Music

My Personal Treasury of Cat Stevens Stories

Ad for Cat Stevens' single, "Morning Has Broken". Public domain.
Ad for Cat Stevens’ single, “Morning Has Broken”. Public domain.

on his induction finally into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

1. MOONSHADOW

My friend Tony Paterniti asked in a FB post what the hell was in the heads of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame people all these years, to ignore Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, until this week! I can only say I didn’t even know they did…he sure was in MY hall of fame, and more! His voice was one of the distinct Colors of Love that wove the rainbow years of the late sixties and the seventies. One of the streamers around God’s maypole. I hear his voice in my soul. “Moonshadow”, of course, was a “number one hit” and all I can say even now is that it brought something spiritual to the public airwaves, even if that something is…well, poetic, and not “pin-downable”.

2. “SCORING” TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN

There was a translucent experience during a glorious “Summer of Love” of my own life, which was 1976–I had several Summers of Love–when I worked on the grounds crew at the huge apartment complex my dad managed, and was still celebrating a personal Re-birth that had taken place some months before, enjoying, exulting in, my new wings. Every day some new adventure of the Light, incapable as it came into Manifestation at the speed of Light, of duplicating itself any two moments! One morning, in these novel configurations of God’s unlimited kaleidoscope, I got in the back of the green pick-up truck with “the guys”, and we set out to clean some apartment that had been, as often happened, simply abandoned, the person or people melting into the night for reasons no one ever learned, leaving all their possessions behind. 

I can remember four of the characters on that truck: Al, a red-faced, rather sad fellow who would go around projecting his dissatisfaction with life by exclaiming every now and then, “These people live like pigs!”; there was Ed, a shy young man who seemed unhappy with his job, but flashed a great, face-lighting Smile once when I balanced several coke bottles atop one another during our lunch break in the shed. There was my partner John, from somewhere in Indiana, my mad companion of that summer, the two of us often patrolling in the truck, parking and getting out with our nail-pointed sticks like a pair of Don Quixotes manning our swords to vanquish the Hosts of Enemies in White that were masquerading as pieces of paper in a field. And there was Johnny Jackson, just back from Vietnam and rarin’ to go for anything that involved Muscle! I recall him “trimming” a bush with the new weed-whacker and when he got through, there just wasn’t anything left. And yet, he was a gentle, self-effacing fellow.

Well, we came into this well-laden apartment and as we carted things out to the truck, there was a lot of stuff that was up for grabs. You’ve seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre…well, it was a little bit like that! Ed and Al almost came to blows over a sofa. There were iron and ironing board, a nice set of dishes, bedspread and a comforter, clothing, lamps, all sorts of things, and only our group of low-pay workers, not particularly skilled at verbal communication, to divvy it all up. I myself did not have the moderator skills needed, and so I left them to their devices and walked around just looking, between loads of stuff that I was taking out to the dumpster. I’d been studying non-attachment, and had been fortunate to be living a year with much bliss, in the glow of Meher Baba and His “helper” Richard Alpert/Ram Dass, who was my personal “mentor” available by phone, even, due to God’s lavish Grace, much of that year when I needed such loving care to get strong. I didn’t care much for an ironing board or a stereo. 

I saw only one item that remotely interested me: a colorful record album, Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens. And as the fellows slowly worked out all their own conflict without blows, thank Heaven, I finally held it up and asked, “Anyone mind if I take this?” and when no one did, I went and put it in the back of the truck with my jacket, gazing at the colorful, whimsical album cover all the way out. 

And at home I dove in: “Wide World”, “Hard-Headed Woman”, “Where Do the Children Play”–all anthems, flags of an age, of a time, of a particular divine breeze that was blowing. And to this day, I occasionally reassure myself with the thought…sung: “Longer Boats are coming to win us!” 

3. “HOW CAN I TELL YOU?”

And there was Norberto Noriega at the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, SC singing Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You”, plucking his sweet guitar from the stage of the Meeting Hall, sitting on a stool in front of the big Lyn Ott painting, singing out into what I remember as a dimly-lighted room.

Wherever I am, I’m always walking with you,
Always walking with you,
But I turn around and you’re not there…

I had thumbed most of the way to Myrtle Beach from St. Louis, my hometown, blown across the Mississippi River bridge by “The Wind of the Word”, a palpable breeze of Spirit that I knew I was supposed to follow, and had been following for several nights already. And a few days later, after the last part of the journey by bus and taxi, I had walked through the green Center gate, prostrated, and kissed the dear, sandy Earth on a Saturday night at around 9:30. Beginning my life there after this gloriously humble pilgrimage is forever associated in my mind with the haunting rendition by Norberto, filling the room with rich longing for the Divine Beloved, and by proxy, filling the room with Cat Stevens, the author of the song, which I hadn’t known but later learned to play and sing.

4. EMPTYING INTO WHITE

Then there was “Peace Train” from another album, which I associate with my friend Tom Fiske, who loved to play and sing it when we “guitared” together. Images of the Holy Order of MANS, with its beautiful Sisters walking the mean streets in their sky-blue tunics, the community we were both part of, me informally, and the taxi job we went and got together, everything of those years bleeding into everything else (and also “Emptying into White”, as C.S. sang)… 

5. FATHERS AND SONS

“By the time I could talk,
I was ordered to listen…”

But most, most endearingly, the immortal “Father and Son” from the Stevens’ record that I got as my loot that day with “the guys”. It told my life, it told the generational divide we were all going through, more than a million-word book could.

One day I brought Dad into my bedroom, the same room I’d had in high school, that I was living in during this back-home period–before I flew away again in another few months. You have to understand, it was not an easy thing for him, that summer, to come into my room. It was an entry into a country he really had no bearings in.

Against the wall that went off from the doorway, I had a plywood board on a cinder block, with a pillow on the floor, as my table and chair. And on it was also an incense-holder in the shape of Lord Shiva, sprayed in rainbow paint. (I did not do the spraying.) There was of course a Meher Baba poster on the wall–DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY, I think. 

And besides all this, I’d incorporated the “decorating suggestion” of my friend Earl Wagor, at whose home I attended a weekly meditation. He came over once and listened to me explain how there wasn’t enough room in there for all I needed. He perused the space for a bit and then spoke in his deep, resonant voice: “Take out the bed.” And I had. So now, when Dad came in…what did I sleep on? I don’t even remember!  But I found him a comfortable seat. Or I may have pulled a chair in from elsewhere, while I plunked down on a beanbag pillow. And I put “Father and Son” on the old stereo that we’d had since my childhood. And Dad and I listened to the whole song together.

And when it was finished, he looked directly at me with a sober, clear expression on his face. Then he said, while nodding his head slowly: “I understand.”

***

Thank you, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. Bless you, as you have been a part of the Blessings that have flowed to me this life.