Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"On the Road to Find Out" /
Cat Stevens

Apropos of nothing -- or maybe apropos of everything -- I've been stuck on this song ever since it popped up on my shuffle today. There are days when I can't remember what the Sixties felt felt like, but boy, yesterday sure wiped all the rust and dust off those Sixties ideals.

Suppose you were making a movie and you wanted to slap something on the soundtrack that says 1970; you couldn't go wrong with any song from Tea for the Tillerman. Okay, I know Hal Ashby already pulled that trick with Harold and Maude, but Tea for the Tillerman is so much more than just Harold and Maude for me. I was precisely the right age, and precisely the right target demographic, to think that this was the wisest and most beautiful album ever (at least for a few months, until Carole King's Tapestry came out). It seemed to be playing everywhere I went -- maybe not on Top 40 radio or on the musak at the mall, but at every party and at every friend's house. That folkie acoustic guitar, Stevens' quavery voice, the flower child conceits, the romantic loner alienation -- how better to appeal to us hippie wannabes?

"On the Road To Find Out" is your classic spiritual quest song, and we -- the generation that made Siddhartha a cult classic -- liked our spiritual quests, and the vaguer the better. The singer starts out by leaving his happy home "to see what I could find out," "with the aim to clear my mind out," et cetera et cetera et cetera, all very soft-focus and high-minded. It isn't all easy going -- he mentions snow, frost, thunder, howling winds -- and worst of all, human loneliness hits: "Then I found myself alone, hoping someone would miss me / Thinking about my home, and the last woman to kiss me (kiss me)." Still, he perseveres, as the chorus tells us over and over: "So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out / There's so much left to know, and I'm on the road to find out." This is more Easy Rider than The Searchers, that's for sure.

Cat lays this down with swelling and climbing melodies, a distant chorus cheering him on, drums and a touch of bass and organ building up that folky guitar ever so subtly until it almost feels EPIC. We are totally with him -- or are we? Because I'll bet that ninety percent of the kids who wore the grooves off this LP still think it's about running away from home -- whereas, I now realize, it's about the folly of running away. Like he says in the last verse, "Then I found my head one day when I wasn't even trying / And here I have to say, 'cause there is no use in lying / Yes, the answer lies within, so why not take a look now? /Kick out the devil's sin, pick up, pick up a good book now." (Or is it "the Good Book" he's talking about? Knowing that Cat eventually became a serious Muslim, changing his name to Yusuf Islam, you've got to wonder.)

PICK UP A BOOK? That wasn't the message we wanted to hear -- that's like something the school librarian would tell you. And what we wanted was to go out of state to college and smoke dope and drop acid and live in communes until we found The Answer. It almost didn't matter what Cat Stevens was trying to tell us, we heard what we wanted to.

And you know what? It still doesn't matter. I still get that yearning to hit the road when I hear this song. And even if the answer lies within, I still want to believe there is an Answer. Yesterday gave me hope again that there is.

On the Road To Find Out sample


Natsthename said...

You know, whenever I want to put myself back into that magical 70's mindset, I bring out "Tea For the Tillerman." It truly was our way to feel "hippy," since we were too young to be real ones. Oh lord, we were the first generation of pseudo-hippies!

Three of Cat's songs on that LP had us pondering the fathers and sons, setting out into the wild world, and hitting the road to find out.

And look, we're still on that road to find out!

Anonymous said...

"Went serious muslim on us"

Wow....that's seriously crass.

Natsthename said...

and funny as hell.

Holly A Hughes said...

On reflection, it was probably an insensitive turn of phrase. But "went seriously religious" doesn't work, because the Muslim detail is significant; when Cat became Yusuf, he stopped performing for years. What a loss! (In the end, apparently, his spiritual advisors told him he'd been too strict; they wanted him to go back to music, to help out Islam's cultural image.) So apologies to all our Muslim friends, but I think you guys know what I was getting at.

IƱaki said...

It's great to hear not only comments about the songs, but also what they mean to other people.

"There are many roads to take, and you meet them one by one"