CREEMMarch 01, 1988
Hell, at least he's trying. Plenty have called him pretentious - quoting Shakespeare to drunks, diddling Jung, sporting philosophers and musicians like designer accessories - and I'll happily accept that he may well be. But his music isn't asinine, it's sensuous and clever. He's not a guru, he's an ex-schoolmaster from Newcastle, and if he likes to teach the world to whatever, that seems admirable to me. "I'm 36," says Sting, "I'm still asking questions." Here's some of the answers...
"My songs are like a diary where you can look back after 10 years and say what my preoccupations were or what my fears were," says Sting. His preoccupations and fears in the two years since the release of 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' have been, predominantly, his involvement with Amnesty International (still on), the death of his mother (to whom '...Nothing Like The Sun' is dedicated), and finally, almost-officially, leaving the Police.
"If I'm being honest about what I do, I have to say that when I write songs they're about my life. Things that happen to me, new ideas that I become aware of, people I meet, stories people tell me - they're all subjects for a songwriter.
"The most profound thing that's happened to me, politically if you like, was being on the Amnesty International tour in America with Peter Gabriel, U2 and Bryan Adams. Part of the tour was that we met political prisoners who'd been freed by Amnesty who'd either been imprisoned wrongfully or without trial or tortured. And here they were. Meeting someone like that makes it very real and very frightening. So I was committed to try and write a song that would portray that feeling.
"And I found out about this thing called Gueca, which is a dance done in Chile by women whose husbands are 'missing' - in other words, they've been taken from them and killed or imprisoned, tortured - and they do this dance which is normally for two people, but they dance alone with photographs of their loved ones pinned to their clothes. And I thought this was a very moving symbol of grief and protest, and what I tried to do with the song 'They Dance Alone' was amplify what they do.
"See," says Sting, sipping some water, "the masculine way to fight oppression is to throw petrol bombs and burn cars. This is a woman's way of protesting, which is much more powerful and effective.
"A lot of the album is about women: mothers, lovers, daughters. I think the way a man treats women is always a function of his relationship with his mother. My mother died during the recording of the record. She was a pretty important person to me in my life, and I knew that she would appreciate the album being dedicated to her."
It's an easier album to love than 'Blue Turtles' was - a self-conscious album, Sting turning his brain inside-out so you'd see all the pipes and elevators like some post-modern architectural monstrosity. And with Sting you always did, to some extent (even the doo-doo-doo-dada-das were a convoluted exercise in meaning versus non-meaning), but when the cat keeps on coming in to deposit at your feet whatever new and exciting creature it found, you can get sick of looking impressed and appreciative. Most of us have dabbled in drugs, some of us have been through analysis, hell, some of us even read books, and we'd just like to sink back into some seductive music with two more balls than New Age. '...Nothing Like' sometimes comes close to unlobotomized Nonesuch; sometimes, too, it's great.
"I think the new LP is less self-conscious," he agrees. "I think that it's about the songs, and the instrumentalists are much more sensitive to that. Because the last album was kind of jazzy, this album is much less jazzy, although there are flavors of that. I'd say it's more natural, it feels more natural."
Not a case of introducing jazz to the masses like the Police did reggae, but of "trying to create a world music that isn't locked into its own ghetto. I'm not interested in 'rock 'n' roll' or 'blues' or 'jazz' or 'classical' or 'folk'; I don't care. What I care about is music as a whole. The barriers and the separation that music has are fake. Basically music is just sounds and silence and it shouldn't have labels. And to a large degree the media are responsible for making those labels stick," though I'd be inclined to blame it more on the laziness and greed of record companies and most musicians. "Really," says Sting, "I try as much as possible to play as many different kinds of music and use different types of musicians."
Some of the musician types he used on the album are the ubiquitous Mark Knopfler, Branford Marsalis and Gil Evans & His Orchestra (the latter worked on 'The Color Of Money' soundtrack with Robbie Robertson), with guest appearances by the likes of Eric Clapton, Hiram Bullock (a currently much-touted guitar hero), Ruben Blades and Andy Summers.
"It's not my intention to form a permanent group. You know, I was in the Police for 10 years and I want to live the rest of my life with flexibility. I'm just interested in playing with as many different musicians as I can for selfish reasons. Some of the musicians on the album are my friends, like Mark Knopfler, Andy Summers, Eric Clapton, Branford. Basically I had to find musicians that are sensitive to the idea of not just playing what they're good at. I asked them to play all kinds of things: jazz, classical, funk."
And Hendrix. There's a cover of 'Little Wing' performed with an old hero of Sting's, Gil Evans, that's dedicated to another old hero.
