LIVING NORTHNovember 12, 2009
Taking the Sting out of winter - Julian West talks to one of the North East's most famous sons...
The origin of the word Geordie itself is rooted in Anglo Saxon lore, and has numerous definitions, but that's a debate for another day perhaps. What is less complex when considering Geordies more generally is their role on the world stage. In real terms, I'm sorry to say that despite the undoubted collective worth and character there are few contemporary Geordies who have cracked it. Local footballers have great note, Gazza and Alan Shearer seem to be most renowned - but would they be known in Fort Lauderdale - probably not. The films of South Shields born director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien et al) are better known than the man himself and while Ant and Dec (bless 'em) have captured the heart of primetime Britain - their fame in Minnesota or Michigan is less certain.
However, there is one part of the Tyne that houses, or used to accommodate, an icon of the world stage. That town is Wallsend and the man one Gordon Sumner, much more commonly known as Sting. With the sale of over 100 million records across the globe, his fame, music and reputation is truly global: not bad for a lad from North Tyneside.
In researching the megastar the scale of information is daunting - so before interviewing him and again before writing this piece, I've got up early and from Newcastle's leafy suburb of Jesmond, I have driven along the coast road to Wallsend. On my second excursion on the first day of November - the weather is the worst of the year, and the dry days that have preceded it seem a distant memory. It's dark, and dawn seems reluctant to wake, let alone break. I park the car, the rain continues remorselessly and a ghostly figure scurries across the street, bent double to avoid the wrath of the wet weather. Imagine what it must have been like to be woken in the darkness of winter to help with the milk round.
Sting has just turned 58 and his success is mind-boggling - but the tough conditions of his upbringing have embedded a streak in his character that is driven, determined and undaunted. Not unlike other vessels which have left this part of the North East never to return. When the young Gordon busied himself on the milk round with his father, Ernest, the giant shipyards were still very much alive. The celebrated ships The Mauretania (the express liner which held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic for 22 years) and RNIS Carpathia, which rescued the survivors of the Titanic in 1912, were built here amongst many others. Since 2007 the shipyard has been closed. And as I lower the windows in my car door, watching the rain pound in November 2009 - I consider that while much of Sting's life has been spent away from home - in recent months, for numerous reasons, he has spent time working in the North East. The ship, it seems, is not coming home to stay, but at least pulling in to port from time to time - and that for many reasons is great for the North East and enriching for the man himself too.
When I spoke to him (I had been trying for a few years) it was shortly after his most prolonged stay in the region since he left 30 years and more ago. The feelings and sentiments of his life, his childhood, his music and his vision were therefore very probably readily influenced by the North East and its unique strengths for many a long year, something that can be witnessed by his words but also his new album 'If On A Winter's Night'.
Like some of his most celebrated hits, Sting has named this latest work after a book that has inspired him. In this instance, Italo Calvino's novel, 'If On A Winter's Night A Traveler'. His hits 'Don't Stand so Close to Me' and 'Roxanne' were both loosely based on other favourites - Lolita and Cyrano de Bergerac, respectively. He explains the title of the new album: 'It's a story of a book within a book and now ironically I am the traveller who has come home.'
Today, Sting retains his handsome good looks though the hair is darker now, more straw-brown than the blonde playboy locks of earlier years, and the beard enhances the look of the more considered and considering man. But what season has he reached? 'I'm not in my winter yet, rather a splendid autumn; he explains in his familiar, soft but immediately recognisable brogue, which offers twangs of American West coast as well as the still noticeable soft, slightly Geordie notes. 'It's important to prepare for winter though.' His words are slightly chilling, haunting and it's a theme that comes across regularly and in many guises in his new work.
It's also a far cry from his days in the Police, the celebrated band which gave him fame and fortune but no real personal fulfilment: something which you sense, talking to him now, he is eagerly seeking to find and succeeding. 'I am 58 now and my 50s have been far more fun and I've begun to really taste my life. I've been very fortunate in my life, my family, my career, the places I live.' His manner is very straightforward, honest and acutely intelligent - letting every word count, but with a friendly undertone that is pure Geordie.
Sumner was born in Wallsend, one of four children. His mother Audrey was a hairdresser and his father Ernest, a milkman. !t was from his mother he took his musical cue. There is little doubt that their ghosts (they both died of cancer in their 50s) are present to some extent in their accomplished son. Whether it's out of regret (he attended neither funeral) or perhaps he's like so many of us whom the past haunts from time to time, even if it does not prevent our fonvard tread. Superstar Sting, it seems, is no different and why should he be.
