Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Between the Spiritual World and the Material World

"Yesterday I was on the edge
Hopin' everything was going to work itself out
A good honest man doing the work of God
Trying to make things better for him
A lover of life in a school for fools
Tryin' to find another way to survive"

Cat Stevens "Music"

It was on this day in 1974 that Cat Stevens released his sixth album, "Buddha and the Chocolate Box."

It was one of the first cassette tapes I ever bought. I didn't buy it the day it came out, but I had heard of Cat Stevens, and I heard many of his popular songs before I ever bought "Buddha and the Chocolate Box." I don't think I had heard any of the songs on the album, but, as I say, I was familiar with Cat Stevens. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting.

It is safe to say that "Buddha" wasn't his most successful album. It was certified platinum about 27 years after it was released.

But the key to understanding it lies in an incident that occurred when Stevens was traveling to a concert location by plane. He had a buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other. According to the story, Stevens pondered that, if the plane crashed, those would be the last two items he would hold — and he would be caught between the spiritual world and the material world.

The music on the album reflected that — and tended to lean toward the spiritual with titles like "Jesus," "King of Trees" and "Home in the Sky."

In the context of Stevens' other albums, it was a return to his roots. His previous album, "Foreigner," was criticized by many, largely for the 18–minute "Foreigner Suite" that filled Side 1. I didn't think it was a bad recording, but it was a stylistic departure for Stevens — and a nightmare for radio programmers who were accustomed to working with songs that were three or four minutes long at the most.

In those days, longer songs could be edited for playing on the radio, but what could you cut from "Foreigner Suite?"

"[T]he suite is full of compelling melodic sections and typically emotive singing," wrote William Ruhlmann for, "that could have made for an album side's worth of terrific four–minute Cat Stevens songs, if only he had composed them that way."

The album title wasn't long and cumbersome, like Stevens' previous albums, and the music, as I say, was different. It was less acoustic and relied more on keyboard arrangements than Stevens' listeners expected from him. Listeners didn't exactly warm up to it.

"Buddha and the Chocolate Box" was more like it. Stevens found a more receptive audience — and found himself back in the Top Ten for the first time in a couple of years with "Oh Very Young."

It wasn't his most successful commercial effort. I suppose that particular title belongs to "Teaser and the Firecat," which came out three years earlier and produced three hit singles.

Actually, when most people think of "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" — if they ever do — they probably think of its only hit, "Oh Very Young," which was the second track on the album.

In fact, that is probably the only song that most people know from the album. I don't recall any other track getting much, if any, air play.

If that's the case, they've really missed out. Well, not on Stevens' biggest hits, but on an album that I found very satisfying at the time — and, when I listen to it today, my mind goes back to those days and I remember people and things I haven't thought about in a long time.

So far, all those memories have been pleasant ones. One such memory is from that summer, when my father and I came to Dallas to help my paternal grandmother move out of her apartment and into an assisted living community. I'm not really sure why I am reminded of that when I listen to the album. I didn't even own it at that time. I may have heard "Oh Very Young" on the radio, but I heard no other song from the album until I bought it.

When Dad and I came to Dallas to help my grandmother move, one of the things we did was help her get rid of many of her possessions. At the assisted living facility, she would have her bedroom and the bathroom, but she had no need for living room or dining room furniture, just a few chairs for her personal living space.

She was still capable of doing many things for herself. She wasn't moving because she could no longer care for herself. She kept her car until she died a couple of years later, and she was able to continue driving it until the last months of her life.

But she didn't need a lot of her furniture anymore so Dad and I helped her sell some of it. She gave some of her possessions to relatives and friends and sold the rest. Grandmother had two television sets — a large one that she kept in her living room and a small portable that she kept in her bedroom. She only needed one at her new residence so she gave me the portable.

It changed my young life. I still did most of my TV watching with the family in our living room, but late on Friday nights, I remember watching Wolfman Jack on the Midnight Special or Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show on weeknights — or the early Saturday Night Live programs.

And it was at that time that I was listening to "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" on my portable cassette player/recorder.

So it must be a memory by association.

I like songs from other Cat Stevens albums better than most of the tracks on "Buddha and the Chocolate Box," but that album has special meaning for me.

I suppose some folks will conclude that means that "Oh Very Young" — or at least the title — has some sort of symbolic significance for me, but the truth is I never listen to that song when I listen to the album.

Weird, huh?