Oh, I’ve been smiling lately
Dreaming about the world as one
‘Cause out on the edge of darkness
There rides a peace train.
--From Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”
Could the man who wrote the brotherhood lyrics of “Peace Train” in 1970 really be the same one who now reportedly supports the Ayatollah Khomeini’s demands for the death of “The Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie?
Bob Garcia, who worked closely with Cat Stevens at A&M; Records in the ‘70s, finds it hard to equate the man he remembers to the one who now goes by the name Yusuf Islam and was quoted last week in Great Britain as saying, “The Koran makes it clear: If someone defames the prophet then he must die.”
Remarked Garcia on Tuesday: “The Cat Stevens we have on record was of a different time. What he became is the man who gave that quote. I cannot comment on him. I can only comment on the man who was here . . . a man who made some very humanitarian records. Whatever his beliefs are now were not inherent in the records.”
Garcia, national director of artist relations for the Hollywood-based record company, said he received numerous calls from long-time Stevens fans who are disheartened by the turn of events.
“I’ve gotten calls from very upset (people) who say they are going to mail their Cat Stevens records back,” he said. “We’ve always gotten letters or calls for him . . . very emotional calls. I remember people calling and saying, ‘I was contemplating suicide and his music saved my life.’ This was a very strong figure on the music scene--sensitive with a capital S, which is why it’s so hard to equate him with what is going down now.”
Islam--born Steven Georgiou in London in 1948--was one of the most acclaimed figures in pop in the early ‘70s, a singer-songwriter whose eight Top 20 albums included “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Catch Bull at Four.” Several of his songs were also featured in the cult film, “Harold and Maude.”
The music--as reflected in such tunes as “Peace Train” and “Oh Very Young"--was characterized by graceful melodies and lyrics that spoke with gentle optimism about humanity’s future. The songs gave the singer an image of openness and tolerance.
Islam stunned the pop world in 1979 when he walked away from his music career, saying it was incompatible with his new-found Muslim faith. Unlike numerous other pop stars whose “retirements” proved temporary, he has shown no signs of resuming his career. Islam now runs a Muslim school trust in North London.
Three Islam/Stevens songs have gotten renewed attention recently: “Wild World"--a 1971 hit--has been revived by reggae singer Maxi Priest; “Where Do the Children Play"--also from 1971--has been used by UNICEF, and “Peace Train” was released last year as a single by the rock group 10,000 Maniacs.
Garcia said there has been a resurgence of interest in Islam’s music since the re-release in recent years of several early albums on compact disc.
The record company executive also said that Islam has not entirely cut himself off from his pop star past. When A&M; was preparing a CD-only greatest hits collection two years ago, Islam specifically requested that some songs not be included.
“He never wrote a song that was fleshy or lusty and negative, but (he was concerned about) things of a more concrete nature reflecting a particular period of time,” Garcia explained.
Skip Clary, a clerk at the Tower Records’ West Hollywood store reported Tuesday that about six protesters demonstrated outside the store Saturday, calling for a boycott on the Englishman’s records.
Clary said the publicity being generated by the controversy and the boycott calls could stir interest in Islam’s music and actually boost sales-- which have run steadily at an estimated 10 or 12 Stevens albums per month at the store in recent years.
Ironically, Islam sued the Chicago-based tabloid the Globe for $5 million in 1984 for alleging that he was associated with Ayatollah Khomeini. The Globe headline at the time: “Cat Stevens Joins the Evil Ayatollah.” The suit was settled out of court in 1987.