I‘m quite interested in finding me again,” Police singer and bassist Sting confessed to the press last summer. “I used to be the same sort of person onstage that I was in private life, but now it’s sort of a monster. He looks wonderful with the lights and the crowds, but in the kitchen, it’s a bit much. I’m just trying to find out who is the real me — is it this monster or someone more normal? Right now, he’s a bit worn at the edges.”
The past year has been a stormy one for Sting. In July 1982, his wife of seven years, actress Frances Tomelty, was testifying on his behalf in the court case he’d filed against Virgin Music to regain the publishing rights to his early material. Then, just weeks Later, Sting’s marriage appeared to be finished (though he has since said he still loves Tomelty and that she “transformed my life and was a catalyst in my becoming something completely different”). The grapevine began buzzing with stories suggesting that Sting was beginning to succumb to the perils of rock stardom: Sting, flitting about the globe with a new girlfriend, actress-model Trudy Styler. Sting, attending such questionable events as a party thrown on the French Riviera by Saud arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Sting, having the obligatory “rock star scuffles with photographer” episode at a London airport. Such erratic behavior may be par for the course for successful rock stars, but it is alarmingly out of character for Sting, a man known for his unshakable cool.
Now thirty-one, Sting (Gordon Matthew Sumner), was raised in Newcastle, England, the eldest of four children. “I was brought up on a street of terraced houses, and at the bottom of the street was a shipyard where they built tankers,” he has recalled. His father was a milkman, his mother a hairdresser. He was educated by Jesuits, whom he credits with being “responsible for my venomous nature.” At twenty-four, Sting married Frances Tomelty while still teaching school in northeast England. A self-taught musician, he was playing bass in a jazz combo at night when he was “discovered” by drummer Stewart Copeland. After adding guitarist Andy Summers to the lineup, the Police released the first of their five albums in 1978.
Sting describes himself as a melancholy person prone to radical mood swings, and though that may be true, he presents a formidably tougher face to the world. He is a voracious reader. He says he “cannot operate without a guitar or piano around,” and he’s currently composing a symphony on synthesizer. He’s had parts in four movies — Radio On, Quadrophenia, Artemis ’81, Brimstone & Treacle — and has just finished a role in Dune, a science-fiction film directed by David Lynch, who also did Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. He’s written a script, Gormenghast, which is based on a trilogy by Mervyn Peake and is about a clever kitchen boy who tries to gain control of a castle but is undone by his pride and his sense of evil. The very picture of youthful vitality and health, Sting doesn’t smoke, eats balanced meals, drinks in moderation and works out every day.
All of this activity doesn’t leave him much time to hang out with the chaps at the corner pub, and he is a somewhat solitary man. One gets the impression that Sting finds the action in his own head more engrossing than most of the people he meets and he is singularly self-contained.
Sting spent this past spring in Los Angeles overseeing the final detail work on the Police’s new LP, Synchronicity . In some ways a chronicle of the breakup of Sting’s marriage, Synchronicity is certainly the darkest record the Police have made. Pain is the album’s central theme, and images of loss, separation and longing color every song. “I do my best work when I’m in pain and turmoil,” Sting observes, and this essay in conflict features some of his finest work.
Talking with Sting in the sumptuous hotel suite, overlooking the Sunset Strip, that he shared with Trudy Styler, I found little evidence of the manic frame of mind he’s reputed to be in. Dressed in blue plastic warmup pants and a tight, sleeveless T-shirt, he seemed fit, calm and content — a rich man on a holiday. He was, however, not exactly eager to discuss certain events of the past year and closed the subject by saying, “The important things I have to say are in the songs in a veiled, symbolic form. It’s true there is a lot of damage around me, but I hope it’s not directly because of me. I was warned that any interviewer I talk to at this point is going to ask me the same things, and it’s a challenge to see if I can steer clear of a few areas.”
The idea of angels and demons surfaced with interesting frequency during our talks, and I got the impression that Sting sees himself as both. “I am sort of two people,” he said in a soft, hoarse whisper, “and I do have a dark side.”
