It took a near drowning off the coast of Malibu in 1977 for Cat Stevens to take a hard look at his life and to get his priorities in order.
At the time, Stevens was one of the world’s biggest pop stars, a man with a unique voice and tremendous lyrical and melodic talents who, along with James Taylor, put a face on the “singer/songwriter” genre of pop — a soft, acoustic-based music perfect for the mellow times.
Stevens had released two classic albums, 1970’s “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat” in 1971, scored top 10 singles with “Peace Train,” “Morning Has Broken” and “Oh Very Young,” and some of his early work (“Let the Children Play,” “Trouble” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”) served as the music for the brilliant cult film “Harold and Maude.”
Although his last few albums had been a bit disappointing, Stevens was still a major star when he took that fateful swim in the ocean, and by the time he reached the shore he was a different man. He went on a spiritual search through many religions before converting to Islam, changing his name to Yusuf Islam in 1979. He gave up music, instead focusing on the Muslim community in London and building a school for religious education.
Stevens was not heard from again until he was accused — wrongly, as it turned out — of supporting the fatwa (or death sentence) placed on “Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Then, in 2004, Yusuf was briefly detained in the U.S. after his name appeared on a post-9/11 “no-fly” list.
Now Yusuf is back in the public eye — this time for his music and not his religious beliefs — as he has just released his first album of popular songs (he has recorded some religious-themed music) since 1978’s “Back to Earth.”
While “An Other Cup” is not the powerhouse album that “Tea for the Tillerman” was, the disc is better than his midto-latter ’70s albums. The first track, “Midday (Avoid City After Dark),” is a light, pianobased pop song with Yusuf’s instantly recognizable voice seemingly unchanged after nearly three decades. “Heaven/Where True Love Goes” is more along the lines of the singer’s older work, with delicately finger-picked acoustic guitars buoyed by string arrangements and a positive, worldly lyric.
There are some moments on “An Other Cup” that are avoidable: a cover of The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” feels like a plea to his religion’s detractors; the pretentious, spoken word “When Butterflies Leave” sounds like an audiotape reading of a bad fairy tale; and “I Think I See the Light” is repetitive and annoying with more spokenword mumbo jumbo. But gorgeous songs such as “Maybe There’s a World,” “One Day at a Time” and “Greenfields, Golden Sands” make this disc a worthwhile addition to Yusuf’s catalog.
There’s no telling if this portends a second phase of Yusuf’s career, or if this is a one-off comeback disc, but either way it’s just good to hear him singing again.
MUSIC’S GREAT DISAPPEARING ACTS
Cat Stevens is not the only musician who has turned his back on a successful and lucrative career. Here are a few more stars who seemingly vanished into thin air at the height of their popularity.
The biggest-selling male artist of all time in any genre, country star Garth Brooks, who made the music cool for people who hated country with his rock-styled stage show, abruptly pulled the plug on his career after his 2001 disc, “Scarecrow,” to spend more time with his children. Brooks’ lone public appearance as a performer since then came at last year’s CMA Awards, when he performed “Good Ride Cowboy,” his tribute to his late friend, country singer Chris LeDoux. Despite plenty of pleading from fans, Brooks remains out of the public eye, living in Oklahoma with no plans for a comeback.
One of the greatest rock guitarists in history, Green lent his tasty licks and songwriting talent to the original Fleetwood Mac in the late ’60s, penning classics such as “Black Magic Woman,” “Oh Well” and “Albatross.” Green was also fond of psychedelic drugs, became obsessed with religion and abruptly quit the band in 1970, giving away his prized Gibson Les Paul to future Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore. For the most part, Green remains in seclusion, although he resurfaces from time to time with the odd solo record.
Pink Floyd’s original psychedelic mastermind in the ’60s was ousted from the band after his predilection for LSD made him unable to function onstage (he reportedly kept playing the same note over and over during his last show with the band). After two uneven solo records, Barrett retreated to his mother’s house and was rarely seen in public again. He died earlier this year.
There was no bigger rock band on the planet in the late ’80s and early ’90s than Guns N’ Roses, and singer Axl Rose was the focal point whose Mick Jagger/Steven Tyler-esque stage presence made him the quintessential rock star. Apparently hard to work with (all of the original members of the band have long since left), Axl has stayed out of the public eye, only occasionally coming up for air in the tabs, while he obsessively works on an album to be called “Chinese Democracy.” It’s a disc he’s been working on for more than a decade, but that will reportedly be released this year. We’re not holding our breath.