In the period 1971-1972, I was just getting into Bob Dylan’s songs from the Sixties, but the singer on the radio that I liked best was Cat Stevens. This was the period when his string of albums, Tea for the Tillerman (1970, but 1971 in the U.S.), Teaser and the Firecat (1971), and Catch Bull at Four (1972) established him as the numero uno “sensitive songwriter” who had a fully masculine singing voice, a way with introspective, questioning lyrics combined with a pop sensibility, and tasteful orchestrations that actually added something other than schmaltz to his tunes. He was sort of my main man there for a bit.
In choosing a song to represent him--born as Steven Georgiou on yesterday’s date in 1948, he took the name Yusef Islam in the year he turned 30, after converting to Islam in 1977—I could’ve taken something from Tillerman, the album that introduced him to me. I can still remember hearing my older brother’s 8-track tape of it in the first car he bought, a Chevy Nova (I didn’t get around to that album’s very likeable predecessor—Mona Bone Jakon (1970)—until Yusef’s Cat Stevens records were remastered for CD in the 2000s). Tillerman has many memorable tracks: “Wild World” (the radio hit), “Father and Son” (maybe another time), “Miles from Nowhere” (“Wild World”’s B-side), “Sad Lisa,” always a favorite, and many others. Not a bad track on the album. Teaser was less stellar, though it had an even bigger hit, “Peace Train” (not one of my faves), and the oddly offbeat “Moonshadow,” among others.
But I’ve just returned from a trip to Minnesota. Which meant a flight from Trenton to Minneapolis and back, and over 1,000 miles of travel on the ground. And the song that best matches to my recent experiences is from Catch Bull at Four, which is still my favorite Cat Stevens album. It’s grander than Tillerman, and seems to me the Cat’s definitive musical statement. The song, given that Stevens would drop his pop-songwriter persona in six years, seems perhaps prophetic. But Cat was always writing songs questioning the purpose of life and the indignities of being “a star,” as well as the kind of searching for something that will matter to me songs—some of which actually work as meditations on transcendence of this cruel, debased world—that teens such as I was thrill to. “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)” is a song that takes its situation from traveling, from making it to the plane on time, but turns it into a kind of glimpse into an allegorical “pilgrim’s progress.” So that when, at the close, he chortles “boy, you made it just in time!” there’s the feeling that he has escaped some kind of purgatorial state, that he has arrived elsewhere. A consummation devoutly to be wished, indeed.
And that’s the thing about travel. It’s such a joy to hop a plane and begone from where you are—Cat even fills in those travel details such as “I checked my bags and made it straight to end gate 22”—but it’s also a joy to hop a plane that takes you back to where you once belonged. “Well, I rode a while for a mile or so / Down the road to the 18th avenue / And the people I saw were the people I know / And they all came out to take a view.” I always see this in kind of James Ensor style images of a crowd of grotesques gathering to see our boy off (saw a great Ensor in Minneapolis). Not that the People I Know are grotesque—but rather the “nightmare” sense of the song is that the people one knows are oppressive, figures that share somehow “the dark and borderless” nature of the path and have to do with the fact that the singer’s hands are tied and he’s struggling. The images are of someone captive to this world—the social world, the world of success and pressure and fame, the world of worldliness, in a word—and trying to escape it.
The part that resonated most with me—in the lyrics, that is—comes in with: “And it stung my tongue to repeat the words I used to use only yesterday / Meanings just dropped to the ground” (thud) / “I tried to remember what I thought and what I used to say.” That does it. That alienation from one’s own purposes, one’s ground of being—we might say—one’s path, one’s chosen profession, one’s tendency to use words as though they carried meaning independent of context. The context is what doesn’t make sense any longer. God help me, get me on that plane!
The little scherzo that comes in between the verses is very diverting—as it evokes the way the singer is caught up in a reverie that removes him mentally if not bodily from the scenes he’s been trying to navigate. “Too hungry to rise / too hungry to” is the last line sung before the passage begins, and it suggests that he’s stuck on the ground, with dull corporeality, but then the music performs almost an escape theme, one that takes us back in a return to the opening and the same lines about the dark and borderless path and the people he knows, but which segues into “My head felt better as I turned the car / And the airport slowly came in view.”
After the everyday sort of description of making it to the plane—just in time—the song ends rather abruptly, but fittingly. We can imagine him sinking into his seat and contemplating the runway, or even the clouds outside the cabin window. A bit like Dorothy tapping those ruby slippers together and getting the fuck out of Oz.
Memories were blank to my eyes.