old, and they were for the most part, but there were a lot of younger people there too. More than I expected. I looked around when he was singing Peace Train, and man, the kids were into it. Singing along and seat-dancing up a storm. It was kind of beautiful. But as we were standing in line the guy in front of us turned around and asked me if I’d seen the Cat Stevens show at the Forum 38 years ago. So that gives you some idea of who was there. They were fans, some of them very long-time fans. After I told the guy I wasn’t at the Forum 38 years ago he seemed disappointed and turned back around. I said to Carol, “Have I even been here for 38 years?” and I was counting on my fingers when the guy turned around again and said, “Actually it was 41 years ago.” I’m glad he cleared that up. I didn’t tell him that 41 years ago I was going to see the New York Dolls and Bachman Turner Overdrive. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings any more than I already had. Actually, remembering that Bachman Turner Overdrive show hurts my feelings.

Once we got in we took our seats up in the balcony and listened to what seemed like Cat or Yusuf telling his life story in songs. Which I found kind of interesting, even if the older songs were less than interesting. Carol wasn’t feeling the whole storytelling aspect, and I can see where it could be a little precious and annoying. But Cat sees the progression of his music as a progression down a spiritual path. He said “spiritual” many times, and mentioned Buddhism and the bible, but never once said “Islam” or “Koran.” The whole Islam thing was an unspoken subtext that I suppose everyone there was aware of. But it was odd that he did not utter the word. Maybe it’s against their rules, I don’t know. He told a story about what pushed him over the cliff to being a true believer, and it was about as you’d expect. He was swimming in Malibu – so you see it’s also a Hollywood story, or a rich person’s story – but he was swimming in the ocean and he got out too far and couldn’t get back to shore. So he “called upon god” to help him, and like magic, a wave came along and pushed him close enough to shore to swim in.

That’s the kind of religious story I always find kind of funny, attributing something nature just does to a god somewhere. Either nature or chance, coincidence, the chaos that is the universe – religious people, or those prone to or leaning toward religion love to use those things as justification or “proof” of something. Really I think it’s the inability to come to grips with randomness and chance and chaos that drives a lot of people to religion in the first place. The fact that there are unanswerable question just seems to bug them, so they look for answers and use religion to explain chance. To explain everything. That’s always struck me as odd, but it’s pretty common, so maybe I’m the odd one. Me and everyone else who accepts the universe as it really is.

So yeah, why were there metal detectors and credit card verification for a Cat Stevens show? Well, if you hadn’t heard, and if you weren’t paying attention to anything I just said, in the late 1980s Cat Stevens became a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Like a lot of fresh converts to any religious belief system, he was very strict and myopic in his interpretation of his particular religions doctrines.

When I was running around with the reggae group Boom Shaka, I got into Trevy’s van one day and there was a tape laying there that had a hand-written label on it that said, “Yusuf Islam.” I knew that was Cat Stevens so I was like, is this new music? Trevy said, “Nah, it’s a speech or something. Some brother over at the thing gave it to me.” That’s how Trevy described places and objects that he couldn’t remember the name of at the moment: “thing.” So “some brother over at the thing” could be someone at a gig or a restaurant or the post office. You could never be sure. Anyway, he popped in the tape and we sat there listening to Yusuf Islam saying what a shithole the Western world was, particularly America and England, and how he denounced everything he’d done in his life before seeing the light, and how he’s asked his record companies to stop manufacturing and selling Cat Stevens records. And if they wouldn’t do that, well, he certainly didn’t want any of the money that was earned by them.

