Stewart Copeland gets asked a lot of questions, but they’re rarely about his youth in the Middle East. “When you’re a pop star, you often find yourself with a microphone pointed at you and you’re asked to explain yourself,” the former Police drummer says. “Like, ‘Who are you? What makes you tick?’ Which is the interesting stuff. But the easy one should be, ‘So where ya from?'”
When he’s asked the easy one, Copeland’s answer often results in confusion. “[It] leads to, ‘Wait, what?'” he says. “‘Cairo, Beirut, CIA?’ It’s completely irrelevant to who I am, what I do, and my purpose here on the planet. But it’s a strange kind of side story.”
Copeland aims to tell that side story on My Dad the Spy, his new podcast on Audible. In it, he digs deep into the life of his father, Miles Copeland Jr., a musician, businessman, and secret CIA operative (who was interviewed for this magazine in 1986). Through conversations with historians as well as his own siblings — his sister Lorraine and brother Miles Copeland III, the former manager of the Police — Copeland learns about his dad’s involvement in assassination plots, overthrowing governments, and more.
From his home in Los Angeles, Copeland hopped on the phone with Rolling Stone to discuss the podcast, his youth in the Middle East, and how he views his father’s legacy.
Have you always wanted to tell your father’s story?
My siblings and I have always been interested in this because it’s so bizarre. We didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back on it, why the hell did I grow up in Beirut, Lebanon? My father was a very entertaining man and a great raconteur. If you’ve listened to the series, you know that his tall tales were quite something, and we never knew which of them were true. But in the last decade or so, the history books [that] are being written about that period have such an impact on recent events in that part of the world. Many of the stories discovered by historians have actually been true, such as the Damascus raid, where my father organized a mob to attack an American diplomat’s house — the Copeland house — [and] staged a fake riot which could be put down by the army tanks. Which, while they’re out there, can take over the radio station and the palace, sort of like a one-two-step regime change.
Now, this was always a terrific bedtime story in the Copeland household, about how the bandits surrounded the house and suddenly they start shooting and they go, “Oh, my God, they’re not supposed to have guns!” And the CIA agents are huddled up there under the dining-room table, and my father’s calling the guy in Beirut saying, “They got guns out there.” Then my father’s famous line was, “I’m gonna have to hang up now, they’re shooting at me personally!” That right there is a fun story, but is it true? And that’s what led us to this podcast, using Audible with our resources to find out if any of this is true. To our surprise — as you can hear from all those eggheads that we found to make this podcast — they are true.
You interviewed so many people for this. How much research was involved, and how much did you already know going into it?
I have to give credit to Ian Callahan, who produced the show, and he did the research. We gave him the dinner tales, what we could remember, and he went off and found other people who were involved in those stories and pieced it together. I learned a great deal from making the show. I didn’t know all of the ins and outs of [Iran Prime Minister Mohammed] Mossadegh consoling the Shah. I knew a lot about [President] Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the Syrian story. But there was a lot I didn’t know, and it was excellent to find historians who could actually shed light on whole new aspects of what we heard at the dinner table.
Your father was known to embellish his tales, often saying, “Don’t let the facts ruin a good story.” In the podcast, you find out that he actually didn’t play with Glenn Miller. Were you bummed about that?
[Laughs] Of all the tall tales about my father, the only one that turns out to be not true! He would be proud. Here’s why: He was a jazz snob. Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Buddy Rich, and such. It was an anathema to him that his big name to claim was Glenn Miller. I was very disappointed that in my father’s writing he devotes only two pages to his jazz career, which, of course, is the only part I’m interested in. I’ve got his trumpet. I’m looking at it right here. A 1942 Conn Coprion, a real top-of-the-line trumpet that he had.
He would chortle to know that this one dodgy credit was the one part of his illustrious story that was shot down. “Thank God for that,” he would say.
You were 17 years old when you found out that your dad was in the CIA. What was going through your head?
It was part of the atmosphere growing up in Beirut anyway, and there was always talk of that sort of thing. It just wasn’t a surprise. Incrementally, the truth revealed itself along the way. And from one day to the next, it was official. The Kim Philby case was the big surprise, even though that wasn’t too much of a surprise for my friend Harry, for his dad to suddenly disappear and be revealed as a double agent for Russia. That was kind of an eye-opener for everybody.
My brother Miles is in fits at the word “spy” applied to my father because he wasn’t a spy; he was a stationed chief. He wasn’t one of those trolls with the collar turned up.
Yeah, but there’s no better title than My Dad the Spy.
Actually, there is. My working title was Spy Daddy.
How did growing up in the Middle East influence your drumming?
Profoundly. We would get one hour a week of The Voice of America, a pop show which played the Ventures and the Beach Boys, and then BBC had a channel as well, which had an hour of pop music with Manfred Mann, the Beatles, and the Stones. As Americans abroad, we identified very strongly with our being American, because in the Third World at that time America was everything shiny, bright, new, and good. And we identified with that rather than with the extremely exotic environment that we landed in. It didn’t occur to us that we were there in the Ottoman Empire. Soldiers crossed these lands. Crusaders fought in these castles. I was aware of it, because my mother, the archeologist, took us on picnics in these crusader castles. And we used to play crusaders and Saracens rather than cowboys and Indians. Unlike cowboys and Indians, the Saracens won all the battles and eventually drove the crusaders out.
So meanwhile, while we were ignoring the current culture around us, it was infusing our DNA. Just by strange coincidence, years later, as a DJ in Berkeley, California, my college radio station got the Bob Marley record with “Lively Up Yourself.” Wait a minute! I understand that! That’s your basic Arabic baladi rhythm. It’s also the foundation block of reggae, where the beat emphasizes the third beat of the bar and you ignore one as much as possible. But that meant that in 1978, when the Clash had the brilliant idea of attempting to play reggae, and suddenly in all the punk clubs dub was the thing, for me it came really easily because it was already in my DNA. That’s how Arabic music deeply informed the rhythms of the Police.
