Sting: New Album Brings Renewed Perspective
This is my dog Willie and his brother Hector,” Sting explains as his two dogs careen down the road ahead of him, barking wildly, delighted to be liberated from the house. “They actually love each other, but they’re tearing each other apart right now. They’re a bit crazy — apparently it’s the breed. They’re springer spaniels. I’m told Willie is very like me; he’s my familiar. They want to get him doctored, but I refuse to have that happen.”
Sting seems no less pleased than Hector and Willie to be outdoors; when the time came to start this interview, he suggested that we talk while taking a stroll. Wearing a brown suede jacket, brown suede boots and black jeans, the stubbled outline of a beard along his cheeks, he walked at a brisk pace, relishing the cold afternoon air and the physical movement.
The London home where Sting lives with Trudy Styler, their three children and one of his two children from an earlier marriage is no secluded pop star’s paradise. It sits only slightly set back from a very busy street, with houses right next to it on either side (perhaps appropriately, one of those houses was once the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and critic who blazed the trail for British romanticism two centuries ago). Outside the door is the familiar urban world of traffic, honking horns, construction sites, pedestrians and pets. Around the corner and a few blocks down a hilly street, however, lies Hampstead Heath, a rolling, verdant landscape ribboned with walking paths. This balance of the country and the city suits Sting fine. “If you look out the back window, all you can see are trees,” Sting says of his home. “And yet we’re right smack in the middle of the city.” Sting seems to enjoy the common perception of himself as a man who has everything. A framed New Yorker cartoon in the downstairs bathroom of his home depicts two businessmen calmly chatting at a bar. One says to the other, “Oh, I’m pretty happy — I just wish my life were more like Sting’s.” The cartoon neatly encapsulates the degree to which Sting’s varied accomplishments — not to mention his looks — can incite envy even among the relatively satisfied.
Sting is the pop idol adults can admire. His infallible instinct for hooks made the Police one of the world’s biggest bands, but his ventures into jazz-inflected rock on The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Bring on the Night and … Nothing Like the Sun made him an acceptable figure even to the most recalcitrant members of a thirtysomething generation that has turned its back on the adolescent excesses of much rock & roll. He is an active and highly visible supporter of Amnesty International and the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest. Now thirty-nine, he is handsome, but no pretty boy, and his movie roles and appearance on Broadway last year as Macheath in a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera attest to a range of talents that is increasingly rare in what often seems the increasingly one-dimensional world of pop culture. Indeed, Sting’s life seems charmed.
But the hanging of the cartoon on the wall of a bathroom, like glorified graffiti, demonstrates Sting’s ability to acknowledge the perception of his life as ideal and, simultaneously, to mock it. It also shows the singer’s willingness to make fun of his own self-absorption. Sting finds few subjects as intriguing as himself, but that doesn’t mean he is uncritical of his own foibles.
Nor do the command and personal control that Sting projects at all times come without a price. While walking along the side street that leads to the heath, Sting begins speaking about the difficulties he experienced writing the songs for The Soul Cages, his first new album since … Nothing Like the Sun in 1987.
“It’s afflicted me every time I’ve tried to write something, but never to the extent where I haven’t written anything for three years,” Sting says about the writer’s block that crippled him after his tour in support of … Nothing Like the Sun. “Not even a couplet, not an idea. Obviously, if you make your living writing, as you know, and you can’t write anything, it’s over. It’s very frightening. Hence you have to really start working out why, and I think once you discover why you’re not writing, that’s the key to finding out how you can write.”
The search for the cause of his literary paralysis — interestingly, he continued to be able to write music — forced Sting to address some painful emotional issues. “I think it really goes back to what I did at the end of the last record, which was done over three years ago,” he says. “I immediately went to work and did a mammoth tour. At the same time, I was just getting over the death of my mother, and my father died about six months later. I figured the modern way to cope with death is to ignore it, just work through it. It’s the modern thing to do — you go to work. Really, I think, it’s fear. You’re scared to actually deal with the enormity of what’s happened and you try and pretend it hasn’t happened.
