Tillerman Strolls the Red Carpet

On the eve of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 10, Yusuf Islam – formerly known as Cat Stevens – writes exclusively for Rolling Stone Middle East about his life and career. And imagines what some of his albums' characters might make of it all

Yusuf onstage in Melbourne in 2010
Aminah Yusuf
By Yusuf / Cat Stevens
Apr 02, 2014

THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF MY ENROLMENT into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will certainly bring happiness to a lot of my loyal fans, and fulfillment to all those who have long campaigned for it – not to mention how kinda tickled it makes me feel too.

But the happiest of all will be those curious characters and dusty vinyl discs that have been hiding in the shadows and waiting around all these years. I can see Teaser now, just before the sun sinks below the curvy hills, jumping on top of a dustbin and over the cracked wooden fence, vigorously shaking the Tillerman who abruptly wakes up, blinking and bemused:
“Is it tea-time?”
“No! We’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Uncle!”
“Screemeeow!” The Firecat adds as it thumps into Teaser’s behind.
“Ouch! Come on! Let’s go tell the Buddha-boy,” Teaser shouts, as he runs across the field with the Firecat racing behind him, trying to keep up.
“Watch out for the Bull!” cries the Tillerman, but too late. “Roaaaar!!” The Black Bull suddenly appears from behind a giant oak tree, but before it can charge, a little Buddha-boy jumps in front and catches its horns with his two hands; the Bull halts. Calming the Bull, the boy gently strokes its nose.
“There, there… Ommm.” The Buddha-boy looks at Teaser. “What’s the rush?”
“I wanted to tell you, we’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Isn’t that something?”
The Buddha-boy smiles serenely as the Bull purrs under his gentle hand. “Oh,” he says, nonchalantly. “Yes, it’s something… but is that all there is to life?”
At that moment, the Foreigner walks by and sneezes.
“Bless you!” Teaser says.
The Foreigner looks at Teaser. “Praise to God!” rejoins the stranger, who is wrapped in a long shawl made of coconut-palm leaves. “From Jamaica… my boat, she come.” He pauses and shivers. “It big, big cold in your country. Me go back now.”
“Goodbye,” Teaser bids the Foreigner farewell. “Tell your people back home that we just won a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
The Foreigner looks back, rather unimpressed, “They like Reggae… and Fats Domino. Bye, bye.”
Teaser looks around for the Firecat, who has hidden behind his trousers, obviously not liking like the look of that stranger. “Oh, there you are! Come on, we’ve got to tell the Polygons…” but before he can finish the sentence, a small flying saucer lands with a ‘plonk’ on the field. Out steps Trezlar the Third.
“What’s all the ruckus about?” the chubby little Polygon asks.
“We’re all included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Trezlar.”
“Ooooh! Does that mean I have to share my Banapple Gas with you from now on?” Trezlar asks, clearly concerned with keeping as much of that precious planetary nourishment to himself as possible.
“No, no. Don’t worry. It just means we’re more famous now and might have a few more fans.”
“Will they want to share my Banapple Gas?” Trezlar persists.
“No, don’t fret. But get ready for more play time.”
“That sounds good,“ says Trezlar, as he boards the small saucer and waves goodbye, disappearing up into the night sky.
Teaser and the Firecat see the Moon rising as their moonshadows stretch across the ground.
“Time to go home, Firecat.”

Some of Yusuf's album characters: A Polygon, The Bull and the Buddha-boy, the Tillerman, and Teaser and the Firecat (clockwise from top left)

FOR THOSE WHO ARE NOT FAMILIAR with my albums, those characters and that little story may be slightly baffling; but for those who had them, they may remember the small watercolor worlds which my album covers magically opened up in their minds, and the hours of contemplation spent looking at those quirky figures and imagining, while the soundtrack of their lives played on in the background.

With everything else that’s been written and said about my life choices since – and during – the creation of those albums, it’s good to see that people have re-evaluated my musical reveries after all these years and decided they have a nominal place in the history of music.