It’s interesting that you compare being the youngest of four kids to being a drummer.
Yes. It confused me back in the day when famously the Police were all at each other’s throats — OK, we were, but with love in our hearts. We were young and volatile. But people would assume that there was some kind of envy or ego trip. Yes, there was conflict, but that was never it. It was other issues that we fought ferociously over, like, you know, who gets to decide where the ship’s gonna go. Arguing over deeply artistic principles, which is the valid stuff you’re supposed to care deeply about. But jealousy or being out of the limelight — are you kidding? We’d pull up somewhere and the hotel was a mob, and we’d throw Sting out of the limousine first and then sidle around the side to get away from it.
So I guess that sibling position had something to do with that point of view. Our illustrious leader was the first of his family sibling set. For him, to be the center of attention was absolutely the natural place to be, which is why we got along so famously. I’m just going to take a guess here. I’ll bet Andy [Summers] was the middle child. I have no idea, but I bet he was.
Your father was scouted by “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services. What do you think he saw in him?
By all accounts, my father had what the English would call the gift of the gab. He was a fast talker and was fun to have around. And that, I would say, is probably it because all those other guys were blue bloods, East Coast upper-crust types. My father was a son of a doctor, [a] jazz player from Birmingham, Alabama. So how he got in and rose amongst all those classy types could only have been at the force of his personality.
What do you think your father would have thought of American foreign policy now?
Disastrous. He died just as Saddam Hussein was about to invade Iraq. He saw it coming. He said, “He’s gonna get Iraq! We haven’t told him no!” Then we lost him. [With] his generation and this generation, both styles have their faults and both suffer the main fault of all, which is meddling in the destinies of other nations, whether modern or yesteryear. That’s the business that people like my father were in. How they did that in the day of my father was by little entry here, a little nudge there, a little push there. There were no ogres. There were no American soldiers on the ground. There were no hundreds of thousands of people killed. Maybe one or two inadvertently in the rough world of espionage and political realpolitik, but not the hundreds of thousands of today.
He would have seen 9/11 with this perspective: that it was the quintessential act of terrorism, as he defines it, as causing your far superior adversary to hurt himself, which 9/11 achieved like poetry for the terrorists.… My father would have seen the reaction to 9/11 in that light, of “Hold on a second here. We’ve got to get that guy, but all this starting of wars in two countries far away from home?” He would have been appalled.
The main point being, if I learned anything about growing up in the Middle East, that I have to contribute to your readers, was that the president of the United States killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden. Not only that, he killed 100,000 Iraqis! Our nation did that! We will never own up to what we did, the rape of that country. We will never judge ourselves for that act.
An amazing part of the podcast is when you apologize to all of the people in Iraq who died.
Well, they’re my brothers. Arabic people are my brothers. I grew up with them. I don’t look like them. I don’t speak their language very well. It’s sort of like identifying with our black brothers here in America. We didn’t live the same lives. We can’t really be them, but we love and admire. And they’re us.
“If I learned anything about growing up in the Middle East, that I have to contribute to your readers, was that the president of the United States killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden.”
Nowadays with Donald Trump, people seemed to have softened on George W. Bush a little bit. How do you feel about that?
It’s a strange thing, I think that the character of a president is paramount. You can’t, like, put it aside and say, “But his policies are good.” I don’t know enough about policy to judge those things. But strangely, George Bush seems to be a great character. By all accounts, he was a good guy. Considerate, honest. He was a decent guy. But he just made these appalling mistakes. Every president tries to do their best. Nobody can look into the crystal ball and perceive their actions. When you’re president of the United States, you’ve got to take the rap. Who the hell can see what’s going to happen in the future? So to judge George Bush so harshly, you have to be God. Not me.
After hosting this podcast and conducting interviews where people share different opinions on your father, how do you look back on his legacy?
Although I confess I’m biased, I still would support the notion of what he did. His job in limited terms was to keep the oil flowing — not to the Soviet Union, where there was a Cold War — but to the factories of America. That was the mission, and that’s what he accomplished.
With all of us still stuck at home, how is your studio, the Sacred Grove, doing?
It is extremely tidy, as I am sure the shoe closets of many, many Americans probably are at this point after extra time at home.
The last time we spoke, you predicted that the Oysterhead show at Bonnaroo wouldn’t happen, and now it’s been pushed back again. You were absolutely right.
Yes. It’s sort of a rolling thing. My next show right now is Poland in January, the Police Deranged for Orchestra. I had a whole string of shows, they’re all gradually being pushed into 2021, as well as Oysterhead shows; 2021 is going to be a delayed 2020. But at the moment, it’s a rolling thing. The Poland show in January, they’ve been having shows there, it’s looking great — and then Poland just this week suddenly had a spike that struck off from other European countries.
There’s no way to tell. Are you still composing a lot at home?
Yep. When it all busts out next summer, I’m going to have two completely separate operas premiering within a month of each other as a result of all this lockdown. One is in Germany in Weimar at the Deutsches Nationaltheater, very fancy. And the other is in Italy at these caves above Lake Maggiore. It’s been a very busy time here.
Since you’re great at talking, podcasts seem like a natural fit for you. Do see yourself doing more of them?
I happen to have something interesting to say on this particular subject. But, yes, it is a fun medium. I’m gratified that on this first outing, Audible has chosen with their incredible, illustrious catalog to put this humble piece forward for nomination for a Spoken Word Grammy. While we’re in plugging mode, I can plug the fact that it actually did chart Top Five in England. Me and Meghan Markle sharing the top spot together.