“So I did that,” he continues. “I worked my butt off, and I got to the end of the tour, and I went off on some rain-forest project, and I just didn’t stop. I didn’t want to think about it. Then, having done all that, I said: ‘Well, I have to make a living here, I have to make a new record. What will I write about?’ Nothing. There was nothing. I was punished, in a way, because I didn’t actually go through the mourning process.”
The friendship Sting established with chief Raoni and other members of the Kaiapó Indian tribe in Brazil in the course of his rain-forest work bore personal, as well as environmental, results for him and helped him break his creative logjam. “Having lived and spent a lot of time with these so-called primitive people,” Sting says, “I realized that death is something that is obviously important to them, because they mourn. I figured that I’d have to go through some sort of process where I would get this stuff out. Once I’d worked that out, I realized that I was going to have to write a record about death. I didn’t really want to.”
Sting dedicated The Soul Cages to his father — along with two colleagues from The Threepenny Opera, director John Dexter and actor Ethyl Eichelberger, both of whom died last year — and the album is suffused with imagery drawn from the singer’s childhood in Newcastle, a shipping town in the north of England. As it often does, struggling with the notion of death for Sting meant coming to grips with the notion of his own mortality and led to a questioning of his life and its purpose. While many may wish their lives were more like Sting’s, Sting’s own life, in this sense at least, proved no different from anyone else’s.
“I’d reached the age of thirty-eight,” Sting says, “and I wanted to assess my life — figure out what had gone wrong, what had gone right. I started at the beginning; I started with my first memory. As soon as I remembered the first memory of my life, everything started to flow. The first memory was of a ship, because I lived next to a shipyard when I was young. It was a very powerful image of this huge ship towering above the house.
“Tapping into that was a godsend. Once I began with that, the album just flowed. It was written in about three or four weeks. Having written all these words in a big burst, I then fitted them in with the musical fragments I had and put it together. I’m fairly pleased with the record. I think it achieved what I wanted it to achieve in that I feel somehow, I don’t know, like I’ve done the right thing.”
The ship image sits at the center of “Island of Souls” — the haunting opening song on The Soul Cages, which depicts a son grappling with his father’s death and desperately seeking to avoid following his father’s footsteps to a grim life in the shipyards — and it recurs in the album’s title track and elsewhere. The memory of the towering ship recalls the earliest years of Sting’s life, a working-class life of limited promise that he feared was going to overwhelm him and that he felt compelled to rebel against. His occasionally haughty manner and aristocratic airs are perhaps the last remnants of that rebellion. The ship also encompasses the notion of travel — and escape. The memory that freed Sting to write returned him to the deepest source of his identity and at the same time suggested access to a broader world in which that identity could be shed, in which a provincial schoolteacher named Gordon Sumner could become the international rock star Sting.
As a younger man, Sting could be merciless in his observations about his background. “I suppose that part of my egocentric drive is an attempt to transcend my family,” Sting told Rolling Stone writer Kristine McKenna in 1980. “I come from a family of losers — I’m the eldest of four — and I’ve rejected my family as something I don’t want to be like. My father delivered milk for a living and my mother was a hairdresser. Those are respectable occupations, but my family failed as a family. I grew up with a pretty piss-poor family life. I lived in Newcastle, which would be like living in Pittsburgh, and the whole thing for me was escape.”
Two and a half years later — in a Rolling Stone article in which he described Sting, the character that he had invented, as “this monster” — the singer was penitent. “Candidly, that article you wrote quoted some things I said about my childhood that hurt my family deeply,” Sting told McKenna at that time. “I learned a big lesson there and had to work very hard to repair the damage done by the article. It wasn’t your fault; it was purely my own arrogance and lack of thought. I’ve become more aware of the possible consequences of what I say to the press.”
