The former Cat Stevens looks forward to entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Yusuf Islam, the musician once known as Cat Stevens who is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, tells Randy Lewis why he sees no clash between celebrity and spirituality
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," says the 65-year-old musician born Steven Georgiou, formerly known as Cat Stevens and who now uses the name Yusuf. "I was brought up on the view that if you wait patiently until 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 Yusuf's 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.
Yusuf earned his place as a fully 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.
Yusuf 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, even changing his name to Yusuf 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]," Yusuf says. "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 Yusuf established his reputation with gentle, introspective acoustic guitar-driven songs that got him lumped among the "sensitive singer-songwriter" camp of the early 1970s, 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, for Yusuf, rock'n'roll has as much to do with attitude as with instrumentation. "If there are any rules to … rock'n'roll, only a couple of times did I actually conform to those rules. 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 - has several artists who've publicly distanced themselves from the notion of fame. In September, Ronstadt said she didn't care if she were ever inducted, saying celebrity had nothing to do with why she pursued music as her life's calling. Before Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, he was vocal about his discomfort with the fame heaped upon him. And Gabriel has said artistry, not the pursuit of fame, is what motivates his musical endeavours.
For Yusuf, however, fame and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. "Buddha was famous," he notes, "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 institution all have fan bases that have pushed for their induction. It's an aspect of fame Yusuf understands. "Every fan of any musician or any group knows how great it feels when their band do well. 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 famous backer who Yusuf recently discovered had lobbied on his behalf. "One of my greatest supporters turns out to be someone you wouldn't expect," he says. "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 [Pearl Jam] 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, Yusuf returned to the music world in 2006 with a new album, An Other Cup, which reached No52 on the US Billboard 200 Albums chart, and followed it three years later with Roadsinger, which took him up to No41. He's spent much of the intervening years focusing on the stage musical he'd long wanted to write, Moonshadow, which he says 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 this year.
Before that, however, he expects to attend the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April in New York to witness what happens. His children, he says, are "happy along with everyone else. They see their dad as just the best. Who am I to argue?"
Los Angeles Times