When I bumped into DJ Pierre Robert at the Tower Theatre, he had more on his mind than music. It's something of a running joke - when I see him, he seeks to engage me in political discussion, while I try to steer conversation toward classic rock. On the night that Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, kicked off his first American tour in 38 years, those worlds collided. There were many of us at the show who were excited to hear the music, but wondering aloud about the performer's politics.
I've often said that if I screened my entertainment choices according to political bent, I'd be erasing my iTunes account and surrendering my cable subscriptions. (These days I'd have to add professional athletes.) So there I was, with my wife, circumnavigating the long lines outside in Upper Darby and working my way through metal detectors - something I'd never seen in three decades of attending Tower shows. (A Live Nation executive told me their presence was the mutual desire of both promoter and performer.) My trial-lawyer buddy, Paul Lauricella, offered the politically incorrect quip that it was the first time he experienced TSA-like screening to protect a Muslim from Americans.
When I said hello to State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) just before the lights dimmed, he reminded me that Yusuf had played at Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity," for which Stewart had been called out by Bill O'Reilly. Media and issues advocate Larry Ceisler, who was seated a row behind us with his wife, quickly weighed in, telling me that as a strong supporter of Israel, he was willing to overlook (for a night) any indiscretions toward the Jewish state in the name of music.
Clearly, there were many of us thinking about more than just the set list.
"The Wind." "Where Do the Children Play?" "Oh Very Young." "Moonshadow." "Wild World." "Another Saturday Night." "Morning Has Broken." "Peace Train." "Father and Son." "Sad Lisa." "Miles From Nowhere." The repertoire was rich, and the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee exhibited a rare voice.
But the next day, not only were the songs ringing in my ears, but so, too, the questions raised by friends about Yusuf's worldview. My cursory Internet search revealed that before Philadelphia, Yusuf played in Toronto, an event he marked with a contribution to the Toronto Star.
"At one time I wrote, 'I'm being followed by a moonshadow - moonshadow - moonshadow.' Today I would amend that to, 'I'm being followed by a trail of misconceptions - misconceptions - misconceptions," he wrote.
He referenced "dragon-sized myths," and directed fans to the lyrics of new songs, including "Editing Floor Blues":
One day the papers rang us up,
T'check if I said this?
I said, "Oh boy!
I'd never say that!"
Then we got down to the truth of it
But they never printed that!
On his website, yusufislam.com, he has a section titled "Chinese Whiskers," "dedicated to dispelling myths and rumors created around my bruising skirmishes with the media." Perusing the site, it became obvious that these days, Yusuf is catching it from all sides. One of the frequently asked questions is why he has stopped wearing Muslim robes.
In further addressing his faith, Yusuf comments that he feels "very fortunate that I got to know Islam before it became a major headline." And he offers an opinion as to why he was stopped from entry to the United States post 9/11:
"No reason was ever given, but being asked to repeat the spelling of my name again and again, made me think it was a fairly simple mistake of identity. Rumors which circulated after made me imagine otherwise. I'm now free to travel to the U.S., so whatever it was has been resolved."
But it was whether he'd once supported a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie that I'd heard most raised the night before, and I was pleased to see Yusuf offer context.
"Because of imaginary scenarios set by courthouse TV interviewers, in 1989 I was drawn into making stupid and offensive jokes about Rushdie on a program called Hypotheticals; however, they were meant to lighten the moment and raise a smile - as good ol' British sense of humor occasionally is known to do - unfortunately for me . . . it didn't.
"In 1989, during the heat and height of the Satanic Verses controversy, I was silly enough to accept appearing on . . . Hypotheticals, which posed imaginary scenarios by a well-versed (what if . . . ?) barrister, Geoffrey Robertson. . . . I foolishly made light of certain provocative questions. When asked what I'd do if Salman Rushdie entered a restaurant in which I was eating, I said, 'I would probably call up Ayatollah Khomeini'; and, rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author, I jokingly said I would have preferred that it'd be the 'real thing.'
"Criticize me for my bad taste, in hindsight, I agree. But these comments were part of a well-known British national trait; a touch of dry humor on my part."
Yusuf claims to never have "knowingly" supported Hamas, and most important to me, he denounced terrorism. ("Like all right-minded people, I absolutely condemn all acts of terrorism, including the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 [the July 7, 2005, bombings in London that killed nearly 60 people]. The actions of the terrorists were completely un-Islamic and against the teachings and example of the Prophet. It's everybody's responsibility to make this world a safer, more peaceful place.")
It was all the information I wish I'd have known the night before so that I would have celebrated the man as much as the music.