The Cat Conundrum

When Music Mixes with Politics, Which Wins?

Do you remember Cat Stevens? If you are middle-aged, you undoubtedly do. And if you liked folk/rock music, you undoubtedly loved Cat Stevens. Well, I am middle-aged and I loved Cat Stevens. I loved him more than Gordon Lightfoot, on whom I had a slight musical crush. And I probably loved him more than the Beatles, who were my gateway drug to Rock ‘n Roll.

So, I cannot tell you how excited I was to learn that Cat Stevens was touring again. When I read the ad announcing his concert dates, I entered not only the date of his San Francisco concert in my iPhone but also – in all capital letters – with a 15-minute ringtone reminder for safety – the date and time the tickets would go on sale. I canceled my standing exercise class to stay home to buy the tickets at the exact second they went on sale. I sat by my computer, my finger poised above the “buy” button, all in an effort to get the best seats possible. Even so, the tickets I scored were a bit further back than I would have liked, row R, but no matter. Handsome Hubby and I were to set to see Cat Stevens in concert.

I started counting the days.

My husband and I prepared ourselves for the likelihood that the years had not been kind to Cat Stevens’ voice. We worried that his energy level might have likewise flagged. Lord knows ours has. We talked non-stop about going to the concert and laughed at ourselves for being so excited about seeing our aging idol perform.

The Big Day

The concert began and our fears were instantly allayed. Cat’s voice was strong. He sang familiar songs and songs we had never heard before. We loved the new as much as the old. Cat Stevens spoke of his musical evolution and his spiritual journey. It was a dreamlike evening, almost mystical in its perfection.

Handsome Hubby and I returned home, humming and happy.

“So, you don’t care about the fatwa?” our daughter asked.


My daughter cannot remember to take the garbage out, but this – this she could recall – an event that happened one year before she was born.

“And by the way, his name is Yusuf Islam not Cat Stevens, now,” she said condescendingly as she left the room, shaking her head at our lack of PC-ness.

The Big Letdown

Jon claimed he did not recall anything about a fatwa. Or maybe his usually sharp mind had conveniently let slip this unpleasant detail.

But for me, like a sliver of wood in my finger, the reminder of the fatwa festered.

In 1989 after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, made statements interpreted as endorsing the killing of Rushdie.

I tried desperately to put this information out of my mind. I just wanted to play my CDs (yes, CDs) in the car and my iPhone tunes on my Sonos speakers in the house. Then I realized I no longer had Cat’s complete music catalog. In the transition from records to 8-track tapes to cassette tapes to CDs to iPod to iPhone, I had lost some music. But could I buy Cat Stevens’ music now?

Every time I tried to discuss this music-buying moral dilemma, my husband rolled his eyes. It was too painful for him, like dredging up old bad news about a derelict family member (on his side of the family). My daughter refused to discuss the topic unless I used Cat’s correct name, Yusuf.

Deeper and Deeper into the Rabbit Hole

To ease my spiritual burden, I sought divine intervention and went back to the source of all knowledge, the Internet. I recalled that Cat Stevens/Yusuf had performed at the 2010 DC Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. If Jon Stewart could invite him to perform, surely I could buy a couple of CDs.

I was wrong. The performance was not alright with Salman Rushdie, who complained. Afterward, Stewart expressed his regret about the invitation to Yusuf. “Death for free speech is a deal breaker,” Stewart declared.

I searched my soul. I searched my music collection. I put on Michael Jackson’s multi-platinum, multi-award winning “Bad.” And that made me feel even worse. We all know Michael Jackson was no saint.

What’s a Music-loving Girl to Do?

I moved over to the shelves housing my classical music collection. I know Tchaikovsky had his relationship issues, but surely Wikileaks has uncovered no dirt about Mozart or Beethoven.

Finally, in a state of complete anxiety, I opted for the sounds of silence. No, not the “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. Absolute silence.

I’d like to think now that I’m middle-aged, I’m more forgiving. But the truth is: I’m more intolerant. I have less patience for whining and equivocation. Yet, here I was stuck, unable to resolve or walk away from my Yusuf/Cat conundrum.

I grew up before the era of political correctness. And while I truly and deeply honor the values of being PC, can’t I get a pass just this one time? I mean I’ve loved Cat Stevens for a very long time. Doesn’t loyalty count for something too?

In my months-long search (yes, I’ve been stewing over this problem that long), I queried friends. One young friend suggested getting pirated copies of the songs I wanted, but that seems like committing one sin to avoid another. An older friend suggested buying secondhand CDs which would deprive Cat/Yusuf of royalties.

But then amid my middle-aged musings, a solution arose. I remembered the poet Alexander Pope’s words, “to err is human; to forgive, divine.” It was perfect advice. I would forgive Cat Stevens for what he said decades ago AND I would forgive myself for buying his CDs. The CDs arrived, and I’ve been playing them non-stop for days. Pope was right. Forgiveness – and the music – are divine.

2 replies
  1. Shannon Verser
    Shannon Verser says:

    Sometimes our children can burst our memory bubbles with a single statement of fact that has been safely buried underneath the euphoria of said memory. I’m with you, forgiveness is definitely called for here! I love his music too!


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