Saturday, November 28, 2020

Song Lyric of the Day (Cat Stevens, on How ‘The Answer Lies Within’)

“Yes the answer lies within
So why not take a look now
Kick out the devil’s sin
Pick up, pick up a good book now.”— Cat Stevens, “On the Road to Find Out,” from his Tea for The Tillerman LP (1970)

“On the Road to Find Out” is not my favorite song from Tea for The Tillerman, which was released 50 years ago this week. That distinction belongs to "Father and Son," the achingly poignant dialogue in song in which parent and child talk past each other about different life goals.

But perhaps more than any other song on this 11-song collection, “On the Road to Find Out” allowed Cat Stevens to explore spiritual searching and personal transcendence—themes given urgent form for the British singer-songwriter when he came close to dying the year before from tuberculosis at age 21.

For many Baby Boomers, these needs found an outlet in health and exercise fads, New Age spirituality such as Scientology, and self-help programs such as EST (Erhard Seminars Training)—an orientation towards self-fulfillment and self-actualization that led Tom Wolfe to christen this age cohort “The Me Generation.”

For Stevens, that instinct found its object at the end of the decade in the Koran—a different, and, given the tensions of the late Seventies and Eighties, a more controversial “good book” than many of his fans expected.

The second album released by Stevens (who, these days, reflecting his turn towards Islam, goes by Yusuf Cat Stevens), Tea for The Tillerman found him continuing to turn away from pop music in favor of folk sounds, even more decisively than in Mona Bone Jakon seven months before. The acoustic sound crafted by producer Paul Samwell-Smith proved an ideal counterpart to Stevens’ introspective lyrics.

Like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, another album of spiritual yearning released the same week, Tea for The Tillerman found a ready audience a half century ago for its message. With other songs that became FM radio staples like “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Wild World,” it vaulted into the top 10 on the U.S. album chart and made Stevens an uneasy superstar—an ambivalence he finally expressed, just before dropping out of the music industry to convert to Islam, on “(I Never Wanted) To Be a Star,” on his 1977 LP Izitso.

(For an interesting take on Stevens’ 50th-anniversary re-recording of Tea for The Tillerman—as well as an animated video for “Father and Son”—see his interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen.)

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