It’s unusual to meet someone who genuinely likes himself, but Sting seems not just at home in, but pleased with, the skin he’s in, even while admitting that he’s capable of a certain ruthlessness. He has incredible drive — to excel? to win? for approval? — that I imagine could turn ugly should circumstances back him into a corner, and he has little time or patience for losers. Yet he seems to have the Big Picture clearly in focus, is aware of the absurdity of rock stardom, the arbitrary whims of fate and the role luck has played in his life. Fate dealt him a few whammy cards this year, but his luck appears to be holding. He came to an out-of-court agreement with Virgin, Synchronicity is near the top of the charts, and the Police are in the midst of one of the summer’s biggest tours. Sting plays the winning hand once again.
You recently said, “Being famous is becoming increasingly nightmarish.” Can you elaborate on the fears associated with fame?
I saw The King of Comedy the other night, and it really struck home. I walked out of the theater, and there was a crowd of people waiting to come in. They all started to shout, “Hey, it’s Sting!” I’d just seen Jerry Lewis brutalized by a fan, and I felt vulnerable.
I walk on the street a lot more than many performers I know because I feel it’s my right. I don’t have bodyguards and limos, because you have to maintain some kind of grown-up autonomy or you end up a baby. . . . Still, The King of Comedy frightened me, and the end of the movie, where Pupkin [Rupert Pupkin is the character played by Robert De Niro] becomes famous, really pissed me off. I wanted Jerry Lewis to just wipe the floor with him. I wanted Pupkin to fail as a comedian because he’d taken such a liberty with a man’s life. But I realized that I saw the film from an isolated point of view. The rest of the audience seemed to find the idea funny of tying up a famous person and torturing him.
Do you think most people feel hostility toward celebrities?
I think it’s very ambiguous. And in America, everybody is in show business, and fame is almost within everyone’s grasp. All the taxi drivers are show biz taxi drivers, and nobody isn’t an actor.
Those generalizations might be true of New York and Los Angeles, but there are vast stretches of America that have nothing to do with those two cities.
That isn’t true. Every walk of life in America has its counterpart in television. There are situation comedies and dramas about every walk of life, and everyone has a kind of stage rhetoric that he or she uses. Everyone is aware of the camera, whether it exists or not, and it seems that everybody in this country aspires to be famous. It’s a human trait to want to be watched and be the king of the walk, but I find it to be less the case in Europe than in America. But then, America is the most technologically advanced country in the world, and the people here are inundated with images.
You once described America as being attractive as a concept. What’s your concept of this country?
Unlike most Americans. I think I’ve probably been to most of America. When the Police started, we were touring America and staying in motels, dives, bordellos and everything else, so I have a fairly good knowledge of the place as a traveler. I think America is still very young and naive, and therefore I think it’s quite dangerous politically. There are forces at work here that could take over, and Reagan is a step in that direction. I’m not saying Reagan’s a demon — he’s a victim. He’s a sad case because he believes in what he’s saying, but he’s no more responsible than you or I. He just points to a general weakness in society.
How has success changed you?
I’ve been successful for about five years, but I’ve also aged five years, so I probably would’ve been more mature regardless of the degree of success I’d achieved. I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t be more mature had I not had success. When you’re a rock star, you’re allowed to be a petulant child and many other things you’re supposed to grow out of.
At the same time, isn’t there a large responsibility that comes with the kind of success you’ve had?
People talk about the pressure and the responsibility, but it’s no worse than your average car worker. He’s under pressure to pay the mortgage and make sure his wife has a coat. No, I don’t subscribe to the school of “Oh, the pressure.”
What’s the most widely held misconception about success?
That it brings you happiness. It doesn’t, and I don’t think anything does. But I don’t think happiness is necessarily the reason we’re here. I think we’re here to learn and evolve, and the pursuit of knowledge is what alleviates the pain of being human. And everybody is in pain, but if you’re learning something, your mind is diverted elsewhere.
When I interviewed you in 1979, you said, “Success always necessitates a degree of ruthlessness. Given the choice of friendship or success, I’d probably choose success.” Do you still feel that way?
[Laughing] I have massive success and no friends. Actually, I do have very few friends. Partly I go for quality as opposed to quantity. I would say I have three very close friends. The public tends to imagine that rock stars have millions of friends. I don’t.
