THE ADVERTISERMay 01, 1989
The following article by Neil Wilson appeared in a May 1989 issue of the Australian newspaper The Advertiser...
Message beyond music - Sting finds fulfilment as a supporting act.
Sting looks drawn and tired, showing the fatigue of a man carrying a lot on his shoulders and more on his mind. He is into the fourth month of a world tour in which the famous rasping voice which once fronted The Police will not hit a note, if you don't count the note of caution his message brings.
This tour is part of a wider journey for the pop idol of 1979, who has arrived in Australia in 1989 as a reflective father of four nudging middle age. He arrives as an environmentalist with a message he claims is too serious for music.
Sting is the support act for the tribal leader of the Amazon Kayapo nation, Raoni, who is on a mission to save his people and the remaining areas of rainforest which surround them in the Brazilian jungle. Those dark forests, which have been called "the lungs of the world", are being destroyed at a rate equivalent to a football field a minute, or an area last year about the size of West Germany.
So the burning off, for ranching and logging, which threatens the survival of the jungle Indians, threatens all of us in a wider sense. While here representing the Brazilian Rainforest Foundation, Sting, Raoni and French film-maker Jean Pierre Dutilleux have looked at some of our own problems, with a visit to the controversial logging operations in Eden, New South Wales. Raoni has become the inspiration to help Sting on a journey of questioning an economic system which can only grow by destroying the environment which nourishes it.
As he sits in a luxury suite at Sydney's Sebel Townhouse, Sting seems to be trying to carry the burden for all of us. Looking pallid and fatigued, he stares mostly downward and seems to operate on nervous energy. He fidgets, playing with his room key or running his fingers through his long, sandy, unkempt hair. After visiting Europe, North America, Japan and now Australia with countless interviews and public appearances, Sting admits he's tired.
"But I think really my function on this tour has been to attract more press than Raoni could on his own; the meat of the tour is what he talks about," he frankly admits.
"We've been successful so far because we've had access to housewives, to taxi drivers, people who didn't feel it or know about the problem, who now say to me we're behind you. I'm just the support act; my task is to speak to ordinary people through the medium of newspapers, the media."
Sting has been involved in the mixture of pop and politics since it was brought into focus through Live Aid in 1985 and more lately his Amnesty International Tour with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman. "I don't think I'm any different to anyone else. We've all got to spend some time figuring out what's going to happen to the planet when our kids grow up," he said.
Sting's "figuring" showed through in the contrast of his solo music to the original upbeat mainstream pop which made The Police famous. His last album 'Nothing Like the Sun' was permeated by feminist messages, while previous tracks such as 'We Work the Black Seam' and 'Russians' dealt with the plight of striking miners and the theme of common humanity.
"I've had the opportunity to meet people who've been imprisoned for their beliefs and not many people have had the chance to meet that kind of person," he said. "Direct contact with these Indians also; it all makes you committed whether or not you had wanted to be. It's interesting, it's inspiring. A lot of life is kind of banal. When you meet someone on the edge like Raoni, who is talking about life and death, that's not something abstract. When you meet a political prisoner they're talking about real down-to-the-knuckle issues, not how to pay the mortgage."
It was his journey into the Amazon jungles and initial meeting with Raoni during his 1987 Brazilian tour which took him further along that path of consciousness.
"I think Raoni's a contradiction to all our values and we have to challenge those values," Sting explained. "Before I went to the jungle the first time I had the same preconceptions as everyone else, that we're civilised, they're primitive, we're advanced, they're not... I think they're highly evolved people, highly evolved to their environment to the extent that they can live there and not destroy it. I think we're not civilised at all, we're stupid, we burn down the kitchen and then expect to eat the next day."
Or in this case, burn down the forest. The rainforest foundation wants to create a buffer zone around tribal rainforests about the size of Italy. The buffer would consist of forest utilising industries such as rubber tapping and native fruit industries, which would work in with existing nature to keep out cattle ranching, which involves burning. The different industries stand in stark contrast as ways of thinking - and economics.
