NEWSWEEKSeptember 01, 1985
The following article by Cathleen McGuigan appeared in the September 1985 issue of Newsweek magazine...
Sting wings it on his own - The sexy ex-chief of the Police mounts a solo flight to multimedia stardom...
"I don't want to become irrelevant. I don't want to be redundant, I fear that, and I think money and success can make you that way very easily, very simply, very quickly. And I want to sidestep all that."
If you were the 33-year-old front man for a rock group that had sold 40 million records and toured the world from Birmingham to Bombay, where would you go from there? If, in five years, you had ascended from performing for two patrons and a bartender in a Poughkeepsie saloon to singing your lungs out in front of 67,000 screaming fans at Shea Stadium, in the concert tour of the summer of 1983, how could you top the thrill? If you had written a pop hit as memorable as 'Every Breath You Take', a tour de force of a love song that's about as romantic as ransom note, what do you do for an encore?
If you are Sting, the lead singer and bass player of the Police, you would keep your public guessing. You would leave behind the two other band members - guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland - at the very peak of the group's success. You would plunge into your acting career, appearing in three movies in less than a year. You would keep on writing songs, but for yourself alone, and when you launched a solo tour, you would hire jazzmen, not rock musicians, to back you up.
You'd even change the way you look, crop your bleached-out hair, throw away your pierced earring and wind up resembling the male-model type you say you eschew.
In short, you'd reinvent yourself. Welcome to the chameleon world of Gordon Summer, a.k.a Sting-the mercurial arrogant, cool, analytic, arch, seductive and immensely talented composer/musician/actor who is bidding to break through into the realm of rockdom's super super stars. Dressed in spanking fresh whites and singing the heart-stabbing 'Roxanne', he was one of the undisputed standouts at last summer's Live Aid concert. He seems to be everywhere these days-in the new movie 'Plenty', playing one of Meryl Streep's lovers; in a soon-to-be-released documentary of his current band, titled 'Bring On the Night'; on TV and magazine covers.
And, of course, onstage. Once again the prince of postpunk is crisscrossing America, this time without his Police escort, on a five-month tour that is taking him from Los Angeles and New York to Dallas, New Orleans, Knoxville, Miami, Savannah, San Juan and to Europe and Australia as well. He's backed by four young, gifted and black American jazz musicians: Branford Marsalis, brother of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, on saxophone; Darryl Jones, bassist with Miles Davis; keyboard player Kenny Kirkland, and Omar Hakim, the drummer from Weather Report.
The record he cut with the new musicians - 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' - has scaled the charts to No.2 and gone platinum, with a million copies sold. Everywhere Sting has toured, he's been greeted by sellout crowds and mostly glowing reviews.
Generating Heat: The camera loves Sting - the high cheekbones, the blue-green eyes, the piercing gaze, the lithe athlete's body. A natural actor in front of the lens, he's given to uninhibited cavorting if the mood strikes him.
"I have a relationship with the camera or the person behind it," he says. "When I'm being photographed there's a kind of warmth, a sort of heat generated, that's almost sexual." He has been a riveting screen presence since he made his film debut in 1979, as the mod ringleader Ace in 'Quadrophenia'.
As the thoroughly evil Feyd, sporting a winged loincloth, he was a standout in last December's extravagant 'Dune'. Last week 'Plenty' opened, and critics have been singling Sting out for praise in the small but potent part of a lower-class rake in postwar London who falls in love with Streep. "He pops off the screen," says the film's director, Fred Schepisi. "We talked about the character's background and the similarities to his. He understood very much what made that person tick."
Where Sting especially comes alive is on stage, playing the smaller halls (4,500 to 25,000 seats) that he currently favors over the massive stadiums of the famous last Police tour.
"With a small audience you have to work much harder", he says. "People can see exactly what you're doing, and I need that pressure on me again". In concert Sting is anything but the aloof figure he can seem offstage.
