01.25.04 THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT
The following interview by Barry Egan appeared in Ireland's Sunday Independent magazine...
A Life Less Ordinary...
Sting can remember being by his father's side when he died. In a moment of rare intimacy between the two men, he took his father's hands in his own for the first time since early childhood.
"I looked from his eyes to the cross on the wall and then down at his two hands cradled in mine. It was then that I received something like the jolt of an electric shock, because his hands and mine were identical. 'We have the same hands, Dad. Look.'"
Sting recalls suddenly becoming a child again, "desperately trying to get his attention." His father, who ran a dairy, then looked "down at the four separate slabs of flesh and bone, and said: 'Yes, son, but you used yours better than I used mine.'"
At 52, Sting isn't much younger than his parents were when they died: his mother was 54, his father 60. They passed away within months of each other in 1987. Their world-famous eldest son attended neither funeral, in Tyne and Weir.
This was in part, he explains, because he had allowed his "emotional evolution to be stunted by the shallow and tepid waters of popular culture." And he didn't want to turn the funerals into a tabloid circus.
He says he went the "long way about mourning, as opposed to the direct route of pouring clay on the grave." He seems to have found a peace of sorts within himself these days, to have reconciled himself with the past. He is less troubled than he was years ago, when he appeared to be in a constant maelstrom of existential doubt.
"I think my life has progressed from being a very unhappy child - I felt like I was in the wrong place - to where I am now. I am happier now than I've ever been," he says in his suite in the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin.
"I'm not smug, but I'm happy. I was driven to succeed and to get attention years ago, and to be the best, and win, and blah blah blah... you know, not unlike most males of a certain age. But I have got to a certain age, now, and I have nothing to prove, really."
I ask him did his long term partner Trudie Styler - whom he married at a registry-office ceremony in London in 1995 - tell him simply to grow up. "She has been painfully honest with me for 23 years, yes, which is why we are still together," he answers. "She'll tell me if I've been a w**ker..."
When was the last time you were one of those?
"I can't tell you that," he says with a chuckle. "I do obviously have vestiges of it - of w**kerdom - but generally, people will say: 'He's not a bad bloke.' I am liking myself more and more. In those early years, when I was trying to make it, I'm sure I didn't like myself then."
What makes him happy, he says, is the "almost religious solace" of looking at the sky or having breakfast with Trudie and the kids (Brigitte, Jake, Coco and Giacomo; he also has two grown-up children, Kate and Joe, by his first wife Frances).
For the record, Sting and the family have seven homes across the world in which to have breakfast: a sprawling farm in Wiltshire, 240 hectares in Tuscany, a $ 6 million Malibu beach house, a New York apartment, a house in the Lake District and two boltholes in London (an apartment on the Mall and an 18th-century house in Highgate). He's clearly not stuck for somewhere to hone his legendary tantric sex skills then.
"I mentioned to Bob Geldof once that I could make love for eight hours," laughs Sting. "What I didn't say was that this included four hours of begging and then dinner and a movie.
"Sex is only the surface," he authoritatively pronounces. "Tantra is about reconnecting with the world of the spirit through everyday things. Geldof is partially responsible for this tantric sex thing about me. It is 13 years now that this story has been flying around the world. People are obsessed with it. I try to be light hearted about it; at the same time there is some serious information to be had, about levels of intimacy... It's just about spending some real serious time with your missus."
There is something I simply, positively, absolutely have to know. Can you keep it up for eight hours, Sting?
"That would be boring. No, it's much more interesting than that. The tantric aim is to ritualise sex more, and not to be so perfunctory. That's really the serious part of it. But it works." It's about "a journey", he says, not "fucking for eight hours".
But doesn't it take the emphasis off what you do for a living - which is music?
"I think that's maybe good too."
But you're not a professional tantric sex counsellor.
"No, I'm not, but I know enough about it to tell you there's something in it. But does it detract from my work? No. I think if people really want to look at my work, then they can. It's a wide canvas."
The woman with whom he practises tantric sex - Trudie Styler - is, he says, his soulmate. Trudie saw Sting for the first time in the summer of 1977, when he was walking down the street in London with green hair. "I fancy that guy with green hair," she thought to herself.