These days Sting is philosophic about the contradictory nature of his feelings about his past. “Well, again, it’s the old ping-pong of wanting to escape and then having to go back and face it,” he says. “Wanting to escape the idea of death, yet having to go back and face it. Wanting to escape where I come from, yet having to come back and face it. I don’t think we ever leave; I think everything’s a big circle. My relationship with my father was complex, and it wasn’t resolved. It needed to be resolved. I think now, through some psychic working, it seems to be resolved. I feel as if something has balanced out now, by having done this record. It’s the only way I can do it.”
“All This Time,” the album’s second song and the bouncy first single, takes another longstanding symbol of permanence and departure — the river — as its central image. Like “Island of Souls,” it is about a young man whose father has died, and it also takes on the religious training that troubled Sting’s childhood — he has credited the Jesuits for “my venomous nature” — as its subject. In fact, The Soul Cages is rife with biblical and specifically Catholic imagery, from “The Jeremiah Blues (Part 1),” with its tongue-in-cheek nod to the Old Testament prophet of doom and its allusions to crucifixion, to the title of the instrumental “Saint Agnes and the Burning Train.”
“I was brought up in a very strong Catholic community,” Sting says. “My parents were Catholic, and in the Fifties and Sixties, Catholicism was very strong. You know, they say, ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.’ In a way I’m grateful for that background. There’s a very rich imagery in Catholicism: blood, guilt, death, all that stuff.” He laughs. “I’m not sure it goes far enough to explain our situation. At my age, I feel some of it is inadequate to explain a lot of things. So the album, although it has this religious element, is about a deeper religion.
” ‘All This Time’ sounds kind of poppy,” he continues, “but it’s a serious attempt to look at ritual and the inadequacy of ritual in our lives. The young guy is trying to deal with the death of his father, and instead of going through the Catholic last rites, he wants to bury his old man at sea. He looks at the river as a symbol of continuity. The song basically says, ‘Well, the Romans were here 2,000 years ago and their religion was very important, but it went. Then Christianity happened and that seems to be inadequate now. Let’s look for bigger systems of continuity, like the river, this old religion.’ The song is a kind of black comedy. I’m not really antireligious. I’m just poking some lighthearted fun at religion and also asking pragmatic questions about it.”
Sting’s sense of the “pretty profound” inadequacies of Catholicism and Christianity is intimately linked with the passion for the environment that has consumed him in recent years. “I’ve come to believe that we made a mistake in trying to imagine God outside of nature, that God doesn’t exist in nature,” he says, emphasizing his remarks with gestures that call attention to the natural beauty of Hampstead Heath. “Therefore to find God, we have to destroy nature. I think that’s a Judeo-Christian idea, and it’s not in any of the other religions of the world. I think that is the key to our disastrous treatment of the world. We don’t see God in this tree — God is somewhere else. Therefore why should we respect the tree? Why should we respect the Earth, the river, the sea? ‘Man is the most important thing,’ they say. ‘The animals are at our beck and call, they’re at our service.’
“Wrong! Absolutely wrong. ‘We can have as many people on the Earth as we can possibly make.’ Wrong. I’m sorry, I just don’t agree with it anymore. I think it’s bullshit, and I think if we carry on thinking like that, we’re doomed. We have too many people — we have to use birth control. We are not the most important thing on the planet, we’re part of the planet, and until we realize that, we’re in big trouble.”
Sting’s work in support of the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest has not, however, been universally lauded. Critics have questioned how appropriately the funds raised by the Rainforest Foundation, which Sting established, have been used. In addition, some observers claim that Sting’s international jaunts and high-level diplomatic meetings in the company of Raoni are the best public-relations gambits the Brazilian government could hope for. A great deal of worldwide publicity attended Sting and Raoni’s meetings with José Sarney, who at the time was president of Brazil, creating the impression that the Brazilian government was seriously attempting to address the rain-forest issue. President Sarney failed to keep his promise to demarcate the 19,000-square-mile area that Sting and Raoni wanted set aside as a preserve for the Indians who live in the rain forest. Now Brazil’s new president, Fernando Collor de Mello, is having similar meetings and making similar promises.