Loose-jointed and friendly in his baggy Yohji Yamamoto pants and oversize jacket, he grins at Marsalis's sax licks and duels on his bass with Jones. Shaking, boogeying, leaping in the air with a yelp, he's in high gear all over the stage. His raw-silk voice ranges from measured pression on the haunting new 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' to intense crescendo on 'I Burn for You'. "I'm galvanized out there", says Sting, "It's the one occasion in my life when I can be that way and scream at the top of my lungs. I love it."
What explains his extraordinary presence, both onstage and off? In part, it's his carefully cultivated sense of mystery. "I reserve the right to change my persona", he says. In interviews he's eloquent but ultimately cagey. He likes to play a cat-and-mouse game - revealing the least when he seems to open up the most.
Like David Bowie, Sting has a mesmerizingly elusive persona. One moment, with blond bangs in his eyes and grinning, he is boyishly winning.
The next, brooding in a black turtleneck, he looks like he's auditioning for Hamlet. Always, however, there's the sexy, slightly sinister aura he projects - an austerity of emotion, a hint of danger. That allure has been at the heart of his film roles, from the demonic con artist in 'Brimstone and Treacle' to the villainous Feyd to the baroquely evil Frankenstein in the recent fiasco 'The Bride'. ("I usually play people you want to see dead," jokes Sting) Strip away everything else and there's the irony and archness.
"If someone doesn't like me, it doesn't gall me so much as intrigue me", he says with a smile, "How could this person not fall for all my tricks?"
One associate calls Sting "a control freak." Certainly his discipline and self-contained detachment are part of his mystique.
"He has the mentality of a superb athlete, wanting to win", says British actress Trudie Styler, who lives with Sting and is the mother of two of his four children. His life is about running and claiming victory. Sting actually does love running- because he can do it all by himself. "I'm not a team player", he admits, "I don't like team sports". It is not secret that Sting enjoys being in charge of his own band after being one voice of three in the notoriously quarrelsome democracy of the Police.
Whatever else he may be, Sting is not your average rock star. A former school-teacher, perpetual student and voracious reader, he is unusually articulate, given to discussing nuclear physics or 'Finnegans Wake', politics or the occult. Inevitably the potpourri of ideas he latches onto finds its way into his music. 'Ghost In The Machine', the fourth Police album, lifted its title from Arthur Koestler's book about man's conflicting humane and destructive impulses.
Reading Koestler led Sting to the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and that led to the Police's huge hit album 'Synchronicity' - named for Jung's theory that seemingly coincidental events have a deeper symbolic meaning, "I believe in synchronicity", says Sting, who has undergone Jungian analysis and is a faithful recorder of his dreams.
The line "every breath you take," he says, came to him in a dream. So did 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles'. Early in his relationship with his new group he dreamed that four gigantic turtles crashed through his garden wall and began tearing up his lawns and flower beds. "These massive, macho, virile prehistoric blue turtles were rolling around, doing back flips, wrecking everything", he explains. The unruly creatures ruining his tidy English garden, he decided, were the four jazz musicians he had just recruited. To radically reinterpret his music.
Fans of the Police's increasingly elaborate sound will recognize Sting's point of departure for much of his new album. But it's even broader in its range of influences, a patchwork of Caribbean cadences, waltz time, a healthy dollop of Kurt Weill and a short theme from Prokofiev thrown in for good measure.
Most significant, of course, is the use of jazz musicians - an attempt, explains the ambitious Sting, to widen the boundaries of rock and confound the music industry's rigid categories. "I wanted to work with jazz players because they have the facility and ability to cross barriers that, say, country musicians wouldn't have", he says. "Hopefully we'd get something that wasn't strictly rock and roll, that wasn't strictly jazz, but was something else."
It's debatable, musically,whether the album does break new ground. But, as with a small but growing segment of rock today, there's no mistaking its social consciousness. The stately 'Russians' asks, "How can I save my little boy / From Oppenheimer's deadly toy" and concludes sweetly, if a little naively, "What might save us me and you/ Is if the russians love their children too." 'We Work The Black Seam' is a stirring prominers, antinuclear hymn, 'Children's Crusade' is an idiosyncratic history lesson, which manages to link the exploitation of children in the medieval Crusades to the evils of the contemporary heroin trade. Even the buoyant, danceable tempo of 'Love Is The Seventh Wave' can't disguise the fact that here love equals a gale-force apocalypse right out of the catechism of Sting's Roman Catholic boyhood.
