Remember Cat Stevens
by Cera Maree Brown
When I was 12 we went on a family holiday—camping. For a reason I can’t remember, perhaps the car radio was broken or perhaps we just didn’t think of it, we listened to no music for a week and a half. I was grumpy and sullen—it felt as if everyone around me was already grown up, allowed to stay out late and go on secret adventures, but I was still buckled into childhood. On the way to the supermarket one morning I found Remember Cat Stevens: The Ultimate Collection (1999) in the glove box. I snapped open the cracked, plastic case and, fingers balanced on the outer edges of the disk, slid it carefully into the CD player. And suddenly it felt as if the world liquefied. It’s funny how music does that, how it somehow softens the jagged edges that crystallise throughout a day. I felt this clearly for the first time that summer, winding around cliffs and through ferns on the Great Ocean Road, listening to Cat Stevens on repeat. I clung to the melodies, letting them soften me, letting them tonic my carsickness. I remember saying – or at least thinking—that this CD had saved me—that I was saved by it. That was how my 12 year old self articulated the experience of falling in love.
There is something so showy yet so vulnerable about Cat. That’s what I’ve always loved about his music. It’s like he goes most of the way to creating a kind of polished affair—big instrumental backings, backup singers– and then maybe there is a bridge or a line or a note that is so fragile, so unfinished that it throws the whole thing off balance. You see straight through any showiness and there before you is a person who is scared and lonely and confused—and then the melody or the chorus or the instrumental kicks back in. It pulls at you—this interplay of The Proficient Human and the incomplete.
Our year 7 music class had to do a project about a musician and the only musician I could think to do it about was Cat Stevens. I tried researching other singers I liked, bands that were popular, but I kept coming back again and again to Cat. We had to give a brief analysis of their music and I remember sitting by the CD player in the lounge room and rewinding/replaying the first 10 seconds of ‘Hard Headed Woman’ so that I could precisely identify the different instruments, the different qualities of tone. I wanted to articulate just what the music was doing that captured me and tried to do so in a way that made assessable sense. This meant, of course, that I went far over the word count and spent hours on something that had little relevance to the actual task. We had to do a presentation to the class about our musician after we handed in the poster and I delayed handing in mine for weeks—I felt too embarrassed to do a presentation on Cat to the highly volatile and derisive year 7 class. I’d just broken out of the mould of my primary school self and felt as if I had gained some traction in classroom coolness and the idea of losing it over a project panicked me. I wished that I’d done the project on someone else, anyone else. I even thought of redoing it about some other artist, but for some reason I was stuck. I eventually handed in the poster and the music teacher looked at me confused—he didn’t know why I would have picked Cat Stevens of all people either.
There is a certain sadness of having loved something intensely as a child and looking back on it later to find it hurtful or excluding or problematic. You almost wish that your youthful love could wrap it up and protect it forever, that it could be fossilized in glowing amber so it never had to age and whither in light of the ever-developing sensibilities of yourself and the world. Sometimes you wish that you could do that with people too—but that is always more complex. Not that the music of Cat Stevens – now Yusuf Islam—is particularly fraught, it just carries the values and prejudices of the past like chipped relics. And I feel uncomfortable promoting relics when there is so much that is fresh and pulsing and necessary. Again it appears that for some reason I’m choosing to write about Cat Stevens despite my embarrassment at him being my choice.
Remember Cat Stevens: The Ultimate Collection starts off with ‘Moonshadow’, magical in its optimism, before hitting through many of his early classics. ‘Oh Very Young’ is number 7 on the CD and at 2.36 minutes I used to ask, again and again for it to be played ‘just one more time’ while we were circumnavigating the bays, tears in my eyes. I was less interested in the songs in the teens, but would sit with them until ‘Peace Train’, number 23, felt it rouse our small seat-belted audience into a longing for peace and connection. I know the shape of the album so well, all of its twists and nooks, its ruckus and its honesty. It has a presence in my mind almost as physical as the beach I camped by as a child. I hold it within me—it’s confusion, it’s rage, it’s questions and it’s hope.
Cera makes theatre and words in Melbourne where she studies Linguistics and Creative Writing. An overcommiter, when she isn’t too-busy you can find her sitting in the sun drinking passion pop and reading Miranda July