When asked about the charge that he is being exploited by the Brazilian government, Sting first laughs with a kind of glee — a master of control, he seems almost titillated by the prospect of being outmaneuvered — then bristles. “I think I’m a focus for international attention,” he says. “The Brazilian government, if they don’t want to change anything, does not welcome any kind of focus on that problem. I don’t think I’m being used at all; if anything, I’m an embarrassment.
“I was in the jungle last week, and I took Raoni to a meeting place in the jungle to meet with Collor,” he continues. “I didn’t want to meet the president particularly, but I wanted Raoni to meet him, because Collor was making a big publicity move by going to the jungle. The military told me I couldn’t stay in that village because I was a danger to national security! I laughed at them — I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m so proud of this.’ Nonetheless, I had to go spend the night in another village nearby. I left Raoni, who spoke to the president, who promised that he would demarcate the land. I actually think he wants to. There are forces in Brazil that don’t want him to — obviously, the military being one of them, because they see the jungle as their last vestige of power. They see it as their personal property.”
While Sting is a longtime supporter of Amnesty International, having played benefits for the organization in England well before it was fashionable, the ardency of his activism in recent years is notable because it represents such a departure for him. This is a man, after all, who, in his conviction about the importance of the spiritual world, declared in one song that “there is no political solution” and titled another one “History Will Teach Us Nothing.”
“I’m still, in a sense, a believer in transcendent cures for various problems,” Sting says. “Contemplating your navel will perhaps move the mountain one day. I think people can change one by one. If you work on yourself, you change the world in a microcosmic way — but it’s getting a bit late, unfortunately. I feel that with certain issues, like the environment, for example, you have to be active. You can’t just sit there with your legs crossed and hope that the air is going to be fit to breathe tomorrow. I think we don’t have very long left, frankly.”
Back at his home, Sting starts a fire and sits on a sofa in front of the fireplace in his den. Though it’s only midafternoon, it is also December in England, and the gray sky outside is already beginning to darken, deepening the shadows that take shape along the room’s dark, wood-paneled walls. It’s warm in the room, and Sting, drinking tea with honey, wears a black T-shirt.
The talk turns to “Mad About You,” a brooding ballad on The Soul Cages. “That’s another one in the lust-power-jealousy genre,” Sting says, smiling. “I think it’s a fascinating genre.” It’s suggested that “Every Breath You Take” is perhaps the classic of the idiom. “It’s funny, I got a British Music Industry award last night for 2 million plays of that record, which, added up, is about seventeen years of continuous radio play!” Sting says incredulously. “It would be a pretty boring radio station, but the staggering idea is that this song, which is so ambiguous — it’s seductive, but it’s also quite pernicious … it works. This may sound highfalutin, but it’s probably the song of the Reagan years — this idea that you’ll be looked after by this patronizing, beneficent figure. Like Star Wars: You’ll be under surveillance but also … protected. That mixture of sex and power is very compelling.”
Sting might have added ambition to the list. In the same 1980 interview in which he insulted his family and hometown, Sting declared: “Success always necessitates a degree of ruthlessness. Given the choice of friendship or success, I’d probably choose success.” Sting laughs, collapses into the couch and buries his head in the pillows when asked what he thinks about that statement now.
“Well, I was the Sinéad O’Connor of the time,” he says wearily as he begins to sit up again. “I might have believed it.” He hesitates. “I might have believed it. One of the reasons you’re successful in many ways is you’re burning with this stuff. You’re tied to the stake of your own career and you have a match and you set fire to it: ‘Awright, I’m gonna make it!’ And that’s what the Police did. We thought about nothing else but making it — making records and being the biggest group in the world. Even if it only lasted for six months, ‘We did it!’
“You come out with polemic statements like that because people remember them and it’s a good headline or whatever — and I might have meant it at the time. I wouldn’t say that now — friendship’s much more important to me than what I thought success was. Luckily, I’ve succeeded and managed to keep some of my friends. I believe the opposite now — but then again, it’s easy for me to say because I’ve been successful and I have a nice life. When you’re struggling, no, success is vitally important.”
