GQ MAGAZINEJune 01, 1985
The following interview with Fred Schruers appeared in the June 1985 issue of GQ magazine...
Eight years ago he was on the dole. Now the lead singer of the Police is making solo albums and getting $1 million a film to co-star with the likes of Meryl Streep. Suddenly, every little thing he does is magic...
Hampstead, North London. Chez Sting. Across the lane is where Charles de Gaulle lived during the Nazi occupation of France. Two centuries ago this and the neighbouring house were joined as a pub called the Three Pigeons, and three decades ago Tamara Karsavina, the Diaghilev prima ballerina, trod these creaky floorboards. The current householder, planning a move across Hampstead Heath to the equally artsy and venerable Highgate, now peers across the room at his daughter with a wry grin and the barest edge of pique. "Give me a kiss," he says in the age-old paternal lilt. "Hey, give me a kiss - no?"
Kate, 3, moves shyly to father Sting, 33, and leans into him. "Very hard to get," he says. A dry laugh. "A kiss is very special. See ya later, darling." He watches her out the door, and when he swivels his head back, a sombre mask seems, not against his will, to take possession of his face. "Right - what were we talking about?"
He has the look this winter's day of a man sorting through memories. In March 1977, fledgling songwriter Sting was living in a shabby London flat with his then wife, Frances Tomelty, and their infant son, Joseph. "My tired mind is in turmoil," reads a diary entry from that time. "Please God help me and what is going to happen to us? I went to the dole - feel all the usual nausea - the sickening queue." Then in June: "Money, or the lack of it, has raised its ugly head again - Joe is so innocent and vulnerable - God please help us."
Eight years and three platinum Police albums later he looks dour still as he sits in baggy black pants and shirt, saved from dishevelment by a trademark set of suspenders. Two wings of lank, dirty-blond hair, a left-over touch from his recent film portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein, won't stay put behind his ears, and his mouth is taut. His deadline to finish writing songs for his solo album is closing in, but meanwhile it's a long day in a half-year stretch of Superstar Purgatory. His Dr.Frankenstein role - opposite Jennifer Beals in an intellectualised costume drama called 'The Bride' - will reach screens in August, while the film adaptation of Broadway's 'Plenty', in which he portrays the bohemian Mick, Meryl Streep's sometime lover, is slated for a fall release. Although he was slightly embarrassed that his seven minutes onscreen in 'Dune' were flogged by the studio as the bloated epic's key selling point, he's comfortable enough with the fact that his price per film has now risen to $1 million.
Sting's screen presence is no gimmick, but it has signature touches - like the eyebrows waggling in a manner somewhere between James Mason and Groucho Marx - that hark back to his days as the comeliest beast in the schoolyard. Professional eccentric Quentin Crisp, who has a cameo in 'The Bride' as Dr.Frankenstein's disconcertingly fey lab assistant, loses his queen-bee reserve in evoking him: "Well, the man who made 'Dune' (David Lynch) said of Mr. Sting, 'He makes you see him.' And this is what he does. On one occasion I saw the dailies, as they call them. Everybody else was just a blur. But he was there, whether he was turning handles or consulting gauges or pressing levers. I think it is an inclination. The people who want to do that do it."
But if he is now a contentedly ascending character actor, Sting the musician has lost patience with the medium that made him: "Pop music is very good at reflecting the mood of the time. What I'm trying to do now is change the mood of the time. That's why this album of mine has taken so long."
The solo album, due out in June, is in part a yawp of anger at having to bring his children up in what he feels is an outrageously perilous world. The album's working title, 'Dream of the Blue Turtles', came from a dream about said creatures trampling through his house and yard - a symbol of the disruption he needs for creating. He's decided to record the bulk of it in Barbados using a group of young black American jazz musicians, led by sax prodigy Branford Marsalis. Also on board are Kenny Kirkland, a much-sought session keyboardist who's worked a lot with Branford and his trumpeter brother, Wynton; Darryl Jones, bassist in Miles Davis's band; and Omar Hakim, drummer with Weather Report who also played on David Bowie's most recent album. "As the only white guy in the band," Sting says, "I have to be wary of looking patrician, but it's not that at all. What I'm trying to do is create a band that plays with the sensitivity of a jazz group but can be accessible, entertaining, have mass appeal.
"A third of this album will be orchestral - I've got a song called 'Russians' about détente, where I've stolen a bit of Prokofiev, and I'm trying to organise the Moscow State Orchestra - and a good part of it is still open for the band to explore." (Further exploration will come in a movie of the band by Michael Apted, who directed 'Coal Miner's Daughter'.)