He was already married, however - to the actress Frances Tomelty. Struggling with his new band The Police, Sting and his wife were living with their baby Joe in a basement flat in Bayswater. Trudie lived two doors down.
In 1980, Trudie was playing first witch in Peter O'Toole's West End production of Macbeth, with Frances co-starring as Lady Macbeth. Trudie started a relationship with O'Toole. Trudie and Frances had by this stage become friends. A year later, Trudie and Sting started a clandestine relationship.
When Trudie became pregnant in 1983, she took a sabbatical from acting and went on a world tour with The Police. All this while Sting was still married to Frances.
"Neither of us are proud of the situation that happened - it just happened. We loved each other and we lived together and then we got married and we had more kids," Trudie told the Observer last year. "And that's our life story."
"Trudie is quite an amazing woman," says Sting. "She's a little younger than me. She's from the north of England, from a council estate. We share the same nostalgia for the past, because we're from the same part of the world and the same part of history. She understands where I come from." (Sting was born Gordon Sumner on October 2, 1951, in Wallsend, Tyne & Wear.)
Her father a packer in a lampshade factory, her mother a school dinner lady, Trudie was born in 1954 and brought up on a working-class estate near the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Last year, when Harpers & Queen compiled a list of the 25 Best Connected People in Britain, Trudie made it to number eight. She famously introduced Guy Ritchie to Madonna, and J-Lo to Ben. "She's very driven. I love her," he says, before adding: "Maybe it's something to do with the fact that we're apart a lot - that longing and that spark are still there. But we've allowed each other to evolve. I think a lot of people get married and the contract says you will stay exactly the same as you are, and any deviation will be punished. Of course, people change, so you have to allow yourselves to evolve."
As far as parenting goes, Sting is honest enough to admit that he gets "mixed reviews as a dad." He tries to balance the responsibilities of being a father and husband with a workaholism that has him constantly either onstage or in recording studios around the world.
"It is a balance I get wrong sometimes, but they do tell me," he says of his children. "They'll say: 'We're not talking to you on the phone any more. Come home!' My kids are good and well-balanced." Sting describes his own childhood as "solitary, unhappy. I was left to my own devices - left to imagine a lot."
His imagination has made him unimaginably wealthy and acknowledged internationally. Most recently, his song You Will Be My One True Love - a composition he wrote and Alison Krauss performed for the film Cold Mountain - received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song.
Some of his peers, however, can't stand the sight of him. Elvis Costello, who saw Sting perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, dubbed his act "absolutely appalling".
He also has a well-earned reputation for insufferable pretentiousness. He talks like he was born in another time and place: a boulevardier in 18th-century France, possibly. In his recent autobiography, Broken Music, Sting described losing his virginity thus: "We had explored our first intimacies like children making blood promises in the dark, attempting to secure the volatile cargoes of the future in the fumbling, silent exchanges of our hips and hands."
Being a Geordie, however, Sting is not without his natural wit. Last December, for example, when the pop world's most famous exponent of tantric sex was asked to present The Bad Sex Awards in London, he was far from the humourless saver of Amazonian rainforests he is often assumed to be.
A female heckler interrupted his opening address with a choice description of him. "Did you say something, madam? I'm a little hard of hearing," Sting was heard to reply. "I have been described as many things in my life, but I assure you no one has ever called me a banker."
In any case, you can now call him Sir. Sting received a CBE from the Queen last year. Some other Sirs - namely Bob Geldof and Ian McKellen - turned up for a liquid lunch afterwards, he remembers fondly.
Far less pleasant memories involve the loss of a close friend of his and Trudie's, who perished at the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The last show of his 2001 world tour was on that fateful date. He spent September 12 thinking about the world and his place in it.
"I was no different," he says. "I was alone in my house, trying to figure out what function I would serve as a songwriter in this new world that had landed on our doorsteps. I didn't quite know. I felt angry and afraid and confused."
Out of that fear and confusion emerged perhaps Sting's greatest album, Sacred Love, an inspired, evocative elegy that reflects his inner life. It is quite dark lyrically. "I have a talent for melancholy," he says.
I ask him does he think it is difficult for Trudie to live with melancholic Sting. "She will often say to me: 'Is that song about me?' And I say no - and she'll slap me. 'What do you want me to say? They are all about you!'"
