"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
By the time I went through my high school Cat Stevens phase, the singer was already a musical compilation of his former self. He had also long since changed his name to Yusuf Islam and given up the pop life to do the work of Mohammed and spread the word of the Koran, but I didn’t know that then.
I knew only that his music echoed happily in my highly adolescent hollows. Whereas James Taylor — if you were into one, you were into the other — and his “Fire and Rain” pain poked at my teen angst like a bad-news-toting messenger, Stevens’ songs made my chest feel curiously carbonated. “Oh Very Young” — the world seemed to have big bulging pockets of possibility. “Peace Train” — achingly earnest, I was right there dreaming of peace with him. “Hard Headed Woman” — hormones a-ragin’, I’d imagine all the shades of love that lay before me.
Sappy? Sure, we see that now. Those songs were the melodic equivalent of the treacly wine we liked so much then, before our palates knew any better. But dipping a toe into adulthood late summer nights on the beach I grew up near, smoking cloying clove cigarettes and mulling over the future’s myriad mysteries with my high school pals, Stevens’ music tasted just right.
“Chick music,” a sophisticated friend of mine sniffs, before confiding, “I remember doing an interpretive dance to ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ in my living room.” I’m not sure how gender-specific Stevens’ music was; I knew a lot of guys who learned guitar by plucking out the songs on “Tea for the Tillerman” or “Teaser and the Firecat.”
Perhaps the introspective, upbeat music appealed to so many because Stevens took it so personally himself, charting his own quest for love, meaning and peace (it was the early ’70s, you know). The songs were of their time, true, but that sense of standing on the precipice looking out at something big and awe-inspiring is something every kid on the brink of adulthood can relate to.
If you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free. ‘Cause there’s a million things to be. You know that there are, you know that there are …
Born in London in 1948 to a a Swedish (Baptist) mother and a Greek Cypriot father who owned a restaurant, Stephen Demetri Georgiou was raised in a primarily Greek Orthodox home in Soho. He also attended Roman Catholic schools, a religious mixture he says left him both alienated and open. He has described his childhood as “lonely,” telling an interviewer for Melody Maker magazine in 1975, “I was isolated from both the English and the Greek community. Our family was totally an island.”
The future folkie learned to plunk out tunes on his family’s living room grand piano, which, he says, “was a status symbol in those days. And I was the first one to learn to play.”
While attending Hammersmith College art school in the ’60s, he changed his name to Cat Stevens and began to work the coffeehouse and pub circuit, playing guitar and singing folk-inspired pop songs. He took the flashier moniker in a conscious effort to hide his Greek heritage, he has said, because “I didn’t think anybody was interested. And I thought that it had nothing to do with me.” Plus, he told an audience at Stanford University just this past June, “I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for that Stephen Demetri Georgiou album. And in England, and I was sure in America, they loved animals.”
His animal magnetism and lilting voice were soon discovered by independent record producer Mike Hurst, who’d been a member of the folk-pop group the Springfields. Hurst helped Stevens record a demo in the summer of 1966 and land his first record deal. At age 19, Stevens released his debut album, “Matthew and Son” and watched it climb the charts. Its title song and the single “I Love My Dog” landed in Britain’s top 10, and the young singer set out on a U.K. tour with — wackily enough — Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck, filling stadiums and partying like a pop star.
But Stevens’ second album, “New Masters,” released in 1967, didn’t sell quite so well, although it marked the beginning of his longtime collaboration with singer/guitarist Alun Davies, and the sensitive songster got his first taste of fan fickleness. Still, he continued his high-living ways. “They made me larger than life,” he wrote several years ago in an essay called “How I Came to Islam.” “So I wanted to be larger than life, and the only way to do that was to be intoxicated.”
The fast life skidded to a halt in 1969, when tuberculosis derailed his career — and very nearly took his life. The stage went dark. The spotlight clicked off. And, during his year in the hospital, Stevens went into a serious spiritual tailspin.
“It was then that I started to think: What was to happen to me?” he later wrote. “Was I just a body, and my goal in life was merely to satisfy this body? … Why am I here? Why am I in bed? … I started looking for some of the answers.”