Like a Police record, the Sting solo effort bristles with literary arcana: Perhaps the most densely structured song is 'The Children's Crusade', a waltz-time ballad made eerie by a complementary reggae beat. It moves from the thirteenth-century crusade of the title - a grisly deception in which a horde of children were led from Europe to North Africa and sold as slaves - to a middle passage capsulising the World War I Battle of the Somme, where 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded before lunchtime, to present-day London, with a youth shooting heroin. "It's linked by the symbol of the poppy," he says. "It took me a long time to construct it. As a symbol for futility and cynicism and misplaced idealism there is no finer one than that crusade. It's three very separate events linked by this completely fresh rhythm."
Sting's LP, and a planned tour that may encompass Europe and Asia as well as the usual American and British cities, is keeping the band that's sold 40 million records on indefinite hold. "We decided to take a sabbatical," he says. "The Police had worked almost solidly for seven years - album, tour, album, tour, album, tour - and that had to stop. We had to take stock of where we were. I decided when we played Shea Stadium last year that we'd achieved all we set out to do as a band. I wanted to do something different. When you play to 100,000 people, you have to be rather - pedantic."
Bandmate Stewart Copeland can occupy himself scoring soundtracks - his 'Rumblefish' effort was well received - and Andy Summers has done two LPs of guitar duets with Robert Fripp. But they'll surely start to fret if Sting goes beyond the stated target date for a return to Police work. "We're looking at the summer of '86," says the band's manager, Miles Copeland, "but that's very much dependent on how (Sting's) record does. There's no point in terminating his relationship with the Police, because the band is obviously something he's worked on very hard to make what it is. There's great respect among these three as musicians."
Still, Sting nowadays seems to subtly deprecate the band by poor-mouthing his own work inside it. Even 'Every Breath You Take', which topped the American charts for eight weeks and added to the flock of Grammies nesting on his bathroom window ledge, gets dismissed as a hand exercise: "A major chord followed by the relative minor, which is one of the oldest tricks in rock and roll, but apparently had been forgotten. I didn't compose that song, I merely rediscovered themes as they passed through me. But there is a sense of melancholy, of something sinister, and I think those layers are one reason the song had such a long life."
Surely, one reckons, those layers had something to do with his recent self-described "awful personal anguish." After all, the entire 'Synchronicity' album is filled with images of despair and desolation, from 'Every Breath' to 'King of Pain' ("There's a skeleton choking on a crust of bread") to 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' ("I will turn your face to alabaster / Then you will find your servant is your master").
The focal point of that wrenching time was Sting's break-up, in 1982, with Frances. He had met her around Christmas time 1975 while he was part of the band in the pit in a production of The Rock Nativity. Frances was on-stage as the Virgin Mary. He was 24, she was 28. A striking "black" Irishwoman (her father, back in the gritty Andersontown district in Belfast, is the celebrated actor Joseph Tomelty), destined for ascension to the Royal Shakespeare Company, she stayed on in Newcastle and they were married in May 1976. Six months later the son they named after her father arrived.
When asked about the influence of the divorce on his work, Sting pauses and darkens a bit. The fragile countertenor voice that pleads and threatens raspingly through Every Breath is hushed and cottony now, partly from the years of disciplining his Newcastle inflections into the puddling phrases of a university man. "The theory that the Synchronicity album is entirely a function of Sting getting divorced is a gross oversimplification, and naive," he says. "Pain wasn't a new idea to me last year. But to have a creative outlet for feelings that would normally be ground up and internalised and reformed - you feel cauterised. Some of the things on that record are quite sinister and angry and twisted."
The break-up was signalled to the Fleet Street gossips with a startlingly out-of-character event in August 1982. Returning from the South of France with girlfriend Trudie Styler on a plane chartered by Saudi financier/arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, he became the target of a gaggle of paparazzi who scuffled with his protectors. For an avowed family man who scorned the jet set and the gun, it was a curiously blatant pratfall.
The official story, when the news started breaking, was that Trudie and Sting met when she was playing first witch to Frances's Lady Macbeth in a calamitous production starring Peter O'Toole. In fact, they had been next-door neighbours in west London two years before. Toothsome, one Fleet Street rag called Trudie. It's not a matter of movie-star beauty, though, but the simple vitality of a woman who hasn't shed her working-class background. "Bitch, cow, mistress, all those words have been used to conjure me up," she has said. "God, I really don't care what other people think or say. They've been throwing stones at me for two and a half years already."
Their daughter, Brigitte Michael, is now a little over a year old, and Trudie was expecting again in the spring. Although life is more tranquil now, the past few years have left their mark. "I think one of the problems 'stars' have," says Sting, "is that their lifestyle has nothing to do with the people who buy their records, and therefore their ability to say coherent things to those people is lessened - unless you have a personal trauma. I'm not saying I...manufacture my personal life. But it makes you think."
