The following article by Gavin Martin appeared in an April 1991 issue of New Musical Express
Help the Caged! - Who is rock chameleon Sting today? High priest of Jungian jazz rock? Rain Forest warrior? Posing Thespian? Geordie homecomer? Bruce Springsteen's mate?
Who is rock chameleon Sting today? High priest of Jungian jazz rock? Rain Forest warrior? Posing Thespian? Geordie homecomer? Bruce Springsteen's mate? On one matey? All of these and more, reveals Gavin Martin, as he travels to New York to probe beneath the ennui of the filthy rich Soul Caged survivor.
"Try to make me sound more intelligent." Sting - tanned but unshaven, cheery but hung over, beautifully proportioned but bleary eyed - is striding into the lobby of Donald Trump's Plaza hotel.
The tape's been turned off, but the man Sinead O'Connor wanted to shag before she met him, the most arudite voice in pop, the high priest of Jungian jazz rock therapy still has one little vanity, one little insecurity to offload. Working class people who make good generally cling to money for protection. With two successful careers, the actor/musician has long since passed the stage where lucre is a worry. But even blond bombshells have their reputation to think of - sexy Sting would hate to be found out in public with nothing on top.
Trump's Plaza Hotel seems a good place to say farewell to Sting: the prodigal Geordie lad who is now a New York ace face, the guy who went from dockside milk-rounds to jetset millionairedom. The Plaza cannot be knocked down because, ironically, it was the site of a historic native American settlement. Now, with it's hideous ostentation and nouveau riche vulgarity, it stands as a symbol of a declining empire. A property developer's empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown teeming at the heart of New York City.
Sting loves the city that never sleeps. He loves the extremity and the conflagration going on there and appreciates the irony of The Trump Tower caught amidst the shifting sands of the millennium. This morning he'd savoured some more NYC madness. Leaving what his friends call his "absolutely phenomenal" apartment, he's sat out in Central Park. A Holy Fool reading The New York Times on the philosopher's stone. H strolled by the icy lake, past the tycoons, past the jogging health freaks and he'd even given a hand-out to a vagrant posing as a park attendant.
The guy was so overcome by his $15 windfall (ten from Sting, five from the NME) that he returned later with a present. Sting had refused the obscenely coloured carton of Slush Puppie but it was quite possible the incident would find its way into the post therapy journal in which he has begun to record his daily thoughts.
It had been Sting's idea to meet in the park; he needed to freshen up after a night on the tiles at the Grammy Awards parties.
"Basically you go to as many parties as possible and drink as much free drink as possible." We'd offered to meet him half way. All he had to do was wake up and we'd interview him in bed. But he was having none of it.
Neither was he keen on the photographer's idea that he lie on a park bench and wrap himself in the newspaper. At first the journalist's questions had also rubbed him up the wrong way. He was reading an article about condoms in The New York Times. The hack thought that years of knowledge as a rock'n'roll frontman might have given him experience he'd like to pass on to others. No, he told him, he'd never had the clap.
In his po-faced concert programme Sting was pictured in many guises - Rainforest Warrior, Posing Thespian and bespectacled Tyneside homecomer complete with overcoat and shoulder slung duffle bag. The journalist wanted to know how much of it was for effect - did he normally wear contact lenses?
"No, I don't, what sort of f***ing article is this anyway, are you writing for the Medical Times?" he said, by now pretty irritated. The journalist tried with one more polite inquiry to break the ice. This time Sting lost his rag completely.
"What do you want to know about my boots for, are you doing a fashion spread or something?"
Eventually he calmed down without completely dropping his guard. "They're from Paris actually. The thing about cowboy boots in America is that they all have these funny little raised heels. These don't... not that I make a habit of going over to Paris every time I need a pair of boots, mind you..."
Sting's guard was probably up because the meeting with the NME had got off to a volatile start the previous evening. He looked puzzled and a little angry when he saw the harassed NME journalist arrive. But he could only shrug his shoulders and continue what he was doing, playing a song in front of 3,000 people at New York's Beacon Theatre.
The journalist had become severely pissed off with being moved around the theatre by the management. Tired of arguing, tired of being hassled, tired of having to fight so he could do a bit of honest graft, he'd gone to the bar and began drinking whisky at a perilously alarming rate. The PR was chatting with the antichrist of socialist agit pop, son of long-time head of the CIA and long time Sting manager Miles Copeland when he became aware of the journalist's predicament. He acted swiftly, too swiftly perhaps, in presenting him with a ticket.