Is it the case that if you couldn't write songs, you'd probably go mad, as you wouldn't be able to deal with the past and the emotions they conjure in you?
"I'm so glad I have this way of expressing, in a veiled and artistic way, my most intimate feelings," he says. "A lot of people have the same feelings, but in others it must get bottled up. I'm proud of my life". I mentioned to Bob Geldof once that I could make love for eight hours. What I didn't say was that this included four hours of begging and then dinner and a movie."
and I'm proud of being able to make it into artefacts that some people find beautiful or engaging. I have an amazing international career as a singer. I get paid to sing. I have a nice family. I love life."
Possibly the most endearing facet of Sting's personality is that he isn't frightened of appearing overly philosophical. He couldn't care less about appearing pretentious. He wants to remain true to himself. However, like all writers, Sting is not impervious to external factors or influences. He doesn't believe in the recent war in Iraq.
"My only answer to the world's problems is the old artist's solution - love. Love is the only thing that's going to work, because most of the world's problems are from lack of love. The Osama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of the world can't have had terribly happy childhoods. There's something clearly wrong in the way they were brought up. The world needs more love." It's as simple, naive and idealistic as that, he says. Why is it easier to declare war than love? he asks rhetorically.
"Because love can be devastating," he says. "Anyone who's been in love and fallen out of love knows that it can annihilate you. So that truth is there, and despite that, you simply have to take the risk of being destroyed. You can say: 'So just fucking annihilate me. Go ahead.'"
Have you been annihilated?
"Yeah, of course I have, and so have you. We're still alive, but it's still a daunting prospect. Intimacy and trust . . . when you've been hurt in love, it's terrible."
Did your mother hurt you?
How did she hurt you?
"My mum had a lover," he answers, slowly. "I was the only one who knew that for many many years, and I sort of lived with that. It kind of shaped me, in a secretive way. I think my dad worked it out eventually, but I knew." He has written in the autobiographical Sting: Broken Music about catching his mother and her lover in flagrante . "Suddenly we are like a doomed family falling in an aeroplane," he writes.
How did your mother's affair make you feel about women?
"Very, very ambiguous about them, in terms of my attraction to them, and my inability to trust them. So it was a duality. My mother was a kind of mistress archetype. I'm still trying to work that out, so I kind of married my mistress in a way"
Do you think if you'd worked that out earlier in life, you would have stayed with your first wife? He doesn't seem at all comfortable with the question.
"I can't really talk about an alternative universe that may or may not exist," he says. "I mean, who knows? Do I have any regrets? No. I followed my instincts"
Something his own father was unable to do. Sting says his father couldn't express his love for his wife. In return, Sting's mother couldn't express that she needed intimacy, but had the perfect right to fulfill that need wherever she could. "We were conditioned as a family not to express ourselves," he says. In the end she ran off with Alan, one of her husband's employees.
When the affair didn't work out as planned, she returned home "more miserable than ever." Sting believes that that killed his parents, not cancer. He believes that cancer is the result of undigested dreams - "forcing yourself to do something that is not distinctively you." For years, Sting harboured anger and resentment towards his parents for his mostly unhappy childhood. (He made peace with them before they died.)
In his autobiography, Sting talks of being driven deep into the rainforest in Rio years ago to partake of a drug - a sacred ayahuasca - and of his mind filling with strange hallucinations: his mother groping another man in an alley, his father's look of hurt, his alienated childhood...
"I wrote that book about my childhood," he says. "I tried to put that life into perspective, and to give thanks for that life, no matter how difficult it was. It was the perfect childhood for me to become who I am, because I'm proud of who I am. So in a sense, I was honouring my past."
I hope you don't think I'm being rude, but didn't you turn your back on your parents in Newcastle - and essentially repudiate your working-class background - to go off and become this other person: this rock star, this Balzac-quoting Sting?
"It's an interesting question, not a rude question. In a certain way it was kind of essential for me to become an exile, for me to become who I am. My instinct would tell me to do something, and, at the expense of pain to myself and pain to other people, I would follow that instinct. I hope I always have that courage."
© The Sunday Independent Magazine