Cat Stevens Returns, Explains Himself

Cat Stevens | Ahmet Ertegun

Cat Stevens Returns, Explains Himself

Cat Stevens is back. Well, his name now is Yusuf Islam, and we’ll call him that, but old habits are hard to break, and you know, he was our Cat for a long, long time.

Last night he returned to the U.S. and the stage, playing a nice long set at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center for invited guests including rocker Patti Smith and a heavy mix of folks from the media like New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles, filmmaker Albert Maysles, rock impresario David Spero and writer Daphne Merkin.

The show, taped for KCRW-FM, was interspersed with a conversation with that radio station’s Nic Harcourt.

But you know, it wasn’t until after the mesmerizing, emotional show that I got to ask Yusuf a tough question: Does he regret denouncing author Salman Rushdie and appearing to endorse the fatwa, or death sentence, leveled at him by Ayatollah Khomeini?

“I never said it,” he replied, smiling. He used his two index fingers to show polar opposites. “We were just poles apart,” he said of Rushdie. “We disagreed. But I never said such a thing.”

Nevertheless, Yusuf — who by then had been out of the spotlight for many years and had become a dark, mysterious distant figure — gained the hatred of American radio stations. There were mass bonfires of his albums staged by extremists. It was a bad time.

But Yusuf is far from being a dark, mysterious figure at all. At the Allen Room he was dressed in jeans, suede desert boots, a nice T-shirt and vest. His hair, once jet black and wavy, is straight, short and gray. He sports a scruffy gray beard as well.

He is Muslim by a choice he made in 1978 — ironic since his brother, also raised Greek Orthodox, converted to Judaism around the same time, or so I am told.

Yusuf is also slight, and in good shape considering he will turn 60 next spring. He has a wide smile, which makes him very charming still, and his singing voice, I am happy to report, is intact, as is his guitar playing.

When he opened his mouth to open with an old song, “The Wind,” there was an electric sensation sent through the room. No one’s heard his voice live since 1978. It was like an old friend had returned from the dead.

Still, he’s sorry about the Rushdie business.

“It was 17 years ago,” he said, shaking his head. Rushdie had criticized the Muslim religion in his book, "The Satanic Verses.” Many in Iran considered it blasphemy. Yusuf said to me, “All we want is peace.” Well, it was a heady time.

So how did Cat Stevens (born Steven Georgiou to a Greek father and Swedish mother) leave his career as a rock star and become a Muslim? The short answer is that he was swimming in Malibu and started to drown.

“I was drowning in Malibu,” he said, and he promised God that if he lived he would change his life. It was a big life, too, full of rock amenities like gorgeous girlfriends. Carly Simon was one before her marriage to James Taylor, and Stevens wrote “Lady D’Arbanville” about actress Patti D’Arbanville.

“I had to deflate myself,” Yusuf said to Harcourt last night in during an interlude in the concert. “I had to come back to life.”

One surprise: He said his mother actually chose his wife for him. “I had a choice of two women. She decided.”

On stage last night, with the New York skyline shining behind him, Yusuf mixed songs from his new album, “An Other Cup,” with old hits like “The Wind,” “Oh Very Young,” “Father and Son,” and “Peace Train” — which he dedicated to the memory of Ahmet Ertegun.

The new songs, especially “Indian Ocean,” which is about the 2004 tsunami, are melodically beautiful and lush. But the old songs really packed an unexpected punch. Yusuf’s long absence from the scene works well for him. Hearing his old music is like receiving a bottle of Fiji water in the desert.

But didn’t he miss us all those years, I asked?

“I had a family and a life, and I did a lot of charity work,” he said. Two years ago he picked up a guitar for the first time since his retirement thanks to his son, Muhammad (he’s inherited the hair, by the way).

“I said, 'Hello, I know you,'” the singer recalled.

One reason he returned: “The Muslim world now is artless,” he said. “I wanted to show that there is creativity. It’s not grim.”

If we’re lucky, Yusuf will tour with his band, maybe to small venues. For now, though, he’s returning to London after doing a little publicity and testing the waters. My guess is he’ll be back soon, and he is very, very welcome.

Who knows? This may be a renaissance in the making. He says he recently spoke to Simon for the first time in years. “She called to say she’d named her new album 'Into the White,' after my song,” he said, proudly.

Ahmet's Farewell Payola Pays Off

Atlantic Record’s Craig Kallman made it back for the Yusuf show last night after a quick trip to Turkey for Ahmet Ertegun’s funeral. Kid Rock, whom Ahmet really adored, went along with Warner Music Group’s Lyor Cohen, Kevin Liles and Richard Blackstone, among others.

A memorial service is planned in New York for mid-March, around the time of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. Ertegun was a founder.

Meanwhile, March 6 had already been inked into the calendar for a memorial to beloved Atlantic producer Arif Mardin, equally legendary. …

Remember the $19 million in fines collected by the New York State attorney general for payola? Record companies and radio congloms each had to fork over the millions.

Now the Rockefeller Philanthropy has announced all the beneficiaries, and they did a great job. Lots of arts organizations big and small, famous and obscure, shared in this big pie.

I am particularly pleased that $400,000 went to radio station WFMU, and several hundred thousand dollars went to classical music institutions including Carnegie Hall, American Composers Orchestra and the Juilliard School. Even the Apollo Theater Foundation got $100,000.

All that bribery and useless graft turned out to be a boon for all New York state arts groups. We can only hope it will start all over again! ...

Every year at Christmas I like to mention the Wiz himself, Dick Sequerra, one of the founders of fabled Marantz Audio many years ago. Dick now makes custom speakers from his Stamford, Conn., workshop, where his clients include rock stars and CEOs.

He still has a few pairs of his affordable Met 7 speakers available. They sound like nothing else in the world. At $850 a pair, they’re a steal and a half.