Once seated in a plum position the journalist settled down to enjoy the rest of the show. But just as soon as he was comfortable the lady beside him pulled at his sleeve and told him politely but firmly - the seat he'd been given was taken and she was waiting for a friends to sit there. Then the journalist snapped, no doubt about it. Fuelled with whisky, forgetting his manners, brandishing his ticket, he'd told her, in language and gesture best described as colourful, that this was his seat. He'd come too far and gone through too much to be moved again.
There was no excuse for the way he'd spoken to her, he knew that. What he didn't know and what had undoubtedly caught the onstage star's attention was that the recipient of his drunken abuse was none other than Trudie Styler, for the past few years Sting's common law wife. Trudie had gone straight to the foyer to shout at the manager and the PR. Resorting to the Anglo Saxon tongue, she told them she was sat beside the biggest female orifice in the world...
Everybody laughed about it afterwards as Sting supped champagne and welcomed well-wishers (among them fellow tree saver Don Henley and producer/movie star Griffin Dunne) in the dressing room. Styler shook hands with the journalist, warning him that, should their feud be carried into print, she would make him a tough enemy. Copeland got him in a good natured strangler's grip and told him it was all a ploy the organisation used to psych out journalists.
Sting just smiled, shrugged and filled up out glasses. The ex-teacher didn't seem to mind when he caught us snooping, smirking at his reading matter, a heavily thumbed and much underlined copy of Arthur Miller's biography of French realist poet Rimbaud.
Sting is like one of those periwinkles you eat with a pin. One minute he's poked out of his shell to an indecent extreme (filming the birth of his son in the biopic 'Bring On the Night' or inviting 'Hello' magazine into his Hampstead retreat for an oh-so-tacky photo spread) and the next he's so tightly inside his shell you have to pierce his skull to pluck him out. In Central Park on a cold spring morning he's on his guard, jousting with suspicions. Why?
"I'm in enough trouble as it is."
What sort of trouble?
"All sorts of trouble."
He was about to launch a world tour. A tour that he'd been building up to for 13 years. He was going out into a world being turned upside down by political, violent, environmental and economic upheaval. Perhaps it was to be expected that he'd get excited, start running off at the mouth. Last night he'd elicited a cheer from the crowd when he compared George Bush's decision to send forces to the Gulf to the battle plan of King David in Biblical times. Drawing on his Jesuit education Sting recalled that David had sent an army overseas because he had designs on the general's wife. "I wonder if George Bush sent Norman Schwarzkpf away so he could schtook his old lady," mused the guy whose motto is love, peace and mischief.
There is a message in his music, a message that drafts in and out of focus depending on how mid-70's progressive he decides to be. When he reached his peak, driving the pared down band, singing beautifully, Sting's show is shot through with moments of deeply affecting warmth and tenderness. Nothing prepared me for how strong Sting in person could be. Oh, there was tomfoolery, there was childish humour, there were long boring workouts. But when he came good - on 'Fragile', the song dedicated to Chile's "mothers of the disappeared", or the burnished ache of 'When the Angels Fall' - he soared and flowed, it was totally uplifting, everything you could wish for.
The 'Soul Cages' tour could be the big one. The album is the best seller of 1991 in the States and the tour is St Sting's chance to slay the dragon, to enter the Arena of The Gods, maybe a place alongside such warriors of the great and good as Dylan, Gabriel, and his very good friend Bruce Springsteen.
"I don't really understand it all myself, the success of the record. I think there's a whole lot of factors at work... I think, you get your turn."
Do you lust for fame?
"No I don't. It's pleasant much of the time, I'm not going to moan about how terrible it is. It has its moments..."
Looking back to the early days, you inveigled yourself to journalists, acted in TV commercials and generally courted the publicity machine. You seem like a person who always wanted to be famous.
"You know I don't think that's really true. I think I wanted to be a successful musician, that was my first ambition, to make a living as a musician and be successful at it. Famous? I was always famous, I was famous in my school, I was famous in my town. What is famous, it's all relative you know?"
You told Paul Morley in an early NME interview that you introduced yourself to him because you wanted him to become aware of who you were.
"That's not true, I lied to him too. I just wanted to meet the guy, he'd written about us, I wanted him to know I was a human being"
At the Grammy Awards Sting was handing over a posthumous award for the late, great Roy Orbison. When he'd rushed away from that ceremony to introduce his own show at The Beacon - still in top hat and tails compere outfit - he told the audience that Orbson's ghost had appeared and said "Why didn't you f***ing give it me when I was alive?"
