Ah, springtime in Paris. It’s a postcard-perfect day, and Sting is sitting outside at a café, leisurely sipping coffee and occasionally ducking his head into his enormous sweater like a turtle pulling back into its shell. And despite being hounded with questions about whether or not he can program a VCR (“No”), if he’s ever read a Jackie Collins novel (“No, I’m a horrible snob when it comes to literature”) and how he’ll react the first time a boy shows up to take out his daughter (“If he’s a musician, I’ll shoot him”), he is, as usual, in perfect humor. At the moment, neck and noggin safely outside the mouth of his garment, he is waxing philosophic about whether he ever waxes nostalgic.
“I’m sort of nostalgic for the Renaissance, really,” he says before blurting out a laugh and grabbing the tape recorder. “No! That’s not going to work,” he yells into the machine. “That’s not going to work, okay. I’ll see that in print and think, ‘Oh, God, why the fuck don’t you shut up?’ ”
We’ve read that one already, too. In fact, because Sting comes with an excess of preconceptions – simultaneously pretentious and self-absorbed; a brilliant pop technician and selfless activist – public perceptions swirl around him like a swarm of hornets and butterflies. He has been deconstructed in minute detail in the media and has resurfaced time and again, entirely whole. Stingness, it turns out, comes complete with a resilience on par with surviving cartoon violence.
He has made films, records and headlines, been an actor on Broadway and an environmental activist. He is, quite simply, the richest, most famous man in history to have amassed his fortune from singing like a girl. Anyone in disagreement need only try to belt out “Roxanne” in the shower.
What is lost in the shuffle, however, is any sense of the person behind the personas. Truth be told, Sting makes everyone around him instantly comfortable, not so much because he is exceptionally accommodating but because he is at all times comfortable. He is, in the light of day, a nice person who occasionally uses his pretension as a shield. The problem, however, is that it often seems to be a suit of armor.
Nowadays, though, Sting claims that his propensity toward long-windedness is waning. Living the quiet life has quieted one of the world’s most outspoken word-smiths. At least a little. “I think I’m probably less confident than I was,” says Sting. “I remember being very aggressive and very focused and directed in interviews. Now I ramble much more because I’m not so sure about things. I think it’s really part of being forty-one. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m not so ready to jump on the train.”
These days, sting seems perfectly happy to kick back and enjoy his dual roles as musician-icon and father/gentleman farmer. He recorded his new album, Ten Summoner’s Tales, on his farm, in Wiltshire, England, where the former Gordon Sumner lives with his wife, Trudie Styler, and their three children, Mickey, Jake and Coco.
It is difficult to believe Sting when he looks you in the eye and says, “I find a great deal of solace there watching cows eat grass — it’s very calming.” But it is instantly believable when he follows that up, saying: “My family is so important. I’ve reached the point where I want to stay healthy, mentally and physically. I want to reduce the amount of stress in my life. I’ve seen it kill my parents. I’ve seen it kill friends. I don’t want it.”
Gone are the days when in order to write a song called “King of Pain,” he used to live the part. “I used to believe that you had to be destructive to be creative,” says Sting. “I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to lead a quiet, well-adjusted life and still be creative. That’s my plan.”
Part of the plan was mapped out by his three youngest children. While his oldest kids — Joe, 16, and Kate, 11 — live in London with Sting’s first wife, Frances Tomelty, the trio of junior Sumners lives the old-fashioned farm life with Sting and Styler. And while having a cook, house cleaner and six or seven gardener-farmers can’t be considered that old-fashioned, the tykes did their best recently — pestering Pop until he made an honest woman out of Mom.
“Trudie and I lived together happily for ten years,” says Sting. “The idea of having to get married was really quite alien. The kids would come from school and say: ‘Are you two married? We’d feel better if you were married because then you’d stay together.’ It was gradually wearing us down. So we started to plan a wedding.”
Fearing a media blitz might turn the event into a dog and pony show, the couple decided to have the wedding at home, hiring one photographer to document the much-publicized fete. But in the end, despite having a limited guest list, the couple did have the pony show. Sting (who was busy recording his album both the day before and after the nuptials) wore tails and led his bride to the altar on horseback — an act he insists was not intended to inspire ironic smiles.
“I thought it was a romantic idea,” says Sting. “Was it any more grand than a big car?”
Well, yes. But in the end, the event did seem to bring a great sense of closure to one of the darker chapters of Sting’s life. His breakup with Tomelty corresponded not only with the height of the Police’s success but with the beginning of his relationship with Styler and, finally, the demise of his band.
