Sting Reaches for the Sun

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

Sting on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Matt Mahurin
Sting on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

Was the idea to do just that one song?
I wanted to do the whole album that way, redo all the hits we'd had. I wasn't supported in this belief.

How far did you get?
We did two songs, "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da."

The latter was never released. How did it turn out?
It was all right. I'd always felt that song had basically been dismissed as garbage

As baby talk.
That was the whole idea! I was trying to make an intellectual point about how the simple can be so powerful. Why are our favorite songs "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Do Wah Diddy Diddy"? In the song, I tried to address that issue. But everyone said, "This is bullshit, child's play." No one listened to the lyrics. Fuck you! Listen to the lyrics. I'm going to remake it again and put more emphasis on what I was talking about. (Laughs) It's very painful to be misunderstood.

You are frequently accused by critics of being pretentious. How painful is that?
What is pretension? I'm being cast in this idea that rock stars should be idiots and should only be allowed onstage. They shouldn't be allowed to speak or hear, they shouldn't be able to write prose or lead reasonable lives. It's the dictatorship of the critic. And anyone who tries to break that mold is supposed to be pretentious: pretending to be human, pretending to be thoughtful, pretending to be caring, pretending to be weak, pretending to be strong.

What saves you from pretension is the idea of metaphor. If you hit issues head-on – let's make the world a happier place, let's all love each other, let's stop war – there's no art to it. If you approach the issue through a metaphor, it's not pretentious – it's powerful. I don't think I can write without one. And if I am pretentious, it's because I haven't got a metaphor.

Was it hard coping with your mother's terminal illness while using it as a metaphor to create a body of work – the songs on your new album?
I felt my mother dying was something we had no choice about. She was going to die; it was a given. And how were we to approach it, my brothers and sisters and myself? The way I deal with it is to express it in terms of songs. I think it was much easier for me because I had this valve I could turn on. It was almost like exploiting it, which sounds awful, exploiting it for your own sanity.

My father died three days ago. I walked onstage the other night in front of all those people and felt like I had to celebrate him. It was like a wake for me, so it was kind of joyous. Why do we perform? One of the reasons I became a performer was to get attention from my parents. So the ultimate kind of attention you can get is to become a celebrity. Your parents have to take notice of you at that point.

One of the sadnesses is that that gig was a confirmation of beingness – and my parents were dead. At the same time, I feel very strongly that they were with me in a way. Every time I've been onstage since my mother died, I thought she was with me. Because she was trapped in this body that was increasingly useless to her. She was stuck in bed, she couldn't move. So I felt that my freedom and my life were hers. I'd phone her up and tell her what I'd done, and you could tell she was living through me. That's what I wanted on Friday night, to do it for my parents, to do it for my father.

In "The Lazarus Heart", there is a striking contrast between the blood-and-flowers imagery and, in the last verse, your mother's deathbed courage. The song also has a surprisingly jubilant rhythm, considering the somber subject matter.
If we agree that the album is about mourning, then I needed to start it off in this special, joyful way. It's about rebirth, hopefully. I didn't want to just cry in my beer, do this moaning record about how awful life and death are. I wanted to say that, yes, we have to face death and there is a way to do it that isn't just moaning. We have to rejoice, in a way. It's a victory song.

That's the way my mother was. That's what she gave to me when I said goodbye to her. It was her incredible sense of humor and her sense that all was not lost. She was joking and she was loving. She gave me such an example of courage that I had no choice but to rejoice. That's why the record is happy. It's not a mournful record; it's an up record.

"They Dance Alone" is a mirror image of your own situation, with its portrait of the Chilean women dancing alone, not just in memory of the fathers, sons and husbands they lost but also in proud defiance of Pinochet's regime.
There is a certain victory implicit in what those women do, which is so much more powerful than throwing petrol bombs or burning cars – that negative loop. It's not terribly positive to say the end is nigh and all is terrible. I don't want to write songs that just confirm that nihilism and gloom, that there is no future. If I write about issues that are sad or horrific, I want there to be light at the end of the tunnel. And there will only be light at the end of the tunnel if we want it. That song reflects that. It is a very sad song, but at the end it is victorious. One day that country I'm singing about will be free. I hope so.

Your last tour of South America was with the Police. How aware were you at that time of the politics and the oppression in the countries you visited – Chile, for example?
I was already a member of Amnesty International, and I asked them about their position on bands going there. They said, "You should go. It's not like South Africa. You're not there to uphold an elite section of society." If anything, at the time, Chile was a closed society. If it's closed, they can get away with anything. By us going, they felt we could help open it up.

I was very depressed, frankly. I went along with all this information that Amnesty had given me about what was happening there. We got to this big gig; I looked at the audience, and I didn't see any torturers out there, or colonels. It was kids. Yet on every street corner there was a tank. It was really awful, and yet a really beautiful country, with a wonderfully spontaneous audience, like last night. There was so much passion in the audience. Yet outside there were all these fucking guns. Chile is something that has stayed with me for a long time.

