Unexpected, Strange and Courageous: Cat Stevens Escapes the Mousehole

I happened to catch a few minutes of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame […]

David Zahl / 6.5.14

Cat Stevens in A&M studio for a PosterI happened to catch a few minutes of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony when it aired on HBO the other night. Awards ceremonies usually make for great channel surfing interruptions (if awful destinations) and this one was no exception. KISS was giving their acceptance speech when I tuned in: Peter Criss gave thanks for his remission from male breast cancer (say what?), a self-congratulatory Ace Frehley struggled to read his notes through enormous rose-tinted glasses, and then Paul Stanley lambasted the board of the Hall of Fame for not allowing more people to vote. I must have missed Gene Simmons. It was entertaining, but not as entertaining as what came next.

Art Garfunkel took to the stage to introduce one Yusuf Islam née Cat Stevens. His remarks were pleasant enough. He sang a few notes of ‘Morning Has Broken’ and treated Yusuf’s radical conversion to Islam–and subsequent withdrawal from public/Western life–with respect. And then Cat Yusuf shuffled up there, grinning like a firecat. He launched into a rambling and rather goofy acceptance speech, giving shout-outs to family members, fellow musicians, and, of course, “the All-wise and Almighty who made us all”. The whole thing was as endearing as it was absurd. Exit Knights In Satan’s Service, enter the Anglo-Cypriot Islamic Tillerman.

Cat may have enjoyed a little counter-cultural cache via his association with Harold and Maude (and more recently, Max Fisher), but his image remains a profoundly square one, the epitome of early 70s acoustic AOR. He’s never been anyone’s idea of a rebel, in other words. Yet the the oddness of the juxtaposition that night highlighted a wider irony about the culture being celebrated. Yusuf himself spelled it out at the very end of his comments (around the 9 min mark):

Questioning the compatibility of this strange thing called rock and roll with the detached and heavily fraternity lifestyle—which I still belong to—and considering that the judges have actually voted for someone who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t throw televisions out of hotel rooms and only sleeps with his wife, I’d say it was a very brave decision and one which is unexpected and strangely, outrageously rock n roll!

Yusuf was right. His inclusion was by far the most subversive thing that happened that night. Whatever you make of his convictions or politics, you can’t deny that the pious, hyper-earnest folksinger was the outsider at the event, not the blood-spewing shock-rockers of yore. At least for that moment, Yusuf was the voice of, dare I say it, the marginalized, and therefore the truest beacon of what the ceremony was supposedly all about. The rebel yell etc etc etc. (Needless to say, I happen to side with Axl Rose on the whole question of the hall’s existence).

If rebellion and conformity are two sides of the same Law-shaped coin, then clearly some kind of flip has occurred, both in Cleveland and elsewhere. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see that in certain areas, rebellion has become conformity. The Pharisees have become the tax collectors, and vice versa. And yet, while Mad Men may have gotten swapped out for Portlandia, the underlying power structures remain discouragingly… human.

The whole thing reminded me of something I’d read from Camille Paglia recently. Paglia is what you might call a genuine subversive; it doesn’t matter what form the Law takes–left, right, center, upside down–she always seems to hone in on (and see through) the oppressive aspect. Case in point, her biggest beef these days appears to be the way in which many of the “liberated” attitudes that she helped introduce in the 70s and 80s have calcified into new and equally oppressive mores. An avowed atheist, she prophesied as much ten-plus years ago:

“An authentically avant-garde artist today would show his or her daring by treating religion sympathetically. Anti-religious sneers are a hallmark of perpetual adolescents. When will artists climb out of the postmodernist ditch and accept their high mission to address a general audience? An art of chic coteries, whether in rococo aristocratic France or in drearily ironic, nervously posturing New York, ends up in a mental mousehole.”

Amen. In a crowd of larger-than-life characters, no one stood out more than Cat/Yusuf, his foreign religiosity and asceticism exposing the narrowness of what passes for “daring” in (institutionalized) rock. She goes on, in the same piece, to decry “the creed of victimization” embraced by some of her would-be comrades, feelings which may be justified but, in her view, only serve to perpetuate a pattern that will create further victims, albeit reverse, mirror-imaged ones. That is to say, victimization makes for a mighty intoxicating way of justifying injustice and malice. Just ask Quentin Tarantino. Or Lester Nygaard. Or Andrew Sullivan. Or Yusuf himself:


One definition for ‘sinner’, i.e. human being, that some of us fall back on is the understanding of every man and woman as both victim and victimizer, that no one is strictly one or the other. Or, to use a tired phrase, we are not just ‘broken’, we are broken breakers. In practice, though, I wonder if we sometimes overemphasize the ‘victim’ part, believing, falsely, that it is the only road to compassion or pastoral sensitivity. Without the ‘perpetrator’ element, the slide into self-righteousness and revenge mentality is swift, is it not? We are victims until the balance of power shifts, at which point we invariably become victimizers. That glittery night in Cleveland notwithstanding, magnanimity is in short supply.

Christianity addresses the outcast. This is inescapable. Yet Christ does not specify what kind of outcast. The boundaries are uncomfortably elastic, moving far beyond our natural sympathies with underdogs and lonely hearts. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). In fact, in a room full of ueber-successful, sneering adolescents, I’d wager our Lord might seek out the soft-spoken, plainly dressed Muslim guy. Perhaps this is why the inclusion of, and warm response to, Yusuf Islam last month signaled something so hopeful. Not simply because it gave us a glimpse of what actual “religious liberty” might look like–though it did–but because it is always hopeful to see the Powerful embrace the Marginalized (‘marginalized’ is probably too sexy a term, ‘ostracized’ is better). Out of love for something greater–in this case music–ideological micro-management was put on hold for a moment and we were able to witness something truly subversive: Grace.

Yusuf may not have taken up his guitar until a bit later, but in that brief instant at the end of his speech, I think I heard the distant rumble of a certain locomotive.