“It was a very tough time in general,” says Sting. “On one hand, it was the most successful period of my career, and at the same time, my personal life had just disintegrated around it. Trudie was the culprit in many ways and also my savior. I made a very tough decision in my life, and I was deciding how I was going to spend the rest of it. And I knew I had to deal with not only my own pain but other people’s pain. And the media didn’t help. They certainly never say, ‘This is a very tough time in his life, let’s just leave him alone.’ ”
Of course, when you’re Sting, you’re used to taking your share of crap. And being Sting, you trudge through it. “I saw Denis Leary deconstruct me on television last night. He said, ‘Sting singing about saving the fucking rain forest – he should save his fucking hair.’ “
He stops and lets out an enormous laugh.
“I want to meet Denis Leary in about ten years,” he says, still laughing. ” ‘Hey, Denis, how’s it feel, ya bald cunt?’ “
Sting, who counts Leary as his favorite current comedian, is well aware that with activism comes backlash. He does, however, take offense to this one particular batch of Sting-bashers.
“People think I’m doing this to be more famous or because I feel guilty for being rich and famous,” he says. “I don’t feel guilty about being rich. I don’t really feel that guilty about what’s wrong with the world. I didn’t create the world. But understanding all those negative perceptions, I still do it. And I still will. Fuck what they say. If on the first day of criticism about this rain-forest thing, I just threw my hands up, I would have gotten a lot less of that. And I’m not looking for praise. I’m doing it because I think it’s the right thing.”
Pigeonholing Sting is a bitch. He was “too young to be a hippie, too old to be a punk.” Disco, he says, “completely passed me by.” He doesn’t even know his IQ.
“It’s somewhere around room temperature,” he says. “I don’t know. We had our kids tested. We thought one of our kids might be dyslexic, and he came out with some huge IQ figure, so I’m sure it’s genetic.”
Sting is happy to answer, or at least politely evade, any question at all. He is equally ready to answer nothing at all – instead focusing all attention on the people around him. He claims that he has three close friends whom he has known forever, but he won’t reveal their names. These are the folks, he says, who know him inside and out — equal parts Gordon Sumner and Sting. Of course, they call him Sting.
A typical male-bonding day with Sting entails playing competitive games: “chess, gambling on backgammon, tennis.” He lists his biggest day-to-day annoyance as incompetent people. “I think of myself as quite efficient,” he says. “I turn up on time, I do my job, and I expect other people to do the same thing. And if they don’t, that bugs the shit out of me.”
Challenged to tell a joke (Ten Summoner’s Tales, a pun on both his last name and a story in the Canterbury Tales, just doesn’t cut it), Sting complies. “Why did the Israelis invade Lebanon?” Pause. “To impress Jodie Foster.”
Sting seems truly to enjoy the ebb and flow of his life, not simply seeming happy but exuding satisfaction at every moment. Then again, of course he’s happy. He’s Sting, for chrissakes.
“I wanted to be an adult for a long time,” he says, explaining his current contentment. “Always. I never felt very comfortable as a teenager. The older I got, the better I felt, and the more comfortable with myself I became. Without music I wouldn’t have had a basis in anything. At a very early age it became my mode of expression, and without a mode of expression, you aren’t intelligent, because you just can’t communicate. Music allowed me to develop what intelligence I have. Without it, I don’t think I would have. I found the young years very difficult. I was socially inept. So I don’t hark back.”
Occasionally in this life, you get pissed off because you are not holding a camera.
It’s a few hours before Sting is to go onstage in front of 10,000 screaming Parisians, and as per ritual, he is doing yoga in his dressing room. At this particular moment, however, he is folded neatly into a Buddha-style squat, wearing only the dinkiest of bikini briefs and a court jester’s hat.
This is a picture that could snatch a small fortune on the open market.
The yoga, of course, is for inner peace and a killer body. The jester’s hat is for something else altogether. It has been purchased for a cameo stage appearance during “Saint Augustine in Hell,” a track from Ten Summoner’s Tales that features a devilish voice-over from drummer Vinny Colaitua. When Sting’s comanager Kim Turner brought it in, however, he couldn’t resist placing it on Sting like a crown.
Yoga or no, the entire backstage area is on-limits. There is no discernible hierarchy. Sting possesses his own dressing room, but the door is open, and band and crew wander in and out at will. At dinner, Sting plays chess with a crew member who not only wins but dispenses advice in a thick cockney accent as he goes along (“Ya see, that was a really bad move for you there because …”). The next night, advice obviously heeded, Sting gains his revenge.
