Friday, 4 July 2008
Cat Stevens "Mona Bone Jakon" (1970) ('Core' Review #35, Revised Edition 2014)
Track Listing: Lady D’Arbanville/ Maybe You’re Right/ Pop Star/I Think I See The Light/ Trouble// Mona Bone Jakon/ I Wish, I Wish/ Katmandu/ Time/ Fill My Eyes/ Lilywhite (UK and US Tracklisting)
‘Time rise, time fall, but time leaves you nothing – nothing at all’
Back in 1967 Cat Stevens had everything: a highly successful musical career, the backing of one of the 'big four' record labels in Decca, invites to all the greatest parties, showbiz friends, everything a teenage pop star could ever hope to wish for. What's more the success had come largely from nothing: no long gruelling stints in Hamburg stretching out songs for hours for Cat, nor the long series of flop singles and name changes experienced by The Who, The Kinks, 10cc et al. All it had taken was a handful of songs and the nerve to speak to some high-up song publishers for Cat to get the break he needed and fame came straight away: top thirty with the first single, number two with the second. The trouble is, though, if you don’t have that measure of failure to judge your success by it becomes such a natural part of the process that you come to expect it and everything that doesn’t measure up to the popularity you had before becomes an out and out failure, not a mere setback. As anyone from the world of instant-mix celebrity TV shows 'Pop Idol' and 'X Factor' know all too well this creates problems because you only have one chance to be the ‘hot new thing’; after that, however good you are, you will be an ‘established’ figure competing with the next hot young things – something that goes a hundred times more in the 1960s when talent was everywhere. The world's eyes were on Cat from the first and much was expected from him. And Cat Stevens was not the sort of celebrity who loved the attention or craved it, even if he did enjoy the parties and the socialising. Each ‘victory’ began to feel a little more hollow with each passing single and every passing ‘failure’ a catastrophe. Cat had got into music partly as a way of flouting the pressure and rigid regimentation he felt from school and feared he would find in work (making his later conversion to a religion that demands perhaps greater time-keeping than all the others a particular shock to those who knew him). Suddenly he felt the pressure and weight of responsibility on his shoulders that no teenage should have to bear more or less alone. As his hit-rate dried up so did his confidence and as his sales shrunk so did his list of party invitations and his chances of living the life he dreamed of seemed to be disappearing at a rate of knots. Cat caught a cold but pushed through it, with so much to do and so much to say which he had only just realised needed saying before the chance went entirely and his chance at a pop career was all over. Only Cat never got the chance to make any more music into 1968 because that cold turned into TB, his weakened, frazzled, out-partied body struggling under the strain of an incredibly hectic eighteen months.
Within that time Cat had gone from having everything any sensible teenager would have wanted out of the 1960s and ended it with nothing. After two albums of doing what his elder record executives and producers and arrangers wanted him to do Cat could now afford to see his music through the eyes of a wise man deeper than even the most sensible teenager: the purpose of music is to pass on hope, help, enlightenment, awareness, not to fritter it away being who people want you to be to get hits on their terms. For what stung Cat even more than being dropped by his record label were the celebrity friends who stopped calling once he got sick, the phone calls that never came, the party invites that suddenly dried up. Ill in his hospital bed, unable to see anything of the outside world after having it at his feet for so long, cat realised who his true friends were – and they were, for the most part, those who had been trying to help him through the past year and he had been pushing away as they tried to get him to eat, to sleep, to rest.
It all happened so quick. On his nineteenth birthday Cat was preparing his second LP, was enjoying the glow that comes from a #2 hit and was on a very successful package tour with The Walker Brothers and, erm, Englebert Humperdinck. By the time of his 20th birthday he was lying desperately ill, close to death from TB and nervous exhaustion, washed-up before he hit his twenties, 'death's shadow hanging on me'. All that promise that seemed to have arrived overnight seemed to have left the twenty-year-old just as suddenly as it came and that, thought most music critics of the time, was that. What happened to that promising young singer with the frilly shirt sleeves?’ they’d ask occasionally. ‘Who cares’ would be the reply, ‘that was last year – have you heard the latest by so-and-so’?’ For weeks Cat’s life hung in the balance. Everyone assumed his music career would be over – especially when Decca sent note to him in early 1969 that his contract was terminated following the failure of  ‘The View From The Top’, the latest in a string of singles Cat hadn’t planned that way and had been released from the vault with the singer unable to tour or promote them. Anyone else would have gone under from this monumental blow. Indeed anyone after music purely for fame and riches’ sake would have had no reason to continue, having seen through the mask of fame. However Cat was not like other teenage pin-ups. He really had had something to say and while he’d been quite content to go along with Decca’s plans for making both of them rich that wasn’t why he’d first picked up a guitar. Cat wasn’t done yet: despite his weak state he had so much more living to do and so much more of that living to put into music. Months into his recovery and still confined to bed he asked the nurses if they minded if he brought a guitar in; they considered it a good sign that he was thinking about something other than survival. But Cat had much bigger things than mere survival on his mind: he needed to write what life was ‘really’ like. He needed to make the most of the opportunity to tell the world what he should have been telling them in the first place, without the orchestral arrangements, without the pop hooks, without the cute quirky ideas, without even the benefit of youth after he grew a beard for the first time in hospital and rather liked it. If he survived maybe he would able to make music one day for somebody else – and if he died then maybe one day someone would dig out a forgotten tape and say ‘hey, maybe there was more to this guy than the pop hits?’
