PERSONALITYSeptember 01, 1994
The following article by Mike Greenaway appeared in an September 1994 issue of the South African magazine Personality...
A Sting in the tale: He's been badly stung by fame and fortune once in his career - now he's found the secret of success, from the band to the bedroom.
For 15 years his sophisticated pop music has been pleasing fans, while his finely chiselled features and piercing blue eyes have melted women at 40 paces. He claims to be a marathon sexual athlete and he spent R625,000 on his wife's wedding dress. When he's not strumming his guitar on stage - often shirtless, with a cheeky, boyish grin and a wiggle of the bum - he's in South America saving rainforests, acting in movies, doing yoga or reading Jung. So with the world hanging on every breath he takes, is Sting a pretentious egomaniac or a genius with a conscience? Perhaps he's both...
He's become a millionaire many times over, but growing up in Newcastle in the economically depressed northeast of England - where one of his films, 'Stormy Monday', was set - little Gordon Matthew Sumner's early prospects were hardly rosy! The son of a milkman and the eldest of four kids, Sting - as he was later nicknamed thanks to a favourite Maya-the-bee-style T-shirt - was a Dennis the Menace-type kid, showing far more enthusiasm for an old guitar than his homework. From the age of eight he made up songs, influenced by jazz musicians, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
"I don't know where my confidence came from, but at the age of 12 I remember deciding that I'd teach in Newcastle for a few years and then go to London to seek my fortune," recalls Sting. That move to the English capital has so far amassed him a fortune of about R220 million!
But Sting was no child prodigy - he was to reach the ripe old age of 28 before his band, The Police, made their breakthrough with the massive hit single 'Roxanne', in 1979. Until then, he was very much part of the dally drudgery of us lesser mortals. He did have a go at university but although undeniably intelligent, he was easily distracted and dropped out.
Sting drifted though a succession of mundane jobs, working on a construction site and as a bus conductor, but it was his experience as a tax collector that would be the most useful to him in the world of superstardom.
Even when he settled down as a schoolteacher it was as if he knew he was destined for greater things. Sting's move to London really had a dash of "nothing ventured, nothing gained" to it, because he had every reason not to go. At the age of 25 he was settled in a respectable teaching job, supporting a young family - he'd married up-and-coming actress Frances Tomelty in 1976 and they had a son the same year. Although he was an accomplished jazz musician, there were no indications that the music big time beckoned.
Sting arrived to find the London music scene in chaos, thanks to the birth of the punk movement. His own jazz-oriented music was rejected by all the major record companies, but for the fiercely competitive Sting there was no turning back. He even dropped his strong Newcastle accent because he thought it was impeding his chance of success.
"In England, social mobility is a direct result of the way you speak," he explains. "If you can be identified with a region, then you're clearly from a certain class. I decided I wanted out, and the way to get out was to learn to speak the BBC people spoke. I discovered I was a good mimic!"
Amid the punk anarchy raging through British Music in the late '70's Sting managed to find a lifeline in the form of drummer Stewart Copeland.
"Stewart threw a party and the Sex Pistols and the people who would become the Clash turned up,"' says Sting. "Stewart decided punk was the next big thing and that he was going to form a new band, so I became singer/guitarist in this ersatz punk band called The Police."
But for two years success evaded The Police. To Sting, failure was like a red flag to a bull. "One thing made me want to be successful more than anything else - there was this big bash held for all the new bands and The Stranglers, Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and the Boomtown Rats were all invited, but we weren't," Sting recalls. "We went anyway but when we arrived they wouldn't let us in because we weren't cool. That experience motivated me to succeed.
"We were four or five years older than those blokes and had a fair amount of experience and could actually play, which was total anathema to the punks. We were good musicians - and that wasn't politically correct at the time. I used to think, 'When these guys are driving taxis, I'll still be a musician'. And some of them are driving taxis and they sometimes pick me up and - trust me - I laugh."
The Police kept on relentlessly pounding the beat and when their break finally at-rived, they were swept away on the crest of a tidal wave of success - which, for Sting anyway has shown no sign of breaking. The Police became one of the most important and successful bands of the '80s, recording five outstanding albums which were rewarded with global adulation. Far from being intimidated by success, with each hit single Sting grew in confidence. It was as if he'd been born to be a star and clearly relished his dramatic change in social status and popularity.
"We had this agenda to conquer the world," says Sting, recalling The Police's non-stop, empire-building tours. "We were fiercely ambitious."
From being a bus conductor a few years before, Sting was now pinned up on a million teenyboppers' walls - and loving it. "It was good fun," he says of the sex- symbol image he was happy to cultivate. "Appearing in magazines, taking my shirt off in concerts. It was a laugh."
But the drug habit that came with fame and fortune wasn't so funny. "We went through the cocaine stage which was totally stupid. It exaggerated everything. Total paranoia. It's the most mindless, pathetic drug. Why anyone would want to take it I don't know. I guess you take it as some kind of reward - we've made it, now, we can take coke! It's God's way of telling you you've got too much money."
In fact, Sting has so much loot he can't keep track of it. "I have some 60 bank accounts in almost every country in the world. The paperwork is the equivalent to that of a multinational company. It's impossible for me to keep track of all my sources of income. Besides, I wouldn't want to," he says, despite a recent revelation that he's been swindled out of large chunks of his fortune. "I refuse to spend the rest of my life counting and recounting my hard-earned money. I just want to sing.
