November 23rd, 1970. On that day, Cat Stevens released his second album, Tea for the Tillerman. Yes, it was that long ago.
As I young teen sowing his primitive social and musical oats, I was a sponge. As I listen to the album now, drops from my musical memory bank bring back each song from this magical – often confusing – album, and with them, the angst and joy of those times.
Forty-four years ago today, sometime in the afternoon, I heard the album for the first time. Those hours resonate as if experienced today.
“Where Do the Children Play?”
Instantly, I like this song. And it’s easy to play, basically all written around a D chord – my favorite one. Could I, would I, might I try to play it for friends? I bet they’d be impressed. But I’d only do it if they sang the lyrics. Playing the song is one thing; singing the damned thing is another.
“Hard Headed Woman”
I return the phonograph needle to the beginning of “Hard Headed Woman” three more before I get my fill. What beautiful violins. I’ve never heard classical music like this in a rock album. I’m so in the moment listening to “Woman,” although I don’t really know what he means by “hard headed.” I love how he yells out “I know!” in the line “I know … many fine feathered friends, but their friendliness depends on how you do.” I can yell it, too, but that’s about my only vocal contribution.
Of course, everyone’s already heard this on the radio a million times. Because of “Wild World,” however, people will know who I’m talking about when I mention how great “the new Cat Stevens album is.”
Oh, God, the sad piano, and more violins – the violins. Now this is the kind of woman I know, a sad girl “with eyes like windows, tricklin’ rain.” It’s like Cat Stevens is speaking for her, for me. But the song doesn’t really work on guitar. It’s a piano song. I don’t have a piano. A man needs his guitar. Without one, I am sad. Bad sad.
“Miles From Nowhere”
Cat groans boisterously “Miles from nowhere!” And my own “nowhere” groan is pretty good, too. It’s great to sing out like this. And the chords are easy so I can strum loud like an electric guitar. “Miles from nowhere / not a soul in sight / but it’s alright / I have my freedom / I can make my own rules / The ones that I choose.” My once unflappable folk roots seem miles from nowhere, too.
“But I Might Die Tonight”
I’m confused. It seems the words are knocking having a good job, getting ahead and all that. I mean, if Dad didn’t have a good job, wouldn’t our family be in poverty? And the song’s too short. I don’t get it.
These lyrics are weird: “How does a flower grow?” “Longer boats?” “Mary dropped her pants by the sand and met a parson come and take her hand.” So far, Side 2 has taken me aback but, as usual, I don’t really care about lyrics. It’s the music that moves me. The guitar hook that sails from the beginning of “Boats” through to the end has landed me in musical bliss.
More strange lyrics, but, for some reason, I relate. Is it because I like to paint and he paints, too, like he did to create the scene on the album cover? His colors and subjects – “Brown-haired dogmouse,” “Yellow delanie,” and “Red-legged chicken” – are they all “emptying into white,” as if onto a blank white canvas? Or is Cat Stevens on drugs? It’s still a good song though.
“On the Road to Find Out”
Yes! I’ve figured out how to play the opening guitar riff. It’s hard up that high on the last two strings, but I get it. Yes, I am Cat Stevens now! And I’m playing the song out in the woods of College Park (Maryland), simulating the woodland world depicted on the back photo of the album jacket. “On the Road to Find Out” is hard for me to sing but, being way out here, no one can hear that.
“Father and Son”
Dad’s not like the father portrayed in this song. He’s not the compassionate “I was once like you are now …” kind of father. But he’s never made me feel like yelling, “From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen [to you, Dad]” either. For this reason, even though it seems to be all my friend’s favorite song from the album, “Father and Son” has never been mine.
“Tea for the Tillerman”
Tea for the tillerman? What’s that? And this song is too short and too out there for me to get into. I can’t believe it’s the title song to the album.
Some songs on Tea for the Tillerman are not me. So why does the album grab me so hard? Why? The songs go round and round in my head. I can’t let them go. I can’t let the album go.
That was then. This is hindsight. Little did I know at the time how Cat Stevens’ album would speak for me, free me, both musically and personally. After inhaling his collection of tunes, I no longer felt miles from nowhere. Even if I inhaled life indirectly, I at least lived more. And from that place of experience, I moved on, matured, and learned life is a celebration – banquet, if you will – of love, people, events and beauty (and that “Tea for the Tillerman” is, after all, a good song, one all about life).
“Tea for the Tillerman”
Bring tea for the tillerman, Steak for the sun,
Wine for the woman who made the rain come
Seagulls sing your hearts away, ‘cause while
sinners sin the children play, Oh lord how they play
and play, For that happy day