I was fourteen years old when “Harold And Maude” was released and I went back to watch it over and over again. I was already a Cat Stevens guy (aka a wimp) and this spoke straight to my rebellious, lily livered heart the way punk would some six years laters. And unlike more than a few things from my teenage years it has remained with me. But hidden, because it was 1971 and it took Cat till 1984’s Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 to release it. I loved it and lost it.
Still, like all of us, I took it seriously as an almost Taoist exultation and aphorism. “love is better than a song” is such an enriching sentiment for both music lovers and the indifferent: it simply states that music might well enhance love but it isn’t love, and in a world of Harold And Maude (the story of a romantic relationship by a Gothed out teenage Harold (the always great Bud Cort: you might remember him from his appearances in Robert Altman movies) and 79 year old free spirit Maude (Ruth Gordon with one of her greatest roles). “Harold And Maude” is a hippie movie if hippie movies were more than ageist posturings. Harold is a spirit distressed by the relentless banality of life as a rich kid pushing his mother (through fake suicides among many other ways) to respond the way the truly free spirit Maude might. Maude was sent to Auschwitz as a child, and survived, and among the terrible things the camp took away from her, she also received the importance of enjoying, cherishing the moment. Cat Stevens, who, less a free spirit in 1971, and much more on the road to find out, still discovered the inner heartbeat.
The Cat Steven’s songs here are signposts to the way through life, “On The Road To Find Out” and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” are two of Cat’s finest moments anyway, while “I WIsh,I Wish” , “Trouble”, “Where Do the Children Play?” are standouts anywhere… except here. But “Don’t Be Shy” is better. Similar to “Sing Out”, it is a nursery rhyme and a lullaby and a word to the wisest of the wisest, but “Sing Out” is what you should do and “Don’t Be Shy” is what you should sing while you’re singing out.
The problem with the world (well, one of them) is that people are easily manipulated. In the USA (really, everywhere), society demonizes the weakest members, whether it be the mentally ill, the ethnic minorities, undocumented aliens. On the Texas border, the original owners of the territory are begging to get in so they can take the jobs we won’t do and they are treated like cattle and chattel. It is astonishing the country can make them appear to be the flotsam of humanity. The same goes for the aged. The hippies didn’t lose everything, they lost the politics but changed the culture… but not for the elderly, shunted to the side with a demonize the weakest exercise and never trust anybody over thirty absolutely caused terrible wrongs for the elderly. Compare it to the way the elderly are treated in Japan, for one. The elderly were discarded in the 1960s, and even though we are all going to grow old, it remains a terrible ageiesm.
“Harold And Maude” director, Hal Ashby, who died in 1988 at the age of 59, everything he directed 1970 – 1979 are masterpieces of compassion and empathy, the paraplegic soldier in his oscar winning “Going Home”, the lost loser of “Shampoo’, the folkie to beat all folkiest on the caring autobiography of Woody Guthrie, “Bound For Glory”. And “Harold And Maude” -a one of a kind rebuke to mean spiritedness and bad vibes, in the world of “Harold And Maude” we raise our voices to sing about our rights, and the pursuit of true happiness.
“Don’t Be Shy” has magic in it, the magic to make you feel good about yourself. The hippies argument is that money doesn’t buy happiness, love buys happiness. And while life is filled with sorrow it isn’t only filled with sorrow, there are moments like bright jewels of the soul and Cat Stevens captures them.
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