THE ARIZONA REPUBLICMarch 01, 1988
The following article by Tom Moon appeared in a March 1988 issue of The Arizona Republic newspaper...
England's Chief of Police and self-confessed 'control freak' is finally loosening the reins.
The song is 'Sister Moon', from Sting's new album, '...Nothing Like the Sun'. Pianist Kenny Kirkland, calm in the midst of the rehearsal fray around him, is superimposing Gershwin's 'It Ain't Necessarily So' onto it, bent on creating a tense, woeful counter line. Branford Marsalis picks up the slow melody and blows it into prominence. Sister Moon has almost vanished. Sting answers this musical mutiny with the Billie Holiday standard 'Strange Fruit'. He clings to it faithfully, gingerly, afraid to break the three-songs-at-once synchronicity.
Rehearsal for the first tour Sting has mounted since 1986 is relaxed, and the music is better for it. Sting replaces an entire verse of 'Englishman in New York' with a Sinatra-phrased treatment of 'On the Street Where You Live'. He runs around, slapping triumphant high-fives with percussionist Minu Cinelu when the ending works. 'Fortress Around Your Heart' becomes 'The Girl From Ipanema'. This is what he has been searching for: A situation that allows him to sample the whole of pop music, from 'Twist and Shout' to 'Get Up, Stand Up'.
If the increasingly vocal sceptics in his audience could hear this side of Sting, the babble about his recent work might fade. Sting is crotchety, the cynics say. Sting is pompous. Sting also is learning to improvise. The man who has admitted to being a "control freak" is loosening the reins.
And when he - and the hungry, surprisingly unified band he's bringing to this tour - drops in quotes from the classics, an eye-opening chain of connections is set in motion: Average Guy likes hit song 'We'll Be Together', buys album. He also hears the arrangements of jazz master Gil Evans, an adaptation of a Shakespeare sonnet, thoughts on the mothers of the disappeared and a melody by Hans Eisler. Average Guy goes to the show, where Marsalis underscores Sister Moon with Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. This is the the kind of stardom Sting wants.
"I'm a schoolteacher, still," he says, grinning as he remembers a past career. "The trouble about music forms," Sting lectures, on the 45-minute ride from the Sun Dome in Tampa to the Don Cesar Hotel in St. Petersburg, "be it jazz, reggae, blues, whatever - is that it becomes ghetto music, in a way."
Draped in towels and speaking in nearly a whisper, facing the start of his U.S. tour in less than 24 hours, Sting tries to explain the eclecticism of his recent work.
"I don't mean racially. It's like, 'OK, these are the perimeters of R&B. That's it, we can't go outside of it.' So of course it dies - reggae is dead. What (Bob) Marley did, I think incredibly successfully, was go outside of that culture. It was, 'Our music's gonna change, but we're gonna change your music too.'"
With '...Nothing Like the Sun', Sting is refining his own blend of world music. Even as they panned it, many critics had to acknowledge that 36-year-old Gordon Sumner was tying together elements not ordinarily represented in popular music - particularly with They Dance Alone, a sombre scene-sketch about the mothers of the disappeared in Chile.
Sting recently returned from a tour of South America, where he performed that song (and others) in Spanish. "It was very important to me that as many people as possible understood what I was saying. The problem Chile suffers at the moment is the same problem Brazil and Argentina have suffered for a long time."
Sting said he met with mothers of the disappeared in Buenos Aires. They asked whether he could do anything to help them. He said, "What are you doing tonight?" During 'They Dance Alone', the mothers came onstage. "As soon as they appeared, everyone knew who they were. The stadium erupted. It was an incredible moment."
Sting is not evangelical, or even comfortable, about his role at one front of political-cause rock. He is careful with every word he says. His statements emerge developed, yet not at all contrived. He is sincere, and this makes the occasionally glib answers easy to spot.
"The people I influence have not really come into power yet. If you encourage a 14-year-old kid to read Jung, or Shakespeare, to me that's a contribution. Not a lot of kids are doing that. People like Pinochet don't listen to me. But maybe his children and his grandchildren will.