The Wallsend section of Newcastle, where Sting grew up, lent its name to the gravel-sized bits of coal burned in homes. But shipbuilding was the district's chief industry, and on Gerald Street, where Ernest and Audrey Sumner lived, the prows of new tankers being built in dry docks along the Tyne River loomed over the road. Sting was born Gordon Matthew Sumner on October 2, 1951. As brother Philip and sisters Angela and Anita were added to the family, his father (a re-tooled Teddy Boy determined to rise in the world) switched from engineering to a milk delivery route. "He's a very hardworking man," says Sting. "He ended up as the manager and bought his own business."
Sting attended parochial schools, climbing with his father up from proledom. He was 13 when the family moved to Tynemouth. He liked living by the North Sea, but, his mother has said, "Gordon never did like the new house. He used to call it a little box."
He left the University of Warwick after one term ("totally lost") and returned home to work odd jobs - ditchdigger, bus conductor, and a grim office stint with the British equivalent of the IRS. ("Every single meeting with his so-called superior," he would later bellow in 'Synchronicity II', "is a humiliating kick in the crotch. ") He spurned exams that might hoist him further into civil service, took four-hour lunch breaks, and was close to being sacked when he enrolled in a teachers' training program in Newcastle.
During the three-year course he hung out with mainstream jazz players in clubs, graduating from the Phoenix Jazzmen (the trombone player named him Sting after the wasp-like stripes on his sweater) to the Riverside Men, to the Newcastle Big Band in 1970. From their ranks he formed a quartet, Last Exit, that eventually tried to push itself on the London club scene. He used the cash from steady gigging to buy a new car and drinks for his dates, who were plucked from his college where women out-numbered men seven to one. "You could say I was well looked after," he notes.
His first teaching job was among nuns, his charges the 9 and 10-year-olds at a small parochial school in the nearby mining village of Cramlington. Nights were devoted to Last Exit, and to listening sessions - his taste had gone from the Beatles and Stones, through Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, into female jazz singers like Cleo Laine and Flora Purim, whose styles fit his high voice.
By late '76, Sting was unbearably restless in the provinces. But he had been noticed: A talent scout from Virgin Music publishers had signed him to a songwriting deal, and Stewart Copeland, the ambitious young American then drumming for Curved Air, had been impressed by his stage presence and suggested Sting join up with a band he was forming. Sting crammed his family into a Morris Minor for the day-long drive to London. "The Police could pay me five quid a night three nights a week," he recalls, "which at the time was good. I had a baby, a dog and a wife to feed."
The family bivouacked on the floors of friends in Battersea. Sting signed on the dole and began working on the first edition of the Police with Copeland and Corsican guitarist Henri Padovani. They played the punk circuit, much to the disgust of the musically adept bassist. "We're going to play some punk now," Sting told the crowd at a club called the Nashville one night, "which means the lyrics are banal and the music is terrible."
Such impolitic outbursts - "God knows what he thought he was up to," says Stewart - were the icing on the Police's thorough lack of punk credibility. But the savvy and connections of Stewart's brother Miles, who booked and eventually managed the band, kept them alive through such gigs as backing up girl singer Cherry Vanilla, who was an early David Bowie offshoot. Cherry was constantly slow to pay them, and Sting was ready to go off in Billy Ocean's band at ninety pounds a week. Stewart talked him out of it. "We had a name," Sting recalls, "and that name was being daubed on a few walls and we managed to get a record out."
That single, 'Fall Out', was released on Miles's Illegal label in May of 1977; a month later guitarist Andy Summers joined (eventually bumping Padovani out), and six months later, during an overnight stay for a gig in Paris, Sting wrote Roxanne, a half-yodelled lament for a prostitute, which got them signed to A&M Records in both England and America They used the proceeds from the two singles - and from an infamous Wrigley's chewing gum commercial for which they bleached their hair - to help finance sessions for their debut album, 'Outlandos d'Amour'. In late 1978, they made a low-budget tour of a few American cities in a crammed van. Their clearly stated goal was to conquer America, Beatles-style. A year later, following their second smash hit, 'Message in a Bottle', they were shopping for estates in Ireland. Suddenly rich, they were about to become tax exiles.
Meanwhile, Sting the actor had graduated from commercials for bras and jeans into a film cameo, left on the cutting-room floor, in which he raped Sex Pistol Paul Cook ("My heart was not in it") in a backseat. A brief meeting with director Franc Roddam won him the role of Ace Face in 'Quadrophenia'. By the time the movie opened in Britain, the Police's 'Roxanne' had enjoyed a healthy run on both British and American charts.