"I'd rather remain myself than give up singing and become an accountant. So I recruit whole armies of accountants and either trust them or hire another army to keep tabs on the first."
For Sting, those wild early days in the rock business were a learning experience that set him on course to lead a "responsible life. "I quickly saw that if I didn't change, I'd be left with just two friends - my lawyer and my dealer."
Fast as the ex-teacher learned about the realities of stardom, though, some of the damage already done was irreversible. Both Sting and guitarist Andy Summers's marriages broke up in the wake of The Police hysteria.
"I think success distorted a lot of things," reflects Sting, who'll celebrate his 43rd birthday in South Africa on 2 October. "It magnified problems. Created problems that didn't really exist. Success is a very destructive thing. Even though we were in our late 20's and emotionally capable of handling it, we still stuffed up - stuffed up our private lives, stuffed up among ourselves. Fame is very difficult to deal with. You have to learn a strategy to cope with it."
Sting's marriage wasn't the only casualty. With The Police at the zenith of their powers and having just won their seventh Grammy, Sting acrimoniously broke up the trio in 1985 while the music world lamented the tragedy.
"I made the decision while we were playing in this massive stadium to thousands of people. I just thought, This is as big as we can get. This is as big as anyone can get: I thought all we can do now is keep repeating this success and get diminishing returns."
Perhaps the punch-up he had with Stewart Copeland just before going on stage that night also had something to do with it - the relationship between the three Police members was tempestuous at the best of times.
"We were having punch-ups virtually every night," Sting remembers ruefully "I got a cracked rib after a particularly heated disagreement with Stewart. I had it for the rest of that American tour."
Creatively, Sting had outgrown The Police. "It was Stewart's band and in the beginning he wrote the material," says Sting. "I just tagged along until I saw it as a vehicle for my material¬Ö then took it over."
Sting quit The Police when they were massive. But his star has shown no sign of fading, thanks to his determination to prove he could stand alone. "I had this Paul-after-the-Beatles syndrome. I wanted to make a big statement, to prove myself as a solo artist - solo album, documentary, tour, live-album, one thing right after another."
Besides four towering solo albums and a couple more grammys, Sting has realised his aspirations. With his pin-up looks, boyish charm and self assurance that borders on arrogance, Sting's transition to the movies was inevitable. Often his choices verge on the art-house or the avant-garde - 'Quadrophenia', 'Dune', 'Julia and Julia', 'Plenty' and 'Brimstone and Treacle'.
But not everyone loves Sting. The British media are notoriously scandal-hungry and Sting's every movement is analysed. He was viciously lampooned after championing Amazonian Indians a few years ago and raising money to save the rainforests. In fact, anything charitable he's ever done elicits howls of "pretentious!" from some quarter.
"I'm not a terribly serious person," he protests. "People think I'm doing this to be more famous or because I'm feeling guilty about being rich and successful. I don't feel guilty about being rich I don't feel that guilty about what's wrong with the world. I didn't create the world. I'm doing it because I think it's the right thing.
"Like most musicians, I took drugs for a while. But I stopped putting money into my nose or my arms. Now I'd rather invest that money in initiatives such as Save the Rainforest¬Ö I want to live, and live responsibly. In rock music there are so many negative blueprints - Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Sid Vicious¬Ö I want to write the book of survivors, the diary of someone who developed himself and tried to return some of the fortune that was given to him.
"What irritates me about being famous is that everyone's always observing you. OK, if being intellectual is a crime, I plead guilty. And if cynical idiots want to smile at that, so be it. I'm sick of that 'How dare he write songs that mean anything' attitude. Yes, I do read books and, yes, I am politically and socially conscious. Having children of my own, I consider it my duty to do something about the ecology and world peace so that they can have a future.
"I'm wealthy, I pay a lot of taxes¬Ö and still a lot of my money goes into the purchase of weapons. So, indirectly, a portion of the money that young people pay for my records is spent on weapons. The thought of that makes me furious. I'm happy to see that movements like Greenpeace are popular with the kids: the cynics are losing the battle - ha!"
Sting's political correctness was even satirised in the TV cartoon series 'The Simpsons'. It's a mark of his good nature that he co-operated in the making of the episode, seen last year in South Africa, Sting played himself singing a benefit song for a boy who had fallen down a well!
Doing the right thing has eventually extended to Sting's personal life. In 1992 - despite his vow never to remarry - Sting wed actress Trudie Styler, his companion for the last three years (sic) and the mother of three of his children.
"We did it for the kids," he says. The idea of getting married was really quite alien. But the kids would come back from school and say: 'Are you two married? We'd feel better if you were married because then you'd stay together.' It was gradually wearing us down."
And a million women sighed as Sting became officially unavailable in a glittering fairy-tale wedding. Reports have it that the couple couldn't be happier, holding hands and stealing kisses in public like honeymooners. Perhaps Sting's claim that, through yoga, he can have sex for up to five hours at a time has something to do with such bliss!
Also Trudie can't be too unhappy about their R10-million mansion in the English countryside, or their town house in London, the New York apartment and the mansion in Los Angeles. Sting himself finds it almost too good to be true.
"Sometimes when I'm in my garden I turn round and look at this huge house surrounded by beautiful parkland and trees. I always think, how did that happen? There's always this worry - and it never goes away - of someone tapping me on the shoulder and saying, 'Come on, we know where you're from, now get the hell out of here!"
© Personality magazine