When asked to talk about an artist and an album that truly resonated with my childhood and shaped my musical upbringing, Cat Stevens and his 1970 international breakthrough, Tea For The Tillerman, sprung immediately to mind.
This is an immensely important album to my family. Played at endless parties, over dinners and weekends spent around the house, it was an album that was constantly in the background when I was young. Cat Stevens possesses one of those voices that, when I hear it, takes me right back to being a kid, unlocking memories hidden in some of the farthest-flung corners of my mind.
Not only that, the songs on Tillerman have followed me through adolescence and on into my adult life.
Released in November of 1970, Tillerman includes many of Stevens’ most beloved songs and was his first major success in the tough-to-crack American market, It represented his second album after being hospitalised for over a year with tuberculosis and you can hear both a melancholic and an incredibly optimistic Stevens throughout, a man saddened by some of his experiences but at the same time relishing his second chance at life and using it to explore every facet of his newfound spirituality.
Album opener Where Do The Children Play is a beautifully written renunciation of modern progress, Stevens lamenting the construction of jumbo planes and skyscrapers at the expense of what is pure and good in the world.
With the rhetorical questions ‘Will you make us laugh? Will you make us cry? Will you tell us when to live? Will you tell us when to die?’ Stevens reminds us that we may be able to control and manipulate the world around us to our pleasing, but that the intangible human spirit will never be tamed.
The song really drove the point home, to me anyway, of not losing sight of yourself in the face of an ever-changing world, a message that will ring true forever. The song functions as somewhat of a precursor for Stevens’ ultimate rejection of life as a musician and his conversion to Islam, but that remains another story.
Themes of love and love lost are explored throughout the album as well. The album was the first Stevens had released since his split from longtime girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville (of Lady D’Arbanville fame) and there is a palpable hurt mixed with stony defiance underlying Hard Headed Woman , Stevens all but announcing from the rooftops that he is single and looking, and for a companion who possesses the sincerity and straightforward loyalty found lacking in those before her.
Wild World immediately following is famous for its thinly-veiled disdain toward the best laid plans of a departing lover, all set over catchy, almost upbeat Spanish-inspired chord progression. It’s a feeling that few out there will fail to understand and the song is just made to sing along to.
It may feel a tad patronising that Stevens seemingly wishes his ex all the best, only to gently remind her at the end of every verse and throughout the chorus that the outside world she is leaving him for isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. As somebody who has been jilted more than a few times though, this feeling is so much more real. Nobody has their heart broken by somebody else and truthfully, sincerely wishes that person will find nothing but happiness instead of them and you’d be a lying son of a bitch robot if you said otherwise. It goes against that untameable human spirit, for better or worse, that Stevens opened the album singing about.
Sad Lisa seems to bring the story full circle, with a girl hanging her head and crying on his shirt, seemingly returning with her tail between her legs from the cruel world he had warned her about. The lilting piano and mournful violin accompanying Steven’s soft tenor voice are absolutely haunting here.
Lost in the attention given to the powerful and transcendent messages laid throughout the album is that it is purely and simply an amazing pop record. Stevens may have made a conscious shift into a more folk rock-oriented sound post-hospitalisation but his innate ability to craft the catchiest pop hook or melody and surround it with heartfelt and meaningful lyrics was still proudly on display here.
You can hear it in just about every song on the album, even in Stevens’ folkier moments on the quaint Into White and the travelling tale On The Road To Find Out. It is a line that few have straddled so adeptly as Stevens and the simplicity is nothing short of breathtaking. Anyone can pick up a guitar and learn the chords to just about any song on this album, it is as musically accessible as it is lyrically deep.
This blend of pop sound with folk themes helped Stevens ride in at the head of the successful wave of singer-songwriters at the time. Tillerman was probably in the vein of Frampton Comes Alive as far as Australian households of that era were concerned and it became one of the records associated with the sound of the 70s. One song in particular helped to define that era:
If you’re a young man and you’re lucky enough to have a dad who is there for you no matter what to give advice or to offer a hand up when you need it and know the struggles that come with that kind of a relationship, you cannot possibly have listened to Father And Son and not been absolutely blown away by its rawness, its honesty and the simple truth in the dialogue Stevens weaves throughout the song.
I have listened to Father And Son hundreds of times in my life and will always get chills. Because I’ve been through the kind of trials and tribulations of youth that seem like insurmountable obstacles to a young mind. I’ve wanted things and told myself I’ve wanted things that were flat out ridiculous, I was just too blind to see it. Yet I’ve always had a dad there to remind me to ‘just relax, take it easy’ and not rush off and do anything rash.
The son in Father And Son behaves typically as I have in my life, thinking that I know better, refusing to listen and feeling like I wasn’t understood just because I was young. The voice of the father has always reminded me of my own dad: patient, kind and possessing the wisdom of experience that I as a young person have consistently failed to appreciate. I will always go back to Father And Son when I feel like I need a reality check.
35 years on, Tea For The Tillerman remains as important and personal an album as I can think of. Whether I need a calming drive home from work, a quiet night of reflection, or just something to sit and have a beer to with my thoughts, Tillerman has played a huge part in my life and will continue to for as long as I have the use of my ears.