"Seeing Jimi Hendrix at the age of 15 in a club in Newcastle before he was a big star was something that affected me deeply," Sting says. "He was the first pop star who was a great musician - the Beatles were pop stars but they weren't adept musicians - but Hendrix could play like no one could play. He was the first black person I'd seen, this guy about six foot tall with an incredible haircut and weird clothes. So he kind of changed my life. And then I got to know Gil Evans and he asked me to sing with his band and I asked him what I should sing - and I knew that he'd arranged 'Little Wing' for an album of Jimi Hendrix tracks and I knew the lyrics - so we performed it in a club called Sweet Basil in New York. It's my tribute to the man who changed my life."
Sting has spent a lot of time in New York. It helps that he has a place there (obligatory Greenwich Village loft; he's got a glorified beach hut in Malibu, too, and a house just up the road from me in Highgate, London) where he spent much of '87 writing this record. Sting got hooked on daytime Evangelist TV, which inspired a song, 'Rock Steady'.
"I would watch these TV evangelists, Falwell and people, and basically they're like game shows, only they ask people to give them money for the Lord to save their life. I was so fascinated by this phenomenon that I started to actually read their philosophies. And once you get inside their philosophy, what they're saying is actually very dangerous and evil." Basically the apocalyptic philosophy that Reagan seems more than a little fond of: "That there will be nuclear conflict between America and Russia starting in the Middle East, but America, by the grace of God, will survive. That's bullshit!" he spits. "No one can survive a nuclear attack, but it is part of their philosophy that God will save them. So they're wishing for a nuclear holocaust so that their faith can be proved. They're basically appealing to the uneducated, the frightened, and they have a vast, vast audience and vast amounts of money.
"I don't want the world to have a nuclear holocaust. I think we can survive if we put our minds to it, and what these people are doing is wrong."
But you've called one song 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'?
"'History will teach us nothing', "he says in his exasperated schoolteacher way, "is a polemic statement designed to open a debate. I don't agree with the statement, I think there is a certain truth in it, but the opposite statement is equally true, that history is useful. I think it's a useful debate. Two songs on the last record," he sounds proud, "became an English course - one song called 'Russians', the other one about the coal-miners, and they asked my permission to use them in English books so the students could discuss what the song was about. This song is a little like that: it opens with a statement that invites discussion."
"Sting," it said in Q magazine, "is the ex-teacher who likes to keep his class in control, the book-cupboard tidy... Magazines and newspapers have gobbled up his erudite statements and called him the Thinking Fan's Rock Star, rarely stopping to evalute the content of his pronouncements. If the words have more than three syllables they're assumed to be academic."
Sting: "I know there's an argument about pop music - that it means nothing, it's just a set of words that rhyme, just a beat you can dance to - which is fine, I think that's OK, but there's room for songs that mean something, too."
But does it really prove that much to pose questions without giving answers, except that he was probably a very good schoolteacher?
"I do have answers; but I'm not sure how artistic or how sensible it is to give them. I have a forum for expressing feelings and transmitting emotion that I feel is worth transmitting, but I don't necessarily preach. And I keep questioning my opinions - my political views, things about life. People say I'm inconsistent, but because I am thinking I change my mind a lot. As far as I'm concerned, asking the question is enough. I don't have one answer, one message, I really don't - maybe when I'm an old man I will, but I'm only 36, I'm still asking questions.
"I know what's wrong, but I'm not a politician, I'm a singer. My first function is to entertain, my second function is to maybe give you a little bit of information; I'm not sure it's my responsibility to give you answers."
It's 10 years since he left his teaching job in the North of England and his after-hours gig in a jazz club to go to London. Newcastle was a place where he felt "trapped," he says, where he'd stand between the port and the railway tracks and dream of getting out. He went back recently to star as a nightclub owner in a film. He met some people he used to know, including an ex-pupil.
"It's very interesting to go back to your hometown and make a movie - somewhere where I spent 20 years of my life, went to school there... To be like a 'movie star' was a lot of fun. I met people that I hadn't seen in 25 years, and it was a nice way of assessing my life, looking back on my life and figuring out what I'd done with it, whether I'd succeeded or failed or whatever."
Another way was going into analysis.
"There's a theory that people only go into analysis if they're crazy. I don't think I was crazy," although if my sense of chronology is right it coincided with some heavy pressure on the Police, his marriage on the rocks and messing about with drugs. He didn't say. Anyway, "I was interested in an academic way in Jung and I studied with a lady who was one of Jung's disciples in the '20s and she's now 86 years old. And she encouraged me to use my dreams creatively, to write them out.
