Yusuf Islam explains himself
There’s actually an exclusive Wikipedia page for Yusuf Islam’s alleged comments on the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Poorly written, repetitive, and generally smelling like a cheap smear job courtesy of the publicity wing of the “War on Terror”, it’s a remnant of the heavily propagandized “clash-of-the-civilizations” that was coming to a boil when Islam was denied entry into the States in 2004 (not to mention an example of Wikipedia at its shabbiest).
Try reconciling that—Islam was accused of “ties to potential terrorist-related activities”— with the thoughtful and articulate figure who sits down with former BBC head Alan Yentob for the 2006 feature, Yusuf Islam: A Few Good Songs, made on the eve of his first album in 28 years, and screening tonight on the Knowledge Network.
The man formerly known as Cat Stevens puts a few myths to rest concerning the Rushdie affair and his dramatic conversion to the Muslim faith. As he says to Yentob, “I was looking everywhere… My songs are the narrative to my life, and if you listen to them, you’ll hear all the explanations of where I was and where I was going.”
Stevens had already exiled himself for six years in Rio (“Because it was as far away as possible from everything else,” he says) when a near-drowning in Santa Monica changed everything. “God, if you save me, I’ll work for you,” Islam remembers thinking, just before a huge wave deposited him back on the beach.
Yentob shows us exactly what Stevens’ walked away from when he retired from music, with footage from his final, massive performance at Wembley Stadium, in 1979. He was literally at the height of his success.
Equally, Stevens sought and attained stardom as a teen while living at home with his family long after Tea for the Tillerman made him a worldwide phenomenon. He was never your average pop star, and already, he says, “kind of a monk.”
Beyond the genuinely captivating interview, archival material, and footage of him revisiting London’s Soho district, there’s something pretty amazing about seeing Yusuf Islam deliver a sparkling version of “Peace Train” for the camera (bear in mind, after 1979, he didn’t pick up a guitar for 25 years).
The film is rounded out with comments from Dolly Parton, Richard Thompson, and a very passionate Bob Geldof, who perfectly captures what people were thinking when the conversion came. “How could he get closer to God with his talent, and not express that proximity through that talent?” Geldof asks. “That’s not doable.”
In this fine film, the man himself explains how it was doable and why it needed to be done.
Yusuf Islam: A Few Good Songs screens tonight on the Knowledge Network, and again on Sunday
You can follow Adrian Mack's contribution to the lobotomizing techno-nightmare known as Twitter at @AdrianMacked.