“Morning has broken, like the first morning.” Whatever your faith, if you’ve got any at all, that’s pretty much what it boils down to. The sun comes up, and we give it another shot.
The former Cat Stevens sang those simple words more than 40 years ago, and I’m pretty sure they gave me religion. On Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the British songwriter now known as Yusuf Islam will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside several unlikely colleagues, Nirvana and KISS among them. (The ceremony will air on HBO on May 31.)
Stevens has expressed some bemusement about his induction: “I’m not sure I feel very comfortable being in a museum,” he told Billboard upon the news, “but you can’t stop life doing things to you.”
There are those who would deny him the honor, based not on his music — which sadly fell off a cliff, appeal-wise, about four albums in — but on his spiritual choices. Stevens converted to Islam in the late 1970s, and he angered a lot of fans when he appeared to support the fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie with comments he made in 1989.
But for a kid in thrall to the kinetic power of the spinning records in his father’s hi-fi console, Stevens seemed to be living proof that popular music (he had 11 Top 40 hits in six years) could point the way to a bit of enlightenment. On his classic 1971 album “Teaser and the Firecat,” with that great cover painting of the top-hatted, white-haired, starry-trousered young boy sitting in the gutter under a full moon, Stevens counseled listening to “The Wind”: “Where I’ll end up, well I think, only God really knows.”
The love songs — “each night and day I pray, in hope that I might find you” — sounded like biblical epics. “Morning Has Broken,” the one track on the album that Stevens didn’t write (it’s a traditional Christian hymn), featured the singer’s voice and a piano melody that rolled like the warmest wave and sounded like the worship service in your head. Heck, the guy even looked like Jesus.
He was tuned to the righteous social fervor of the times, too, on “Changes IV” and “Peace Train.” Both of those songs proved it: Stevens, forever lumped into the “fey folkie” bin, could in fact rock, sometimes quite hard.
He began his career as a baroque would-be pop star, selling a song called “The First Cut is the Deepest” to P.P. Arnold for a reported 30 pounds (about $50 today). Recast in an earthier mode by new producer Paul Samwell-Smith (who was in the Yardbirds), Stevens had a hit with “Wild World” before breaking big with several songs featured on the soundtrack to the cult black comedy “Harold and Maude.”
Fun fact: Peter Gabriel, another of this year’s Rock Hall inductees, played flute on Stevens’s 1970 song “Katmandu.”
This year’s honorees are a particularly motley crew, even by Rock Hall standards, with Linda Ronstadt and Hall and Oates included. Next to them, Stevens will get scant attention at this year’s induction ceremony — unless, that is, he has something to say about his faith. For now, this much can be said: There was a time when he was the voice of the seekers.