"Before that I was the sort of person, 'Oh, I don't have dreams.' But I went through analysis and was asked to tell this woman my dreams every week, and I used to have to make them up because I didn't have any! But eventually, by talking to this woman, I realized that I lived a very rich life when I was asleep, much more interesting than my life when I was awake. I made love to thousands of women, I rescued people, I dived off cliffs, it was a really exciting life! And as a songwriter and a creative artist, your dreams are a real reservoir of experience you can't ignore. To ignore your dreams is to ignore half your life. So I take my dreams seriously. I try to understand what they're about.
"I think everyone should be interested in trying to discover hidden parts of themselves; I don't think there's any reason to be afraid of it. Analysis should be useful. I don't go to an analyst now, but I'm still very analytical about the things that happen to me."
Like his kids. He's got four of them, "and I worry whether I'm teaching them the right way. I was taught in a very conservative and dictatorial way and I'm glad of that education because it gave me something to reject, something to bounce against. If you're taught in a liberal, free environment, maybe it turns out a different kind of person. I enjoy being someone who has no respect for authority - largely because of the authoritarian way I was taught." His kids don't have any of that, they're pals with their teachers, on first-name terms, "but I'm not sure if it'll produce revolutionaries or free-thinkers...I don't know the answer. I worry about it, though."
He reads a lot, he says; he's got a thousand-book collection at his Highgate home - "books that I disagree with, books that I think are the Bible; books are the one thing I keep in my life" - and reads "about four at once." He's just finished the banned-in-Britain Spycatcher and a book about the CIA. Old Police colleague Stewart Copeland, of course, is from a CIA family. People have talked for years about a personality clash between the two, but Sting doesn't mention it.
"There's a lot written about what a big risk it was to leave the Police and make a record on my own, but that wasn't a risk to me. It just seemed logical. It seemed the thing that my creative spirit wanted to do. I didn't have to fight with myself to do it, it just seemed very natural and what I wanted to do at that age in my life.
"What does interest me is seeing a direction in pop music - watching TV, listening to the radio, seeing where it's going then saying 'right, it's going this way, I want to go that way.' If that's a risk, then that's what I do. Like the tendency in America of heavy metal music - guys that dress up in tight trousers and wear wigs and corsets and play guitars with their tongues, waving their dicks in people's faces. I don't want to do that, I'll go the opposite way.
"I'd rather be Frank Sinatra than Ozzy Osbourne."
He likes the "sense of risk" of making movies, he says. The latest two are 'Julia And Julia', shot in Italy with Kathleen Turner, and this Newcastle one starring Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones. His first was 'Quadrophenia' in '79, his favorite 'Brimstone And Treacle', where he played a charming devil to a family with a braindead daughter ('Dune', where he wore a sci-fi diaper, left him as confused as it did the rest of us). He says he'd like to direct some day, "but who's going to give five million dollars to a rock star?" If anyone wants to, send it to me and I'll pass it along next time I see him shuffling through the leaves on Pond Square. The difference between making movies and music is "in my music, I'm responsible. If it's good I'll take the praise, if it's bad you can blame me, whereas in film you're not really involved in the intellectual process of putting it together. If a film is good I'll be grateful, but if it's not I'm not responsible. Unfortunately, if you're famous, the media tend to hang the film on you, they say 'This is Sting's film.' My film? I was in it for a few minutes!
"What's difficult for people like me, David Bowie - people who make movies who are famous for being singers - is that as well as the character you're playing you bring along your life and your image, and the responsibility of the actor in that situation is to lose it. And that's more difficult for us than for an actor whose face you don't know and you'll believe in anything they say. We have lot of baggage that we carry around. It's very difficult. Anybody who tries it has my sympathy.
"But I think it's worth doing. I enjoy movies."
And writing songs. "It's a strange thing, writing songs. I wish I could explain what happens. Here's my analogy: you get an idea, a single idea or a seed, and that seed by some code - like a DNA code - grows arms and legs, choruses and bridges, and what you do as the songwriter is you monitor that growth. Sometimes the arms and legs grow in the wrong place and you have to shift them around, but the actual process of writing it is very strange and kind of magical.
"I don't know where it comes from, I just trust that it will. Sometimes I'm very frustrated because it doesn't - I wake up a lot of days and there's absolutely nothing in my head, and other days it's just full of ideas. Too many, so there are no rules.
"I hope as a songwriter that I get better as I get older. Maybe I get worse, I don't know, but I'm trying to get better. You know, I keep writing the same song again and again and trying to improve it, really. If I have a message at all, I think I'm trying to say the same thing again and again in different ways, and yet not wanting to bore people."
© Creem by Sylvie Simmons, 1988