Before you joined the Police and saw the world, what was your songwriting like? What did you write about?
It was pretty much like what I write now. I see songwriting very much as a craft, which is learned by trying to handle almost every style. And once you've got your chops together, songwriting is a modular system. You chop, you change. I'm quite adept at writing songs. What you can never be adept at is being in tune with inspiration. That's the Great Accident, the Great Imponderable. I used to get so terrified of not being able to write a song. "What am I going to write about? I'm totally empty of ideas and inspiration." And then I realized after about five years of this terrible block that some of the time you have to be on "input." You just have to receive and then retransmit it and hope it comes out as something else.

Did you suffer from writer's block with the Police?
Yeah, all the time. I used to have awful sleepless nights, that any talent I had was gone.

Was it the pressure of being expected to write all the songs? Intraband jealousies over your being the principal songwriter?
The real pressure was not having the time to sit and think. Just being on this roundabout, touring all the time, TV appearances. I didn't have time to be on input. It wasn't rivalry in the band. Maybe there was, but I never thought about it. The songs spoke for themselves. In the end, I didn't have to defend myself that much.

Were there particular songs that reinforced your confidence as a songwriter?
When I wrote "Every Breath You Take," I knew immediately it was a hit. When I wrote "Don't Stand So Close to Me," I knew that was a hit. There was no arguing with those songs.

Was that the idea, to write hit singles?
Yes. We were a hit band. Our albums were supplements to the hits. We did some good album work, but it wasn't consistent. The albums were uneven.

For example?
Now we're going to get into band politics. I don't want to discuss this.

How would you compare . . . Nothing Like the Sun to a Police album, like Zenyatta Mondatta or Ghost in the Machine?
When we first started out, we had a fairly common idea of what we wanted to be – "the thing." We polished this jewel, and that was it. But as we developed as people, and as celebrities, as individuals, by natural law nobody could hide behind me and say, "Whatever Sting says is right." They had different views and ideas. So the whole thing had to explode. Except I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I'd write twelve songs, have the album title sorted out – I knew what I wanted. Then I was presented with this other group of ideas. I just could not see it. And of course it caused friction.

It's much easier now. I don't have to deal with the bullshit. If you don't like someone's song, it's a bit like saying their girlfriend is ugly. There is no tactful way of saying it. But at the end of the day, if you want to have something that works, you have to do that.

Are you worried about repeating yourself? Some of your recent songs sound very much alike: "Sister Moon," on the new album, bears a suspicious resemblance to "Moon over Bourbon Street," from 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles.' "Rock Steady" has the same jazzy strut of "Consider Me Gone."
I kind of like it. The analogy is that of a painter doing various studies of the same still life, changing the angle slightly. I like the idea of sequels. "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" is a sequel to "Every Breath You Take," lyrically the mirror image. "Sister Moon" and "Moon over Bourbon Street" are kind of sequential. Album by album, you keep referring to things. I can take a line from one song, stick it in another and move on.

You're admitted that "Every Breath You Take" was in fact an aggregate of every time-worn rock & roll riff and phrase you could think of. Where's the originality in that?
What's unique about it is the sound of my voice. There's no one else who sings like me. They might sing better than me, but no one sings exactly like me. My voice sticks out on the radio by a mile. And as long as I have this voice, what I do is original.

So I don't worry about originality. As long as it comes through me, it will have that stamp on it. "Every Breath You Take" is an archetypal song. If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original. A million songs have been written that way. But you can't take away from the power of "Every Breath You Take," because it was us, the Police.

On ... Nothing Like the Sun you seem so interested in musical cross-pollination that you skip over the basic charms of simple guitar riffs and song books.
Having made some of the simplest and most direct pop music, I don't know whether I want to do it again.

But this music, taken to a logical conclusion, can only get more complicated and, maybe, indigestible. In the Seventies, they called it art rock.
When this record was first completed and handed to the record company, they threw up their hands. It wasn't simple enough or directed toward the charts. And I said, "Why underestimate the record-buying public? Why do you imagine that they have to be spoon-fed all the time? Does it have to be so utterly simple? I don't think so." Now the record is doing well on the radio and in the shops; the concerts are selling well. It confirms my belief that sophistication, or intended sophistication, is not the kiss of death. As long as you're grounded somewhere in common sense.

In the chorus of "Englishman in New York," you sing "I'm a legal alien." How can someone who aspires to be so worldly still feel so out of place?
The song is about someone else. It's about Quentin Crisp [a British writer, the author of The Naked Civil Servant]. I think he is one of the most courageous men I've ever met, and one of the wittiest. He was flamboyantly gay at a time when it was physically dangerous to be gay. He lives near the Bowery, and he has an unbelievable sense of humor and joy in life that everybody can draw a lesson from. It was my song to appreciate his singularity.

But it's about me, too. It's very important for any kind of writer to have a period in exile. One, it makes you see the country you're in a little clearer than the people there see it. Two, it makes you see the place you come from a little clearer. And I do regard myself as an exile. I've chosen to live in New York for the past two years because of the musicians I play with, because I find it inspiring, because I meet interesting people much more easily than I do in London. It's less phobic here.