The members of the band — Colaitua, keyboardist David Sancious and guitarist Dominic Miller — have been together for only two years, but they play like a foursome that grew up together. As for the rest of the entourage, they practically have grown up together. Most have been on board since the days of the Police. All are close enough to be able to tell the boss to go to hell.
“If I’m being an asshole and everyone thinks I’m an asshole, I know it,” says Sting. “I know the people around me well enough to know when I’m being an asshole, and they’re able to verbalize it without fear that their jobs are on the line. I can be unreasonable sometimes, but someone will stand up and say, ‘Stop it.’ I’ve collected these people over fourteen years, and we’re a really close-knit group.”
Tonight, the extended family is gearing up for the first of two packed Paris shows. Within hours the house will be crammed with fans ranging in age from fourteen to forty. Never one to ignore the bottom line, Sting says the breakdown suits him just fine.
“I like the idea of being accepted by a large demographic,” says Sting, “in the same way the Beatles were. It’s never been my intention to create a cult following. I’ve always maintained that it’s easy to have a cult following. It’s always been my intention to appeal to a broad base without compromising my music or becoming Mr. Showbiz.”
Onstage, Sting runs through all but one of the songs from his new album, as well as a few solo nuggets and a flurry of Police tunes, which garner the most furious response. But even with a crowd hungry for oldies, the tunes from Ten Summoner’s Tales meet with little French resistance. Because this album is much more upbeat than 1991’s Soul Cages, his concept album about the death of his parents, the crowd is already able to sing along to most of the songs, albeit in broken English. Can anyone even remember, much less hum, anything from The Soul Cages?
“The song ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,’ I knew it had a hook,” says Sting. “I thought it could be a flagship. Once you’ve got a flagship, you can sail, but until you’ve got one of those, there’s not really much point in putting a record out. But less and less do I know what a hit record will be. I used to have a very clear idea. Now I’m not so sure.
“I like to think I’m less about rock & roll and more about songs,” Sting continues. “I think songwriting is a tradition that’s older than rock & roll. I could live without rock & roll I haven’t got this sort of religious reverie for rock & roll. I think it’s incredibly reactionary and boring.”
While it is true that Sting’s work doesn’t fit neatly into rock stereotypes, the best songs on Ten Summoner’s are the ones grounded in simplicity. “Fields of Gold” is a startlingly beautiful folk ballad. “Love Is Stronger Than Justice” offers an Old West parable with a breezy, singsong chorus. And on “Heavy Cloud No Rain” (the winner of the album’s “We’ll Be Together” sound-alike contest) and “She’s Too Good for Me” (a Sam-I-Am-style exercise in self-deprecation), Sting reminds everyone that when he’s feeling playful, he can play the listener with the finesse of a grifter greasing his mark.
Still, he seems to shun his pop instincts.
“I think as part of pop culture I have every right to be disdainful of it or at least question it and challenge it as much as I possibly can,” Sting says.
Which leads us back to the p word.
“But what does pretentious mean?” says Sting.
It means, a nation will surely cry, that Sting writes perfect pop songs yet dismisses pop music as trivial. It means, the world will surely remind him, that under his own definition, even his best pop songs are eventually meaningless.
“I’m just trying to reverse the thinking that pop music is better than all other kinds of music,” says Sting. “Pop music is basically a dead form. I’ve said it so many times, and I’ve been proved right year after year. Occasionally you’ll get a band who will re-create it — Nirvana did it. But after that point it has to go on somewhere. Unless it goes to the songwriting tradition, I don’t think there’s any way out.”
So rather than driving headlong into the dark future of rock, Sting will instead let his taillights lead the way and breeze into the past — spending a few dates of his U.S. tour as an opening act for the Grateful Dead. “I’m interested in their whole phenomenon — come back a generation later and be huge,” says Sting. “I like that idea.” He laughs. “I really like that idea.”
The Dead’s Jerry Garcia can see the appeal for Sting. Although the two camps have never met, each is eagerly awaiting the summer summit.
“I wouldn’t say he needs to tap into what we have, but he’s at the stage in his career that he could use a model which is not a conventional show-business model,” says Garcia. “He’s used up what a conventional model can get him. In order to make it to another level, he has to define himself in some other way and use some terms other than ‘showbiz.’ I mean, Sting is an intelligent guy. He’s no Axl Rose, ya know what I mean? He’s a bright guy.”
Garcia also insists that his followers will welcome Sting to their stadiums with open arms and open minds.
