Teaser and the firecat


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the album, Teaser and the Firecat, home of one of the best songs I ever heard, by Cat Stevens. 

One summer’s afternoon a year later three teenagers went for a car ride. Speeding through a forest the car rounded a bend and swerved. At speed the car left the road and hit a tree. The impact killed two of the boys outright. A third died in hospital a week later. The three were in the year above me at boarding school. 

I had a girlfriend down in the town. Her best friend was going out with the boy who died a week later. We were not supposed to be seeing girls in town. Nevertheless I slipped out of the school and met up with the girls. It was the first time I had encountered the raw grief of bereavement. I remember her forehead deep red with grief her eyes tight shut. The knowledge that she would never see him again was completely outside our experience. To see this teenage girl so utterly bereft is a picture that has never left me.

How I prayed that week, a committed atheist. How angry I was at God when my friend died. On several afternoons we met up and sat in an upstairs room listening to the album Teaser and the Firecat. We had no answer to the eternal question: Why?

One particular song played over and over again. How Can I Tell You? It’s a love song but a sad one. The singer cannot reach the one he loves. He looks and she’s not there. The song is remarkable for Andy Roberts playing a Kriwaczek String Organ instrumental. This ghost-like lament rises in the middle of the song. It remains haunting. 

There was no counselling in those days and no one we could talk to. The rugby teams played on as if nothing had happened. Grief had to be concealed. Fifty years later I still think of that week. 

In its way Teaser and the Firecat provided a solace for us. Songs like the Greek-sounding Rubylove and If I Laugh provided the beginnings of a restitution we weren’t even sure we wanted. None of the staff at the school knew of the girls. They for their part were reproved for getting involved with boys from the big school. Parents, adults and teachers had no relevance to our mourning. 

Cat Stevens was to convert to Islam and change his name to Yusuf. Years were to go by and many roads walked down before I accepted the redemption of all men and the resurrection of Christ. 

Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam as he is known, remains one of the most inspiring singer songwriters of his generation. It is a gift from God. Is the song  How Can I Tell You a simple love song? I no longer think so. When I listen to How Can I Tell You all these years later I believe it is a message from beyond our understanding, a divine reassurance.