Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jan 23rd 2008 5:00PM by James Sullivan
'Tea for the Tillerman,' by Cat StevensIt's a little bitty thing, barely a minute long, but it packs a sneaky wallop. The handpicked theme song of Ricky Gervais' brilliant HBO series 'Extras,' which just came out in a DVD box set, is the title track to the fourth album by the man then known as Cat Stevens.
The song is a benediction with regrets, perfectly suited to the show's ultimate theme: that vanity in the pursuit of celebrity is a kind of disease, and real joy can only come from purer motives. The future Yusuf Islam makes weird offerings -- tea for the tillerman, OK, but steak for the sun? Even as the sinners sin, he marvels, the children still play. Then the song erupts, however briefly, into a full-on gospel chorus celebrating "that happy day." (The song and album came out in 1970, a year after Oakland's Edwin Hawkins Singers hit the pop Top Ten with the gospel hymn 'Oh Happy Day.')
The sinning of adults and the innocence of childhood have been Cat Stevens's lifelong obsessions. After converting to Islam, he founded several Islamic schools in England, and his last performance as Cat Stevens was at the Year of the Child concert at London's Wembley Stadium in 1979. If 'Tea for the Tillerman' underscores the true-meaning-of-life subject of 'Extras,' it also says a few things about Ricky Gervais. As an unapologetic Cat Stevens fan, he's a man of a certain age (he's 46, or a very impressionable pubescence at the height of the soft- rock mystic's early-'70s popularity), he's a serious sentimentalist, and his comedy can be traced in a direct line from 'Harold and Maude,' the absurdly uncomfortable but wholly humanistic 1971 Hal Ashby comedy that used several Cat Stevens songs, including 'Tillerman,' to great effect.
Coldplay fanatics will know that Chris Martin performed the song during the outro of the 'Extras' episode in which he also sang a duet version of 'Fix You' with Gervais' Andy Millman, in character as the loony, bewigged sitcom star he has stooped to portray. We don't often think of the dour Yusuf Islam as "havin' a larf," but he just might have been in on this one.
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