Tea For The Tillerman 1 and 2: Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam

Some albums make an impression before you even hear them. Tea for the Tillerman was one of those albums for me, the Van Gogh like rustic simplicity of the images, the mystic cover, almost torn from the children’s books of the 1970s, a Green Man style figure drinking tea in Arcadia, surrounded by playing happy children. It painted a picture of pastoral heavenly existence. Who is this tillerman? What kind of boat is he steering? What kind of tea is he drinking? Can we drink Cat Steven’s enlightening ‘tea’. Of course ‘tea’ used to be slang for marijuana, and Cat Stevens, as he was back then, was an incorrigible hippy. A beautiful enlightened man, who sang about peace, and where the children could play safely, and the passage of time and the pain of it’s passing.

I remember looking for answers to the deep feeling just looking at the album engendered in my soul, and longing to be allowed to put it on my parent’s record player to hear what this jovial Tillerman of Life had to say to me. Fast forward fifty years, and Tea for the Tillerman 2, the reinvented Yusuf Islam covers of his earlier Cat Stevens masterpiece rocks an updated cover. Like the tracks, the bones of the cover are the same, just a few details have changed. The full day of 1970 Tillerman world, the bright midsummer children playing on the tree of life while the Tillerman drinks his tea, has faded into dusk. The Tillerman is wearing a spacesuit, his helmet bubble preventing that cup of enlightenment getting to his mouth, and the child on the tree is wearing headphones so they can’t hear the message of peace and the deep medicine that Cat is offering.

The other child is looking up into the tree with a cellphone, their connection to each other stymied by technology. The Tillerman shut off from the world around by his spacesuit. There is no freedom while we are under such close inspection due to the rise of the all seeing internet, while we are all distracted in our own little worlds, with human connections decreased until we are first together apart, then apart physically, caused by the pandemic, and apart in every other way, cleaved asunder by the maladies of this modern world.

The cat that is hidden in the first Tea album peeks out from under the table in the second – the Cat Stevens of old is still there within these tracks peeking out from beneath the laden table of good food and tea for thought on offer. There are still secrets to be revealed in that which is hidden. We still haven’t seen what is beyond the hills in the distance. The Tillerman is still talking. The lonesome figure on the hill is still dancing before the lighting, conjuring up the rain, now in the moonlight, where before in the sun.

Tea for the Tillerman is a pleasant sounding album, ignoring the lyrics, the questions, the hippy peace and love (damn them, who needs peace and love and understanding, huh!). The first album was inspired by Cat Steven’s brush with death in the form of tuberculosis, and his fledgling study of metaphysics in the form of a book on Buddhism, which led to the start of his long spiritual journey towards his natural home of Islam. Cat Stevens took the name Yusuf Islam in 1977, when he converted to Islam.

Bring tea for the Tillerman
Steak for the sun
Wine for the woman who made the rain come
Seagulls sing your hearts away
'Cause while the sinners sin, the children play
Oh Lord, how they play and play
For that happy day, for that happy day 
(Cat Stevens, Tea For the Tillerman)

The Tillerman, the ferryman, the pied piper, the Holy Fool…Buddha….Jesus, the Gates of Heaven or the River Styx. The old song of bringing ‘tea’ or incense for the spirits who guide us, bloody sacrifices to the Sun God, wine for the witches and the rainmakers, the shamans and the enlightened (and salt and bread if you want to give them ascendency), is made anew, fifty years down the line with a grizzled and chastened Yusuf/Cat. The seagulls are singing hearts away, out to the sea where all hearts can get lost, given half a chance, and whilst getting lost is part and parcel of being free, the heart longs to find a home, a resting spot after exile. Yusuf, having been asking for over 50 years, “where do the children play”, is still singing that while the sullied sinners carry on in their sin, the children play and play. In his video the children are freed from their hypnotic insular worlds of headphones and cellphones and take off into the mystical woods of life, holding hands, running wild, running free…..running for their lives. Oh happy day that the children play once again!