"I think we in western countries have lost our connection to things... I don't know where my shoes came from, what or who was exploited in making them," he said, staring down at his feet. "Because you don't have access to that information you don't respect it, but the Indians can point to every tree in the jungle and know it's use, they know and respect the source."
Sting said his contact with the Indians had been enriching, particularly for his four children and girlfriend Trudie Styler, mother of his youngest son Jake. "Three warriors spent two weeks with us in our house in London. They'd never been out of the jungle before and they really are exceptional, extraordinary people," he said. "The kids loved it, my girlfriend loved it and you can't put a price on that, the way it broadens their minds. The same people who make decisions about development should be making equally serious decisions about conservation - that's true for governments and families. We all have to realise we collectively are a consumer pressure group with the right to vote out environmentally damaging products - people who make these goods will stop if you damage their bank balance. And the key to it is access to information."
The more conventional sources of information, such as the British tabloid newspapers and even music critics, have not coped well with the changing consciousness of the ex-Police singer. Back in 1987, there was some cynicism over homilies such as Russians, which some critics took as trite and self-indulgent. They take an even dimmer view of a pop star wandering around the world pushing a cause in which he has no particular expertise, particularly when it does not involve what they regard as being his raison d'etre - making music. It's easy to see their point when Sting describes the rainforest issue as being "too difficult" to write a song about.
"I think if you're a successful rock'n'roll singer and your experience of life is limited to sitting by the swimming pool eating ice-cream then your songs will be as interesting as that," he said. "If you meet people, attempt to explore your world, then you have a good chance of being inspired. But at the same time this issue is so complex, difficult, that I really have no temptation at all to try and write a song about it. I think songwriting is about compressing ideas and this is too difficult - I can't do it."
He insists his creative process cannot give output while coping with input (as he is now) and couldn't care less if he doesn't fit the role model or pigeon hole critics try to put him in. This single mindedness - some might say arrogance - is why he has always been so good at annoying people.
"I think that praise is a very bland commodity in the media and you're more likely to be criticised than anything else," Sting said. "I do tend to annoy people because I keep 'doing it' - living my life the best way I see fit, making records the best way I see fit, tackling issues. They don't stop me and perhaps that annoys them. For me, if I had of taken any notice of them, I would have given up - but I don't, I keep moving, I keep making more, different music. We all suffer from the same sort of criticism, but it doesn't effect me at all."
It is all part of the entertainment industry which turns people into property, but Sting says he has never been owned. And at 37 he is too mature to let it happen now.
"With the Police the record company never gave us any money... I'd rather go back to being a school teacher than being owned by a company."
This may partly explain why he sees the destruction of our own forests, and the attitudes of those whose lives are dependent on the timber companies, as being sad. Although he stressed he was merely a partially informed observer to the problems of Eden, he found it a depressing situation. "I've got no objection to the timber industry, in many ways they can properly sustain forests, but the problem with Eden is that Japanese companies working in Australia just want to clear the whole thing," he said. "There will be nothing for the children of these loggers to log. If you want your kid to be in the same profession, you'll need those trees."
During his time in Australia, Sting met Prime Minister Hawke and Environment Minister Richardson, but a meeting with Nick Greiner might have been just as appropriate.
"It strikes me as kind of weird that the police, who normally do a very good job at stopping vandalism of public utilities, are protecting these corporate vandals," he said. "They might be wearing business suits but they are vandals."
The foundation's next - and final - stop is Brazil, the front line of their fight. And the fight could become a shooting war going by the determination of the country's military to stop any foreign interference in deciding the Amazon's fate.
"We will not accept any tiptoeing into the Amazon," said the Army Minister, General Leonidas Pires, in a reference to the plans of Raoni and Sting. Sting is confident of the cautious backing of President Jose Sarney. "What one general says in the military and what the government says are two entirely different things," he asserts hopefully. "President Sarney has given us the green light; in principle he's in favour and he's the head of the country."
In a Latin American country that could be debatable, but Sting insists he is not interfering. "I have to try and help convince the Brazilian people that the forests must be saved," he said. "That's when we face the music."
© The Advertiser (Australia)