It must be stressed, too, this record was recorded effectively as a last will and testament. Every song Cat wrote in his hospital bed across 1969 could have been his last. While cocooned in a private ward (which took up a huge chunk of the little savings he had left from his pop star days), Cat could see other people in the hospital - and saw some of them dying. While told to rest and do nothing, you can tell across this record that there are too many scary thoughts floating across his brain for him not to write them down; that his guitar is the only companion he's allowed (and even that had to be used sparingly). Cat's first two records largely sounded as if they were written on the run, in between TV shows, concerts supporting Jimi Hendrix and The Walker Brothers or the night after a heavy party. 'Mona Bone' isn't like that: music was always a semi-serious business for Cat but for now it's deadly serious (literally, with Cat risking what's left of his health to put these songs to paper). The eyes that one saw the world are reduced to four walls and lots of inner thinking - and the Steven Georgiou who walked into that hospital room isn't the one that walked out. Later albums will dilute this ever-present fear that death will strike at every minute, the cries that 'I Might Die Tonight' reduced to a handful of songs (most notably that very song on 'Tillerman' and  'Oh Very Young' from 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box'). But Cat never forgets the experience he learnt while making this album; only on his final two records 'Izitso?' and 'Back To Earth' does he partly fall into the trap of thinking like a pop star again - and by that time we've turned full circle, Cat coming to a similarly life-threatening career-changing decision that will see him drop music for a whole new section of his life and figure he only has to record mere ‘pop’ to fulfil his contract. You sense, though, that even now Cat has turned into Yusuf and music has turned from a matter of life and death to a hobby trying to promote peace and put across a Muslim point of view in a Western world sadly suspicious of such things post 9/11 (given the Christianity 'crusades' the Western world has no leg to stand on!) that a little part of 'Mona's austere warnings lives on inside him; that even now the ripples created in the late 1960s are shaping his thoughts and opinions (and even if not I can tell you for a fact they're still shaping mine).
As it happens Cat gets lucky a second time. Nurses were somehow persuaded to work round not just a guitar but a portable tape machine and made some sketchy demo of the songs that were now falling out of him. On his recovery Cat sent them round to the record companies the way he had back in 1966 – and again one of the (relatively) major record labels took a bite. It was Chris Blackwell, boss of a ten-year-old record label named ‘Island’ who was looking for his next star when a tape of Cat singing  ‘Father and Son’ landed on his desk and he signed Cat up straight away, with no qualms about his fading back catalogue (odd it’s not on this record given that it won Cat the contract; indeed there’s a strange division of tracks all round given that all the ‘songs for ‘Tillerman’ and many of those for ‘teaser’ were written in the same hospital bed batch). After all that anxious worry, maybe Cat would get his second chance after all, this time with a record label fully behind him and Cat’s insistence that he record things his way or not at all.
This is, nevertheless, a hugely courageous decision. Wasn’t music what had just made Cat so deathly sick and brought him so much misery? Making this album – and the ones that follow – is a little like having escaped a dungeon half alive and then nipping back to free your friends. What’s braver is that from now on (well, until 1974 onwards anyway) Cat makes no attempt to even vaguely get his old listeners on board and won’t ever compromise his integrity or his sound or what he wants to say again. Suddenly everything changes and 'Mona Bone Jakon' – that delayed third album, recorded on Cat’s recovery in late 1969 - marks the biggest sea change between albums in our entire website. When we left Cat on the clever, complex and poetic 'New Masters' album he was still largely a 'pop' singer who looked incredibly young and worked with elaborate orchestras and wrote about subject matters like wanting to be king and shifting logs. He had, it’s true, been finding a new way of putting darker, sadder subject matters into his music beyond simple love songs and tales of dogs and hummingbirds, flirting with the idea of making pop poetical and thoughtful. Now, though, his songs are all about the message, their seriousness is undiluted by his characteristic quirkiness and he no longer croons in a pop voice but sings from the heart. Suddenly a battle-scarred bearded Cat looks eighteen years older than the last time we saw him, not just eighteen months. He no longer has that eager-to-please smile that stretches up to his eyes, the nervous ticks that saw him twitch his fingers unable to stand or sit still or the boyish charm of an overgrown puppy. This is a man now, one who knows what it is like to nearly die and he no longer fears anything or anyone. His singing voice is deeper, his arrangements more 'earthy' and less grandiose, his melodies less fussy, his lyrics more worldly wise and honest.
A lot of these changes are practical: shaving was difficult with cat liking how he looked on his recovery and Cat only had access to his own guitar rather than a full orchestra as before. But others are more symbolic, re-actions to what Cat wants to do with his life now he's realised how short and precious the human life-span is and how he doesn't want waste a second (he'll be back with a second classic LP in just four months: that's how intensely creative this period was for him). The moody, soulful, introverted and deeper-voiced ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ album is the result – a fascinating album full of truths that no one else dare speak, fears no one dare face and thoughts no one else dare think. Cat tells us at one stage ‘I think I see the light!’ but it is not yet a religious light that glows above his head but a spiritual one. People, relationships, love, living life to the full before it has gone, finding out what you are put on this Earth to do, exploring other people and their viewpoints, and at the end of it all realising that you have no answers but that you are at least finally asking the right questions: this is what ‘Mona’ is all about, not quirky pop songs about faithful dogs or shooting people with big guns. Cat gets the second chance afforded to so few of us and grabs the opportunity with both claws, re-inventing himself from what the public wanted him to be to what he himself wanted to be.
