03.13.96 THE GUARDIAN


Rock of Middle Ages - As Sting embarks on a massive world tour, Michael Odell reports exclusively from the first night in a small club in Amsterdam, and finds him resigned to being slagged off by the British press...

Maybe it's the words to 'Roxanne' or his take on Ecstasy, or his forbearance in the sack (five hours' sex without relief, he claims) but Sting is the kind of guy Amsterdam wants for mayor.

The 44-year-old star and a huge contingent of his record company are in Amsterdam for the first night of the tour which will trundle around the world until summer 1997. At a converted church he plays to around 1,000 locals. As you might expect, the show is low on flying beds and explosions and high on music values.

Sting does the brainy faux soul of 'If You Love Someone (Set Them Free)' and 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot', with the backing chorus swelling to 1,004. Sting's choruses have a direct line to the unconscious, which is scary.

The Tyson-size hooks continue with the jaw-dropping brilliance of 'I Was Brought To My Senses', and it's quite good-looking cousin, 'You Still Touch Me', A Salvation Army-sized horn section and some fine singers give the sound real sinew.

But the most unexpected twist is Sting's loving return to the benchmark pop of 'Roxanne', and especially 'The Bed's Too Big Without You'. They're not chucked out grudgingly as career-forging hits, but investigated in heavy dub with one of the backing singers stepping up to toast.

It's a revelation to see the playfulness. Two old songs unravel new secrets in a way the more grown up material doesn't - not yet anyway. These days he writes country and western, bossa nova and even sea shanty. If the genre hopping is sometimes baffling, Sting unleashes the secret weapon: the hallmark, primal "Eee yeeeahh yo!". The response is Pavlovian.

At the after-show schmoozathon Sting suffers huge indignities. Catering staff bring him samosas booby trapped with biros and autograph books. A Spanish man points, yells, then approaches to photograph him from six inches without so much as smile or a hello. For a fleeting moment I thought he might try to feed Sting a banana. It's about the only moment that I am pleased I don't have talent, £40 million, five mansions and pub mates called Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela.

How wary is Sting of journalists? He slides over a chair and offers me his soggy spliff. He's in good spirits and tells me is concerned that he recently discussed the "Balkanisation of the music industry" with a journalist. When the article appeared Sting was apparently chilled at the "vulcanisation" of the music biz.

"People slag me off enough," he says. "Now they think I'm worried there are blokes with big ears taking over the industry."

A new Sting biography, recently serialised in the Daily Mirror, which added 16 years worth of tabloid cuttings to a little light gossip and came up with the image of a shagbeast which Jim Morrison would have run away from, gets more laughs. "Frankly, I was going to sue," says Sting's manager Miles Copeland. "I thought it made him look like a monk. It was white-wash. He did much worse things than that."

"Of course I've had a very profligate life - I'm a rock star for fuck's sake," says Sting more seriously. "It's just that I'm balancing things out with a period of discipline and care."

There are 101 reasons why the media lords of taste sneer at Sting. But he believes he would be forgiven a lot of his life if his music reverberated with just a little more angst, a few more problems. "I am aware of that. I just don't subscribe to the rules that I have to die now. When it's time to shuffle off I'll go. I don't subscribe to the idea of the fucked-up rock'n'roller. I've been there. It's boring. It's fake rebellion. I was manically depressed in my twenties when I destroyed the Police, but then most bands are like that. Look at Oasis. Boys will be boys and then... we have to grow up.

"I'm 44, but I'll take anybody on. I'll run your round the block. I'll fight you. I'll sing better than you and write better songs. I'm just as competitive as I ever was."

Sting's immunity to media effigies of him comes down to pragmatism, but his skin may be thicker than that of his wife, TV producer Trudie Styler. When a Sunday supplement journalist was recently entertained to lunch at his Wiltshire pile, Lake House, he and Styler were lampooned as wellied squires booting liveried servants into the kitchen to fetch more pheasant.

"I thought it was quite funny," says Sting. "She had to write a story and that's what journalists do. It was about a little girl in a big house. I'm not affected by it in a personal way. How can I be? I'm lucky I've got what I have. People get jealous. If getting slagged off is the price..."

Even so, his wife was apparently hurt by the piece and will think twice before allowing journalists into the house again.

In the hotel lobby next morning Sting is every inch the muesli rock god. He's reading the latest Booker-winner and munching fruit. The piercing eyes, angular face and cream roll-neck sweater make him look like a Hollywood U-boat captain. He's friendly and uncontrived, steering the banter towards family. "The wife will be out in a couple of weeks which will be great. The kids won't let me have her at the moment. They're being a bit bolshie. And rightly so."

No matter. There are the groupies to look forward to and Sting has a whole battalion lined up. He doesn't go for the blonde giggly type. His are bald, clever and, mostly, blokes. Statesmen, in fact. Back stage you're more likely to find Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair or the Prince of Wales. In two days' time Sting plays two nights at the Kremlin after which he intends to raise the subject of an imprisoned mole who raised alarm on the environmental damage being caused by the Russian Fleet.

"I know this is exactly the kind of thing I get slagged off for in England. 'Oh he save trees.' Oh he likes hobnobbing with presidents.' I don't feel comfortable with it. I'm just a singer but I've taken on the role in advocacy which means trying to focus some of the media attention I gain on to worthwhile causes.

"But I suppose there is an element of groupie-dom in it - I got a letter yesterday from Vaclev Havel saying, 'Can I come to the Prague show?' In South Africa I got a letter from Nelson Mandela saying he couldn't come, which was nice. But I won't feel snubbed if Boris doesn't turn up on Wednesday."

From Amsterdam the tour puts on ear mufflers and heads to Moscow, where Sting promises to do an older set. Worldwide, there will be more than 200 opportunities to enjoy the soul-cleansing therapy of "Eee yeeeah yo!". But forming a government is still probably the best way to get on the guest list.

© The Guardian by Michael Odell
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