“They’re going to love him,” says Garcia. “Are you kidding? What’s not to love? So far our audience has loved everybody we’ve ever put in front of them.”
Nothing, of course, helps say love like an acid trip timed for the start of the opening band. Sting admits to being interested in witnessing the surviving Dead drug culture up close but has no plans to munch on hallucinogens and scream for “Ripple.”
“I like to take care of myself, but I’m not a health freak,” says Sting. “I do drink. I have the occasional joint. But I don’t do anything to excess. I don’t think anyone should take drugs before they’re forty years old. I’m talking strictly about casual use. If you’re not addicted to drugs by the time you’re forty, you’re not going to become addicted.
“And I’ve experienced drugs at a very high level and had hallucinogens that I’ve found very useful,” he adds. “People say it’s recreational, but in fact it’s actually incredibly painful. So I’m not really into recreational drugs, but I think there are substances on the planet which are there to help. That’s as much as I want to say without getting drunk.”
It doesn’t really suit my purpose for the world to know what I’m really like,” says Sting, when interviewed about the art of being interviewed. “Whatever they’ve got is fine by me, so I’m not going to go on Oprah Winfrey.”
In that case, let’s see what we’ve got.
So far, we have an obviously sensitive man who nonetheless does not cry easily. “I cry at very strange moments,” Sting says. “Music can make me cry. I can cry at sporting events. Football makes me cry.” He is a man who has narrowed his epitaph to two choices: After today, consider me gone and Woke up in my clothes again.
Sting and his wife — who still cuddle on buses and benches like school kids and seem to walk everywhere attached like Siamese twins — rarely fight. When they do, Sting says, they usually fight about their respective perceptions of celebrity: “She doesn’t necessarily see it the way I do. Occasionally, being a celebrity will get in the way of being a human being, and sometimes, for my own survival, I have to be a celebrity, put up a front. And she doesn’t like that.”
Sting is a man who is acutely aware of his public perception. “I’m not a terribly serious person,” he will say, quite correctly. “I think that’s a distortion of the media. If you talk to the people who know me, I don’t think I’m that serious.” Nonetheless, he prefaces a sentence with the words “You know, what Carl Jung predicted for the world, which is very bleak, is actually coming true in many ways.”
Sting is a man who will not admit to a guilty pleasure yet will admit that the statute of limitations on taking his shirt off in photographs is fast approaching.
“I think there’s a certain point where it becomes unseemly,” he says. “Even if you have a good body, I don’t know if you need to keep showing it off so readily. I think we’re getting about to that point.”
He is, all told, a regular, slightly contradictory guy. He writes catchy songs; he loves his kids; he fails to keep his mouth shut now and again; he gets on, like one of the boys on the bus, with his band. He’s also a pretty good drunk.
“I’m a very happy drunk,” says Sting, although he doesn’t drink often. “I get happy, then I fall over. I’m no trouble, really. And it doesn’t take much. So I’m a cheap drunk. I don’t cost much. Take me out. Get me drunk. Lay me. Rob me.”
The first Paris show has been over for only an hour, and already Sting, professional rock star, has his arms around a beautiful blonde, quietly singing a duet.
“Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities. …”
The song is drifting through the bus, but no one is paying it much mind, instead smiling, discussing the night’s show and mulling over the possibility that the hotel bar might still be open.
“Forget about your worries and your strife….”
Sting is resting his head on the blonde’s shoulder, swaying back and forth, oblivious to everyone else around him while he helps coax the words out of her. She, meanwhile, is dancing back and forth on top of the bus seat, occasionally looking into Sting’s eyes with nothing short of utter devotion.
The blonde in question is Coco Sumner, Sting’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, the song is from The Jungle Book, and the final scene of this particular Sting tome, therefore, is decidedly G rated.
“I don’t have anything that I could lose that would make life unlivable, apart from my wife and kids,” says Sting. “I really don’t want to outlive any of my children. I don’t think I’m strong enough to survive that.”
Age, it seems, is softening many of Sting’s notoriously sharp features. He talks about his home in Wiltshire (he also owns abodes in New York and London and on Malibu Beach, in California) as being the place he’s found where he wants to die. It is a feeling, he swears, that brings him great peace. He also claims to occasionally run into students from his much-mentioned days as a schoolteacher.
“They usually walk up to me and are much bigger than I am, saying, ‘You taught me,'” says Sting. “It makes me feel strange because it makes me feel what a long life I’ve led. That seems like such a long time ago, almost another life. I don’t think of myself as being that old. I really do feel quite young. But my memories are quite old.”