At the same time, I know I'm not an American citizen. There are certain things about America that terrify me – its foreign policy, religion – and there's a lot about America that I love. But I'm not assimilated. I don't want to belong anywhere. I come from a place I'm proud to come from. That's almost enough. To settle down somewhere for me seems to equate with a sense of decay.

Last year, you did a movie in Newcastle, England, with Melanie Griffith, Stormy Monday, in which you play a sleazy jazz-club owner. What was it like going back to your home town?
It was great fun to go back, to see people I'd been to school with, to walk the streets I used to walk. I went past all the schools I'd ever been to and all the houses I'd lived in. I basically spent three weeks there assessing my life and how it had changed, for better or worse. I don't think I got any real answers I could write down, but there was certainly something profound about the experience. My mother had just died, my father was dying. It was just the right time to do it.

When you walked down those streets, was it with a sense of fondness, nostalgia? Or triumph, that you'd escaped and beaten the system?
Living there gave me a sense of politics, a sense of poverty, a sense of identity, a sense of beauty and also a sense of what's ugly, because they're all there in Newcastle. Going back there, I saw very clearly why I wanted to be an artist, why I wanted to express ideas and why I started very early.

I lived in this street, and at the bottom of this street was a shipyard with enormous tankers. In 1967, they built the biggest ship in the world, which was a million tons, the Northumbria. This thing blotted out the sun. It was at least four times the height of our house. All my life I had a symbol of this thing they'd built up, this massive, monstrous creature. The men would be like little ants, putting pop rivets into it, thousands of men walking down the street to work on this thing.

I don't know what it means, but I know it means something very special to me. It gives you a sense of enormity. If I'd been brought up on a housing estate, a featureless place, then I'd no doubt be a very different person. But I was brought up in this Ridley Scott movie: acetylene lamps going off all the time, huge cranes swinging over me. I guess I got a taste for things that are big, on a large scale.

How would you assess your film career to date? High-profile projects like Dune and The Bride weren't exactly boffo at the box office, even less so with the critics.
There's no actor who's been in nothing but great movies, nothing but successes. You can make a few lousy movies in relative obscurity. But my celebrity, if you like, means people hang a movie on me, even if I'm just doing a cameo in it. It becomes "Sting's movie." I agreed to do this cameo in Dune because I like David Lynch's work. Then it becomes my film. And because it wasn't a mammoth hit, it was marked down as my failure.

How serious are you about acting?
It's a way of throwing a curve. When I made Brimstone and Treacle, I was the golden boy of English pop. I was the George Michael-Simon LeBon of the time. I had blond hair, a family. Everything was nice. So I took this role as a fucking pervert who screws paraplegics. Suddenly it's "Ugh!"

I love playing the bad guy. It frees me. The role of pop star is the troubadour, the good guy. You're on the side of wholesome things; it's boring. After a whole day of being good and liberal and wonderful, it feels so good to be able to take your shoes off and be downright evil

You were quoted two years ago in Playboy as saying, "I hate most of what constitutes rock music – which is basically middle-aged crap." Given that you're getting toward middle age yourself, whose crap were you referring to?
Anybody older than me! (Laughs) I'm not sure what I meant then. What I mean now is people who are in their late thirties or forties pretending to be teenagers. There are a couple of groups on MTV at the moment who are clearly in their forties singing love songs to strumpets in high heels. This isn't middle-aged music. It's menopausal music. Own up. You're forty-five years old. You've got children who are twenty. Why the fuck are you chasing after these floozies? Why are you wearing this corset, for a start? That's undignified. It devalues the whole exercise. I can take bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe. They're aggressive and full of machismo and warrior chic. But they're young; it makes sense. But these old farts, please!

Meanwhile, the mantle of responsibility and adult expression in pop is being passed down from the Beatles and Dylan to your generation – you, Peter Gabriel, U2.
I think we're wiser than that generation; we're cleverer. And we're more cynical, just as the generation that has evolved from us. We can't be the same as the Beatles are, and the bands that follow us won't be the same as us. We'll be irrelevant and obsolete in time. Every day you practice for your obsolescence and hope you can still be laughing.

After all these years, aren't you tired of the name Sting? It started out as a nickname, but it's a public identity now. If you want to, say, write a string concerto, calling it Sting's First Concerto in A-Flat hardly lends it a ring of authority.
It's no sillier than Beethoven or Mozart. What's in a name? It's my name now. Gordon Sumner is a name that I don't ever use. I will sign a check with it, and my passport says that. But it's not a name I use with anyone who knows me. My children call me Sting, and they have no questions about it. It's also very useful. It's very graphic. It creates a kind of mystique, although that wasn't the original intention. It was a nickname, given to me. But it created a curiosity which is (smiles mischievously) well founded.

You've never regretted it, or considered changing it?
Once you've established a certain identity, like Johnny Rotten, which was wonderful, to back off from it is a problem. Elvis Costello tried it and realized it wasn't right. It's too self-conscious. If I ever back off from it. I'll have a real good reason. But right now I don't feel like it. Again, it's a spanner in the works. Can this man really be taken seriously with such a ridiculous name?

This story is from the February 11th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 519: February 11, 1988