This is a hugely important step, not to be under-estimated, with virtually every last link with the 'old' Cat gone forever. All of the songs released on this record were written while Cat was cocooned in his hospital bed, unsure if the world would ever get to 'hear' them or indeed whether he would live long enough to finish them. Co-incidentally, even though Cat was well out of touch with the music scene, his ideas were very close to the way the rest of the world was going: acoustic singer-songwriter albums about deeper thoughts. 'Mona Bone' and more particularly follow-up 'Tea For The Tillerman' struck a definite chord with a whole new audience who knew nothing about Cat’s earlier songs and treated him as if he was a brand new performer. His sound was, more by coincidence than design, at one with the growing brood of sensitive singer-songwriters who had also turned their backs on flightier pop and heavier rock: people like Neil Young, James Taylor and Carly Simon. Cat plays almost the whole album solo throughout, as he would have written it from his hospital bed, and ‘Mona’ is an album that had to be like this: direct, straightforward and honest. However, Cat being Cat he also wanted a bigger sound in places. It was producer Paul Samwell-Smith, put in charge of the album sessions and sharing an instant rapport with the singer, who suggested a friend of his who had been knocking on the door of success with his own band ‘Sweet Thursday’ but after a calamity with a record company going bankrupt at just the wrong time was out of a job. Alun was Cat’s opposite in so many ways: exuberant yet reliable, he was the earth that Cat needed when he flew away into the stars but also the breeze that lifted him up when he got too self-pitying. The pair of guitarists got along instantly, kick-starting a life-long friendship that still sees them working together to this day and it was Alun’s confidence (in both Cat’s discarded Decca work and his current tunes) that helped make this album alongside Paul’s. Though Cat never luckily had to test the theory, he must have felt that after being ‘abandoned’ by his Decca colleagues, at least he was working with people who wouldn’t have left him alone in a hospital bed but instead were friends rather than colleagues, people as interested as he was in turning people ‘on’ to the wisdom of his lyrics and who saw music as a calling more than it was a job to pay the wages.
Later albums ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ may have the commercial edge and remain more popular, but for these ears ‘Mona’ is far more important and even better. On the one hand this is because this album is so consistent: every track is important on this record, every one hauntingly beautiful in some different way. Also, however, the extra rawness really suits these songs which may have ended up on this album rather than the next two because they feel closer, somehow, to that hospital bed: these songs aren’t memories for Cat, not yet, he is still living and breathing them. The way his vocal quivers across ‘Trouble’ is both beautiful and terrible all at the same time, the dying sighs of ‘maybe You’re Right’ still full of flashing hospital lights and the sudden panic of ‘I Think I See The Light’ still the fuse that makes this album burn so bright. Though practically all of ‘Tillerman’ was written in the same session, this feels like a darker album somehow, more concerned with Cat’s experiences directly than the outside world (apart from ‘Katmandu’, of course, but even that travelogue might have been chosen for this album’s unofficial motto: ‘Cat – now a Man – Can do’. Every song on this album, pretty much, feels like something you’ve nearly thought, hidden away at the back of your psyche suddenly turned into an actual song from someone who suddenly sees things impressively sharply.
After all, how many other albums were written when someone thought they were dying? At a push the closest any AAA members came to this is George Harrison's 'Brainwashed' (released posthumously in 2002) - not the last link we'll make between this pair of spiritual writers in this book. However that record was at least a third-finished before George ever knew he was poorly (it has a whacking great gestation period dating back to 1987!); it's actually 'All Things Must Pass' (released just four months after this LP) that's 'Mona's spiritual twin. Both records reflect on the impermanence of life and how realising how soon death might arrive changes your priorities in life. However George's songs were written in the abstract, based very much on his growing understanding of the Hindu religion and all the connections it made with his own half-formed thoughts. The younger Cat, while searching, hasn't 'found' his religion yet - even this album's much-discussed religious song ‘Light’ (charmingly accompanied in the lyric booklet with the drawing of a light-bulb) isn't really about religion per se but on 'awakening'- of realising how much more there is to the world than the surface.
There's a theme that flows through this record about consigning things that hold you back to 'the dustbin' of life. That might be why 'Mona Bone' features the most unusual Cat Stevens sleeve of them all: a simple drawing of a humble dustbin (drawn by Cat himself - another first agreed with Island as a condition of signing with them - every album package will feature some sort of Stevens illustration somewhere up to 'Foreigner' (1973) and then up to 'Izitso?' (1977)). Cat added in interviews when asked about this deeply un-commercial cover (perhaps the real reason this album never took off as well as its successors) that he was rather fond of dustbins, finding them beautiful where others found them ugly, and wanted to give them a bit of publicity! Throughout this album it's out with the 'old' and in with the 'new'. Cat is merciless in lampooning his old self as the unaware 'Pop Star', making out that it's a ridiculous thing for any self-respecting person to want to be and with a vocal dripping in irony and sarcasm. Instead we get passionate ballads about real love rather than teenage crushes ('Lady D'arbanville', about Cat's current girlfriend Patti D'arbanville), reflections on how trouble has been following him around, that 'time' is short and 'leaves you nothing at all' and most of all that life is made up of different people's viewpoints. 'Maybe You're Right' and 'I Wish, I Wish' start to see other people through their eyes - Cat is no longer the observant, empathetic young man wondering about the life of a 'tramp' or a workaholic employee; he is the 'tramp' or the 'Matthew and Son' worker enjoying a nervous breakdown, understanding 'what makes me me and what makes you you', realising even as he pushes to do things ‘his’ way that life is really about finding compromises between two people or two societies. The former, especially, conveys more pain and suffering than the whole of Cat's recording career so far, starting off distant and cold before spilling over into a painful middle eight that goes on and on, screaming that 'it will never happen again', petrified to find out that a relationship that meant so much to him was just a sham. Also, so much of this album is about seeing behind the surface, of trying to find out the 'truth' - Cat may sing later of being  'On The Road To Find Out' but it's here the journey starts. The crucial track in this context is 'I Think I See The Light', a song so important to Stevens that he re-recorded it upon his return to music in 2006. The 'light' that shines through this song and 'fills my eyes' is one of understanding what life is really about, after a year of getting hood-winked into believing what's Cat's managers, entourage and girlfriends have been telling him.
