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.
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.
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