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Wild world
No matter what his name is, Yusuf Islam, or Cat Stevens, his music still sounds good after 25 years


Dember 20, 2005

My wife decided to clean out the attic last week. I dread when this happens. This means all my unused or broken musical equipment (keyboards, guitars, samplers) and other music-related paraphernalia that I have stored in boxes up there for years, has to come down and a decision has to be made as to what will be donated and what can stay up there, for another cycle of several years before we go through the whole process again. This time, I decided to actually look through a few of the boxes of CDs, promo materials, etc., (instead of just pointing to which boxes we cannot get rid of--- my excuse always being that there is “important’ stuff that some accountant or lawyer may need God knows when), and to my surprise found a letter I had received in 1984 from none other than Yusuf Islam also know as Cat Stevens.

As a child growing up in Tehran with my high school friends at Iranzamin, Cat Stevens’ music was a staple of our adolescent years, enjoying his lyrics and songs more than most of the classes we had. Every year we would eagerly anticipate his next album, one great one after another: Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, Foreigner, Buddha and the Chocolate Box, and on and on. If we were lucky enough to go to Europe or the States, or have a relative or friend go, we would buy, or ask that they buy, the actual album. If not; however, we would go to good old Sonny on Karim Khan-Zand Street and get a cassette duplication, where he sometimes combined two albums for the price of one. In any event, we could relate to each one of his songs, of love lost, betrayals, etc., even at that young age.

I was such a fan of Cat Stevens, that when Shahin & I decided to produce our “World Café” album in 1998 for Virgin Records, I suggested that we perform an instrumental cover of his famous 70’s hit “Wild World”, which our record company decided to also make a music video for, and it even got placed on the Cat Stevens website alongside other artists such as Maxi Priest, Jimmy Cliff, Elton John, etc., who had also performed his music as cover songs. It also turned out that our version of Wild World was one of the most requested songs at our live shows. I must admit that I am still a fan of his music, since my mp3 player still contains all his albums I used to listen to some 25 years ago.

Then, one day last year, I heard that Cat Stevens was on a flight to the US to accept an award at some ceremony, when they diverted his plane to Bangor, Maine, stating that he was on the terrorist no-fly list and that he could not enter the US. I couldn’t believe my ears, this was the artist that wrote “Peace Train” and all his other songs were about love, and of course, lost love.

I had heard something about his speaking out against Salman Rushdie, but then read an article saying he had been misquoted, so I thought it may be because of that incident, but he had visited the US many times after that, and his plane was never diverted, as far as we know. As it turns out, his Islam name - Yusuf Islam - was not on the list. But a similar name - Youssouf Islam - was on the list. After this issue had been resolved by some over-worked clerk at Homeland Security, I jokingly told my wife, that I wouldn’t feel guilty continuing to listen to his music.

Back to the letter he wrote me in 1984. I was living in San Mateo, California then, and had gone grocery shopping at a Safeway when standing in line to pay, on the cover of one of the tabloids (the Globe), I noticed a picture of a turbaned Cat Stevens with his hand stretched out as if begging (the Globe had actually changed the picture to look like that, he had his hand stretched outwards to shake someone’s hand, but they had deleted the other party from the picture). The caption said: 

“The former pop star Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam is seen here begging in the streets of Tehran.”

If it said Tehran, I had to buy a copy (the only copy of these junky tabloids that I will admit to having bought), so I did, and while reading through the ridiculous article noticed it was penned by Liz Smith (the famous New York gossip columnist) or someone had quoted her, so that her name was associated with the article. 

At the time, I was working for a company called Watermark Systems which was trying to sell water purification (desalination) equipment to Middle Eastern and North African countries, and a contact at the company was working to try and get the non-profit Islamic Circle Organization to assist in getting the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to provide funding for a mobile desalination project in some villages in Sudan. (We actually traveled and met with Islamic Development Bank officials in Saudi Arabia, and presented the idea, but the project fizzled due to lack of interest). 

In the process of trying to get assistance from this non-profit organization which was founded by Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Cat Stevens, one day in 1984, he and I spoke on the phone and during the conversation I mentioned the article and he let out a laugh, and said: “Me? begging in Tehran?, now why would I be doing that?” and said he would like to see the article, so I sent it to him. A few weeks later I received this letter from him (copy attached) where he stated that he was pursuing legal action against the Globe for libel.

I never found out whether the Globe had to retract the story or not, but at least I had spoken to him in person and knew that like many other tabloid stories about celebrities, this was also untrue.

The sad part is that he has discontinued to record pop music, even though he has recorded some Islamic chants and several remakes for certain children’s charities. But I’m not complaining, since songs like "Father & Son", and "Sad Lisa" still keep me company with my trusted mp3 player, as long as the battery doesn’t run out.

You never know what I’ll find the next time my wife decides we need to clean the attic again.

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