This month marks the 50th anniversary of Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby’s dark coming-of-age comedy about a romance between a death-obsessed man in his early twenties and a fun-loving 79-year-old woman. The use of the legendary singer-songwriter Cat Stevens/Yusuf’s music in the cult-classic film is on par with Simon & Garfunkel’s in The Graduate or Elliott Smith’s in Good Will Hunting, with the songs often speaking for the characters. And yet, there has never been an official soundtrack release — until now. That album, featuring both Yusuf’s music and dialogue from the film, will finally come out on Feb. 11, 2022.
“I refused to allow them to make a soundtrack album [in 1971]. They were using so much of my two albums, Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman, that [the soundtrack would have] ended up to be a greatest hits. And I said, ‘I'm too young to have a greatest hits!” Yusuf tells Yahoo Entertainment with a chuckle.
Yusuf stresses that while he thought it was “kind of great” that Ashby made what Yusuf considered to be “just a long music video” for his music, he had no idea that would be the case until Harold and Maude was always well on its way to completion. “The whole process of making the film actually embedded my music from the very beginning. When I came to San Francisco to see some of the rushes, Hal Ashby, the director, had already sort of filled the whole film with my music!” he recalls. “So, it was a kind of fait accompli that we had to make a deal — and we did, of course.”
Yusuf did eventually compose two originals for Harold & Maude: “Don't Be Shy,” which played during one of Harold’s shocking fake-suicide scenes, and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” which was performed by the titular couple in one of the film’s sweetest and most whimsical scenes. Yusuf admits that he hadn’t expected his demo of the latter song to end up in the film, and at first he wasn’t too pleased about that.
“I was getting ready to do it properly — you know, go in [to the studio] with the musicians and do this thing professionally. But that never happened. [Ashby] just kept the demo as it was. I was very frustrated, but now you listen to it and you hear the charm, because I was not self-conscious.” He also confesses that when he heard actress Ruth Gordon, who played Maude, warble “If You Want to Sing Out” onscreen, he “was a little bit upset by the fact that she wasn't singing it ‘right.’ … I was, you know, ‘professional.’ So, I didn't want to do the demo. I wanted to do the demo properly. Ad I didn't want her to sing like that.” However, then he realized this was all part of the charm as well. “That was the whole joy of that song, with her playing that piano. … It all worked out so perfectly, because it's that kind of film.”
But perhaps the most impactful use of Yusuf’s music in Harold & Maude was Mona Bone Jakon’s “Trouble” during the closing portion of the film when Maude is whisked to the hospital, with the song standing in for any spoken dialogue in that sequence. (“You didn't need anything else,” Yusuf says of the emotional scene.) It was a perfect use of the song, as “Trouble” was inspired by Yusuf’s own 1969 hospital stay and moment of reckoning with mortality, when he almost died from tuberculosis, spent a year recuperating, and a result began to question his life and spirituality. The artist, then known as Cat Stevens, eventually converted to Islam in the late 1970s, and he abandoned his musical career for nearly two decades.
“It was a theme to my tuberculosis, a moment where I'd been very, very sort of successful for about one year. And then I'd got driven into the ground with so much work and doing everything wrong. That's when I contacted tuberculosis and I was in hospital, and to me ‘Trouble’ was the song that depicts that time, that moment. … I was starting to look within myself and I was becoming much more aware about myself and the impact of what I was doing in my life, and upon my life. So, it was kind of a very self-reflective moment,” says Yusuf of “Trouble.”
As sweet as Harold & Maude is, it is hard to imagine a comedy about a touchy subject like suicide would even get greenlit today — or, if it did get made, that it would be well-received and understood. “Well, I think if it came out today, I don't think it would become a cult film. It would be something that would be on Netflix and people might find it. I don't think it would make the impact that it did, because it's kind of ingrained in the era that it was born, the ‘70s. …. It really is a time piece. So, I don't think anything like that can be done today,” Yusuf admits.
However, Yusuf notes that the massive age gap between the movie’s main characters would be less shocking in 2021 than it was in 1971, when the film initially flopped at the box office. “I think the people are now a little bit numbed by the kind of, um, you might say the variety of relationships that people have these days. I don't know if it would really make an impact [now], because any way is open for everyone. But again, it belonged to that time. And that [age difference] was a pretty much a taboo.” However, Yusuf also acknowledges Harold & Maude might not be so beloved today if the gender roles had been reversed and Harold had been the 79-year-old. “Well, that's a, no-no,” he laughs. “That’s strange. But it somehow feels different, doesn't it?”
Somehow master filmmaker Ashby was able to take such sensitive subject matter — suicide, death, May/December romance — and create something tasteful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. “There was nothing that I felt was wrong about the film; I was just lucky to be chosen to be the soundtrack,” says Yusuf, who feels that Harold & Maude is ultimately about “liberation from people's concepts” and “struggling against the perceptions of the world, of the establishment or society.” And he has an amusing explanation as to how Ashby pulled it off.
“I think that if you've ever puffed weed — and Hal did a lot of that — the world changes towards you. It's kind of like things are all possible. I didn't think he saw an obstacle to his vision, because it was part of where he was; it was like he was seeing it in front of his eyes. And he wasn't totally sober. And I don't think that a sober director could ever, ever have made that film,” says Yusuf.
Harold & Maude isn’t the only 50th anniversary Yusuf is celebrating these days; he also recently released deluxe reissues of 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman and 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat. One has to wonder, as he revisits his past from half a century ago, if he ever wonders what might have been if he hadn't taken such an extended professional hiatus. But Yusuf has a rather Maude-like positive perspective on his career journey. “I think there's the whole thing about destiny, which is a very tricky subject. I think you end up living it anyway,” he says. “So, hey, have a party.”
Check out Yusuf’s full, extended interview below, in which he discusses his album reissues, new album plans for 2022, and more:
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— Video produced by Anne Lilburn, edited by Jimmie Rhee