As we've been talking, Trudie, whose father was a factory hand and mother a "dinner lady" in a provincial school, has been making a full-scale English breakfast under the interested gaze of Willie, their springer spaniel. Nanny Rosemary is nearby, keeping an eye on the baby whom they call Micky. (After skipping out for a meal during the wait in the hospital, Sting sped back to mother and daughter and, helmet under his arm, announced to reporters that he thought Michael was a good name for the girl.)
As Trudie puts the plates on the table, Sting rises and brings the tape recorder to his mouth. "We're going to have some English junk food now," he says, then sits to consume mounds of eggs, bacon, beans and bread farmhand-style, forearms butted against the table edge, hands and head in rhythm, all the while discussing his cinematic coming of age.
As Dr. Frankenstein, Sting falls tenderly in love with 'The Bride's' title character, played by Jennifer Beals, whom he's manufactured. "Eventually he starts to crumble away with jealousy and lust. I become increasingly loony. It's a great script - I'll be more than pleased if it comes off." To establish the 'Pygmalion' - style education the doctor gives his creation, Sting gave Beals piano lessons. She liked working with him, but not for the predictable reasons: "I know half the world would die for him," she says, "but he was so funny, and so constantly talking about his children, that I thought of Sting mostly as a father."
'Plenty', Sting says, "is the best work I've done. It's the first chance I've had onscreen to show a weak or sympathetic side." Director Fred Schepisi had no doubts that Sting could hold his own in scenes with Streep: "I think Sting was a bit nervous to be working with her, because you've got to have all your skills together to stand up onscreen with her and not get knocked off. But he's got the personality and charisma and the skills, and I think he quickly realised that." Sting ultimately found the actress "accommodating, kind and useful." Having learned the trade in the grand old English school of wisecracking between scenes, he was gratified that Streep could step out of her steely character off camera. "She was completely at ease. The day she (fictively) tried to shoot me she was friendlier than ever."
Always crafty in his career moves, Sting had seized upon 1982's 'Brimstone & Treacle' as his first major role because his character, a demonic hustler, was himself acting - anything Sting overdid would be the character's, not his, bad acting. He'll be choosing parts ever more carefully from here on out. "Movie stars have a hard time being believed," he says. "It's almost as difficult as rock stars being believed. So I have to dance very carefully between those two fields if I want to do them both well, and I really have to keep people guessing."
Couldn't that all sound just a little too calculating, even for a man virtually typecast as Machiavelli in a recent BBC production?
"There's a certain amount of strategy in everything you do," he says. "I could defend it by saying it's instinctive in me. I've been fairly correct in my decision making so far. Even though these sums I was offered for films were staggering, my little voice inside would say, 'No, that's not the goal, turn it down and wait for something else.' I think that'll keep me fairly safe for a while."
In any event, he adds, 1985 is a year for making music. And not just chart fodder, but music linked to his agenda of "chipping away" at the global problems of race, hunger and war. "It's too late for wasting time. I feel a responsibility to try to guarantee some sort of future for my children. I never planned on having them, but they came. It was fate, and I decided to deal with it. Now that they're here, amid this proliferation of weapons and nuclear power stations they can't shut off, I feel the anger, the futility, of bearing children who won't live in a safe world."
When the Band Aid session to aid starving Africans was being organised, Sting was a key participant; his 'Driven to Tears' on a 1980 Police record prefigured rock's current social consciousness. He says he liked the egolessness of the session, the Sunday-morning-scruffy look of so many stars ("I looked like Ronald Mcdonald"). But typically, he was in the studio the night before, grooming the basic tracks. "I did the harmonies," he says, grinning coyly, "and everyone else had to sing my phrasing."
He's often said that second place, in anything, doesn't interest him. He quit the school track team because he was only the third-fastest sprinter in a national championship meet. He's said that he grew up in "a family of losers... something I don't want to be like." There's a static charge always rustling through him, but the reported moments of true unbending (as when he sits and pounds out a cornpone country version of 'Every Breath You Take', or punches up Sinatra's 'New York, New York' on their home jukebox for Michael to dance to) are for private consumption only.
Sting pays out warmth in measured doses. Pippa Markham, his English film agent, finds something close to untouchable in him: "He gives you what he wants to give." Stewart Copeland has said: "Everything about him you can see is part of his art form, and he really gets uptight if you try to get behind it." The up side to his remoteness is that fame and money haven't eroded the basically decent milkman's son. "We've never had harsh words or raised voices in eight years," says Miles Copeland. "He's the same person as when I met him."