The 'old' Cat who sang about loving dogs and getting guns whenever he's in a bad mood is over: this Cat can be taught new tricks and now knows about life's pitfalls, wary of every wrong move he fears he'll make. He wants to tell us, too, to 'save' us; perhaps the biggest twist of Cat's career thus far is that the listener is no longer a nameless third person there to chuckle at how clever Cat is - they're now a fully interactive part of each song who could agree or disagree as they see fit, with Cat passing on the wisdom he's learnt in the hope it will be of use to us. He is, for the first time, thinking of his listener in terms far above and beyond whether he will buy his records enough to enable him to make another one and whether we find him ‘cute’. That, surely, is the reason why Car's audience have such a close relationship with the singer and a passion for his records that even the majority of the other bands we cover can't match: we have an emotional investment in these records that goes far beyond whether we 'like' it or not. In retrospect 'Mona Bone' seems like the start of a long letter between ‘us’ that will last, in various hues and in various amounts of detail, until 1978.
'Mona Bone' isn't necessarily the most perfect album Cat ever made. Both 'Fill My Eyes' and 'Lilywhite' are a step down from the rest of the record. The title track was intended as a 'joke' that no one but the author would understand - and boy Cat was right there, however fun it sounds. At thirty-five minutes it's one of our shortest 'core' 101 neglected albums everyone should go out and buy straight away so they can save their souls and bask in their sheer musical glory (we may have to shorten that tag line for our website at some point!) But there are oh so many reasons to revel in its splendour, its beauty and its wisdom. While other band's love songs are two a penny, 'Lady D'arbanville' is the only love song in the Cat canon we know to have been inspired by a real life incident and written for a real person (although I'm willing to bet both  'The First Cut Is The Deepest' and  'Sun/C79' at least were inspired by something real). 'Maybe You're Right' is heartbreakingly sad, a relationship breaking up in real time with two people going their separate ways despite trying not to. 'Pop Star' is wickedly funny, the best put-down of the sillier side of the music business not written by Ray Davies. 'I Think I See The Light' is a powerful, beautifully crafted song that's a lot more interesting than the gospelly title implies. 'Trouble' is hauntingly sad, the one song here written by a man who thinks he's about to die soon, unable to shake off the troubles of the world on his shoulders. 'I Wish I Wish' is mature pop, a catchy singalong about the differences and divisions between people that features more quotable lines that better known Cat songs like  'Wild World' and  'Father and Son'. 'Katmandu' is a gorgeous hymn to a place of refuge, visited by Cat in his mind because he’s too sick to travel there in person. And 'Time', though short at just 86 seconds, is the template for the message heard loud and clear on every Cat Stevens record: make the most of your time because you don't have long. Throughout Cat's vocals are superb, re-living every single song and full of such expression and pathos you start wondering if this is really the same singer who just a few recordings ago was struggling to get through the false sentimentality of  'Come On Baby Shift That Log'. The backing, too, is excellent: Cat's guitar or piano joined by the minimal amount of extra musicians to flesh out the sound (including Genesis' Peter Gabriel, unexpectedly, on the final song). A good 7/11ths of this record are spot-on, written, sung and performed from the heart, as vital and powerful as music can ever be.
'Mona Bone' may have been about the cheapest AAA album of them all to make (11 tracks, no outtakes, low budget from Island for an 'untested' artist, very few overdubs) but it's a very important record, full of truths and discoveries, rich with emotion and suffused with deep thoughts.Fans understandably prefer the slightly less intense and more commercial sound of 'Tillerman' and 'Teaser'. That makes perfect sense - I love those records too (especially 'Tillerman', which is surprisingly daring for such a loved album). But 'Mona Bone' will always be my favourite Cat Stevens record: it's a special album, a true one-off that came out of personal experience that could never be lived through again; one of the bravest, emotional and thrilling records I own, put together by a man who feared he was dying but who never sounded more alive. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not going to argue - I've loved this record for too long.
Things start as they mean to go on with the Elizabethan-like ode  Lady D’Arbanville. One of Cat’s few songs to address the more ‘normal’ pop song issue of love head on, it’s a gloriously delicate song to his then-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville about what their relationship might have been like if they’d met centuries before (a comparison that isn’t as unusual as you might think—after Victoriana/Edwardian England (see anything influenced by the front cover collage for Sgt Peppers), hip chicks and cool cats from the 1960s were most likely to compare themselves to the Elizabethan era (or the later end of the ‘High Renaissance’ period if you prefer); the ‘enlightenment/intellectual’ bits rather than the ‘colonial/ empire expanding’ ones in both cases, naturally. ‘You will be my fille’, a pun on a young girl in French and ‘filling me up’, also hints at a French background (which Patti did indeed have), further adding to the mystery. However the long gap between albums is brought home by the fact that Cat has both gained and lost the most important romantic relationship in his life right up until his marriage in 1979 in the time since ‘New Masters’. This is, however, one of the more ‘recent’ songs on the album, written for the first party Cat attended on regaining his health (and also where Cat tapped Peter Gabriel’s services for ‘Lilywhite’). The two felt an instant attraction and Cat assumed his dreams of the perfect woman (see  ‘Where Are You?’) had come true after all. However, Patti’s first career took off quicker than Cat’s second did: she was suddenly in demand, flying to France and America for fashion shoots while Cat was still poorly to travel. Eventually the demands on them became too much and they had a heated argument about her accepting a job or not which she took – Cat, writing songs about how he’d blind to the things that mattered while pursuing his career, was horrified when she chose work over love but probably saw it as karmic retribution for his earlier attitude. She was, after all, only away in New York for a month – to Cat it was a betrayal. This is, you see, not a song about what was meant to be but rather why it was doomed to go wrong, Cat lamenting his lover in the manner of a Greek tragedy.
