LIVEWIREApril 01, 2004
The following interview by Alan Jackson appeared in the April/May 2004 issue of Livewire magazine...
He's one of the world's most successful musicians, is a multi-millionaire and was awarded a CBE last October. But Sting's recently published memoirs show life hasn't always been easy. As the UK leg of his 'Sacred Love' tour brings him back to Newcastle, Alan Jackson reflects on the stark boyhood that shaped the famous Geordie's future.
Homecomings are emotional things, however and whatever we feel about home, nothing will be quite the same as we remembered it. Some people, some buildings, will have disappeared. What was once the only world we knew will have changed, for better or worse. And that's just how it is for the anonymous majority of us, able to slip in and out of past haunts without anyone batting an eye. For the one-time Gordon Sumner, global star but also one of Tyne & Wear's most famous sons, it must be a little bit different. When you or I come back to wherever, we find that friends and family will be on hand to welcome us. What he gets are TV crews, journalists, and arenas full of cheering fans. Do they - or we - really know the man caught in the spotlight?
Having spent the last 25 years in the media eye, it is, or course, inevitable that Sting should have a somewhat cartoonish public image: he's the bookish, rather bumptious rocker-cum-renaissance man who knocks out Grammy winning albums, saves the rainforest, enjoys a five hour boat of Tantric sex with glamorous wife Trudie, and still gets home in time foe tea. A newly published autobiography, 'Broken Music', provides ample ammunition for anyone wanting to fuel their prejudices on the bookish and bumptious front (you'll find yourself negotiating words such as "syncretic" and "ethnogenic" within minutes of embarking on the opening chapter). But it's also surprisingly self-effacing and revealing and, best of all, functions also as a reminder of the mores and morals of the society that shaped him - that of the working class North-East of the 1950s and 1960s.
At 7am each weekday morning, a hooter rang out above the terraced streets of a small army of workers to the Swan Hunter shipyard on the banks of the Tyne. But Sting's father Ernie had been up and out long before this wake up call. Trained as an engineer's fitter, he had made a bid for autonomy by taking over the management of a small local dairy. In reality though, he found himself just another wage slave, chained to a routine of pre-dawn starts every day of the year but Christmas.
"From about the age of seven, on school holidays and at weekends, I will go out to work with my father on his round in the High Farm estate, and the miner's cottages at the north end of the town," writes Sting. "The winters of my memory are grim, and there are mornings when I have no sensation in my feet for hours on end, my hands and face blue with cold. If the streets are icy, it will be impossible for Bessy - as Dad affectionately calls the truck - to get up the steep banks near the river, and I'll complete much of the round using my sledge. Because he is tough and stoic, I never complain or ask to be sent home. I want him to be proud of me. I also want to be like him, so I too learn to carry six full bottles of milk at a time in my hands, and two under by arms. I learn the door numbers and how many pints each house receives, telling my father if there have been any changes. I think I am good at my job, but he never praises me."
Dreams are not the sole preserve of the middle and upper classes, and amid even the most industrial of landscapes, young minds can find inspiration. "At 7.30 we take a break, and watch the smoke rise from the massive slag heap behind the pithead that looks like a man-made volcano," Sting continues. "We sit silently eating cold bacon sandwiches, him thinking his thoughts and me thinking mine. My father is at times remote and taciturn, but I don't mind because the silences leave my imagination free to run wild. I create all kinds of fantastical futures for myself as I run from door to door, my arms full of milk bottles. I will travel the world; I will be the head of a large family; I will own a big house in the country; I will be wealthy; I will be famous."
Achieving all of this and more would appear to have cost him no sleepless nights at all: at first glance. Here is an exception to the oft-quoted rule that we should be careful what we wish for, because we just might get it. Reading between the lines, however, Broken Music would suggest otherwise.
A source of ongoing tension throughout Sting's childhood and youth was the troubled relationship between his parents. (They would eventually part, his mother Audrey having fallen in love with another man.) "My father is neither cruel nor sadistic, but he is a product of his generation," the son writes. "He is a good man who loves us profoundly in his heart, but who does not know how to show it. He is like a prisoner in an iron mask, increasingly sullen, desolate and utterly trapped." And she, on the other hand is "spontaneously emotional, and as prone to tantrums and tears as she is to laughter. She craves romance and excitement. She is a rare and exotic bird, dangerous and unpredictable within the confines of her domestic cage. I adore my mother, but I'm also afraid of her." Not a marriage made in heaven, then. Nor, given their different dispositions and respective pulls on filial loyalty, easy parents to make proud.
This is made clear as Sting takes the reader from St Cuthbert's Primary School to St Cuthbert's Grammar, from Braidford's Music Shop to the Tynemouth Plaza, and beyond. Music, and the outlet it provides for emotions good and bad, is established as a constant early on. And by the time his mother finally leaves his father, he has grown into a young man who has a wife and first child of his own. When he receives news of the split, the schoolteacher is on the brink of becoming the rock star he has been ever since - to all intents and purposes, he is a man of the world. But by his own assessment, he reacts badly, lashing out verbally "in a blind fury of righteous anger" to avenge the humiliation being wrought upon his father. And, he believes, his working like thereafter has been a reaction to the uneasy domesticity of his younger years.
"I may have wanted to escape the consequences of my parents dysfunction by living a life on the run, as dramatically different and removed from them as was possible, but unconsciously I carried the seed of their unhappiness with me wherever I went. My mother had always looked longingly away from home for her salvation - and I had internalised this in the compulsive aspects of what would become 25 years on the road."
He is, as we know, still on that endless highway, but this time returns not just older but, seemingly, as a wiser man to the area of his birth. At 52, Sting is only a year younger than his mother was when she died of cancer - and seven younger than was his father when he succumbed to the same disease. Despite being reconciled to both before the time of their passing, he did not attend either funeral.
"I would tell myself and my close friends that I was afraid the tabloid press would turn the events into a degrading circus; that my grief was a private matter and not a photo opportunity; that I'd said goodbye to my parents while they were still breathing, and what possible difference would throwing a handful of soil on to a coffin make to them or me," he writes. "Part of me still believes this to be true, and part of me knows I was simply afraid." By now, he admits, the need to escape, had become endemic.
"I was addicted to work and endless travel, and could no more keep still in one place than I could stop breathing for any length of time. Even the idea of attending a funeral had the effect of strangulation. I would shut it out of my mind, brace myself for my next gig, and keep moving."
That was 1987. Sting's reputation as an artists and humanitarian is still growing, while the private figure behind the public face seems more at peace with himself than ever.
Thus, it's not just the superwealthy pop hero who is making his return. The little lad who dreamed of glory while dispensing milk bottles is coming home too.
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