How does a man who turned his back on the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in a quest to be closer to God feel about being welcomed into an institution whose very name celebrates the culture of fame?
“Even though it’s taken time, I’ve always been an optimist,” said the 65-year-old musician born Steven Georgiou, formerly known as Cat Stevens and who now uses the single name Yousuf. “I was brought up on the view that if you wait patiently till the end of the story, the good people will live happily ever after. So this is sort of a fulfilment of that idea.”
The appearance of Stevens’ name among the latest round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame carries more than a hint of irony for anyone who paid attention to the British singer and songwriter’s career during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Stevens earned his place as a full-fledged pop star — a sex symbol even — through a string of hits including Peace Train, Wild World, Morning Has Broken and Oh Very Young. Many of his songs, however, contained cautionary messages about the dangers of being seduced by the material world, advising listeners to seek out something more enduring than the fleeting pleasures earthly life has to offer.
Stevens himself took that message to heart, abandoning his music career after the release of his 1978 album Back to Earth and devoting himself to the study and practice of Islam, changing his name to Yousuf Islam as part of his religious conversion.
If a single song crystallised his philosophy of music as a means of spiritual exploration, it’s On the Road to Find Out from his breakthrough 1970 album, Tea for the Tillerman.
There’s already been some online grousing about his selection for the hall by rock fans whose definition of what constitutes “rock ‘n’ roll” is limited to musicians who wield electric guitars in conventional guitar-bass-drums line-ups.
“The whole institution of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame started after rock ‘n’ roll [came into being],” he said. “So it has come in as a kind of a snapshot of history, and that means in the end it’s all about music. It’s not just a matter of a panel of judges talking about their choices and names — it’s to do with the music. From that point of view, it sounds interesting, although I haven’t actually seen what happens at these kind of inductions.”
Although Stevens established his reputation with gentle, introspective acoustic guitar-driven songs that got him lumped among the “sensitive singer-songwriter” camp of the early-’70s, with 1972’s Catch Bull at Four album and successors such as Foreigner and Buddha and the Chocolate Box, he incorporated more of rock’s sonic punch into his music.
Nevertheless, to Yousuf — as to many others — “rock ‘n’ roll” has as much to do with attitude as with instrumentation.
“If there are any rules to what we call ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ only a couple of times did I actually conform to those rules,” he said. “And that was the point — it was always the spirit of that generation to break the mould. I think we did that magnificently.”
This year’s class of inductees — also including Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, KISS and Hall & Oates — includes several artists who’ve publicly distanced themselves from the notion of fame.
In September, before this year’s nominations were announced, Ronstadt told the Los Angeles Times that she didn’t care if she were ever inducted, saying that fame and celebrity had nothing to do with the reasons she pursued music as her life’s calling.
Before Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, he was consistently vocal about his discomfort with the fame heaped upon him when the group found commercial success. Perhaps less blatantly, Gabriel also has expressed that artistry, not the pursuit of fame, is what motivates his musical endeavors.
For Yousuf, however, fame and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.
“Buddha was famous,” he noted, “even though he didn’t aim to be. Because of that struggle within himself, people used him as a standard for their own lives. People then latch onto others because they feel an affinity for what they’ve done, and when a lot of people do that, you become famous.”
Though Buddha hasn’t been on the list, those recognised by the rock hall all have fan bases that have pushed for their induction. It’s an aspect of fame Yousuf said he fully understood.
“Every fan of any musician or any group knows how great it feels when their band does well,” he said. “I know that feeling, so I’m really happy for them as well, as well as those behind the scenes who were working to get me in there.”
That includes one equally famous supporter that Yousuf recently discovered had lobbied on his behalf.
“One of my greatest supporters turns out to be someone you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “My son found out that Johnny Ramone — would you believe on his deathbed — [said] one of his last wishes was that I should be inducted. So he got Eddie Vedder and [the Red Hot Chili Peppers’] John Frusciante to write letters on my behalf. Support can come from the strangest places.”
After almost three decades out of the pop spotlight, Yousuf returned to the music world in 2006 with a new album, An Other Cup, which reached No. 52 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, and followed it three years later with “Roadsinger, which took him up to No. 41.
He’s spent much of the intervening years focusing on the stage musical he’d long wanted to write, Moonshadow, which he said he’s turning into a children’s book. Periodically, he’s gone into the recording studio to work on a new album that he hopes to finish and release in 2014.
Before that, however, he expects to attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April in New York to witness first-hand what happens — as much for his fans and his family as for himself.
His children, he said, are “happy along with everyone else. They see their dad as just the best. Who am I to argue?”