To fill us in on this new development in his life Cat gives us both love and loss in close succession: the first verse where his lover lies sleeping is full of real romance; only in the second does he realise that she isn’t sleeping but dead, a victim of her own tragedies that Cat’s narrator, too wrapped up in his own worries, didn’t even notice. Feverish with grief, the love-struck narrator struggles and strains in vain to get his old life back in order but – just as the fragile melody seems to groan under the weight of the massed choirs and pounding drums added at the song’s end – he knows the ‘weight’ of his feelings for her is too strong and he will never fully recover. Like much of this album of new beginnings, Cat is waving goodbye to his past in the lyrics and even though we know quite well Mr Stevens wasn’t born into a palace centuries ago, it still sounds like a terribly personal, confessional song. Not least that title: this surely was a song Cat wrote for himself, imagining his romance carrying on from unfinished business from lifetimes ago again doomed to failure in this one, written at a time when no one would hear it beyond his tape recorder. Instead Patti heard it on the radio and burst into tears, shocked at how honest and raw the song was when released as Cat’s ‘comeback’ single. At the time of release the song was so new she says now still had hopes of picking up their relationship again despite their argument but only after hearing this song, with her death, did she realise that it was properly ‘over’. Neither of them were quite the same again. A high price for a song – and yet ‘Lady D’arbanville’ is indeed that kind of a song, one where the stakes are high and everything is frighteningly, scarily real. Together with some very pretty guitar it was an obvious hit, even if it is hardly what anyone would call ‘commercial’ and even though it sounded nothing like any of Cat’s previous singles.
 Maybe You’re Right is a true classic, a song that straightaway sets the musical template for pretty much all of Cat’s songs to follow – well, under that name, anyway. A predominantly acoustic track, this is a cold and at first distant song with one of Cat’s best expressive vocals about being too tired to confront a partner even though he knows he will have to let an old relationship go for the good of both sides. No longer interested in arguing and winning small battles, Cat breaks a relationship down to its barest bones: they were once so good for each other, but they both pretended and said things they didn’t mean and the relationship broke down through lack of commitment. A starkly brave song, what impresses most is that Cat sees things from both points of view: this isn’t a ‘how dare you!’ song, so much as a ‘what just happened?’ one. The trouble is that it no longer matters who is right and who is wrong – both of them lose and have lost respect for each other’s opinion. Another song for Patti that still burns with the shock that their love is over, this weary song shrugs its way across the piano (an instrument Cat learnt during his year of convalescence at home in 1969, heard here for the first time), the complete opposite of Stevens’ trademark manic energy at Decca. Like many a Cat Stevens song, the greatness of this composition lies in what the narrator doesn’t tell us (in the olden days, Cat used to use his grand orchestral gestures to represent his narrator’s feelings—the accompaniments here allow the storytelling emphasis to be put back firmly on his expressive vocals). Icily cool for most of the song, Cat’s true feelings suddenly burn through on the killer middle eight where the narrator proves he is really invested in what his ex-partner thinks after all, breaking his cool for one last paranoid thought (‘Did you really love me like a friend?’) From there Cat rises way beyond what he seemed capable of only seconds ago as he mocks ‘You know you don’t have to pretend – it’s all over now!’ and screams that ‘it will never happen again’, repeating that thought several times over as if to let the horror of that fact sink in until the song falls flat on its face again in an exhausted heap. Completely unexpected and marvellously poignant, this is the moment that lets the rest of this song breathe. Cat was always a master of middle eights, usually adding some extra quirky idea into the mix to keep our interest, but on this one it’s the middle eight shoved off into a corner that’s the ‘real’ message and it says ‘please don’t leave me’ whatever the rest of the song might say.
 Pop Star is a lot less serious but sung with such a straight face, a jokey song where Cat pokes fun at all the music trappings he used to enjoy and now knows from experience are ephemeral and not destined to last. Gleefully telling us when he has achieved all of the ‘empty’ pop milestones (being on the TV and playing his first gig – interestingly these milestones are discussed in this order, which might be a sly dig at celebrities who achieve these goals in this order, a gripe much more poignant now in 2008 than it was in 1970!) This is Cat at his most sarcastic vocally, sending his old self-conscious past up uproariously until the last verse, when he finally ends his journey by ‘coming home’ (presumably representing himself in the present returning to an empty flat after a year in a hospital bed). This track sees the singer all but promising his fans that he will never hide behind a ‘character’ again, but always write about the things that really are going on his life at the time of each album and in his personal journey to find out more about himself and his fellow men. In other hands this self-mimicking parody could be the height of self-indulgence, featuring only five different lines repeated ad infinitum in a variety of sarcastic voices, but by laughing at himself here Cat helps us make the leap from those old albums of his to understanding the new Cat Stevens formula and nicely breaks up the rather deeper, more serious songs on this album to boot. Empty as the song appears to be at first, there is still some evidence of craftsmanship here too, especially the singalong deliberately-empty chorus which is nevertheless built on a great musical hook and proves that Cat is leaving behind his ‘old’ style out of choice, not because he can’t write classic empty singalong choruses anymore. This is also the best place to hear this album’s brilliantly telepathic interplay, as cat’s haunting voice and chugging guitar is doubled by a fussier Alun Davies part and kept in check by some rattled tambourine (this is one of the very few AAA albums with no drums at all!) and stalked throughout by John Ryan, playing illness/death. The rest of the song has them chasing each other, but the moment when they finally synchronise up on the last note, as if cat has been gobbled into the darkness, is really moving.