Which wasn’t particularly surprising, considering what I said about recent converts. We listened for a few minutes but it wasn’t exactly compelling stuff, unless you’re really down with the America-is-Satan crowd, so eventually Yusuf was ejected and something else took his place. Probably some music he would have disapproved of. What he didn’t talk about on that tape – and I’m not sure if it had even happened yet – but what he didn’t mention was how when he was asked about a big controversy around a “fatwa” that said that the author Salman Rushdie should be executed, he, Yusuf, said, “He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” Kind of harsh words from the guy who wrote Peace Train. A fatwa is like a ruling handed from the bosses of Islam, and this particular fatwa came from notable kook and supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. He was pissed about something Rushdie wrote in a book called The Satanic Verses, or more likely he was pissed about the whole book, and that it even existed, since it was inspired by the life of Muhammad, who the Muslims consider to be the prophet. Khomeini said the author of that book had to be killed for insulting Muhammad.

Of course when an Ayatollah issues a fatwa, a lot of people take it as marching orders, so Rushdie had to go into hiding, and it pretty much changed his life from that day on into forever. And since a notable person – hell, a former pop star – stood behind the fatwa, a lot of people who weren’t Muslims said, “What the fuck, bro?” or words to that effect, and Yusuf took a lot of heat. He said the whole thing was a “misunderstanding”, but when he would say that he’d always throw in a little disclaimer, like “My words were misunderstood, but, you know, why do you have to insult the Prophet?” So yeah, our pal Yusuf was caught between a rock and another rock. He couldn’t say the fatwa was barbaric and stupid – he may not have believed it was – but he had to try to convince normal people that he wasn’t calling for the murder of the author of a novel. Remember though, this was the late 1980s, and we hadn’t yet seen the wholesale slaughter of people for dissing the prophet. Make no mistake, people were killed in the name of Allah before that, but never notable public figures who weren’t otherwise involved in religious drama.

So Yusuf took a beating. You couldn’t watch a news show or pick up a newspaper or a magazine without hearing or reading someone who was extremely upset at what Yusuf said. They were treating it as if he’d personally called for Rushdie’s head on a platter. They called what he said, and what he was advocating, “radical” Islam, but there’s nothing radical about it. It’s fundamentalism is what it is, not radicalism. Fundamentalist Christians and Jews would have to say the same things Yusuf did, because all of those books say you should kill someone if they insult your god or your prophet. Or if you don’t worship it. So let’s stop calling it “radical,” ain’t nothing radical about it. Radical would be saying or proposing something that goes against the literal reading of those fucking books, so I don’t see many radical religious types. But everyone was turning their backs on Cat Stevens, and the band 10,000 Maniacs even went so far as to take their cover of Peace Train off their record. Or off newly printed versions. If there were any newly printed versions.

So that’s what happened to Yusuf, and that’s likely why he is somewhat sensitive to security measures when he appears in public. But, now, all of that aside – if you can put that aside, and I think we should – what about the Cat Stevens concert? I’ll call him Cat when he’s a musician, since I’m not sure Yusuf would go out on stage and sing Peace Train like Cat did. So the show was constructed or framed as his life story, but there was a subtext to the show, and that was Islam, as you might expect, and the way he kind of summed it all up near the end was by saying that his son brought a guitar into the house and hearing music again, I guess, I don’t know, made Yusuf believe that the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens wasn’t finished, and that he had, he said, “a job to do.” He wasn’t more specific than that, so I take that to mean he feels it’s his duty to go out into the world and demonstrate to people that Muslims aren’t all bloodthirsty lunatics. But I don’t think most of the world really believes that anyway, so I don’t know how successful Cat’s mission will be. The place was full of his fans anyway, so he was, as they say, preaching to the choir.

And speaking of those fans, may I say here for the record that the audience reaction was nothing short of insane. I’ve seen a lot of concerts, but I don’t know that I’ve heard such an uproar in a 2 or 3 thousand seat joint before. I mean it was deafening, and people were giving the familiar songs standing ovations, they were screaming “WE LOVE YOU!” between the songs – it was an outpouring, I guess you’d have to call it, of love, and apparently it had been welling up in people for 25 years or so, since Cat gave birth to Yusuf and put the guitar in the closet, and they were letting it all out there in that theater in Hollywood. It was like a religious revival tent show without the snakes.