“Fed up with Christianity,” Stevens recalled, he began to read about Buddhism, in vogue at the time. He took up meditation and became a vegetarian. “I now believed in ‘peace and flower power,’” he wrote.
So did a lot of other earnest folks, and when Stevens returned to the music world with a fresh batch of introspective songs about his spiritual search and a new U.S. distribution deal, he hit the international big time.
First came “Mona Bone Jakon” in 1970, which cemented his crunchy new singer-songwriter rep. Then, later that same year, he released “Tea for the Tillerman,” an instant pop-folk megahit that zipped up to No. 1 in the States and went gold.
After the release of “Tillerman,” Stevens went from touring America as an opening act for bands like King Crimson and Seatrain to putting on his own wild shows, with magicians, tigers, dancers and backup vocalists. He guested on ABC’s “In Concert” program. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind: He was now a superstar.
But Stevens was still plumbing the depths of his soul, seeking identity and purpose. “I really had a difficult time because I was getting rich and famous, and at the same time, I was sincerely searching for the truth,” he wrote, adding recently that he “found that my songs were asking questions. But I was averse to religious dogma … I wanted a more spiritual way of finding what’s right and wrong.”
His next album, “Teaser and the Firecat, was equally successful and led to a children’s book and a short film as well. Today, Stevens considers a song on that 1971 album to be emblematic of his search at the time. While many would consider “Peace Train” primarily an anti-war anthem, Stevens sees more to it. “In ‘Peace Train,’ I never said where the train was going,” he said. “I didn’t know. The train was a symbol, rolling on the edge of darkness.”
His cool credentials were cemented that year when several of his songs were featured in Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude,” one of the signal cult hits of the era.
Around that time, the singer, still in his early 20s, had another pivotal “near death” experience, which he recently recounted on public radio to San Francisco’s “KQED Forum” radio interviewer Michael Krasny. Swimming alone in Malibu, Calif., Stevens got pulled out to sea by a strong Pacific Ocean riptide.
“I felt as if I had no power,” he said. “After I was swimming for about half an hour, I couldn’t get back to shore. At that point, quite simply, there was no one to help me. As they say, you’ll never find an atheist on a sinking ship. I called out. I said, ‘Oh God, if you save me, I’ll work for you.’ And at that moment a wave, however big it was, came from behind me and pushed me forward and suddenly I had all the energy I needed. I was back on land and safe.
“Some people would say, well, it was a coincidence,” he allowed. “But for me it was life and death. It was a miracle.”
Increasingly religious but still “too attached to the world” to withdraw from society to become a Buddhist monk, Stevens says he tried “Zen and I Ching, numerology, tarot cards and astrology.” He even picked up his old Christian Bible, but still didn’t find what he was looking for. His records, however, continued to sell phenomenally: “Catch Bull at Four” (1972), “Foreigner” (1973) and “Buddha and the Chocolate Box” (194) were all major hits.
Then, he experienced what he considers his next “miracle,” something that would irrevocably change his life and legacy.
Stevens’ brother David visited Jerusalem and, keenly aware of his brother’s spiritual search, brought him a translation of the Koran. The singer, who said he’d been “trained to walk by that shelf in spiritual bookstores,” read hungrily about Islam and finally felt he’d found what he’d been searching for. The Koran was, he said, “a guidance that would explain everything to me — who I was; what was the purpose of life; what was the reality and what would be the reality; and where I came from — I realized that this was the true religion.”
Studying Islam, he continued to release albums — “Numbers” in 1975, “Izitso” in 1977 — but aside from the predictable popularity of his greatest-hits set, his fan base was weakening.
In December 1977, at a London mosque, Stevens officially converted to Islam and took a name more suited to his new religious life: Yusuf Islam. Soon after the 1978 release of his last album as Cat Stevens, “Back to Earth,” Islam retired from the pop world, got married and absorbed himself in the study and practice of his new religion.
Islam’s decision to leave the music world was, he now stresses, his own:
I didn’t read anything in the Koran against singing, but the Koran forbade a lot of things, like fornication and drinking. I thought, “The music business is full of that.” It’s very difficult to be a good Muslim when you’re in that kind of world.