"I have no shame about stealing from Bach or Shakespeare and saying this is where it's from, go and find something else. A lot of people think that pop music should be just what started in 1953. That only has a limited value for me."
Since he left the Police to record 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' in 1985, Sting has included a blatantly commercial single - such as 'We'll Be Together' - on each record. He believes his music is "much less compromised" than public endeavours such as politics: His world has 5 percent of the nonsense found there, he says.
"The 'radio song' thing is a valid point. Those songs really serve a purpose. They are radio's handle on the record. If you present an album of nothing but 'They Dance Alone', there's only so much (radio programmers) can do. I want to get these songs across to as many people as possible. So I give the marketplace something they can program easily, and then follow with something else that I really want to do. It's a compromise, but not one that involves an ethical decision."
In the Police, Sting was not faced with such "ethical" decisions, at least not outwardly. Born in 1977 in England, the rock trio became famous for bridging the gap between punk and the corporate rock ruling America at the time. With each album, the trio's strident, less-is-more sound grew increasingly refined, and Sting's songwriting more economical. The Police sought radio from the start, supplying a stream of chant-filled three-minute masterpieces that stand as textbook examples of hybrid pop: 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', 'Driven to Tears', 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', 'Roxanne', 'King of Pain', 'Every Breath You Take'.
Through his solo career, Sting has taken pains to make sure his audience remembers the Police songs. "I see the songs not as a commodity used up when the album goes off the charts, which is often the case with songs. I see them as a body of work. Life should be breathed into them. I like taking old songs, saying, 'OK, here's the bare bones of it, let's make it live, let's transform it.' So I use my own, I use other people's songs. It's not stealing, it's a mark of respect."
For Sting the songwriter, a major influence was the work of Kurt Weill and Bertholdt Brecht. "They wrote political songs that were full of information, opinion and muse. (And) they were incredibly entertaining. I don't think there's anything wrong with entertaining people and giving them information. If I could do one-quarter of what they did..."
Perhaps the most argumentative, Brecht-Weill-style song on the new album is the often-misunderstood 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'. Sting expected the song would be taken literally, and it was.
"It's a statement designed to start a debate. Of course, there's an alternative. I don't really get behind that statement - but it can be argued that history really is nothing but bloodshed, cheating and lying. What goes on in places like Ireland is... history gets in the way of rational thought."
South Africa is another example. "South Africa was originally uninhabited. The white settlers were the first people there; the Zulus came down later. Both people have a right to it. Neither should be thrown out. So I say it's important to know the real history, which is the opposite of what the song says."
Sting believes that the most effective teachers are entertainers. He has called himself an entertainer before. And though the media went along with his social and political sloganeering on the 'Blue Turtles' LP, he's finding the new album a tougher sell. Writing in The Village Voice, critic Howard Hampton called '...Nothing Like the Sun' "perfumed gunk". Sting responded with a letter, and is still smarting from the episode: "He said he wanted to bash my head into a wall. You can't threaten someone with violence and get away with it. That's not criticism."
Sting doesn't see himself as a victim of the "set-'em-up, knock-'em-down" cycle of show business, but he does defend his tendency to take things seriously: "I'm so sick of this word 'pretentious.' ...I am not a preachy performer. Anybody wants to get into what the songs are about, they do it voluntarily."
The blond, longhaired singer has been pursuing different outlets for his energy. He appears in the movies 'Stormy Monday', to be released this spring, and 'Julia and Julia', with Kathleen Turner. He is considering film roles to start when the tour ends in December. He has set up his own label, Pangaea Records, with the mandate to present a variety of music. Included in the first release are a country act and a band from the French Caribbean. "I want all the acts to tour together, revue-style," he says. "That would really fry peoples' brains."
Sting dedicated '...Nothing Like the Sun' to his mother, who died while he was working on it. He has said that the album of medium-tempo songs was a way for him to explore the feminine side of his psyche. "I'm starting to come to terms with a lot of things that a young man suppresses. Gentleness, there's nothing sissified about that. I think a man at his highest is someone who can look after children."
© The Arizona Republic