He likes to stir the shit, does Sting; apart from well-documented support of Amnesty International and the Rainforest Foundation, he's praised Sinead O'Connor's long overdue Grammy boycott, rushed to the defence of Milli Vanilla when they had their Grammy removed for miming, and even sent a note of support to Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine when they decided not to give venues commission on T-shirt sales.
"I don't think Sinead is making a stand, she just speaks her mind and what she says is usually right. Whether you agree with it or not is beside the point, what she says is always interesting, it's always entertaining. I like Sinead. I've never had to endure anything like she has from the media, she's a woman and the press are full of misogynists."
Do you still think that you are tuned into the feminine side of your character?
"I hope it's integrated into the whole thing, when you make music or do certain things you fell it more closely."
Do you have periods?
"I get depressed periodically, if that's what you mean. But I'm not brave enough to be a woman, there's a headline for you."
No brave enough to be a woman but stuck with being Sting. Not perhaps the most difficult task in the world.
"I live a pretty exciting life. I find myself in extraordinary places with extraordinary people. I love my life in that sense, I have no complaints.
But once, when he was at the artistic peak of his career, Sting did not love his life. The Police were one of the biggest grossing bands in the world but there were fist fights in the dressing room - Stewart Copeland broke his rib in one fight. Gordon Sumner became Sting when he was 19, it was a nickname given to him because he wore a jersey with black and yellow wasp stripes. He'd clung to the name, shaped his destiny, and now Sting had become a monster, his personal life was falling apart.
Determined to put the beast to rest he contemplated suicide.
"Doesn't everybody? It was a cry for help, my marriage failed at the same time I was incredibly successful. You have the polarity between success and downright failure and a great ravine opens in your personality. I'm much more balanced now in every area of my life. I used to oscillate between joy and misery all the time."
But he does still have his detractors, the music press is full of them. Everybody has their prejudices, he's heard them all before ("It's the revenge of the nerds"). He's a hypocrite spouting liberal rhetoric while working for ultra capitalist Miles Copeland, the over-educated existentialist bookworm; self-righteous sanctimonious, vain, tediously muso, a "wanker" according to a man at one music paper. Many point to an over-inflated sense of his own importance, which leads him to cast his life story and relationship with his father in pseudo-significant mystical mythology on 'Soul Cages'.
You seem to see your existence in grand terms.
"I think that's my job, isn't it? I like symbolism, it's a sensible way of looking at your life, otherwise your life is meaningless. If it's not grand then what is? I don't think this is exclusive to me, everybody's life is grand, none of us are here for no reason at all. I think people are looking for symbols in their life, symbols of continuity that make sense. I think we're all important actually. All of us."
He says that 'The Soul Cages' has had the best reviews and the worst reviews he's ever had. The most gratifying response he's had for the record is from people who have gone through a similar loss and empathised with the trauma. There is another reaction, voiced by one thus bereaved; just because Sting didn't make his peace with his father when he was alive, why should we have to listen to his tale of woe?
"I think everybody's life is a journey back home, having been a father myself now for a number of years I can understand my father more. That journey is terminated when someone dies, the record was a way of completing that journey. It is a personal process, whether it works for anyone else doesn't matter. If it works for me and a few others that's OK."
In the press release that Sting penned for the album he made much of the long period of writer's block that preceded it. Given the confusion and soul searching, was the criticism wounding?
"I've been doing it too long to be hurt. I'm not writing for the critics, I don't know who I'm writing for, I'm writing for me, I do a day's work the best I can and I don't see why I should do any more. I get accused of a lot of things but I don't remember doing anything particularly wrong."
You leave yourself wide open to a lot of things, all that local boy getting back to his roots publicity, going back to Tyneside for TV specials and photo shoots.
"I know, everything I do, everything I want to do invites criticism, what can I do? Let the criticism that might occur dictate my life?"
You seem to like to wander between the class barriers, are you one of forerunners for John Major's classless society?
"I don't know anything about John Major, I can't comment on him, he was foisted on me when I wasn't in the country. A classless society? England will always be a class-ridden society, there is no social mobility, there really isn't. I still feel very much part of my class. I don't feel ashamed of it but I don't think it will ever change.
But you quite consciously recreated yourself so you could leave your class behind, changed your accent, changed your name, dyed your hair...
"I want social mobility, I don't want to be trapped. I want freedom to explore. To get more freedom, you adopt things that don't send out noticeable signals. I wanted to be able to go where I liked and say what I liked to anybody."
The accusers raise their voice here. Didn't you wine and dine on the sea-faring shagging wagon of ultra-dodgy arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi?
What did you say to him?