Are you friends with the other members of the Police?
It’s not an easy relationship, by any means. We’re three highly autonomous individuals, and a band is an artificial alliance most of the time. There are obviously tensions, but I think there’s a great love between us and a genuine respect. I can’t think of two musicians I’d rather play with. But none of us is easy to work with. It’s not all buddy-buddy, and never was.
So you’re not a team player?
I don’t think history is made up of mass movements or teams. History is made up of individuals. At least that’s how I read history. It’s not mass ideologies.
Then how does the group arrive at decisions?
Violence. . . . I’ll argue till the cows come home about something I believe in, and so will Andy and Stewart. Synchronicity went through all kinds of horrendous cogs and gears to come out, emotionally and technically, the way it did.
Did it come out the way you wanted?
My feeling before we made the album was that we had to change our sound, because there were a lot of clone groups who sounded a bit like us. That’s flattering in a way, but I thought we should try to sound a little different, so we pared away the things people have come to expect in our music. Reggae, for instance, is more buried in the undercurrent of the music than it might have been in the past. I think this is a more refined record than we’ve previously made.
The title of the album refers to coincidence and things being connected without there being a logical link. For instance, in the title cut there’s a domestic situation where there’s a man who’s on the edge of paranoia, and as his paranoia increases, a monster takes shape in a Scottish lake, the monster being a symbol for the man’s anxiety. That’s a synchronistic situation. They’re not connected logically, but symbolically and emotionally they are. There’s a song called “King of Pain,” which is a series of analogous statements about the soul: “There’s a little black spot on the sun today/That’s my soul up there . . . There’s a dead salmon in a waterfall . . . There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.” They’re all images of entrapment and pain. The single, “Every Breath You Take,” is a very sad song and it makes me sad, but it’s a wonderful sadness. It was written at a time of awful personal anguish, and it was a great catharsis for me to write that song.
What do your songs say about you?
My personal life is in my songs, in an archetypal form, of course. At the same time, I regard myself as quite a complicated person, and there are very complex things going on in my head. Many of the songs seem quite contradictory, and I seem to be two people: on the one hand, a morose, doom-laden character, and on the other, a happy-go-lucky maniac. I am as ambiguous as Martin, the character I played in Brimstone & Treacle, and I didn’t have to delve too deeply into myself to excavate him. He’s definitely an exaggerated version of me. The songs are also very folded in because there’s no point in stating the obvious. You implicate the audience and draw them in by forcing them to discover things. So, to a certain extent, the songs are abstract, but if I look at them closely I can see that I’m writing about my private life.
And what have you learned about yourself?
Every day I see myself behaving in a way that, on reflection, is a reenactment of my childhood. I’m becoming increasingly aware that I am my mother and father.
You don’t seem to recall your childhood with much fondness.
No, and I’m glad of that because it gave me a fighting spirit. I didn’t have an unusually bad childhood, it’s just that I have a certain mentality that made childhood very painful. I remember just aching — there was just an ache all the time. Heartache. It wasn’t my parents’ fault, it’s just the way my brain was working.
Were you raised in a liberal environment?
That’s a very relative term, but yeah, I suppose I was, and I didn’t want to be at the time. I think kids desire reactionary parents. You know, your parents should be strict and make you do certain things. If they don’t, you wonder, “Am I being brought up right?”
Did you have a religious upbringing?
I was raised Catholic. And in the rock world, which is hedonistic and, on the surface, very existential, it sets you apart to have had an upbringing that was rooted in magic and religion. I’m not a devout Catholic and I don’t go to Mass, but I’m not sure I’ve broken away from it. All that was inculcated into my brain as a small child — that there is a heaven and hell, mortal sins and venial sins — is inside my psyche and will never come out. I’m not raising my kids Catholic, but I sometimes wonder whether I should. I think human psychology is such that we invent gods and demons anyway, and the Catholic ones are tried and tested archetypes. The ones we invent for ourselves are much more dangerous, in a way. The power of projection is so rife in the world.
Why do you think people need to create gods and demons?