The days of his childhood are mirrored in 'If On A Winter's Night', as are his memories. 'Well, I wasn't thrown down a coal mine, but the winters were hard. We would walk to school in the dark and return home again in darkness. These were ghostly streets with grey freezing fogs. But on occasions when I delivered the milk with my father Ernie, we would see the landscape beautifully white with snow. We would be the first to disturb it.' As he talks, I reflect on the windswept rainy streets of Wallsend - on this bleak morning. I imagine the white blanket of snow and the clanking of the milk bottles and the ghostly crunching footsteps. Although the street in which he was brought up has gone now - the impression remains. 'Of course this influenced me, it gave me a sense of the seasons and their inspiration.'
To me Sting seems a confusion of talents underpinned by drive, a vivid imagination and a zest to do, experiment and, when appropriate, to deliver - something brought about by his North East roots perhaps. 'I know who I am, and Geordies also have perhaps because of our diverse history through the Danes and Saxons, a sense that we don't belong to anyone but ourselves.'
Sting attended St Cuthbert's Grammar School in Benton, but academia played second fiddle to his music, and in clubs such as the Club-A-Go-Go he witnessed musicians such as Jack Bruce and Jimi Hendrix. After school various jobs followed: bus conductor, labourer and tax officer to name three. After three years at the Northern Counties College of Education (now part of Northumbria University) he qualified as a teacher, working at St Paul's School, Cramlington for two years. While teaching he also performed with the vast energy which thanks to his disciplined fitness regime he manages to retain. He would perform wherever he could with bands such as the Phoenix Jazzmen, the Newcastle Big Band and Last Exit.
It was during this time, on account of his black and yellow sweater in which he once performed, that Gordon Solomon suggested he looked like a bee - Sting had taken flight.
From the Nonh East and his Newcastle home Sting moved to London and soon afterwards joined Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers to form the Police. Between 1978 and 1983 they won six Grammys and had five chart-topping albums. The history and their record, in every sense, is fabled. The success, the upset, the energy, the concerts, the rows have all been recorded in biographies. It all goes to show that despite huge wealth, and success, true happiness need not necessarily follow. However, despite this and after much water had passed under many bridges the band reformed.
Clearly Sting had thought it through, weighed up the pros and cons and got on with it. 150 sell out dates followed, with huge takings and one of the great comebacks of all time. But as quickly as it started, it was over. Yes, it made a fortune but it also tidied up a few loose ends as Sting has recounted many times. An interesting phrase and one which he repeats when we talk.
I offer the ship returning metaphor - he smiles 'It certainly felt like I was coming home to tie up some loose ends.' It's an almost melancholic message but the sentiment of returning to his homeland seems less permanent than his final departure from the Police. Indeed, while he was here he couldn't have been more stuck in: concerts in Durham Cathedral support of the Get Into Newcastle campaign and thousands of high fives as official starter of this year's Great North Run.
But does the Newcastle of today measure up to his expectations, or would he ever turn back the clock? His answer is pointed and indicative of his thinking: 'You can't turn it back. I'm fiercely proud of the North East, and when I started the Great North Run, people were brilliant. The people of the North East are still the loveliest on the planet.'
That's quite a statement for someone who has travelled more miles than his fair share. He will return home again to help the Sage Gateshead celebrate its fifth birthday, something he's looking forward to. 'I think it's wonderful what's happened on the Quayside, the public access is truly excellent.'
As Sting nears his 60th year, his physical fitness remains excellent, brought about by a personal desire to look and feel great and knowing that to perform well on stage, fitness and wellbeing are key components. His musical journey has also been a rollercoaster. From jazz to gatecrashing punk with more than a hint of reggae, through rock to folk he has also swapped his guitar for a lute from time to time and the lyrics of 'Demolition Man' for the music of John Dowland. It's a remarkable mixture and the beauty of the North East in his latest deeply thoughtful work has provided much inspiration from his upbringing here.
He talks sensitively about this being his home, his feelings for winter, a season he loves, with the contradiction of Christmas, in which great joy for many is contrasted with the loneliness and sadness of others. Initially, his record company suggested a Christmas record - but fearing the nuances of 'Frosty' :Rudolph' et al the Christmas focus was given a seasonal twist - that of winter.
