Cat Stevens Speaks Out In First Radio Interview In Decades

Singer/songwriter, now known as Yusuf Islam, discusses his career, controversies and faith.

Cat Stevens, possessor of one of the most instantly recognizable voices from the early 1970s' singer/songwriter movement, has been largely out of the picture since converting to Islam more than 20 years ago.

But recently, with the release of a greatest-hits package and the reissue of several of his classic albums from the '70s, the man now known as Yusuf Islam has resurfaced, most dramatically so on July 12, when Israeli officials refused to allow him into the country to film a program for VH1. (Sonicnet.com's parent company, Viacom, also

owns VH1.)

Islam took to the airwaves Wednesday night to speak about his career and his future on the syndicated American radio program "Rockline," with host Bob Coburn. It was the artist's first radio interview in decades.

"I realized after some years the picture that was coming across through the media of Islam and my life generally was getting pretty distorted," he said from London. "I had to do something to try to correct that. That's why I started thinking about my own label.

"I've established my own company called Mountain of Light and started to record, and those records are my attempt to reconnect with a public and people I used to be really close to in the past and lost contact with."

Islam is promoting the children's album/book "A Is for Allah," which is available through the label's Web site, mountainoflight.com.

A Thorough Retrospective

Stevens, born Steve Georgiou in 1947 in London, rode a wave of pop superstardom in the late 1960s and early '70s. The 1967 single "Matthew and Son" (RealAudio excerpt) was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but it wasn't until Tea for the Tillerman (1971) that he established himself. Hits such as "Peace Train," "Morning Has Broken" and "Wild World" (RealAudio excerpt) followed.

On Tuesday, A&M/Universal will reissue his albums Catch Bull at Four (1972), Foreigner (1973) and Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974). In May, the company released Stevens' Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat (1971), as well as a greatest-hits collection, The Very Best of Cat Stevens.

A caller Wednesday night asked Islam which of his albums was his favorite.

"The Foreigner [1973] — many people, including my son, like that album the most because it comes very natural," Islam said. "I've tried something new — I'm speaking from another place in my heart, and a lot of people liked that. Then Buddha and the Chocolate Box. ... I like that album. ... It has a lot of varied songs, which I still go back to and I can hear with pleasure today."

Islam also described how a near-death experience in 1975 was a pivotal moment in his life. He nearly drowned while swimming off the Malibu, Calif., coast.

"I was fighting, struggling with the Pacific Ocean," Islam said, "the fear of death vividly in front of me. I called out, 'Oh God, if you save me I will work for you.' At that moment a gentle wave came from behind me and pushed me forward, and suddenly I had all the energy I needed. I was swimming back, and I was home back on earth; I was sooo thankful."

Islam didn't know which form his new devotion would take for some time after the incident, but he converted in 1977 and made no music from 1978 to 1995. He funneled his royalties to Islamic charities and established four Islamic schools in London — one of which was recently visited by Prince Charles.

He also entered into an arranged marriage that has produced five children, ages 12 to 19.

In 1989, Islam became embroiled in controversy when, while giving a lecture, he was asked to comment on the fatwa, or death sentence, the Iranian government had ordered for author Salman Rushdie for perceived blasphemy in his book "The Satanic Verses."

"I'd been studying this issue to try to understand it myself," Islam said. "So I simply read from the commentaries of the Koran what the basic punishment was in Islam for that kind of crime. I thought that was a general legalistic question and a general legalistic answer."

Lasting Criticism

Islam was blasted in the Western world for what was interpreted as condoning the death sentence. Many radio stations stopped playing his music and still don't to this day.

Earlier this month, Islam, 52, was refused entry into Israel when the government, fearing his arrival was politically motivated and timed to coincide with the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Palestine, barred his entry, citing donations he allegedly made to the opposition group Hamas during a previous visit.

But VH1 and Islam insist he was only there as part of the taping for an upcoming "Behind the Music" feature scheduled for October airing, and that the trip had been scheduled long before the Camp David talks were announced.

"Nobody at any time ever said that there was going to be any problem," Islam said. "Then when I arrived, of course, it was a completely different thing. They were waiting to send me back.

"I was locked up, essentially, in a cell with four other men," Islam said. "Three from Gaza and one from America who came for a wedding and was being turned back. I thought, 'My goodness, what's going on? How did VH1 get me into this?' "

Islam concluded the interview by saying fans probably won't be hearing him sing Cat Stevens songs in person any time soon.

"When you're onstage, you're out there so high — I didn't want to do that anymore," he said. "Nevertheless, recently in the Philippines, I sang a few verses of 'The Wind' (RealAudio excerpt). You might possibly hear me able to that in the future, but without guitars or bands or P.A. — all that stuff."