Yes, there's always the suggestion of cruelty in Sting, but it's covert, interior. You tend to be glad for that. An English journalist glimpsed it in Atlanta when he was trapped with Sting in a limo surrounded by teenage girls pressed against the window mouthing unheard offers. "Yeah," said Sting, "I want to f*** you, too."
Listen to him describe his courtly commune: "This house is actually very large. l live in about two rooms, and the rest is full of actors, nannies, secretaries, people all over. I quite like that - I don't want to be locked away and solitary." Then ask for a tour, and he says evenly, "Oh, I think you've probably seen enough." Finally the pizzicato tag line: "I don't want you to see the leopardskin wallpaper, you know."
Or, as he sits with Michael on his lap, talking about his analysis with a Jung disciple named Baroness von der Heydt, listen to him take the paring knife to an obtuse question: "Well, I don't really have any specific problem in my life. It's not as if I'm trying to cope with, ah, recurrent nightmares...or bed-wetting or alcoholism. I'm going through it only because I'm interested in it as a process. I would like to be able to analyse myself, my dreams. There's even the possibility to become a Jungian analyst. I do have ambitions beyond being a celebrity."
The superstar is separated from his public by a patch of front yard - part of it open driveway - and a rickety fence. Do they get gapers out there'' "People do, but I'm not intimidated by it. I fiercely defend my right to go to the pub, go shopping, take the dogs for a walk. People come up for autographs, but that's okay. It takes more energy to say no than to say yes."
He begins most mornings with a run, about forty-five minutes on the heath with the dogs, followed by a steam bath, a work session, lunch, another work session, and a 3:30 trip to Joe's school. Father and son spend an hour or so together; then, in the evening, come his most productive sessions. These take place in a "cupboard" with his computerised Synclavier, capable of rendering all the sounds in an orchestra, and spitting out the results as sheet music.
Frances lives half a mile away. "It just kind of turned out that way - which means I can see the kids every day. We try to normalise their lives as much as possible. I know it's savage to say this, but what makes me tick is that I had an unhappy childhood, a miserable childhood. I don't think my children are going to have particularly idyllic childhood's. To be happy is to be a cow, bovine, and I think turmoil is to a certain extent useful. Certainly in making creative people creative. I think genetically it's likely that my children will be creative, because of me and their mothers, and they're not going to grow up as spoiled rich kids. They're going to have... grit."
The latest reports on Sting's brother, Philip, have him running a milk route; Angela is working in the Newcastle airport's management and trying to start a fashion business, and Anita is at college. Has he unloaded any riches on them? "Not really. I live very frugally. I have a nice house (his new Highgate home, once Yehudi Menuhin's, is said to have cost ¬£500,000), a couple of cars (a Range Rover and a gently ageing MGB-GT coupe sit out front), but I don't have expensive habits. I don't go out every night and buy great bucketloads of champagne and cocaine and wear jewellery and fur coats."
Though Sting and Summers left England for Ireland for almost a year when the Police suddenly got rich, he now cheats the taxman by putting his English earnings in various charities. And even his play money makes money: The remote-control Hot Head movie camera he invested in is a lucrative item (he was nettled when the Ministry of Defence ordered sixteen), and his four racehorses - Sweetcal, Steerpike, Sandalay and Synchronicity - turn a genteel profit.
He's not quite Mr. Clean, though. "I have taken drugs, recently...but casually and socially. I don't advocate their use, and I would never now take drugs in order to get through a bad time. The reason I try to lead a normal life is - that's my intake. Your powers are cyclic, you can't just produce and produce and produce. If you're giving all the time and protecting yourself from real life, it leads to stagnation and, ultimately, Elvis Presleyism. He had no intake from the outside world, got completely self-involved and depressed in this cycle of destruction."
Some observers have compared Sting to Elvis. Where did the Presley magic come from? "Part of it is inexplicable. He had a way, which nobody could pin down. I can't decide why I'm successful. I mean, I have a good voice, but why am I so successful? No one knows. That's why it's powerful."
The talk of success, mystique, power, seems to have gradually galvanised Sting. "I have to work." A half-grin. "My muse is calling." The rituals of departure include a look at his motorcycle hulking in the driveway. "That's my machine for when I get pissed off late at night." This last is muttered - the shades are being pulled down. The row of miniature Gramophones on the bathroom ledge, visible from the hall, look like squawking eaglets. Why there? "Actually there's a dual purpose," says Sting. "One, everybody sees them. Two..." - he puts his hands in his pockets like a man who knows a good exit line, and gives in to that eyebrow waggle - "they go, 'How modest.'"
© GQ magazine