Everyone does do it, and even the most devout agnostic has deep within his unconscious a need for a god and devil. I don’t know why, but it is deep within our history as a race, I think you have to come to terms with the gods and demons who populate your unconscious and your dreams.
That dreams actually mean something is a recent realization for me. I think they do present some kind of coherent picture. I didn’t used to dream, but I dream a lot now and I keep a record of my dreams. My dreams tend to redress the balance of my life. For instance, if I’ve been particularly mean to someone, I find that I’ll subsequently dream about that person in a very exalted state. My dream is telling me to reassess that person. Or if I fall in love with someone, she’ll appear in my dream as a witch. So in a sense, dreams are an equation between your conscious and unconscious lives.
You once commented that “the rock-star myth pleases me at the moment, but I don’t believe in it and I’m sure I’ll tire of it eventually.” Have you tired of it?
I never lived the rock-star myth and never had any desire to. It doesn’t take much imagination to get wild every night, and there are many performers who do live that myth publicly. I saw a few of them on the news the other night at a press conference for the Us Festival. There was [Clash aide] Kosmo Vinyl bellowing [Sting feigns an excellent cockney accent], “Eh, yeah, you ca be sure the Clash e’ gon be sayin’ somfink!”
What, I wondered, are they going to be saying? Ranting the thoughts of Karl Marx while they rake in the dollars strikes me as slightly ambiguous. I’ve no respect whatever for the Clash, and I once did.
Well, whom do you respect?
I can’t think of anyone offhand. . . . I’ve said all along that the blueprint for rock stardom has been thoroughly written about and the pitfalls are obvious.
Have you stumbled over those pitfalls?
We’re talking about drugs, right? Drugs are a symbol for all the bad things associated with stardom. Drugs are always there when you’re down. Drugs are very much a symbol, and you have to control them. I don’t take drugs anymore.
Because one day I realized that I was saying they weren’t a problem for me, and I stepped back and thought, “That’s a very sad psychology. I’m kidding myself.” So about a year ago, I decided to stop them altogether. I wasn’t a heroin addict or anything like that, it’s just that drugs are around and you take them, and then you start taking them on your own as well, and that’s dangerous. Then you start lying to people and lying to yourself. They’re so insidious and available, and when you’re feeling vulnerable, they’re there. But you just mustn’t. I don’t believe people who say, “I can handle it. I’ve been taking drugs since I was twelve.” It’s wrong, and as puritan as it might sound, they’re not even that much fun.
What kind of image do you think people have of you?
What comes out that surprises me is that people see me as arrogant. To a certain extent, I am, but any artist worth his salt has arrogance. It’s a prerequisite of being stage-worthy. You have to have a certain air of “watch me, because I’m really good.” But I’m quite humble in many ways [laughing], self-effacing and modest.
You recently told an interviewer that you like being photographed, and you like the image side of what you do. Isn’t that a questionable thing, manufacturing and selling larger-than-life images to the public?
Yes, it is, but it seems to be a prerequisite of making music. You either become Greta Garbo or put a sack over your head, or you play the game to a certain extent.
Have you always liked the way you look?
No. Some mornings I wake up and I hate myself. But I feel confident that I can manufacture a face or look given a couple hours of preparation. It’s all mental.
Would you describe yourself as a vain person?
I’d admit to it, but I wouldn’t describe myself as vain.
Is vanity a vice?
In the business I’m in — he said defensively — it’s a necessity. You have to have a certain amount of vanity to get onstage. If I don’t think I look good, I don’t perform very well. If I’m fit, toned up, don’t look tired and I’ve done some preparation, I perform better. People pay money to see you, so if I had to perform tonight, I’d be going through a certain regime — work out, take a bath, don’t eat any rubbish, get a good night’s sleep. Stage performance is more athletic than musical. Well, that’s not true, but a large percentage of what you do is leap up and down in time to the music.
Have those leaps become exaggerated as the halls have gotten bigger?
To a certain extent, you do exaggerate, but the gestures are all rooted in an enjoyment of the music. If there’s no groove, then I don’t dance. It’s not something I do because I’m expected to. It’s a genuine response to the music, and if I didn’t feel it, I’d find it embarrassing to leap about.