Tea for the Tillerman 1 and 2 are glorious bookends on a career put into hiatus by Yusef Islam’s conversion and subsequent holding up as the spokesman for his religion. Yusef/Cat and I differ in our spiritual views to a certain extent, even if we are singing from the same playbook. From the moment I heard the album as a small child, to this point, at the other end of my life I have loved these songs. The litmus test for albums is how deeply they wind their way into the conciousness and into people’s lives.

As a child, listening to Father and Son, the gentle advice given freely, in an almost psalm-like devotion to the comfort that gets passed from old to young and so on down the ages. “Look at me, I am old, but I am happy”. Hearing those words as a child, feeling sadness for the old person playing me the song, and now as a woman, who to be frank, is in failing health, and my dreams withered on the vine before I ever had the chance to realize them, there remains an absolute truth: “I know I have to go away. I know I have to go.” Times passes People die. New ones are born, hopefully into freedom, sometimes into pain and suffering, and the cycle goes on and on. Until the rich powerful men in charge blow us all up, or kill us all with some biohazard subterfuge, that is. The reworked version has a little more weight, a little more heaviness, a lot more sadness, if that is all possible, the two imaginings holding each other up, like the house of cards that is humanity and our fragile balancing act that is coming unstuck at the seams.

The general feeling for Tea for the Tillerman 2, is indeed night to the brighter, lighter day of the original. “They move so smooth they have no answers”, he sings in Hard Headed Woman, talking about the girls he looks to for answers, or succor, comfort and challenge, and instead gets bored and used in equal measure. There is more gypsy mystical, whirling chiming sound to the updated versions. In the updated Hard Headed Woman, he changes the lyrics to reflect the fact he found his hard headed woman. He is lacking the anger of the original, and has gained a lot more soulful appreciation. It is a beautiful transformation of a song, a life and a sentiment. How beautiful to find your place, your people, your peace, your everything and to build on that. This is the voice of a man content with life.

The new version of Wild World, is a jazz tinged shot of dark coffee for the soul. The freedom of the original is missing, replaced with a Leonard Cohen-esque sadness. This song is dancing on chairs, watching Bathsheba on the roof bathing, and heading into the wilderness to get another dose of Truth. Yusef has now seen what Cat was looking for, and it clearly saddens him and gladdens him in equal measure. There is one thing the old know: the young will rarely listen to our admonishments and warnings. After all…what do we know, fifty years down the line, that we didn’t know then? What do any of us know? That ‘baby, baby it’s a wild world?” We each have to find that out for ourselves.

Tea for the Tillerman is still the thoughtful seeking for enlightenment piece of musical mastery it always has been, the new imagining adding layers to the meaning and the beauty. “I know we’ve come a long way” Cat and Yusuf sing across the decades. We are still asking that question. The comfort is still there, the camaraderie, the compassion and soulfulness. The aesthetic is more mystic less hippy, the sound is more grown up and lacking the sheer freedom of the original, yet these two albums exist as part of each other. They are bookends. An essential voice on how to live, how to die and the bits in between that hurt and cause fear. Yusuf Islam is an example to us all of how to live true to ourselves, and thus make the most out of this time we are allotted on earth.

Not all the tracks work as well as they perhaps should. Sad Lisa is too far in the past to have the impact and heart tugging desolation of the original, and Yusuf sounds as if he is struggling with the memory of the song, and the updated version drags somewhat. Perhaps a memory too much to bear. The crack in his voice in the original, the reedy emptiness is too far filled in the 2020 version. Sometimes some things belong in the past. Cat Stevens was a troubadour. Yusuf Islam, his post conversion incarnation is a spiritual man, a teacher. Sad Lisa has the lingering scent of past love, yet here is Yusuf/Cat wanting to show her the way to freedom. The seeds for his redemption are sown already.

Tea for the Tillerman 2 is a triumph, the lesson that we both long for and shy away from. Thought provoking, beautiful, heartwarmingly reassuring, glorious-sounding. Into White lists the good things that Cat’s earthly home is built of, foreshadowing a heaven built out of everything good. I wish Yusuf continued good travels through this world into the next. I only wish my house were built so safely. Peace!

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