[41a] I Think I See The Light feels so new that the light-bulbs (or are they candles?) are still flashing over Cat Stevens’ head and he delivers perhaps his greatest ever performance, part manic goggle-eyed mania and part calm realisation that this is the answer he’s been waiting for his whole life. This is, not as yet, a religious song though despite the gospel overtones. Like many a ‘Cat’ song from his ‘ambiguous’ spiritual period (1970-75 or thereabouts), Stevens is looking for spiritual growth above all things—but he’s not yet sure what form his spiritual longing will take. Instead the ‘light’ that Cat sees is actually born out of darkness, the thought that he was dying and that he had got life round the wrong way – it’s a survivor’s guilt song in other words written with the awareness that people around him in that hospital ward wouldn’t be so lucky. He wasted too long worrying about the future when he should have been enjoying the present. If it’s about anyone it is about Patti and Cat’s feeling that at last he has found somebody who was meant to be in his life, giving him a reason to live it as he can share it. So this is why he nearly died – to realise why he should have been alive in the first place and who to live it with. Similar in feel to The Hollies’ 1965 single I’m Alive, Cat contrasts the boring dull grey world he used to see on the verses with the brightness and brilliance of his new feelings in the chorus, making this one of the most uplifting songs he ever wrote despite the song’s obvious seriousness. However this is not a song as simple or straightforward and here the optimistic brief chorus leads straight through a trap-door into yet more questions and things to ;learn, Cat hurrying through every stage as if making up for lost time. You’d expect a song about sudden realisation to be happy and yet this isn’t, poor Cat still beating himself up for having never lived his life this way before and performed with the sound of Patti’s door-slam still banging in his ears (just listen to how hard the usually quiet Cat pounds the piano as if he’s about to break it!) Unlike most gospel where you know where the song is going from the first note this song is full of surprises: out of nowhere we suddenly get an organ solo and backing vocalists, while the melody line is one of the most complex Cat ever wrote, dodging across several keys along the way as if the narrator is desperate to experience everything while the melody line takes in everything from a deep growl to a high-pitched scream. There’s also a tightly controlled, disciplined rhythm that tries to break free from the mundane, untrusting world of its narrator in every way it can until a sudden on-rush of inspiration in the chorus lets the lick simply bolt out of the speakers. No wonder Cat, still recovering to some extent, sounds exhausted by the end of it all: this sounds like a monumental journey and is meant to leave us all drained (as well as urging us to do something about our own lives). Forget the clichéd sounding title, this is one of the most heartfelt and original songs its composer wrote, Cat at his most inspired and committed. A life-changing composition in so many ways, it was a natural choice as Yusuf’s first mainstream re-recording which is much more religious in tone (though it’s been followed by several from ‘Tillerman’ ‘Teaser’ and ‘New Masters’ since).
Side one rounds off with the less optimistic song  Trouble, best known perhaps from its moving use in the ‘Harold and Maude’ film soundtrack the following year. This sounds like a slightly earlier song with Cat still struggling to cope with life using him up and spitting him out, written nervously over a few snatched chords as if cat does not yet have the strength to play or indeed write a full song. One of the things Cat did most during his recovery was write long letters to the friends he couldn’t see during his isolation and this song sounds like a letter addressed to the troubles that bring him down as if they are a real person. Cat, though, is too weak to shoo them away so all he can do is plead with them that they’ve already done enough damage to his psyche and would they please leave him alone now? He’s learned all he needs to from this difficult period. This is the first song on the album to fully embrace what happened to Cat: he refers to his unwanted house guest as ‘death’s disguise hanging on me’ colouring everything he does, how he is ‘beat and torn, shattered and tossed and worn’ and ends the song by pleading that ‘I haven’t got a lot of time’. Cat even gives in and says that death has won, that ‘you have made your world mine’, but he stops just short of asking to die. However as with the best songs out there Cat leaves the song just ambiguous enough to suit whatever the listener is going through for we have all been besieged by troubles at some point in our lives. You could also read some of these lyrics as the devil encouraging him to go back to his partying past (it may be notable the temptation to stay in this world forever comes in the form of wine).. The performance may be light, with just cat and a guitar for the most part, but it’s another career highlight as Cat using his straining vocals in just the right way, the mood lightened by the presence of an angelic Stevens choir that flit in and out of the song to keep an eye on him. However for all its serous points there is a marvellous bleak comedy about this song, Cat chiding fate as if it is a naughty little sister who keeps attacking him when he just wants to be left in peace. Incidentally, this song makes a great theme for this website and is becoming something of a catch-phrase for the project (‘what do you mean the computer’s stopped working again?!?’...) Another highly important and under-rated track.
We are in need of some light relief and over at the start of side two we get the truly off-the-wall title track  'Mona Bone Jakon'. A ninety-second surreal rant that teases the listener with its lurid images but gives us no key to unlock the mystery of what it’s about. Later interviews claim that it is about not spiritual or religious awakenings but sexual ones. Cat had, it seems, had few girlfriends until meeting Patti D’arbanville. There is, surely, someone who came before, inspiring songs like  ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’ and even  ‘Matthews and Son’ who Cat has never talked about before but it seems that relationship was more about hoping it would blossom into something than a full-blown relationship and it never got past the courting stage. Here, though, Cat is balancing spiritual pleasures with earthly ones and is making up for lost time by having a lot of sex. In the tradition of the album for being honest and open cat tells us this, but only admitted later sheepishly when caught by confused by confused reviewers that a ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ a ‘girlfriend’ (almost certainly Patti) had given to his penis and turned into surreal art to confound the censors. Cat is also at his deepest and most off-key here, sounding like a chuckling Lou Reed in the process, if that’s possible to imagine (it probably isn’t unless you’ve heard the song!) Across one hundred highly sensual seconds a double-tracked growly Cat teases us that his, uhh, friend ‘won’t be lonely for long’ and that his ‘reasons’ for this are ‘all true’. You can just imagine him making up this playful song to fill in the time before Patti turned up for, erm, play time. It’s even poised like a sexual song – the way it starts off sexy and slow, before rising with an orgasmic wail and fading back into nothing. This is, however, another of the album’s tracks that have a strong performance making up for a so-so composition, getting by thanks to its psychedelic overtones, the drumsticks rattled while overdosed with echo and the multiple guitar parts that ping off each other as if trying to rip each other’s clothes off. However, I’m sure I’m not the first fan (or indeed the first partner) to wish that this sexual song had, erm, lasted for longer.
