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The Lefsetz Letter: Cat Stevens At The Pantages

He was everywhere and then he was nowhere. He's the only classic rock act that hasn't burned it out on an endless dash for cash, making me squirm.

I bought "Tea For The Tillerman" and "Mona Bone Jakon" simultaneously in April 1971, I'd never heard either on the radio but the positive reviews were deafening. I knew he'd broken through when my old, long gone friend Ronnie and I stopped for a bite in Burlington after a day banging the bumps at Stowe later that month and I heard "Tea For The Tillerman" pouring through the open doors of a van. That was the ultimate vehicle back then, you could take all your stuff with you. Funny how today these same people need SUVs, afraid a van will give them a bad image, but the image back then was…I'm free and easy, the road is wide open, I'm gonna suck the marrow from life.

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And then Reagan legitimized greed, acquisition became everything, musical acts couldn't stop telling us how much better than us they were, who they were hanging with, how they were extracting cash from corporations, and the gulf between them and us was wide and palpable.

But not Thursday night.

Kinda weird, I know. These are songs we know by heart, but it's like they don't exist outside of our brains. And then Cat Stevens steps up to the mic and starts singing "Where Do The Children Play?" and you're jetted right back to what once was. There was a collective gasp in the audience, was this really happening? And then applause and a standing ovation, in this case not obligatory, but well-deserved.

Being gone for three decades will do that for you.

And it will also leave your voice intact. He sounded no different than he did in the seventies, it was as if no time had passed, and he was exuding such warmth.

This was billed as an acoustic enterprise. And although ultimately there were two accompanists, on guitar and bass, sometimes electric, that's what it was, quiet and intimate, as if the man himself had stopped by in your living room and told his tale with a smile.

He was glad to be there.

No one's glad to be on stage anymore. They're all pissed they don't make as much from recordings. It's just one of an endless number of dates. Whereas every live show used to be an opportunity for the performer and audience to bond, to get high together.

We got high Thursday night.

This was not Bob Dylan refusing to speak to the audience. And no video screens were necessary, we were all up close and personal. And…

Cat/Steven/Yusuf told us his story. From living atop his parents' cafe in London to hearing the Beatles to picking up a guitar to having a hit.

When music was the juice of the world, not only a way to get rich and travel, but to get your point across.

And when it's an "Evening With," with no opening act, no time constraints, you get to hear not only the whole story, but the songs you thought you'd never hear again. Not only "Father and Son,' but "I Love My Dog."

But the first transcendent moment was "Trouble."

Oh trouble set me free
I have seen your face
And it's too much for me"

This track stuck out of "Mona Bona Jakon." And when I heard it in "Harold and Maude" I swooned. Some cuts are hiding in plain sight, they're monsters that never got any airplay, but are well-known and mean so much to those familiar with them, kinda like Brian Wilson's "'Til I Die."

I'm pinching myself. Telling myself to concentrate. Because soon the song would be gone, into the ether, it was a moment in time not to be repeated, that's the essence of a live show.

And Cat sang a bit of "From Me To You," before dropping the needle on an actual record player on stage so we could hear the rest of it. That's what we did back then, dropped the needle. Vinyl wasn't fetishized, it was mostly abhorred, Cat had a hard time extracting the record from the sleeve, and we heard the pops and clicks, CDs with their digital tracks were a revelation. Progress is amazing. But have we progressed in music?

He also played "The First Cut Is The Deepest." The original iteration, before Rod Stewart added soul and took it from a ditty to an anthem, before it became a popular standard, Cat wrote it. That used to be the ultimate goal, not to sing the song, but to write it, hopefully to do both.

And after an hour, there was an intermission.

I went backstage with Michael McDonald, one of three managers, the others being Kelly Curtis and Rich Schaefer, and I figured it'd be the usual hang and then…

Cat appeared, in between sets, with a smile on his face, he gripped each of our hands and stared into our eyes for what seemed like an eternity. We're supposed to be paying fealty to him, but he was paying fealty to us!

I don't need to meet the act. If you've got a wall full of pics with you and famous icons I'm laughing. Is that how you get your jollies? They've got no idea who you are and they don't care, but Cat wasn't leaving so I asked him about his t-shirt, with a logo I didn't know. He didn't either, he said his son had given it to him, and he laughed. Remember when you wore on stage what you wore off? When the clothes didn't matter? This was the t-shirt Cat was wearing on stage.

And the highlight of the evening was "Father and Son."

Cat said it was supposed to be part of a musical, a Russian father telling his son not to go off to war.

"I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy To be calm when you've found something going on But take your time, think a lot"

Nobody thinks anymore. Either they run on instinct, or just go head first into the future. With age comes wisdom, but when the aged are imitating the young, getting plastic surgery, slithering into skinny jeans, who's going to listen to them?

We used to listen to our rock stars.

And there were further covers. A singalong to "All You Need Is Love," "People Get Ready," when you're comfortable in your own skin you can shine the light on others, on the experience we all had back then.

We all sang "Moonshadow." Removed from the radio, played in a venue where it was just him and us, it was a religious experience. You couldn't help but vocalize.

It was like it was back then, everybody sat.

But it was today. As if a relative or friend returned from the dead and although he was aged and gray, he was the same as he ever was. HOW CAN THIS BE?

Chris Cornell came out and duetted on "Wild World," but I just wanted to hear Cat, I needed no stunting, no trappings, the man was enough, the glass was already full, overflowing, in fact.

"If you want to be free, be free
'Cause there's a million things to be
You know that there are"

You didn't have to work for the bank, nobody wanted to. Life was about personal fulfillment, not avoiding the pitfalls. A potter, a teacher, a singer, they were all reasonable professions.

"Well, if you want to sing out, sing out"

I'm still digesting Thursday's concert, I still haven't wrapped my head around it. I own these records, and it turns out so many others do too. We remember what once was, it's only a smidge beneath the surface. We remember when music ruled the world, when we knew not everybody could make it, and we hoisted the talented to the top of the world, their deserved perch.

And then this guy who's been absent from the scene re-emerges and it's like not a single day has passed. And he's so similar to the rest of us, he got hooked by the music, he was searching for meaning.

His conversion to Islam was completely comprehensible when put in context. Over and over again Cat was searching for answers, reading, because money and fame are not everything, that's just a canard the media sells us.

But the Beatles went to India and Cat studied Buddhism and I…

Studied them. They were my mentors, my beacons, all the truth, all the guidance I needed was contained in the grooves.

And the grooves came alive Thursday night.