In the current No.16 hit single, 'Fortress Around Your Heart', the site where love once flourished is a battle zone: "I had to stop in my tracks for fear / Of walking on the mines I'd laid." Sting, it seems, is still sifting through the shards of his broken marriage, which prompted such 'Synchronicity', cuts as 'Every Breath' and 'King of Pain'.
You have to be supremely self-confident to make a documentary of yourself at the birth of a new band.
What if their first album isn't a hit? But that is just what Sting has done in 'Bring On the Night'. The documentary was shot in Paris last May by director Micheal Apted ('Coal Miner's Daughter') while the group was warming up for its current tour.
What Apted's camera caught was the disciplined Sting working hard, long hours, the calm eye at the center of a hurricane of roadies, technicians, reporters, hangers-on. Comic relief was provided by others. Marsalis came up with a wickedly funny parody of 'We Work The Black Seam'.
Sting's roadies plotted a practical joke during a show one night, lowering a miniature fortress down onto the stage as Sting reached the climax of 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. The boss was not amused. Apted grew so desperate to capture Sting's warmth on film that he instructed his cameraman to be sure to start shooting whenever he saw the star smile.
The film project seemed designed to see how far Sting could push himself without cracking. Not only was he coping with rehearsals, concerts, crew conflicts, press conferences and interviews- all under the scrutiny of Apted's camera - but Styler was about to give birth at any minute to their second child.
She went into labor the day of Sting's opening Paris concert. When the couple went into the delivery room together, the film crew followed. Later, Sting told the director, "I enjoy seeing how far I can go without dropping down".
Sting has been masterminding his destiny since he was eight or nine years old and realized that the BBc newcasters on the telly didn't sound anything like he did. "One of the first things I did was to adapt the way I spoke", says Sting, the oldest of four children of a milkman in Newcastle.
About the same time he deliberately began to shed his accent, he picked up a guitar. He immersed himself in schoolwork and sports. "Longing to be a musician, working hard at school, working hard as an athlete were all ways of escaping that parochial environment", says Sting. He became a north England running champion. Though a good student, he was a cutup. One year he received the most beatings - 42 - at his Catholic school.
Music came easily. His father was a tenor who entertained at family parties; his mother loved rock and roll and would send Sting out to pick up Del Shannon or Buddy Holly records for her at five shillings apiece. "My mum taught me to jive and do the twist", he says. By the tine he was old enough to go to dances, "the hit music was the Four Tops and the Supremes and Otis Redding", Sting remembers. "I still listen to 'Rescue Me' by Fontella Bass and get chills".
After one term of youthful excess at the University of Warwick - "I became drunk every night and screwed everything in sight. I'd been through the entire faculty, so I left" - Sting went to teachers' training college.
Wearing a black and yellow striped jersey while playing with a local jazz band earned him the nickname "Sting." It stuck.
After college he was teaching nine-year-old boys in a Catholic school when Stewart Copeland, the son of an American CIA agent and a drummer with a British band, caught him moonlighting in a Newcastle club. Copeland proposed forming a band. Sting never hesitated. He dumped his job and took his wife, actress Frances Tomelty, and their newborn son to London to join forces with Copeland.
Early on, each of the trio dyed his hair blond in order to play a punk band in a chewing-gum commercial. But they were never really a punk band. They did more, perhaps, than any other white new-wave band to popularize reggae. When Sting heard a window washer outside his hotel room window humming 'Roxanne', the Police hit released in 1978, he knew the band had arrived. Manager Miles Copeland, Stewart's brother, cleverly gambled while negotiting their first contract with A&M Records. Rather than take the standard advance, he arranged for little money up front and higher royalties later on.
Success has brought its measure of pain and confusion. Sting's marriage to Tomelty was collapsing around the time they had their second child, a daughter. He became involved with Styler, who had been a friend of both his and his wife's.
