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Bringin' Sassy Bach: Cat Stevens "Tea For The Tillerman"

July 1970 I was 4 years old. Starting kindergarten in September and the youngest of four children. I had the innoncene of childhood, or so everyone thought.

Being so low on the sibling roster you tend to be forgotten.  Not in a sad, “poor me”  way but rather in a simple over look.  My brothers were in high school .  The oldest , 15 with long dark hair would come home fall asleep in a chair and I would take my mother’s hair rollers and set his hair.   He woke to lovely long curls.  I adored that guy but as much as I loved him I feared him.  As an authoritarian he was powerful.  He had tons of handsome friends and one of them had a huge afro, I mean Sly and The Family Stone size fro.  He’d let me pat it.  He was so tall too.  I think I may have stood on the table to do so.  I stood on tables a lot.  Stomping a foot,  fists on hips to get what I needed. 

My next in line at 14 a brother blond pretty boy who thought he was Jethro Tull and who struggled in school.  The parents doted on him, poor thing ‘he needs extra help’.  He’s so sensitive he had a sense of humour that would tip you right over.  A shock and bewildered look that made you want to throw your arms around him and howl.  And that I did quite often. 

A sister at age 11 who was prima donna extraordinaire. Smart and talented and always able to find pity in the most powerful situations, poor her.  She found her niche in being the victim. Demanding and negative and in retrospect we are all exactly the same 43 years later.

I bring up the bio’s of the Bach siblings in my preparation to cover an album that for some reason rips my very soul out.  Some will say I don’t remember back in the day and they can be right.  They can chose to think that words spelled are not heard or understood but they are and with whisper tones topics become much more interesting to a little girl in baby doll pajamas who can fit between the stair banisters and landing.  I could- I did and I know.  I opt to not allow anyone to believe anything more than I was the silly girl who sang songs atop that same table or would practice magic tricks or roll down the hill in the back yard.  But I could see through my homes windows and in the glowing lights of suburbia all was not glitter.  But this isn’t Doctor Phil now is it?

 This is rock and roll and this week we get to revisit ‘Tea For The Tillerman” by Cat Stevens.

“Where Do the Children Play” starts the album with a simply acoustic plinking guitar that swells to meet Cat Stevens tale of lost innocence.  Or is he?  The songs lyrics are so vague that you can interpret it a thousand ways.  Is it the end of our innocence or the future of brightness and hope?  It the proverbial half full and half empty glass “your lorry loads pumpin petrol gas’ can’t get more Brit speak than that can you?  Is Stevens longing for youth?   I sang this as an answer not a question.  I also sang it as “Why do the children play’ cuz I misunderstood the lyrics.  As the song progresses the sound becomes more powerful and strong and in the end you’re still sort of left wondering what the hell is going on.  “Will you tell us when to live and will you tell us when to die’?  Wait; is that the societal rally cry?  Hmmm


“Hard Headed Woman”  The blond brother sang this in the mirror.  I would laugh my butt off cuz he was so small and wimpy looking.  A skinny Beach Boy (who grew up to be simply gorgeous) taking from my mom’s side of the family with fair skin and hair.  He would strike poses in the mirror looking for that bicep that simply no one could see.  To hear him sing about ‘fancy dancers’ always cracked me up and he would turn to me and say ‘why you come here for. Why?!” as the lyrics in the song and Id bust a move as only a 4 year old could.  The growl of ‘iiiiiiiiiii know’ was only more hilarious from him.  I’m not sure but I think he tried to play this on acoustic guitar and would hit the wood.  Poor thing.  Anyway he ended up marrying a hard headed woman and has been happily married for close to 38 years.  I love that guy, super successful and wonderful and even though I would never say it to his face- I admire him so and I am so proud of him.  It was all stacked against him and he triumphed.

“Wild World” was easy to sing ‘lalallalalallalal’ I remember when I was older singing this at the top of my lungs.  It’s true.  ‘It’s hard to get by just upon a smile’.  I actually think when I sang this I am actually singing it to myself.  To that 4 year old me.  ‘Don’t be a bad girl’.  The lyrics are more obvious than most of Stevens.  He makes you interpret by being vague.  This hits it to the point.  I see doors closing when I hear this and it makes me very sad.

“Sad Lisa”, what a perfect follow up and pass the tissue.  I can’t really go in to this one but I will say if you don’t get a kick in the heart when you hear this- you’re a corpse.  It’s beautiful and it’s pathetic and every time I hear it, it gets more powerful.  ” You’re lost in the dark, you can trust me”

“Miles From Nowhere”, I loaded up my car 16 years after this album came out with everything I owned (including a cat) and decided to never look back.  This was on a mix tape cassette.  It brings back the exact same feelings I had then.  There is a whole lot of bewilderment in growing up.  Although this is a song of surrender it’s a song of triumph to me.  It’s the time to take control.  It’s so odd to hear this now and to feel that same emotion I had as I slammed that door. This is why Cat Stevens is my spirit animal.  He seems to set a tone that suits my entire life in some way.  This song is fucking awesome.

“But I Might Die Tonight” was another song my brother sang all the time.  I never liked it and amazingly still don’t.  I don’t like the echo back of his own lyrics.  Plus I think my brother sang this when he was pissed at my dad so I would have none of that.

“Longer Boats” is a weird tune but it’s awesome in its melody and quote lines. I always loved it but it reminds me of a British ‘Day-Oh’.  This is a nice story though.  Sorta hippy but hey it was 1970.

“Into White”, this tune would make a great ad for Whole Foods but see Cat Stevens has this magical voice that makes whatever he’s singing about beautiful and he is such a story teller.  I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about but every time I hear it it makes me cry and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with green pepper walls.  Plus lets pause a moment to say HOLY SHIT CAT STEVENS WAS A FUCKING FOX.

“On The Road To Find Out”, is a happy little ditty. I picture a bandana on a stick dwarf or something.  But it also reminds me of Harold and Maude.  A film that helped me form the person I am today.  “Seconds tick the time out, there’s so much left to know and I’m on the road to find out’.  Again Stevens gains power in his vocals through the song as he becomes more confident in his actions- again actions so vague that its anymans pep tune.  Works like a charm ‘pick up the good book now’

“Father and Son’ should be parent and child.  I can sing this to my kid and everyone who’s ever spawned youth can do the same.  Unlike Harry Chapin’s ‘Cats In The Cradle” this tale of parent advise is more understanding and accommodating ‘take your time think a lot’ ‘you will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not’  The child’s response is so spot on its cutting.  We don’t listen ‘from the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.’  Growing up fucking sucks.

“Tea For The Tillerman’ the saddest 1:02 in folk rock. "Seagulls sing your hearts away 'Cause while the sinners sin, the children play"  Pretty much sums up the entire album, dontcha think?

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