Sting remembers the early days of conquering America with his mates in the Police — guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland — with evident pleasure. The three musicians came to this country for a club tour in 1978, very much against the advice of their record company and well before the single “Roxanne,” from their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, began to attract attention.
“It was right in the middle of corporate rock & roll, where to tour in America, you had to support Foreigner,” Sting recalls. “You’d go on as the doors opened, people would be eating popcorn or whatever and would hate you. Instead, we headlined every night — but sometimes to three people. We played to three people in Poughkeepsie, New York, and two of them happened to be DJs, and they added our record because of that show. It was a great show. I remember coming off the stage and introducing these three people to each other, who had sat alone in the Last Chance Saloon — it was actually called that, I think it might still be there. That gig has entered legend now — hundreds of people come up to me and say, ‘I was at the gig in Poughkeepsie,’ and I know they weren’t!
“That sort of energy that we had as a band — we did four or five encores for those three people — was what did it,” Sting continues. “We were a tough little unit. We carried the gear, we drove hundreds and hundreds of miles, we slept in the same bed. It was like being at war. We were out there fighting a war — and we won! I’d never been to America — America was a dream for me. The first night I arrived from London, they drove us to the Bowery. The streets were steaming and full of bums — you know where CBGBs is, it isn’t one of the best streets. I thought, ‘Man, this is incredible, it’s like Hades!‘ And the club is even worse. And we go onstage and we tear the place up. We really thought, ‘Fuck it, we’ve got to survive here.’ Stewart and I had a fight in the dressing room after the show — I thought he was speeding up, he said I was slowing down. We were strangling each other, and then we heard the calls for an encore. We stopped strangling each other, did an encore and then came back, had another fight and then back for another encore. That was our first night in America.”
Fond and furious memories aside, don’t hold your breath waiting for a Police reunion. “In our final year, it was very clear to me that for the sake of sanity, for the sake of dignity, we should end it,” Sting says, laughing. “We had the big song of the year, the big album of the year, the big tour of the year. We were it. We’d made it — everything we attempted, we’d achieved to the power of ten. That was the time to say, ‘Now we’ll go off’ — and we did. We haven’t made a comeback tour or anything like that. I’m very proud of the legend of the Police — I think it’s intact. And I want to keep it intact. I’m very proud of the work we did, and I’m proud of my association with Andy and Stewart. I’ve no regrets about it — but it’s in the past. I don’t want to return to the Police for nostalgic reasons or for money. That would spoil it.”
Despite his expressed “grave philosophical doubts about video,” Sting is swaddled in elaborate Moroccan-style robes and standing in front of a dark blue desert backdrop to film a clip to accompany “Mad About You,” one of the four singles — along with “All This Time,” “Why Should I Cry for You” and the title track — planned for release from The Soul Cages. In this get-up, Sting looks like a dissipated cleric. He is still unshaven and — bearing out his reputation for scruffiness — beneath the robes he is wearing exactly the same clothes as the day before. When an assistant on the set gently asks, “Are you going into makeup or anything like that?” Sting replies, with slightly offended disbelief, “I just came from there.” Meanwhile, a beautiful, enormous white horse has just been led into the sound stage and is being groomed and patted. Like all of England in winter, the set is freezing. “That’s why the English set out to conquer the world,” Sting jokes while hugging himself against the cold. “Every place else is preferable to here.”
Sting will have the opportunity to put that theory to the test when he embarks on a yearlong world tour in February. This time out, he will head up a tough, streamlined, four-piece band in which he will play bass, Kenny Kirkland will play keyboards, Dominic Miller will play guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta will play drums. The band will whip itself into shape during short stands in small theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York before moving into arenas.