"My marriage is the one crisis in the last five years where I didn't want to admit defeat", says Sting, "I wanted to have a perfect marriage that would lie to myself about it. It was the only real crisis of my life. It was a question of taking responsibility for what you've done and coming to terms with that reality, not pretending that things are different than they are".
Today Sting is divorced. He and Styler live in a rambling 300-year-old house in north London near the children from his marriage, Joe, nine, and Kate, three. They have a 20-month-old daughter of their own named Micheal and the Paris-born, four-month-old son, Jake.
Sting says he doesn't plan to have anymore kids, but then he says "I've never planned any of my children; they just came". He calls Styler his best friend; she, outgoing and outspoken, says the two are soul mates; "I'm never happier than when he's around", she says. Living out the philosophy of Sting's hit single 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', they have no plans to marry.
Published reports estimating Sting's net worth at $18 million are probably not far off. "He gets 70 percent of publishing royalties and 25 percent of the record albums", Miles Copeland says. The money has brought with it certain trapings of success. Sting wears his Yamamoto and Armani clothes with unstudied casualness, is buying a loft in New York City and owns three racehorses.
But Sting and Styler are relatively unostentatious. Sting does like to travel - "I never unpack" - but instead of bodyguards there are nannies. "In many ways, we live a working-class life", insists Styler, who grew up in a working-class Midlands family, "We aren't lavish, about treats. And things like electric lights left on will still bug Sting".
Certainly his past has given him a perspective on his fame. "You're rewarded totally out of proportion to what you do", he says of rock stardom, "You become rich and fat and a disgusting spectacle of money. It's so soul destroying".
Sting finds danger seductive - he loves skiing, scuba diving, riding his motorcycle. "I think I have an adrenaline addiction", he says, "I love being afraid before I go onstage. I secretly enjoy rough plane rides".
He also seriously probes the occult. One of his closest friends is an Indian-born clairvoyant. "I've had experiences in the last three years" - he won't say what -"which I wouldn't have given any credence to before. My interest in the occult coincided with my interest in psychology and in a kind of laymen's view of nuclear physics". He says he can predict events from reading playing cards - "I know it sounds woolly", he admits. His London house, he has claimed, is haunted; he once walked into his baby daughter's room and all her toy mobiles were inexplicably whirring like mad.
One day last winter, according to a friend, Sting was slicing across the turquoise waters of the Caribbean on a wind surfer when he began to have problems with the board and found himself adrift. Marooned temporarily in the middle of the sea, wondering what to do next, it suddenly occurred to him - a touch of synchronicity - that he had no idea what direction his life was going in.
Six months later he has the look of a man who knows exactly what direction he's taking. He arrives for the last session of an interview with Jake asleep in a pouch strapped to his T-shirted chest. He seems relaxed and approachable. He begins talking about his difficult personality. "I can be a cold fish", he admits, "I do put up a wall, but I don't mean to be unfriendly.Yes, I'm probably arrogant. It can't just be a vicious rumour". As he cuddles his baby and feeds him a bottle, it becomes harder to pursue that particular line of questioning. Sting laughs at the suggestion that he is using Jake to sabotage the interview. For the moment, at least, the 'King of Pain' is dead.
That, in the end, may be the legacy of the 'Blue Turtles' project. The man who says, "I've actively explored the dark side of my personality", may have decided to lighten up, let down his guard, crack his own brand of chilly British reserve. He remarks about the members of his new band: "I love their spontaneity and their gaiety. There's just a quality of job about them." For the first time in his film career as well, he gets to show a more vulnerable side; his character in 'Plenty' is dumped by Streep. And so what of the future? One thing Sting refuses to predict is what will happen to the Police; rumours abound that the group is finished. "There are no plans to do anything", says Sting, "but we haven't broken up or fallen out." Summers has recorded two albums with Robert Fripp; Copeland, who made a documentary in Africa called 'the Rhythmatist', has written the score for the new television series 'The Equalizer'.
As for the long run, Sting thinks a moment, rubs Jake's little back and kisses his head. "There are certain ambiguities in being a pop star and being over 35", he says, "I don't really want to deal with that. I'd still like to be a singer but demand the right to grow old gracefully."
© Newsweek magazine