 I Wish, I Wish is another taste of philosophical pop, with a great tune that seems to slide in and out of focus as Cat has a conversation with himself, debating why we’re here and whether he’ll ever find any of the answers he seeks. Casting his eyes over such subjects as what makes individuals different from each other, what tiny factors separate a good experience from a bad one, what the grey line is between acting for ‘good’ and for ‘bad’ and what factors cause ‘the ‘great mystery’ of hate’ and love’ to be polar opposites, Cat virtually writes his theme song here, with ideas he touches on many more times in his career. Throwing off all the basic concepts and yet more set ‘rules’ he’s been taught from childhood, this is Cat Stevens refusing to accept all the simplifying ‘myths’ about motives he’s been given throughout his life, determined now only to trust what he experiences and comes to believe for himself. The biggest realisation is realising that there are no ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’ in life, just those with conflicting motives and priorities, which is the real answer he’s after about why he can’t always tell good from bad (‘though I was taught when but a lad…’) Amazingly, given all those deep emotions going on in the song the performance here is bright and breezy and one of the sunniest on the album, turning the piece into something of a jaunty affair. By the end this is complete with answering backing vocals in true ‘pop song’ mode (chanting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on the feelings of each line) and clever rhymes that keep on coming yet still make sense. In fact this song is possibly the closest Cat comes on this album to a true pop single like those he might have written juts a year before and the fact that such a deep lyric and likeable tune can go together without jarring says much for Cat’s creative powers at this time.
 Katmandu is a lovely peaceful healing song about a meditative place that seems to hold some significance for Cat and has a flute accompaniment from Peter Gabriel back when he was still in Genesis giving it an other-worldly quality, as if the healing powers of Katmandu don’t come directly from the area itself but from the state of mind its narrator has while there. In fact, after conjuring up images of its lovely skyline and lakes, the narrator reveals that he isn’t actually in Katmandu – he’s just sitting in his city-block dreaming of it instead. My guess is that Cat was really in his hospital bed trying to work out where he wanted to go when (and if) he was better and what to do with his life. Somewhere quiet and meditative is the answer as cat decides to take what we would nowadays call a ‘gap year’, to get lost inside his psyche and become someone ‘nice to know’. Instead cat will find his path back to music and as far as I know has still never been to Katmandu, a song that may have been inspired by the travel brochures being dropped off by friends at his hospital bed-side. These are surreal, hazy, fragmented lyrics though which suggest that Cat has not quite thrown off his TB-induced fever yet. For instance why is he putting on his hat and coat then starting a fire? However his tale of the simple life trying to spot ‘Satan’s tree’ is poetic, Cat asking this world to keep him safe ‘until I go’ (a line that in this ominous song sounds more like death than Cat just popping down the shops). I do wonder too about that title: ‘Kathmandu’ is in Nepal, a prime spot for young hippies to do some meditating by 1970 but Cat spells his ‘Katmandu’. He was certainly clever enough to know the ‘real’ spelling even if someone in Island hadn’t thought to point it out for him. So is what he is really saying here is ‘Cat Must Do?’, that Cat should ‘man up’ (and stop being a kitten?) This lyric after all works equally well as being about a state of mind rather than a place. It’s small and humble, grateful for small mercies even when the clouds are grey and its cold for there is always the chance of a bright sun tomorrow and firewood round the back to make into a fire. Cat has all the resources he needs to have a great life, as long as he is true to his principles and keeps a wary eye out for devilish distractions. Either that or, no, he really is bad at spelling! Even though the tune is so slight it is hardly there, this close cousin of Cat’s later song  ‘Into White’ is a lovely, wistful sojourn on an album often filled with angst and troubles and Katmandu succeeds at painting a beautiful spiritual idyll the listener also wants to escape to. It is also beautifully played with some xylophone to add extra twinkle to Cat and Alun’s wistful guitars.
 Time sends us right back into the melting pot of human emotion again, returning to the frenetic, almost-paranoid sounds that dominated the first side of this record and dealing again with Cat’s sick-bed realisation that he wants to leave a much bigger mark on life before he dies than being a ‘pop star’. A brief ninety second fragment linking the tracks it falls between, this song is Cat’s reminder to himself that however big a star he thinks he is or was, he can’t escape the threat that exists for every human being, that one day we will all die and that ‘times leave you nothing, nothing at all.’ Cat was, after all, nineteen, an age where most normal people feel invincible: he’d rarely been ill in his life and never seriously and the fact that his life might have come to an abrupt end has given him much to reflect on. The relentless staccato rhythms of the track and the sudden swash of noise on the synthesiser make the track sound like nothing less than a ticking time bomb. However this is one of the album songs that sounds as if the fever is still upon Cat – much of the song is accompanied by great ‘shivers’, sudden bursts of backwards guitar that swell up out of nowhere and knock us off our feet. The song finally finds sanctuary in the last crashing chords that releases all the strain as if the fever is broken, with the words ‘back, I’m going back’ another ambiguous message. Cat is going home, at last , out of danger in the hospital as he gets another chance at life; or, if he loses this one, then maybe he gets another shot at redemption with re-incarnation as death claims him and takes him back to meet his maker. Either way cat is now at peace. This song is the only one on the album for which a demo exists, released as part of the box set ‘On The Road To Find Out’ in the year 2000. It’s haunting, eerily real, as Cat sings purely through a foggy maze of tape hiss to deliver this song like a sermon, the sound of a man in a trance who oh so nearly slipped away. Fine as the album cut is, that performance may well have the edge over this one.