True, at one time – following my embracing of Islam – I was ready to cast the whole music thing behind me and get on with my new life far away from the spotlights, public appearances and adoring crowds.

In a letter to my record companies, I asked them to let me off my obligations, which involved producing another three albums. They graciously agreed… perhaps thinking that this was just another short-term spiritual excursion.

It wasn’t. The Cat never came back. Instead, I changed my name to Yusuf, decided to get married, and bought a small semi-detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburbs, London, a few doors away from my mother.

Time went on, but the spotlight didn’t stop following me. Soon I realized that there were a few people around who didn’t appreciate my newly discovered ‘unworldly’ path, and took a pretty antagonistic view. If they didn’t like Cat Stevens or his music before, they would definitely not like Yusuf Islam or his ‘religion’ now.

Meantime, I had children and opened what was to become the first state-run Muslim faith school in the U.K. Along with the Christian and Jewish children, Muslim children finally had their own place to play … and pray.

Read Rolling Stone Middle East's May 2011 feature on Yusuf here

Following on from there, witnessing all the humanitarian disasters befalling the poor nations of the world – particularly in Africa in 1985, and my invitation to sing a song I wrote for Live Aid, but which I regrettably never got to perform – I helped to establish an international relief organization and began work to support the growing numbers of the starving and the homeless, especially widows and orphans.

Prejudice, however, preceded me, and I was suddenly seen in a new, dark light. One tabloid printed a report that I had given all my money away to mosques and was living with a begging bowl, crisscrossing between Tehran and Qom! What, me? Where the heck was Qom anyway, I asked myself?

It felt strange that my words and dreams, all reflected so clearly in my songs and lyrics, were so soon forgotten in the rising dust created by world events. It didn’t help matters when I tried to explain the existential reality of my new universe; regretfully, too often I would fall into a trap, designed to box me in and present me as some kind of fanatic weirdo. If it was a ‘Wild World’ before, it got significantly wilder with my embrace of Islam. But isn’t that what I had foretold, myself?
If you wanna leave, take good care
Hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there’s a lot of bad
And beware…

(“Wild World,” Tea For The Tillerman)

Cat Stevens in 1972 [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Foolishly, I had not heeded the warning within my own words. The ‘bad’ were certainly out there, and they had begun to distort the universal message of peace and mercy, which I and many other fellow Muslims believed and understood. Now it was to be an almost impossible task to explain the transcendent beauties of faith, while guns raged in the middle of a battlefield jam-packed with land mines; move in any direction and you’d find out.

Then it dawned on me: Even with the entire world sinking deeper into despair, we can still sing! The spirit of humanity can be subdued, but never vanquished. And nothing brings out that spirit like a good song. As a short film of Nelson Mandela I watched recently showed, he danced and smiled from East to West, saying, “It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself.”

In 2001, after singing “Peace Train” for a tribute concert at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, in memory of the victims of 9/11, the sleepy train began to chug its way slowly uphill again.

In 2003, while living in Dubai, my son brought home a guitar. It was my first meeting with it since 1979. And suddenly a floodgate was opened. Playing some of my old songs made me weep; it was clear I had a new job to do.

After the Tsunami in late 2003, I wrote a song called “Indian Ocean.” For the first time since 1978, I had entered the studio with a bunch of musicians. We recorded the song and made it a free download for charity. The last words of the song were about finding a young, barely dressed orphan girl, stranded amidst the rancid ruins, after the flood had washed away both her parents and her home. The kind lady who found her alone on the shore, looking deep into her eyes, realized she was looking straight at Paradise.

The power of charity and human compassion must have been present when the judges of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame decided my history. It will no doubt do much to heal the scars that many years of separation have caused and help to reconnect people to my legacy, which still speaks loud and clear in my music. As the Tillerman might himself say:
So nice to see you coming back in this town again.
It’s nice to see a friendly face come peeping through,
Having tea in the afternoon…

(“Ruins,” Catch Bull At Four)


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