"Moonshadow" / Cat Stevens
This is the way it works. For days I had "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" stuck in my head, thanks to that obnoxiously ubiquitous iPhone commercial. (I tell myself it's just a fond flashback of Bud Cort dancing around a cemetery in Harold and Maude, but I know better.) So I surrender to the inevitable and go onto iTunes to download that song. While I'm looking for it, though, I run across this other Cat Stevens song and I'm instantly hooked.
I remember "Moonshadow" very well - it was the standout song from Teaser and the Firecat , Stevens' valiant 1971 follow-up to his phenomenal Tea For The Tillerman. Like every other girl in my class, I owned both in vinyl, but years later when it came down to replacing the LPs with CDs, Tillerman made the cut, not Teaser. "Moonshadow" vanished into the twilight zone of forgotten tracks -- until today.
Now I'm seduced once more by its fey charm. Yesterday I was pondering the childlike quality of late-1960s Donovan; moving on to Cat Stevens is a totally logical transition. Like a nursery rhyme, it begins with its chorus, a frothy bit of fairy-tale imagery: "I'm being followed by a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow, / Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow." All that repetition is almost like an incantation. Then come the verses, which follow a consistent pattern -- "If I ever lose my hands [eyes /legs /mouth] . . . I won't have to work [cry /walk /talk] no more." It's an old folk song device; the fun lies in predicting how the singer will complete the pattern each time.
None of which adequately explains why this is such a splendid little song. You just can't resist its glorious sense of optimism -- the lighthearted skipping rhythm, the dancing melody, are so joyful, especially sung in Stevens' warm timbre, over that nimble, delicate acoustic guitar. Stevens has said in interviews that it was inspired by a visit to Spain, where one night he stood by the sea under moonshine so strong that he could see his own shadow. I love the idea of that transfiguring nature experience.
Of course, in true Cat Stevens fashion, it's edged with darkness -- all those physical losses in the verses. I've read that when Stevens was young, he nearly died of tuberculosis; melancholy always shadows his songs. This song could so easily misfire, with its relentless verse-by-verse translation of tragedy into triumph. It's just a whisper away from the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who continues to taunt his attacker while his limbs are hacked off one by one. ("Come back here and I'll bite your legs off!") But that perky formula saves it -- all those disasters remain imaginary, held at bay by his buoyant positive spirit.
Ever since Cat Stevens turned into Yusuf Islam, listeners have been suspicious of anything that sounds like a coded religious message in his songs. There is something provocative about that bridge: "Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. / Did it take long to find me? and are you gonna stay the night?" But get over it folks -- this is the sort of anthropomorphic stuff you'll find in hundreds of children's picture books, and Stevens didn't convert to Islam until 1977, long after he wrote "Moonshadow." Stevens' sense of childlike wonder seems totally sincere to me, and nearly 40 years later, it still seems fresh and lighthearted and uplifting.
Let's just hope no one decides to spoil this one with a tacky commercial, ok?