Friday 19 April 2024

One Track Mind #5: Moon Shadow

"This song is really weird, dad? What's it about?"

This is the kind of question that fills me with joy, because if Sam cares what a song is about, he's clearly engaging with it. In the case of Moon Shadow though... I really don't have an answer. I have an idea... but it's not one that Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam or Steven Demetre Georgiou appears to agree with. Neither is it an interpretation I see echoed by online "experts". Does this mean I'm wrong?

Any number of poets, writers and lyricists will tell you that when they let their words out into the wild, it's not up to them to enforce an interpretation on the audience. Some writers actively refuse to discuss the "message" behind their stories, preferring to allow the individual reader or listener to infer their own meanings. Sylvia Plath wrote...

"Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader..."

Nick Cave agrees, saying that when he writes songs, he wants his listeners to come to their own conclusions. He refuses to "take away their power by attaching my own meaning to them". 

This is the power of art - we add our own connotations, beliefs, prejudices, life experiences and emotions when we consume it. As I often tell my students: in English, there are no right answers. You just need to be able to explain your own interpretation so that it makes sense to someone else. They might not agree with you, they just need to be able to see how you've arrived at your conclusions. 

Moon Shadow, then, is not - for me, at least - "softly tailored folderol from Cat Stevens [which] shows his whimsical side". Nor does it persuade me to "See life as it is, right now, and [not] compare it to others' lives, or other times in your life." Neither am I convinced of any religious message behind the lyrics, despite Stevens' later conversion from Christianity to Islam. Although interestingly, when that conversion took place, Yusuf Islam stopped singing any of his old Cat Stevens songs... except this one, which he later claimed was his favourite. 

In 2009, Cat Stevens tried to explain Moon Shadow to Chris Isaak...

"I was on a holiday in Spain. I was a kid from the West End – bright lights, et cetera. I never got to see the moon on its own in the dark, there were always streetlamps. So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow. I thought that was so cool, I'd never seen it before."

Which all sounds very positive, doesn't it? Over on the tube of you, people agree. Some call it "the ultimate optimist song". "There's something about the imagery of total freedom and dancing under the moon," says an old 'hippie kid', "which appeals to my wild self." Another youtuber, who says the song got them through a very dark period, explains, "this song is like, 'No matter how dark it gets, it can always be worse... but there's always light". 

If you want to consider alternative interpretations to songs, youtube is definitely the place to look. In the past week, quite a few American commenters have suggested Moon Shadow as "the official song of the 2024 solar eclipse". While someone else can be found reminiscing over the time it was used in an episode of Airwolf with Jan Michael Vincent. This was my favourite though...

"Now I know why Moonlight Shadow sounded better in my childhood. It was actually Moon Shadow!"

And let's not forget this quirky little reimagining: an animated fairy tale devised by Cat Stevens and narrated by Spike Milligan in which a boy and his cat attempt to rescue the moon when it falls out of the sky...

Faced with this overwhelming barrage of evidence that Moon Shadow is a sweet, life-affirming tune... am I the only one who finds it creepy? And by that, I mean creepy in a good way. Creepy in an excellent way!

Yes, I'm bein' followed by a moon shadow
Moon shadow, moon shadow
Leapin' and hoppin' on a moon shadow
Moon shadow, moon shadow

Have you ever seen the movie It Follows? To me, the Moon Shadow is like the monster from that film. Some kind of weird supernatural entity that's following Cat around, menacing him, threatening to rob him of his hands, his eyes, his legs and his mouth...

And if I ever lose my hands
Lose my plow, lose my land
Oh, if I ever lose my hands
Oh if, I won't have to work no more

And if I ever lose my eyes
If my colors all run dry
Yes, if I ever lose my eyes
Oh if, I won't have to cry no more

The interweb suggests all this graphic body horror is linked to the time Cat Stevens almost died from tuberculosis back in 1969. His recuperation led him to reconsider his spiritual side, and may well have spurred the fears voiced in this song.

And if I ever lose my legs
I won't moan, and I won't beg
Oh, if I ever lose my legs
Oh if, I won't have to walk no more

(Meanwhile, back on youtube, there's always some Debbie Downer ready to spoil the party...

"All I can think of is the videos I have watched from Palestinians. The boy with no arms, a missing leg (and a missing foot and ankle on the other side). Listening to this, the day after the opening of the trial in The Hague. That tragic genocide has ruined this song for me.")

And if I ever lose my mouth
All my teeth, north and south
Yes, if I ever lose my mouth
Oh if, I won't have to talk

It's great that Cat can remain so upbeat - defiant, even - while being pursued by this vicious phantom... but maybe that's because his motive isn't escape. Let's not forget, this Cat is armed and dangerous...

Oh yes. And here comes the Edgar Allen Poe twist... the Cat wants to get caught!

Did it take long to find me?
I asked the faithful light
Oh, did it take long to find me?
And are you gonna stay the night? 

Hooohahahahahahahaaa. Imagine those lines delivered in Vincent Price tones and maybe you'll get where I'm coming from. It's worth noting that Cat amps up his own delivery here, adopting a much more in-your-face singing style than the alluringly amiable tone he uses for the rest of the song. For me, that's the bit that confirms all my theories. Suddenly the tables are turned and the hunter becomes the prey. 

"This song is really weird, dad? What's it about?"

It's about monsters, son. Monsters that want to eat - your hands, your eyes, your legs, your mouth. And it's about how to catch them... and make them pay.


  1. I have seen It Follows and I like this interpretation!

  2. This blog post jumped out at me and I'm sure you'll know why.

    When I delved into everything moon-related for my Full Moon in Song series I included Cat's song but must have been very lazy as I just accepted the explanation given by the man himself in that interview. I'm going to have to reassess to hear the scary in it and perhaps watch that film. What's It All About indeed.


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