Was it worth all the effort getting yourself into a position so you could say that?
"Yeah, it was fun. Frankly I didn't know who he was, somebody invited me to a party. Do you think I'm his best mate? It was great to go to his party and see all these chronically wealthy people having a good time."
Did you pick up tips on how to spend your money?
"How not to spend money more like, his boat had leather ceilings, leather walls - that is not what you do with money."
So how does Sting, now a New Age Prince rather than a Rock Monster, spend his money? He collects nothing but books, a few first editions, the most prized being the original magazine versions of Dickens' 'Martin Chuzzlewit' bought for him by Trudie. Otherwise he has houses - in LA,, London and New York. He travels extensively, the homes are mainly for his children.
"I don't get homesick any more. I'm fiercely proud of Newcastle, I love the people there but I don't think I should have to be uncritical of it. I haven't lost the accent, when I'm in Newcastle I speak Geordie, just like when I'm in France I speak French. I'm very unself-conscious about it."
As he's travelled, so has his music and songwriting. Challenging, wider-reaching, say some; lacking focus, the craftsmanship sparkle tat occasioned his finest work during The Police's twilight years, say others. He says he's keen to expand pop's structure and parameters - "any rules that exist in pop music are wrong, there's room for all kinds of madness. I try to get away with as much as I can."
Live he's very much in control. A truly riveting bass band driver, he provides the heart and thrust of his music.
"You're far more in control than you would be if you were playing lead guitar, if the bass stops everything stops. I never want to foster the idea that I have to play with the same band for the rest of my life, it's sentimental rubbish - why don't you get together with Johnny Bloggs again. I don't want to get together with Johnny Bloggs, I want to meet people, build the music through them."
Sting's an explorer, a situation hopper, but it's hard to see where he's been opportunist. He's take risks in his time, when he was married to Northern Irish actress Frances Tomelty he used to adopt a Belfast accent around Republican haunts in Andersontown. He has lambasted the fascist regime in Chile onstage and followed in the footsteps of Eco Warriors like Chico Mendes. He's an easy target but, soft spoken and assured, his sincerity seems hard to doubt.
The next question puts his defences back in place however. Ever taken Ecstasy?
"I'm not going to answer that question."
Why the hell not?
"What's the next question?"
I don't know, this isn't scripted.
"Alright, I've taken it."
So how was it?
"It was interesting, I don't take drugs very often, it was interesting to take it with someone you like. I took it with Trudie. I wouldn't take it with a stranger, it's a truth drug. If you're not prepared to tell the truth I wouldn't take it."
Did you examine the chemical constituents of it?
So you might have had some smack in there?
Taken smack before?
Why the reluctance to talk about drugs?
"I think there's a danger talking about drugs because it could look like you're sponsoring the idea. I don't think people should take drugs, I'm a part of a generation that did but it's not a discovery that needs to be made again. I don't think we need people to start taking drugs again."
The Acid House ritual with the ingestion of Ecstasy, the mantric states, the non-stop dancing, is similar to what you've probably seen in the rainforest?
"It's a shortcut and there's a price to pay. There are better, more lasting ways of reaching that state. I've take up yoga actually, that's my New Age concession. I always thought of it as laid back and middle-aged ladies in leotards but it's actually very hard physical workout and payout at the end that is quite amazing."
Sting strides out through Uptown New York towards The Plaza. The hangover is gone and the suspicions have cleared. He tells me he can't think of a new band or record that's interested him in months. He plays music far more than he listens to it, when he's relaxing he tunes into classical sounds. He talks about his relationship with Miles - "his political views are a lot more captivating, a lot more interesting than people realise." He talks about his neighbour Paul Simon "a tough little nut", Dave Crosby "you always meet someone like that at the Grammy's, someone whose work you've always known but never met, he was like a great big cuddly bear." And he talks about his Amnesty partner in arms, Bruce Springsteen. "He's very happy, I spend a lot of time with him now, he's a very happy father."
"I think music does heal people, it heals me, it really works. Essentially it is healing, I don't make music for people to go marching too. Most major rock stars these days are adults, I'm young compared to a lot of them and I'm 39. But most of them are grown up so they reflect that age group. Some of them basically do the same thing, they go out and play the hits. That's what I don't want to do. I want to get better as a musician."
Sting strides into the Plaza Hotel and the officious, haughty staff perk up. He's their sort of guy, celebrity grade A - wealthy, good looking, hip, talented. He's not impressed. "Believe me," he says, "sometimes I get really sick of being Sting."
He has it all but he still wants more. There are worse crimes.© New Musical Express magazine