Although his imam, or Muslim spiritual leader, advised him to continue to record albums but stop giving live performances, believed to sometimes work fans into a lather teetering on idolatry, the singer felt he had too many doubts and decided to bow out. “To be honest, I was too interested in learning for myself, at that time, what I had to do,” he says. “That’s why I disappeared.”
Virtually out of public view throughout most of the ’80s, Islam settled into London’s Muslim community with his wife and five children (four daughters and one son, Mohammed), devoting himself in particular to Islamic education. (His old record company, A&M, released another greatest hits album, “Footsteps in the Dark,” in 1984, including tracks the singer had recorded for “Harold and Maude.”) He reemerged abruptly in late 1988, when he made the startling announcement that he supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against “Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie. He was again in the headlines, but this time, media opinion was decidedly not in his favor.
The flames of controversy roared within the music world and without. People were outraged. In the United States, artists stopped covering his songs, his albums were burned in giant bonfires and radio stations refused to play his music. One New York station launched a particularly ingenious form of protest: Trade in your old Cat Stevens records; get a free copy of Rushdie’s book.
In the midst of the maelstrom, Islam issued a press release on his own behalf:
Under Islamic Law, the ruling regarding blasphemy is quite clear; the person found guilty of it must be put to death. Only under certain circumstances can repentance be accepted … In response to a question, I simply stated the Islamic ruling on the Rushdie affair. Suddenly, my picture was splashed on the front of newspapers all over the world next to the headline: “Kill Rushdie says Cat Stevens.”
Islam maintained — and still maintains — that he never called for anyone “to break the law or take it into his own hands,” and that his only crime was honesty. He does, however, find the book blasphemous and supports its ban.
Clearly burned by the continuing backdraft, Islam now refuses to speak publicly about the fatwa, saying, “I have really nothing to do with it. I never really had anything to do with it, but people tried to connect me to it. And that was very, very unfortunate. It was picked on as something by the media to sort of paint me into a box.” It never would have happened, he says, if he’d had a publicist to protect him.
Islam would also rather not talk about the Taliban or the horrors befalling women in Afghanistan, saying these dark aspects of his religion are products of the media and Hollywood. However, after many years of silence, he says he is ready to discuss Muslim education and aid, spiritual values and morality in a public forum.
Active in founding Muslim schools and in aid, first for Bosnian Muslims and then in Kosovo — he recently popped back into the news after Macedonian border guards swiped $33,000 of aid money he’d hoped to distribute to refugees in Albania — Islam is even beginning to make music again.
He released an album called “Life of the Last Prophet” in 1995, which was mostly Islam reading a 66-minute biography of Mohammed with a few Muslim chanting tracks thrown in, in his words, “to keep them interested.” Largely ignored in the West, the CD was a big hit with Muslims and went to No. 1 in Turkey. He followed that up in 1997 with a Bosnian Muslim benefit album, “I Have No Cannons That Roar,” a collection of Bosnian music by various artists that includes two songs written by him, one of which he performs. His latest, “Prayers of the Last Prophet,” released last year, is similar to the 1995 album, mostly spoken but with a strangely catchy Islam-chanted song, “If You Ask Me”; Islam’s voice still has its Cat Stevens lilt and fullness. (Have a listen.) Currently at work on his next album, “A Is for Allah,” the title song of which is already popular in English-speaking Islamic schools, Islam may also release some previously unheard songs from his Cat Stevens days.
The erstwhile pop star says he’s come to understand that “music is beautiful” when it’s done for the right purposes. And while he says he’s not interested in becoming — he pronounces it with audible disdain — “an Islamic singer,” he may try his hand at producing and may even sing a bit. But, he says, he doesn’t miss his old days as a superstar.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, he recalled in the Krasny interview, “I was passing by Oakland Stadium and I remembered the time I played that place. And then it flashed upon me, the fear when I suddenly saw that big stadium and I remembered my name up in lights. I remembered the fear I had of this kind of position, suddenly having 17,000-whatever people watching you. And I thought, ‘Oh, thank God I’m out of that.’”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)