You saw Prince recently. What did you think of him?
He had a lot of energy and he’s a really good musician, but he spent too much energy in being a vamp. I wasn’t turned on by his ass or whatever, but he’s young and he’ll mature, and I would hope he won’t be doing that when he’s older. I hope he’s sending himself up — if he is, he’s very funny. His songs would be more potent as sexual propaganda if he didn’t go in for all this camp stuff. You know, shake a leg and girls scream at you, and it’s tempting to do it again. We’re all guilty of it.
It’s not a temptation I find myself grappling with too often.
Well, it feels good and it reinforces you.
Can popular music only accommodate broad statements?
I hope not. If that were true, it would be pretty useless, and I probably wouldn’t want to be involved. I think it’s capable of subtle interpretations of relationships and problems. I’m not interested in broad generalizations, although I might make them sometimes because it’s all I can think of.
Who do you think has dealt successfully with unusual and complex themes in his or her music?
Dylan. James Taylor, I think his best work is very personal and subtle. It’s about the fine line between enchantment and madness.
You once commented that pop music is a useful form, and it has its function. What do you see as being its function?
At its best, it’s subversive. Ostensibly, it confirms the system, makes money and generates an industry, but underneath, it’s very anarchic. That’s not to say that it’ll turn over society, although it has helped do that in certain cases. The Beatles and the hippie thing were very influential in the Vietnam War, for better or for worse. I’m not saying that it’s a good thing America lost — everybody lost. But it was a war where for the first time people questioned the adage “My country, right or wrong.” And I think that was probably a good thing.
As on the last album, Ghost in the Machine, many of the songs on Synchronicity seem to have political undertones.
I’m against politics with a capital P, but I think we have to come to terms with the reality of nuclear power. It’s no good to say let’s get rid of it, because we’ll always have that knowledge. I really dislike this Luddite mentality of “Lets go back to nature and get rid of nuclear power,” because we never will. We have to make those things safe . . . and the only way to do that is to clean out the gangsters and criminals who are running our world. And they are criminals. They’re greedy, frightened, and they are endangering us . . . We will be blown up, you know. The age of the domestic H-bomb is years away. Humans make the mistake of believing that it’s their right to survive. Species die out on this planet all the time without anybody noticing. The planet will still be here, and we must lose this attitude of divine right, that something will save us, which we’ve developed over the centuries. The Martians aren’t going to come down and save us. God isn’t going to save us. We are in great danger, and it’s easy to get diverted from that awareness by everyday life. And every time we spend a million dollars on defense, that danger increases. Those weapons are intended for use. And what on earth is military superiority about? Superior to what? As a species, we’re too bound up in what we consume, ignoring what consumes us. It’s a madness that we have to sort out.
You seem to have a fairly pessimistic view of the human condition.
No, I have a realistic view. I would like the future to be better, and I think we have to live as if there will be a reasonable future for our children. But I can’t close my eyes to the fact that we must do something soon. Maybe it will take a disaster to bring us to our senses. I just hope that we learn from it and that it’s not on my head.
One of the reasons you’re in Los Angeles is to try to get financing for a script called Gormenghast. I understand that you’ve written it as a vehicle for yourself.
Knowing a lot of actors, I see that most of them sit by the phone waiting for jobs to come to them. Some of them get lucky, but most of them might as well wait for the lottery to come up. So I thought, “Okay, if I want to do a movie, I can afford to buy a property for me.” So I bought the rights to these books. . . . When you’re asking for $6 million or $7 million, people are frightened of giving it to you. Basically, you’re dealing with people’s personal anxieties when you try to get financing for a film. These people are sitting in their offices, smoking their cigars, and their jobs are very tentative. Still, that’s no way to run an art form. I’m told the project isn’t commercial, but I was told the same thing about my songs eight years ago by every major record company in the world. Then, two years later, you couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing one of those uncommercial songs.
Even though your previous films haven’t been box-office smashes, do you think you’ve reached a point where your name guarantees a degree of commercial success for your film?