There’s also his eldest son, Joe, sixteen years old and playing in a band in London. Sting is well aware that it is the job of young rock bands to make folks like himself obsolete. Not only is he thrilled about the family challenge, he’s even excited to watch the transformation in the rest of the rock world.
“I like these young bands now like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that wiry naked tension they have,” says Sting. “It’s perfect. They look great, they have great bodies, very attractive sexually. I’ve seen Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I haven’t seen Nirvana, but I would really like to. At the same time, I don’t want to try to be hip and hanging out. I don’t need to do that. There’s something very strange about that.”
At this point, it doesn’t seem too necessary for Sting to re-create himself in any image – naked or clothed. More than a decade since he bounded across stages wearing what looked strangely similar to scraps of crepe paper, Sting the man has become Sting the brand name.
“I like that,” says Sting. “Brand loyalty. It’s getting rarer now. But I think it’s down to songs. There’s not that many songs being written anymore. However socially pertinent rap is, you don’t hear that many songs in rap. The message is the important thing in rap. But songs are much more than that. Songs have a magic to them that mere message can’t really have.”
If all this sounds similar to the knocks against a little phenomenon called punk rock, it must be pointed out that the Police — a product of that era — were spitting targets for bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland, in fact, originally dyed their hair blond to play a pseudopunk band for an English chewing-gum commercial.
“The music we were playing certainly wasn’t punk, but there were elements of that,” says Sting. “We were very wily. We saw an opening. But if that was all we had, we would have lasted for six months. We had music We had material. We could actually play. We were mature, more mature than most bands. I was twenty-six. We knew what we wanted to do.”
Fifteen years later, Sting is not unaware of those musicians who grew up alongside him in the public eye.
“I think he’s struggling,” says Sting when asked his take on former Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon’s current state. “I think it’s difficult for him. I liked what he did at the time, and I like what he’s done since. But it’s a very small part. I loved Never Mind the Bollocks, and I loved the single ‘Public Image.’ But that doesn’t make a career. I think he’s in a difficult position.”
It’s a cramped position that Sting could easily be trying to contort himself into had the Police not broken up at the height of superstardom. Then again, from all reports, the boys in the band hated one another’s guts by the end.
“The last few years were pretty grim,” admits Sting. “We get along better now. For one, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and two, that distance makes you appreciate what you had. Fucking great group. It really was. I have no regrets about it. Nor do I have any regrets that it’s over, because I think it’s difficult to evolve in a group. You have to pretend that you’re the same age as you were when the band was born. All bands have this young-gang mystique. It’s very awkward for people in their fifties. I wouldn’t want to deal with it.”
These days, the man with the world’s most famous pet name has more concrete troubles on his mind, anyhow. About six months ago, Sting called in Scotland Yard to investigate his former accounting firm Moore Sloan. Finding a large amount of money missing from his bank accounts — the British press sets the amount at $6 million, Sting calls it “much more than that” — Sting went to court.
“The person who did it shocked me,” says Sting, who is unable to talk at any length about the upcoming litigation. “It made me very seriously look at the idea of wealth, and I came up with the conclusion that wealth isn’t about what you have in the bank. Your wealth is your friendships, family, health and happiness.”
Which is easier to say when you still have enough money lying around the ranch to wallpaper the place in twenties. But when he speaks of the alleged fraud, Sting retains the same calm that accompanies talk about every other subject he broaches. Even grasping for a little locker-room talk doesn’t rile him.
“I adore women,” says Sting. “I think women are vastly superior in almost every way. I’ve always thought that, and there’s a fine line, isn’t there, between womanizing and appreciation. I’ve probably crossed the line a few times. But I’m a human being.”
Try to seize the moment to finally fluster Sting with some well-placed sex talk and he can chat for hours upon hours. As luck would have it, that’s about how long Sting’s average romp in the hay takes. After proving to be an average guy in every other way, Sting, it turns out, is a nooky machine. Through yoga, he says, he is able to have intercourse for up to four or five hours at a time.
“The purpose of sex ideally is for the woman to attain orgasm and for the man not to,” says Sting, explaining a theory on sex that is bound not to sit well with the male, non-Sting population. “I’m actually serious about this. I think it’s about control. For example, we don’t use contraceptives. We use the rhythm method, which works, but it demands control.”
Pressed further, Sting smiles, leans back in his chair and tries to explain himself.
“I don’t want to put myself as some paragon, but I still want to say it,” he says, encapsulating his theories on life, work and sex in one easy package. “Life is not just falling off a log. It’s about hard work. And the rewards are infinite.”