The following interview with Russ DeVault appeared in a September 1985 issue of The Atlanta Journal & Constitution
Sting: Intended or not, his moniker offers apt metaphor for the man who would be: king of pain and nearly all else he surveys...
Sting. It's just a nickname. No more. No less. So don't read anything into it, says Gordon Matthew Sumner, who acquired his stage name eight years ago as a 25-year-old playing Dixieland jazz with a band of men old enough to be his father.
"I wore my old yellow and black stripe soccer sweater and one of the band members said I reminded him of a bee. The nickname 'Stinger' got shortened to Sting. I've been Sting so long now that everybody calls me Sting... my wife, my kids, everybody. It's a very silly name, but they got used to it."
Because of the way Sting flits about the entertainment world and leaves his mark, it's tempting to conclude the nickname fits the man as well as it must have fit his youthful appearance in his soccer sweater. He touches down as a member of The Police. He buzzes off to be a much-praised actor in films such as the critically unacclaimed 'Dune' and the critically acclaimed 'Plenty'. He metamorphoses into a sideman on albums by Phil Collins, Dire Straits and Miles Davis. Now, he's flying about the country as a solo musical act and saying he'd like eventually to direct movies.
One irony of his nickname is that the 35-year-old Sting, who'll be at the Fox Theatre Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 8-9, is a man who would have us believe he's motivated by pain - his own.
"It's my destiny," he sang in 'Synchronicity' and still says every chance he gets, "to be the king of pain."
Ah, give us a break. What about the money? The fame?
"Well, I think there's a certain amount of posturing," he quickly admits when it's obvious his pronouncements aren't going to be taken that seriously. "I enjoy playing the king of pain. But there is a side of me that's melancholic, and it's reflected in my songs. It's not necessarily a function of romanticism. I worry about the world, and I write songs that reflect my anxiety."
He also has written songs that reflect his commercialism, and he freely admits performing them can be a power trip. "I have no compunction about trying to write hits," he says. "That is the name of the game, and I like playing the game of charts."
He's done just that inordinately well with The Police, turning out hits such as 'Roxanne', 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Synchronicity' and thereby helping the group's five albums to total sales of about 50 million. With The Police in limbo - a summer of '86 reunion is possible, however - he's got the No. 2 album on Billboard's list in 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' and the No. 16 song in 'Fortress Around Your Heart'.
Money isn't the sole raison de etre for the album. "I don't need vast amounts of money now," says Sting, who once lived on welfare and now sees himself as "sort of an industry with accountants and lawyers and managers grabbing this bit of money, protecting that bit.
"Frankly, it all leaves me a bit cold. I quite enjoy having money and buying whatever I want, but if an MX missile explodes over my house, I'm as dead as the man next door."
True. But even if Sting does live among the movers, shakers and moneyed people of London's plush Hampstead section, the man next door probably hasn't experienced some of the things Sting has and found otherworldly.
"There's something about playing to 90,000 people that pumps you up like the most exquisite drug," he says. "Your whole body becomes filled with this incredible power. It's irreplaceable."
But being a member of The Police isn't irreplaceable, because Sting must be able to express himself and he isn't one to accept confines; hence his current album and tour featuring jazz musicians.
"The mistake that people always make about music groups is they assume that if you're successful, the group becomes a way of life. For me, the band is only a tool in which I express my ideas - not a way of life. As soon as it becomes limited in expressing my ideas, then it' s over. I can transcend it and use it to accomplish other things. Why should I have to make music with the same two people Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland the rest of my life?''
That attitude led to the Police taking what Sting sometimes calls "a sabbatical" after their 'Synchronicity' album and tour in 1983. He'd dabbled in films - 'Quadrophenia' in 1979 and 'The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle' in 1982, among others - so he decided to become an actor. After a much-hyped cameo role in 'Dune', Sting accepted roles in 'Dr. Frankenstein' with Jennifer Beals and 'Plenty' with Meryl Streep. He's been praised and criticised inside and outside the film industry, and his mild reply to comments from either direction is that he has a lot to learn about acting.
"It's equal measures of praise and vitriol,," he says of the reviews of his nine-film career. "I have to be philosophical. It's nice to get good reviews, but sometimes they bring you up short. They balance out."
Such an attitude, he's found, is vital in the film industry because he no longer has the total control he exercised from the time The Police recorded 'Outlandos d'Amour', their debut album, until they cut 'Synchronicity' in '83.
"As an actor in films," he says, "you have to realise that your responsibility to the final product is very small and your control is nil." Accordingly, he approaches acting as "kind of a working holiday - my father always said a change is as good as a rest" and his music as his personal creation.
'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', for example, finds Sting forsaking subtlety and ambiguity to address directly concerns such as drug addiction, nuclear war and Britain's labour problems - with a reservation.
"Let's get this straight. I don't write songs in order to change the world. That would be naive. I'm not a politician. I am clearer in my intent in these new songs. I think that's simply because the issues addressed are very critical, in my thinking."
He laughs off reviewers and others who call him the "thinking man's rock star" or the "voice of the '80s," however. "I don't make up these labels," he says, "although I'm certainly a rock star who thinks. I think a lot. My feeling is that rock music does very well to reflect the mood of its time. I don't like the mood and I want to change it."
He's not lobbying for perfection, though. "The ideal world would probably be really boring. I'm not sure that's a world any of us want to have. I think we'd all die of boredom."
Sting, of course, would prefer to die in other circumstances, which he nearly did last April while skin-diving in the Caribbean area where he was recording 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles'. The gauge on his airtank indicated that Sting, who was about 60 feet underwater, had plenty of air for a slow and, therefore, safe return to the surface when it ran out. Making a fast trip to the top was out of the question - his lungs would never survive the pressure. Sting gulped the last of his air supply, swallowed his fear and swam horizontally until he attracted his instructor's attention. They shared her tank of air en route to the surface.