This brief moment of panic quickly segues back into soothing territory, however, with  Fill My Eyes, another delicate ballad in the Lady D’arbanville mode and featuring some interesting whooshing sound effects. The closest this album comes to signposting the songs of ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ to come, Cat seems removed from the intensity of his problems and to have found a way out of his current mess. This is thanks to the presence of some un-named person whose vision ‘fills my eyes’ even when she’s no longer there, giving him something worth staying alive for. This is, surely, Patti again on a song written early on in their relationship, with the always ever ambiguity of cat’s spiritual songs that he may well mean God too. Again there’s the image of somehow changing ‘time’ on this song, that it will ‘never seem the same’, as if Cat’s fear of death has made time more precious and seemed to accelerate its passing to such an extent that it was only slowed again by the soothing presence of the character in this song (the utopia of Katmandu has a similar effect). When Cat sings that ‘my legs are weak, my heels are low’ he’s not just singing about his physical problems here but his spiritual hang-up with the fact that he might die with so much living left undone, as if a weight is sitting on his shoulder until he can cast it off with ‘proper’ actions. Talking about himself in the first person as a ‘coaster’, this song seems like Cat’s new year’s resolution of 1970 to change his life around – and for the most part, it worked, because while ‘coasting along’ might describe the Cat Stevens of 1966-68, judging his successes by chart placings and how many celebrities came to last night’s party, it most certainly doesn’t describe the committed, honest, brave performer of the 1970s. Very few performers ever keep to their new year’s resolutions (just listen to the ballyhoo the converted Ronnie Wood gave to any media that would listen over the past five years about how wonderful it was to be free from drink and drugs and how everybody should be like the ‘new’ Ronnie Wood—only to check into re-hab yet again in mid-2008), but Cat has stayed true to his word even now—and you hear that very real commitment in every part of this album. This is, again, Cat’s promise to never go back to this false path he once took, having discovered ‘no headway on this road!’
By rights the album should close out on something glorious, reflecting on the brutal past and glorious future we know Cat will go on to have, but instead the album loses its way a little bit on  Lilywhite, Moan’s only mis-step. The song is not a disaster by any means, with its brief and naïve but sweet hope of meeting some mysterious stranger again someday, an effect enhanced greatly by Del Newman’s ghostly string arrangements (the only orchestral part here in the one mirror of the olden days). Cat thanks a pale lady who helped him (‘I never knew her name’) who could be Patti or maybe one of the nurses who cared for him. However compared to other songs this one is less formed than the others, with the strings sweeping in to take over the song as early as the part where a second verse would normally be. Cat pauses, his hand ‘on the wheel of change’ and says goodbye – perhaps to his hospital bed, perhaps to us listening to this record if he never got the chance to make another. However, for this album this track is pretty generic and impersonal stuff, with only two real verses to mull over – and the second of these even repeats lines from earlier in the song. This track is also full of clichés like ‘I raise my hand and touch the wheel of change’ common to other ‘re-birth’ records (think of the ‘Christianity’ albums by Cliff, Elvis or Little Richard or the ‘I’m a true singer I am and the others were holding me back’ first solo album by ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell) that Cat has done extraordinarily well to spend the last half-hour avoiding. A muted ballad on acoustic guitar for the most part, this song is highlighted by a confusing but nevertheless effective ghostly string coda which plays unaccompanied for a full 30 seconds at the end of the track, as if time really is not just standing still but going backwards for Cat, giving him the chance to live his life over again as Cat disappears over the horizon to a new life. Despite this neat trick, however, Lilywhite is not the way this brave, dramatic album deserves to go out, especially given Cat’s conviction that from now on his best bet is to sing from his heart, and you might well find yourself staring at your CD player and scratching your head in puzzlement, willing some last moment of greatness to boom through the silence.
Still, what we do have is for the most part a masterpiece. Writing your magnum opus from a hospital bed you know you might never walk away from and which nobody might ever hear is always going to heighten the creative senses (just look what masterpieces classical composer Gustav Holst wrote every time he went for an operation or was on his sickbed recovering from an illness, which was often at the end of his short life). The sound of a pop star growing up and moving forward, Mona has surely rarely been bettered in Cat’s career, even with all the famous and almost equally fabulous albums that are waiting just around the corner. His future records will match this one for philosophy all the way through to 1976 while several others will match it in terms of gorgeous melody lines. However future Cat albums will feel in many ways like a guidebook or an instruction manual delivered from upon high. ‘Mona’ feels like the only album actually lived in every intense excruciating detail, so real that you may as well have been at Cat’s hospital bedside listening to him speak and desperately cling on to life by the tiniest of threads. There are other superb Cat Stevens albums out there, but this is the most intense, the most ‘alive’ – even if that all stems from the act of having recently escaped death. Every Cat fan should own this album, but surprisingly few of them do (Mona is, alarmingly, one of Cat’s hardest albums to track down so apologies if you zoom to HMV straight from reading this review and have to wait an age to order this album apologies —perhaps Island will stick it out on CD again soon). Apart from availability, the only possible reason this album isn’t as well-loved as its more famous cousins is the rather poor sequencing of it, as the songs on Mona often jar in their sudden switches from optimism to forlorn despair and back again. Not to worry though, stick this album on ‘random’ and you may well have a friend for life. It may have a picture of a dustbin on the front cover, but really there’s no rubbish on Mona – just bucket-loads of moving material sung by an innovator at the peak of his powers, telling us how his life has changed for the better in such a persuasive way that it might well change yours too.