It's an inspiring work and for one who cannot call himself a fan yet loved some of the classic Police hits as well as some of the solo work - it's a real discovery, revealing not only some hugely talented musicians, but the next step of Sting's own journey, in which he researched sacred songs, classical songs, folk songs and secular songs. The end product is a haunting, emotional, spirited and spiritual work.
The songs have an ambivalent quality and we explore different musical types, drawing some of them together. 'The Snow It Melts The Soonest reminds me of the Northumberland moors in winter, bleak but beautiful. It also includes the cosy warmth of Christmas with family, church and its own gravitational pull with the contradictory terrible loneliness of Christmas - and I hope we've struck a good balance.'
The songs are varied and melodic, haunting yet calming and clearly in some ways at least, reflective on his own Christmases and winters past. In so doing, he is also dealing with some of his own spirits, his parents, old friends and memories, whether it's his conscience, or his constant yearning to move forward yet also look back into the magical music of traditional folk songs, carols, lullabies and the renditions of Henry Purcell, the poetic words of Robert Louis Stevenson or the music of J S Bach.
Some would say the audacity reflects an unbridled ego - others would pay homage to a hugely talented thinker with the voice of a rock star and the soul of a poet. It will be fascinating to see what the critics make of it - as I put it on the CD of my car looking over the Tyne on this grey morning - it is mournful melodic and magical. It's also varied and reflects well the depth and variety of the harshness of winter and Christmas lullabies, songs and tales.
So how does the glorious talent of Northumberland's Kathryn Tickell (who has graced four of his albums since the early 90s), Newcastle's Julian Sutton with his beloved melodeon, the guitar of Sting's 'right and left hand' and friend Dominic Miller, the haunting Celtic harp of Mary MacMaster and the cello of Vincent Segal, the trumpet of Ibrahim Maalouf and the violin of Daniel Hope compare with the heat, heart, body and soul of the Police?
'Variety is the lifeblood of my life. The thrills of playing in front of a hundred thousand people or in a pub in front of five or six are different but varied - from the gigantic to the intimate.' The inclusion of another Northumbrian young talent, Peter Tickell, is also of note - not merely as a namecheck but also as a feature of the album - which witnesses his excellent fiddle playing.
So as the discussion draws to a close - I'm keen to hear a little more about his big ideas - what is the winter of his discontent?
He changes gear impressively, but still his tone is measured and friendly, yet more serious, 'I think we are at a crossroad, with a number of conflicting and similar issues from the environment to people's rights. We can't separate all the issues - the solution has to be holistic. We need to reflect and consider our own rituals for a new day: As he acknowledges, the world remains a dark and dangerous place beyond the cradle, but unlike the cold landscape it is not all bleak.'
So... can a boy from Wallsend make it today?
'Absolutely, a lot of us have.'
Sting has worked hard, very hard. From his uncle's hand-me-down five-string guitar - and the incessant practice, to vast fame. Yet he has no entourage or bodyguards. As he says, he's 'pretty comfortable' with who he is. But is he? Yes, he has a richly talented wife who he loves deeply and a family he loves in equal measure. He is happy at work. in life, in all its rich appeaL and his appetite for work is voracious as ever, witnessed by upcoming concerts in New York. Paris and Baden Baden, but is he at peace?
Probably not, for a man with his drive, dedication and determination can never stand still for long - even in the winter of his years in the garden aged 90 something will be developing - his 50s may have been his favourite years, but there's hopefully a lot more to come from this man of the Tyne.
So what of Christmas for Sting? Well, it won't be Wallsend but spent at his estate in Wiltshire, with ghosts and spirits galore: 'I'll be with the family, all of them come home.' Temporarily the energy seems to seep - as he contemplates the prospect. But what of us what of you and your family or me and mine - or more sombrely what of you who have none - who dread Christmas and the joy it never brings? 'Whoever you are, spend some time alone, reflect and really appreciate and enjoy your friends and family.'
Sting is a highly articulate, pleasant man - hugely professional and probably as misunderstood as revered. I greatly appreciate his time. He has other people to talk to, many of them from the press. He's not bigger than the media, but nor is he a slave to it and in this day and age that's refreshing. In addition to his many press advisors in New York and London, I would like to thank his sister Angela for helping me 'track him down'.
There may not be that many Geordies on the world stage, but Sting, with his friends in high places, in rock's hall of fame as well as in the corridors of power - is one such person. Given that he doesn't return that often - his ghosts, his own spirit as well as his soul still have a foothold in the North East. If you do have time to reflect this Christmas, sample 'If On A Winter's Night' - it might well raise your own spirits.
© Living North by Julian West