"I was terrified," Sting says during a telephone interview prior to a show in New York City. "But to have manifested that terror would have been to drown. I found that a good symbol for how we exist in the world today."
Sting does have a fondness for symbolism and psychological interpretations. Not only was 'Synchronicity' a symbolic title borrowed taken from Carl Jung's theories about seemingly non-related but simultaneous happenings, but 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' is a title born in a dream of Sting's. In it, Sting saw four blue turtles symbolically pull apart rock music as created by The Police, which is what he accomplished by putting together a backup band of four jazz musicians. The result is songs such as 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', the first single from the album, and other creations that blend the two idioms. On the album - and more so on the tour - saxophonist Branford Marsalis, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Omar Hakim are allowed stand-out solos that show their roots, while Sting's singing and guitar playing reflect his rock background.
His band's roots go back to the jazz of New Orleans and other American cities; Sting's run directly to The Beatles. "The Beatles were responsible for placing the seed in me about being a musician and a songwriter" he says. There was little, if any, parental encouragement in that direction when Sting was growing up in the hamlet of Wallsend in Northeastern England. His father, a milkman, and his mother, a hairdresser, wanted their son to escape via education the sort of grinding existence they endured.
"My family wasn't rich," he says. "Very poor, in fact. They wanted me to do well, to wear a shirt and tie... They thought I was mad to consider becoming a musician."
His first real gig temporarily convinced him they were right. At 17, Sting applied for and received a seaman's card and signed on with Princess Cruises as a bass player for a boat band.
"I just did that one summer," he says. "It wasn't as bad as 'Love Boat', but I had to jump ship. It was like being trapped with old ladies."
Sting returned to school, trained to be a teacher and, in '74, found a position teaching and coaching soccer at St. Catherine's Convent School in Newcastle. It was during the '74-'75 school year that Sting acquired his nickname and married first wife Frances Tomelty. That also was the year he gave up teaching and moved his family to London.
"At 25, I started writing songs and performing successfully. It was only then that I began to think of taking it a step further. That meant moving to London."
The result was an unmitigated disaster. Sting was unable to make money playing music and equally unable to find any other job.
"I went on the dole relief in '75-76," he says. "I appreciate success much better because of that, too. It's very hard to be without a job. It's demoralising. I have a lot of sympathy for people in that predicament."
While he and his family were scraping by on about $30 a week, the blond-haired, green-eyed Sting managed to do some modelling for television commercials and landed the role of "Ace Face" in The Who' s 'Quadrophenia' movie. Then, in '77, The Police came together in London with drummer Stewart Copeland the organising force for a trio of knocking-about musicians. Original guitarist Henri Padovani soon left and was replaced by Andy Summers; and the Police made their debut Aug. 18, 1977, at a club in Birmingham, England. That was the year of the punk explosion in England and The Police - who would not fully define their reggae-flavoured style of music until manager Miles Copeland suggested it - were in the middle of it. Sting had an aversion to rock 'n' roll - even today he claims to listen primarily to classical music - but he found what he calls a "saving grace" in punk music: anger.
"It was against everything that had come before," he says. "And we were angry and willing to support anything that was revolutionary."
The Police - with good guidance from drummer Copeland's brother - used the punk movement as a steppingstone to a recording contract with A&M Records and the release of 'Outlandos d'Amour' in 1978. The next five years brought incredible record sales, seven Grammys (including one citing 'Every Breath You Take' as song of the year in '83) and a parting of the ways. Sting, of course, is totally cognisant of what The Police accomplished and appreciates the fame and fortune of his life, but what brings pride into his voice is talking about being a survivor, personally and professionally.
"Everyone else from the class of '77, which we came from, has fallen by the wayside. The Sex Pistols. The Damned. The only real survivors have been me and Elvis Costello."
On the personal level, Sting feels he has survived by avoiding the fast-lane pitfalls common to rock 'n' roll stars. "I've been through the sort of traditional rock 'n' roll scenario of excesses, but I've seen through to the other side of it. You come face to face with the abyss and decide whether to jump in or not.
"I decided to bypass that exit."
Today, he prefers a quiet, family-oriented life with second wife, Trudie Styler, and their two toddlers and frequent visits with his two children from his first marriage.
"I'd like not to be famous," he says. "I'd hate to have to live in a fortress. I wouldn't want that kind of fame... that kind of hysteria. I prefer to lead a life that's as normal as possible."
Not that his normal is everyman's normal, a fact that occurred to Sting during the filming of a scene for "Plenty."
"It dawned on me how lucky I was when I spent an afternoon making love to Meryl Streep - acting, of course. Part of me left my body and looked down and said, 'You're getting paid for this, mate.' "
Such candour is typical of Sting, but the inevitable question about the Sting of the moment is whether he's playing a role, teasing or serious. Does he really mean it when he says he's seen ghosts in his house?
"It's true," he earnestly says of his claim that a ghost mother and child appeared to him and later had their presence's confirmed by a spiritualist. "It's no big deal. It just is. I'm pretty sceptical about these things, but it's a reality."
Moments later, Sting is saying he doesn't necessarily believe in any sort of afterlife and definitely doesn't believe in reincarnation. "I think we're here once and for all and that's it."
That belief that we only go around once helps explain the joyful pride in his voice when he confirms that, yes, he was in the delivery room and did cut the umbilical cord when his fourth child arrived earlier this year.
"I was very proud to do that. It's very symbolic and profound to separate the child from its mother. I think it's important for the father to do that."
For what reason?
Sting laughs, once again shying away from the danger of appearing portentous.
"Uh," he says, "I'm not sure what it means ultimately."
© The Atlanta Journal & Constitution