I’d rather it didn’t. I didn’t want to arrive in Hollywood with an air of “Here I am, Hollywood! You’ve all been waiting for me to appear!” I’ve sort of come in from the underside and played in films that were left field. I was surprised Brimstone & Treacle was even screened in America, much less distributed. I want to continue to approach it that way. So, in a sense, I don’t want to use my name,’ cause it’s an albatross around my neck. It may be attractive to one segment of the cinema-going public, but to another, it’s not. Who wants to see String? In a movie? String! Never heard of it! What is it? Would your mother go see String in a movie? I’m proud of being a rock musician, but I don’t want to be branded. When I’m in film, I want to act.
Is it easy to make the transition from rock to film?
They’re obviously related, and though music may have given me a confidence that somewhat prepared me for being in front of a camera, making transitions is the hardest thing for a performer to do. And you know, you don’t have to have the intelligence of a brain surgeon to play rock & roll. The opposite is the general rule, in fact.
Doesn’t rock require a particular kind of savvy?
No. Some of the best rock performers don’t have any sense at all. And I think the performers who have managed to make the transition from one form to another are unusually clever. David Bowie and Bobby Darin both did it quite skillfully. Bobby Darin was a great singer and a great actor. And The Man Who Fell to Earth was a clever thing for Bowie to do.
Why, out of the many offers I’m sure you receive, did you decide to be in Dune?
I’m doing Dune because of David Lynch and for no other reason. I didn’t really want to do the movie, because I didn’t think it was wise for me to be in an enormous movie. I’d rather keep a groundswell building up in my movie career. So, I sort of went along dragging my heels. Then I met David, and I loved him. He’s a madman in sheep’s clothing, and I just felt I had to do the movie because I know he’s going to do something extraordinary.
What sort of character do you play?
I’m not in every scene, but my character is important to the plot. If you’re familiar with the books, he’s one of the Harkonnens, the villainous feudal lords of some dark planet. They’re the enemies of the good family, and there’s a big fight at the end, and I have a wicked uncle who’s a baron. It’s all good stuff.
Does your move into film mean you’re no longer challenged by the Police?
It’s still hard work. It’s not easy to be in a group. It’s like marriage without sex. The only lubricant we have is music, so the music has to be good.
Isn’t money a lubricant?
More money isn’t. If any of us felt we couldn’t go on together, money wouldn’t be a factor. I’ve got enough money, which is not to say I don’t enjoy making it, because it’s fun to make money. But the reason we stay together is because we still work as a band. As I’ve said all along, it might break up tomorrow. As soon as it becomes a drag, then that’s it — I’ll walk out.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since the Police have become so popular?
To be more cagey. Candidly, that article you wrote [RS 310] quoted some things I said about my childhood that hurt my family deeply. [“I come from a family of losers . . . and I’ve rejected my family as something I don’t want to be like.”] 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. My family was completely unprepared for the media onslaught they were subjected to. I’m protected from it, but the innocent bystanders — my kids, my wife — were crunched by it. There’s no way I can protect those around me from my career, and I have to live my own life. But there is a balance you can strike between being selfish in the right way and protecting those around you.
How much does the public have a right to know? There are those who would argue that performers are rewarded very lavishly for what they do and part of what the public pays for is the right to vicariously share in the lives of famous people.
To a certain extent, I agree. But that can go too far. I’ve seen that become genuinely destructive, not to me, particularly, but to those around me, and it’s no fun.
Last May, you told Trouser Press, “If I could get away with it, I wouldn’t do any more interviews.” Why do you still do them?
This particular interview is useful. But I don’t want to get up on a soapbox. . . . It’s not my desire to confess, and there aren’t any burning social issues that I feel I have an exclusive handle on. The important things I have to say are in the songs in a veiled, symbolic form. And what I have to say like this — you make of it what you will. I don’t have a half-life. I am fairly straight down the middle. I’m no angel, by any means, but I consider myself to be relatively normal, and I have normal needs.
So you don’t feel compelled to comment on or defend yourself against things that are written about you?
They’re not writing about me. They invent a life, and it just doesn’t get to me. It might get to people who aren’t as sophisticated in their defenses as I am, but they’re not writing about me. They don’t know me, and they never will. Tough shit.