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Sting Reaches for the Sun

Rock's artsy jazz poet discusses the death of his parents, his names, his movie roles, and his pretensions

February 11, 1988
Sting on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Sting on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Matt Mahurin

Ro-o-ox-a-a-anne . . . . a-a-anne . . . . You don't have to put on the red light . . . red light . . . red light . . . . "

Sting's cool, bracing tenor cuts through the fierce midday heat, shooting across the seemingly endless soccer field in Rio de Janeiro's giant Maracana Stadium, ricocheting off the faraway balcony back toward the stage. The words, intertwined with Steve Coleman's eerie sax breaks, echo once, twice, sometimes even a faint third time in the expanse of this huge concrete frying pan, the largest stadium in the world.

Right now, during a sound check, Maracana is empty except for the star, his seven-piece band and a small army of roadies and local stagehands sweating buckets under the merciless Rio sun. But tonight, to witness the official opening night of Sting's 1987-88 world tour, an estimated 200,000 Brazilians will pack the Maracana field and bleachers, the largest single concert audience of Sting's solo career and the second largest of his entire life (the largest was with the Police at the Us Festival). Hell, this isn't an audience; it's a city unto itself, Rio de Sting, and the population absorbs Maracana's monster echo with its own hearty roar – "Stingé! Stingé!"

Inside Sting's Birthday Blowout

Statistics may not be the most accurate measure of his achievements, but the Cecil B. De Mille-like immensity of Maracana and its undulating waves of wall-to-wall humanity are testimony to the worldwide success Sting has attained less than two years after the breakup of the Police. Strangely enough, his former fellow officers, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, are touring Brazil at the same time, in a band with bassist Stanley Clarke. The night before, in Porto Alegre, they played to 10,000 people – hardly small potatoes. For Sting, though, Maracana is just the beginning. The other dates on his South American tour are nearly all in supersized venues. The smallest show on the Brazilian leg is an arena date in São Paulo – capacity: a paltry 60,000.

"I don't really see giantism as success," Sting says the morning after Maracana, lounging in his hotel suite, which overlooks the quarter-moon curve of Copacabana Beach. "We went through that with the Police. We played Shea Stadium and these other massive places. Having done it, it doesn't mean that much anymore. Last night, I enjoyed it, and it was quite emotional at times. But it's not the goal."

The goal, it seems, is to avoid the predictable at all costs. Subvert the obvious. And, whenever possible, confound the skeptics. As the voice, the face and the principal songwriting brain in the Police, Sting, né Gordon Sumner, was never shy about lancing the Top Forty with third-world grooves, literary allusions and twisted romance. On his own, he has been even bolder, deliberately testing the limits of his artistic license and the patience of his fans with deeper forays into jazz, ethnic music and highbrow scholarship.

This experimentation makes the payoffs that much more impressive. Sting's 1985 solo debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, abounded with musical and lyrical references to Prokofiev, Weather Report, Shakespeare and the British coal miners' strike – and sold over 2 million copies. His current album, ...Nothing Like the Sun, is like nothing else in the upper reaches of the charts. Dedicated to his mother, Audrey, who died during the making of the record after a two-year illness, it is a smorgasbord of high-stepping reggae, lilting Hispanic rhythm, big-band jazz and the whispery strum of Brazilian samba, linked by the theme of maternal strength in the face of male-triggered social and political disaster. Particularly powerful in that regard is "They Dance Alone," a moving tribute to the Chilean wives, mothers and daughters of "the disappeared."

Sting's ambition has earned him the disdain of jazz purists, who claim he taints jazz with pop banality, and a number of rock critics, who dismiss him as an aristocratic rock-star dilettante. Sting remains unfazed.

"What have I got to worry about, really?" he says. "Rejection? I can always say, 'They didn't understand.'" He laughs. "The audience of one, that's it That's all I've ever had. Basically, it's nice to make pop music without necessarily following to the letter the formula that's presented. That's what makes pop interesting. Anything can happen."

"The thing I admire most about playing with Sting is that he has a very definite idea of what he wants, not what his ego wants," says saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a charter member of the Blue Turtles band who has rejoined Sting for his current U.S. tour. "To expect pop to have the same freedom that jazz has is ludicrous. But in the context of what we're doing, we have more freedom than any other pop group I've heard."

In addition, Sting has put his money where his mouth is by forming his own record label, Pangaea, which he hopes will be a home for inventive, otherwise uncategorizable music. A joint project with his comanager Miles Copeland and Christine Reed, formerly an A&R exec with CBS Masterworks, Pangaea is, Sting says, "an extension of this thing that music shouldn't agree with what's imposed on it – the labels, the ghettos." In that spirit, initial Pangaea releases will include LPs by Steve Coleman (who has played with bassist Dave Holland and leads his own group, five Elements) and a Nashville-based duo, Kennedy Rose ("a female Everly Brothers," claims Sting), and the reissue of renegade composer-arranger Kip Hanrahan's critically acclaimed American Clavé catalog. Sting has a very full plate for '88: there are two imminent additions to his film oeuvre (Julia and Julia, with Kathleen Turner, and Stormy Monday, with Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones) as well as the Amnesty International world tour with Peter Gabriel.

The Brazilian kickoff had a bitter twist for Sting. The day before the Rio show, his father, Ernest, died after an extended illness, barely six months after the passing of Sting's mother. Yet during the three sessions for this interview, Sting – himself the father of four children, two by girlfriend Trudie Styler, two by his ex-wife, Frances Tomelty – is thoughtful and straightforward about both his fame and his misfortune. He is also unapologetic about his work, confident it has a resonance even beyond the echoes of Maracana Stadium.

He's soon proved right about that. After the second session, he's called to the phone. There's a brief moment of silence as he listens to Kim Turner, his other comanager, on the other end of the line. Then he suddenly shouts, "Hurray!" It turns out the Chilean government board of censors has banned . . . Nothing Like the Sun because of the subject matter of "They Dance Alone" and its criticism of the Pinochet regime. Score one for the dilettante.

It's ironic that you're playing these Brazilian shows at the same time your former Police mates, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, are touring the country with Stanley Clarke.
That's macabre! They left this hotel the day I got here; I don't know what that means. Actually, I'm glad they're working. I'm glad they're playing. Andy's on my record, and I think he was really great. We get on. Our relationship is fairly easy, musically.

And otherwise?
It's okay. Being outside of the Police, I find it much easier to relate to them; we all do. Those little things we were stuck with, this grungy litle group. Never again. It's much more pleasant now.

How unpleasant was it when the Police regrouped in 1986 to do that remake of "Don't Stand So Close to Me"?
It didn't work; you can never go back. It was awful. My idea was that rather than cashing our chips in and saying, "Here's a greatest-hits album, stick it out there," I wanted to put some effort into it. Okay, here we are, three musicians, ten years on. We have to be better musicians, we're better at making records. Let's see if we can make the songs better.

I don't know whether we did or not. But I thought it was worthy to try. Someone in the group described it as cynical, that we would do that, as if the original hits were sacrosanct. Which is utter bullshit. They're just songs.

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