Listen to this song by former ’60s British pop pin-up turned ’70s bearded folky hit-maker Cat Stevens. It’s “The Boy With The Moon & Star On His Head” a spiritual parable positioned as a traditional English folk song. The tune is taken from 1972’s Catch Bull At Four album, his follow-up to the immense Teaser & the Firecat record. Because of the momentum created by that previous release, Catch Bull At Four was his best-selling record.
Cat Stevens had enjoyed some success previous even to his celebrated early ’70s albums as a pop star. He’d changed his name from Steven Georgiou to Cat Stevens in the ’60s, enjoying some success with respectably charting songs in the UK, like “Matthew & Son”, “I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun”, and “I Love My Dog”.
He also would score some success as a songwriter of material for other people, including “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, a hit initially for P.P Arnold, and then for others down the decades (Sheryl Crow, Rod Stewart). Yet, it would be in the next decade where he’d forge his musical path, with a sort of baroque-flavoured folk style infused with a sense of the spiritual.
This tune is certainly one of those, starting off with a scene of ’60s free-love, and eventually turning to a less carnal, and more mystically informed theme of spiritual wisdom, with a prescription for love and connectedness as a pay-off.
In some ways this wasn’t just a song, but it was Stevens’ story as an artist, too. But, how?
A key thread to be found in Stevens’ music from 1970 onward is all about a man being pestered by the bigger questions in life, after playing the role of self-indulgent pop star. The irony of course is that it would be this spiritual impulse that helped him to generate some very worldly success, greater than he’d ever enjoyed in that earlier pure pop star period.
“The Boy With The Moon & Star On His Head”, among other songs recorded around the same time (“Moonshadow”, “Kathmandu”, “On The Road To Find Out”), reflected his own eventual chosen path and identity, or at least the one he was aiming for while his audience got bigger and bigger. But, the weight of increasing fame was something that would become more and more burdensome to him.
By 1978, he’d recorded his last record as Cat Stevens; Back to Earth. And by the next year, “Cat Stevens” was subsumed by Yusuf Islam, a Muslim activist, educator, charity organizer, and school trustee where the million-selling ’70s singer-songwriter once stood.
He wouldn’t release another album for 28 years.
And where it’s hard to pass judgement on his decision with any real insight, I’ve come to think that the impulse to jettison an artistic life for a purely religious one is something of a false dichotomy. In the lines of his songs, many of his listeners have surely found meaning, just by hearing their own spiritual and existential struggles reflected back at them in song. That’s what art is supposed to do; it is a form of ministry. And when it comes to spiritual connection relating to common experiences between people, what is more connected than that?
Perhaps he figured educational projects and the founding of charitable organizations would produce more palpable results. Yet, that’s a false dichotomy too, as proven by other artists who find the time to take up charitable causes while continuing artistic pursuits.
But, really it’s all academic. The engine of his work in the “Cat Stevens years” was the struggle for enlightenment, not the achievement of it. By 1979, he arrived at a destination he was happy with, as a person. By extension, he’d come to the end of what he had to say as an artist by the time he’d converted. Maybe that’s the only argument that matters.
Luckily, Yusuf (as he’s now known) returned to music in any case after a long period of reflection on how he could do it honestly, while maintaining the humanitarian work he began when he embraced the Muslim faith. He’s released two albums since; An Other Cup in 2006, and Roadsinger in 2009.
You can investigate his official Yusuf site for more recent recordings and news.