LOS ANGELES — How does a man who turned his back on the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in a quest to be closer to God feel about being welcomed into an institution whose very name celebrates the culture of fame?
“Even though it’s taken time, I’ve always been an optimist,” said the 65-year-old musician born Steven Georgiou, formerly known as Cat Stevens and who now uses the single name Yusuf. “I was brought up on the view that if you wait patiently till the end of the story, the good people will live happily ever after. So this is sort of a fulfillment of that idea.”
The appearance of Stevens’ name among the latest round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame carries more than a hint of irony for anyone who paid attention to the British singer and songwriter’s career during the 1960s and ’70s.
Stevens earned his place as a full-fledged pop star — a sex symbol even — through a string of hits including “Peace Train,” “Wild World,” “Morning Has Broken” and “Oh Very Young.” Many of his songs, however, contained cautionary messages about the dangers of being seduced by the material world, advising listeners to seek out something more enduring than the fleeting pleasures earthly life has to offer.
Stevens himself took that message to heart, abandoning his music career after the release of his 1978 album “Back to Earth” and devoting himself to the study and practice of Islam, even changing his name to Yusuf Islam as part of his religious conversion.
If a single song crystallized his philosophy of music as a means of spiritual exploration, it’s “On the Road to Find Out” from his breakthrough 1970 album, “Tea for the Tillerman.”
There’s already been some online grousing about his selection for the hall by rock fans whose definition of what constitutes “rock ‘n’ roll” is limited to musicians who wield electric guitars in conventional guitar-bass-drums lineups.
“The whole institution of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame started after rock ‘n’ roll (came into being),” he said. “So it has come in as a kind of a snapshot of history, and that means in the end it’s all about music. It’s not just a matter of a panel of judges talking about their choices and names — it’s to do with the music. From that point of view, it sounds interesting, although I haven’t actually seen what happens at these kind of inductions.”
Although Stevens established his reputation with gentle, introspective acoustic guitar-driven songs that got him lumped among the “sensitive singer-songwriter” camp of the early-’70s, with 1972’s “Catch Bull at Four” album and successors such as “Foreigner” and “Buddha and the Chocolate Box,” he incorporated more of rock’s sonic punch into his music.
Nevertheless, to Yusuf — as to many others — “rock ‘n’ roll” has as much to do with attitude as with instrumentation.
“If there are any rules to what we call ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ only a couple of times did I actually conform to those rules,” he said. “And that was the point — it was always the spirit of that generation to break the mold.”