Peace Train in the Age of Donald Trump

A night in London with Yusuf / Cat Stevens, an artist whose 50 year career of preaching peace and love feels more necessary than ever.

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Nov 29 2016, 7:02pm

Twelve days after the election of Donald Trump, I went to see Yusuf/ Cat Stevens in Soho, London. I suspect I was not alone in wondering what he would have to say about a President-elect who has called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Yusuf Islam, or Cat Stevens, is, after all, probably the most famous western convert to Islam, one who 12 years ago was refused entry to the US on national security grounds, and who was driven to sue several newspapers after accusations that he supported terrorism and refused to talk to unveiled women.

But I hadn't come to the concert for this. I didn't want political statements, and I was tired, no, exhausted, of talking about Trump. Like so many of us, I was traumatized by recent events, sick with anxiety at the prospect of a man regularly described as a white supremacist becoming the most powerful head of state in a world increasingly filled with hatred and violence. I longed for love, for warmth, was terrified that these free, essential nutrients might soon be in short supply. I wanted to hear "Peace Train" and "Morning has Broken" and "Wild World," and I didn't care whether the man singing them called himself Yusuf Islam or Cat Stevens.

Since the first moment I heard his music, I'd always felt that his was an essence that transcended politics and identity, and it was this that I hoped to experience that evening. Transcendence. That most romantic of all notions, one as intrinsic to spirituality as faith, and one as frequently derided in an era in which reason is said to reign supreme, yet seems increasingly characterized by ignorance and despair.

I first listened to Cat Stevens while walking up a hill in Hong Kong. I felt as though I'd discovered an ancient voice in that most modern of cities, looking down on skyscrapers while hearing images that could have come from ancient Benares or the shores of Galilee ("I've sat upon the setting sun/ But never, never, never never/ I never wanted water once/ No never, never, never never.")

I bought every one of his albums the following day, and learned how he quit the music business after converting to Islam at the end of the 70s, how his cold, ostensibly hateful comments about Salman Rushdie returned his name to the papers in 1989. His story was almost the mirror image of Rushdie's; one a Muslim who became the champion of Western secularism, the other a Londoner who renounced the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll that became his domain. But both were players, or perhaps pawns, in the latest round of the 1400 year old tussle between so-called Islam and so-called Christendom.  

When he returned to music in 2006 as Yusuf Islam, his new album, Another Cup, did not like the work of a different artist sound but like the maturation of an old one; it was the voice of a finder not a seeker, imbued with less agony and ecstasy and with greater wisdom and calm. Having worked for humanitarian causes for twenty-seven years, he cut a less severe figure than the early convert of 1989, one more stately and restrained in his piety, rewriting the old songs to substitute agape for eros, removing words like 'baby' and 'honey' and rewriting most of the lyrics to "Wild World" in Zulu.

In 2014 he released the album, Tell 'Em I'm Gone, as Yusuf/Cat Stevens, publicity shots revealing a bearded 66 year old rock star in a leather jacket and shades, the same figure who commenced his 'Cat's Attic' tour this year, his celebration of fifty years in the music business. Last week I was one of a few hundred people―his children, grandchildren, and closest friends included―who saw him perform in Shaftesbury Theatre, only meters down the road from where his parents used to own a café. The stage was designed to resemble the bedsit above the café where he used to sleep, a cut-out London skyline and a huge full moon facing the audience, drawing us back to his youth.

It took me some minutes to readjust to the man in front of me. He seemed so relaxed and at home, which he practically was, and, finally, so integrated. There is a psychotherapeutic exercise to combat shame wherein one visualizes all one's different 'parts', including those you may not much like, on a stage before an audience who warmly applauds every one of them and in effect, this was what he did. He began by explaining how he used to climb onto the roof of the theatre with his best friend, Andy, who was in the audience, and joked about his childhood longing for Natalie Wood in West Side Story before dancing joyously to "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles. After singing his first hit, "I Love My Dog," he confessed he stole the melody from a man called Yusuf Latif, then mimed delightedly to "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees, "such a good song" that nonetheless enraged him by keeping "Matthew and Son" from reaching number one. Even when he spoke about his years of smoking and drinking, taking drugs with Hendrix, and alluded to his reputedly prodigious sexual endeavors ("I was alone, well, relatively") it was with good humor and not the slightest attempt to dissociate himself from the person he used to be.

During the first set he filled the theatre with laughter, but in the second set he filled it with love, his voice shifting gears from sensitive cheeky Londoner to seventies mystic seer as he recounted the years after his recovery from tuberculosis in 1969"Suddenly my words were no longer private; they were universal, reflecting a lot of people's thoughts at the time. We were all on a search." He followed this with "Moonshadow," a sexy, shimmying "Wild World," unthinkable a decade ago, and an impossibly beautiful "Father and Son."

His voice softened after this as he told the story of how he came to "the Great Message," drowning in the sea off Malibu and offering  a prayer to god―"If you save me, I'll work for you,"―before a wave swept him to shore. A woman near the stage kept shouting to him to play "Father and Son" again, but the audience―mostly white, slightly drunk, Englishmen, and women over 50―gently shushed her so he could go on speaking about Islam. Throughout the evening, however, he never once referred to his religion by name; nor did he mention 9/11, or the War on Terror, or the election, not even two weeks old. Instead he simply said he returned to music in 2003 when he "saw how badly things were going in the world", realizing he had "another job to do." And with this he launched into "Peace Train," singing, "I've been crying lately, thinking about the world as it is/ Why must we go on hating? Why can't we live in bliss?"

Cynics might argue he has simply constructed a more commercially viable version of himself, but this is the rub when it comes to Yusuf/Cat Stevens: one is either a believer or not, and last Sunday felt like being in a room full of believers at the end of a villainous, hope-starved year. "We must try to shake it down. Do our best to break the ground," he sang from "Tuesday's Dead"; "Try to turn the world around, one more time." He finished by inviting us to join him in singing "Morning has Broken", taking this largely white and irreligious audience to church, an ancient mystic slipping once again beneath the curtain of the modern world.

Rajeev Balasubramanyam was recently writer in residence at the Zen Center of New York City. His latest novel is called Starstruck.  Follow him on Twitter.

Photo via Getty.di