“The strategy is that the music can grow in the small venues,” Sting says. “If we immediately start in arenas, then it’s arena music, so I want to start off small. I think it’s your job as an artist to make every basketball arena as intimate an occasion for the ticket buyer as you can. They deserve more than being treated like cattle. A lot of the arena shows I’ve been to lately had industrial levels of noise without any letup. They were basically just MTV stage shows. It’s like a video: wonderful dancing, incredibly loud sound — but no one playing and no one singing! I’m not making a value judgment here, it’s just not what I want.
“What I find entertaining is, instead of trying to reproduce the record, you’re saying to the audience, ‘Look, there’s four guys here onstage, we can’t reproduce the record. We could mime to it, but here’s how we’ll tackle the problem of reproducing the album, given the limitation that we’re only four guys.’ I think it’s entertaining to see people cope with those limitations, and often transcending the album. The album is just a starting point that you can grow from. You have to trust the ability of bands to interpret music. The album isn’t the be-all and end-all of the music. We’ve got a pretty good little combo. We played in Chile at the Amnesty show this fall and we tore the place apart, so I have no fears.”
Nor does Sting, unlike many other rock stars his age, harbor any fears about his ability to carry his music with some measure of decorum into the future. “A rock & roll band is essentially a gang, an adolescent gang,” he says. “You get together when you’re teenagers or in your early twenties — it’s a kind of male thing, even if you have females. It’s macho, a tribal thing — which is great. It works, and the music reflects that tribalism, a sense of having to have a rite of passage to adulthood.
“Once you’ve reached adulthood and you’re still in the gang, you tend to be a bit dysfunctional because you’re pretending that you’re going through a stage which you’ve already gone through. You know, you watch MTV and you see these reconstituted bands who were successful in the Seventies or the Sixties, and they’re getting a bit jowly and they have less hair than they used to, there’s a bit of a belly — but there’s these beautiful models wandering around, blowing kisses at them. It’s not true! In truth, those girls wouldn’t look twice at those guys — it’s perfectly obvious. I feel a bit sad when I see that. There is a way of getting older and being a performer without embarrassing yourself. It’s the gang thing — you don’t have to be in a gang when you’re an adult. You can be on your own. And that’s why I’m not in a band.”
On the set, Sting and the horse are building a relationship based on artistic necessity, physical proximity and what clearly seems to be a burgeoning mutual respect. Through at least two dozen takes the duo attempts to walk together on a treadmill to create the impression that the two are trekking through the desert to the stately strains of “Mad About You.” Sting’s training as an actor and innate sense of discipline stand him in good stead. Time after time — as Sting tries simultaneously to maintain his grip on the horse’s bridle, lip-sync the song’s lyrics, strike suitable facial expressions, walk on the treadmill in time and keep his place in the shot — the horse nuzzles his snout against the singer’s face, steps off the treadmill with his hind legs or sends Sting staggering out of the camera’s frame with a friendly nudge. The bond between the two appears sealed when, after the horse grinds the proceedings to a halt by abruptly urinating on the treadmill, Sting struts over to where the horse had been standing, hitches up his pants and starts to unzip his fly, as everyone on the set bursts into laughter.
During a break on the set, Sting sits in his dressing room and assesses his attitude about his career to this point, casting a cold eye on the future. “I’ve tried very consciously to break the mold, to do things that rock stars don’t normally do or aspire to,” he says. “Of course, you end up being called pretentious. I’m not pretentious. I’m just willing to take a lot of risks, to the extent where I don’t mind being ridiculed and I don’t mind failing, because I think the process of trying to burst out of the stereotype is worth doing.
“The standard you measure yourself by is, Have you learned something? Often you learn more from failures than you do from success; they’re often more interesting experiences in retrospect. You learn to obey your instincts. The logical process will often be the safe one. I tend, when I’m given that choice, to go the way that’s not safe.
“I don’t really think that people know what to expect from me now,” Sting continues. “I don’t think this album is going to conform to any of their expectations — I think they’re expecting a record about ecology or something. If they’re surprised, then I’m pleased. And the next record will hopefully surprise them again.”
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