The concept he cooked up for presenting his life story was odd, for a music show. He had a set on the stage, an attic, with a radio, bookshelves, a record player and a piano. And he played in front of the set, but then at times he’d go into the set. Like at one point he sat down on the couch and played a Beatles record for us, then the second half of the show – yes, there was an intermission – opened with him crawling through the attic window and sitting down to listen to one of his own records while sipping tea. He went on a long rap about the Disney movie Zootopia, picking up a little stuffed plush-toy-tie-in-product and reading a quote from a character in the movie. If it all sounds a bit nutty, it was, but I think most people there were eating it up. He had two musicians with him, a guitar player, and another guy who played the bass and kicked some box drums and hit a cymbal with his hand, and I think triggered some samples or recordings of string parts – it was kind of like a band busking for change on a busy street corner in the tourist part of town. On a few of the songs the bass and box hitting guy was effective, but most of the time it was out of place and distracting.

I guess I should say, or maybe I should have said earlier, that I love a lot of Cat Stevens songs. He wrote some glorious, wonderful feel good music that can’t be denied, and honestly, that’s all I really know of him, musically. I never bought a Cat Stevens album or listened to anything that wasn’t a known “hit.” But those hits, good lord man, just amazing. Incredible songs delivered in a unique and singular way that really set Cat Stevens apart from everyone else back in ye olden days. Then there are the rest of his songs. Those, I’m not digging so much. They sounded like typical 1960s British balladeer slop. You know, songs about the sea and the moon and beautiful ladies. Just really average, dare I say boring, stuff. But that stuff was a treat compared to what I think were the new songs. Or relatively new. Those were just – at one point I leaned over to Carol and said, “The new songs sound like Jimmy Buffett,” and she laughed because they did.

But then he’d whip out one of the masterpieces: The First Cut Is The Deepest, Father and Son, Oh Very Young, If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out, Moonshadow or Peace Train, and all would be forgiven. Cat was in the building and everything was going to be fine. But overall, I had a weird feeling about the whole thing. I didn’t go in with any preconceived notions, because it’s best to leave those behind when you’re going to see a 68 year old who hasn’t really performed much in the past quarter of a century. His voice was good. He struggled a bit with the lower notes, and he couldn’t hit the really high stuff, but that glorious midrange was strong and clear. But it didn’t get me, the show. I wasn’t feeling what I thought I could have felt. The first half was particularly unengaging, since he did the whole thing chronologically and the good stuff, the good songs, mostly came later. I caught a good vibe at times during the second act, but at the end I was left feeling a little blah by Mr. Cat. So much so that we did something we never do, and left before the encore. They started playing music over the PA so I assumed there wouldn’t be an encore, but I think we would have left anyway. We were lucky though, because Chris Cornell, the guy from Soundgarden came out to sing part of Wild World during the encore, so by the grace of god we were spared that indignity to our eardrums.

So what was this thing, this 50th anniversary “Cat in the Attic” production? Was it a reconciliation tour? It seems odd that he’s back. I mean, part of me – a big part of me – is glad he’s back. I wrote a blog post almost exactly 10 years ago after I heard Cat singing on NPR one night. I said, “Listening to him sing tonight really hits me deep down somewhere. His music was and is very beautiful and positive, and he is an underrated talent from a time when musical talents were falling out of every tree.” Maybe that feeling, or remembering that feeling is what made me less than thrilled with the show the other night. Or maybe it just wasn’t that good. I don’t know. Peace and love is an outdated concept. No one sings about it anymore except the Rastafarians. So to go on stage and try to promote it – if that’s what he intended to do – is kind of an amazing, utopian sort of venture. It seems like a crazy thing to do these days. Maybe even a radical thing, yeah?

Okay, I’m out. I’ll see you again on the first Saturday of December, me droogies.