The following article by Chris Salewicz appeared in a June 1985 issue of Time Out
On a hot, cloudless Friday afternoon, a curious affair is being enacted on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
In an end room commandeered from the cafeteria, hacks from all over Europe - of whom only the 25-strong British contingent is distinguished by its absence - are taking their seats facing an empty podium. This is performed to background music provided by Mr Sting, the pop star, whose new solo album is being featured. It is Sting, together with his four-month-old group, who will shortly appear on the podium.
This is not in itself curious. What is curious, however, is the knot of people distinguishable from the assembled hacks by their extreme elegance and beauty and, mainly, by their fashionably ethnic Third World appearances, who stand at the rear of the room on the external fire escape. They all clutch notebooks. As they ascend the stairs they are careful neither to break rank, nor to glance upwards - which no doubt has something to do with the film camera aimed at them and recording their every move.
Overseeing this operation is British film director Michael Apted ('Coalminer's Daughter', 'Gorky Park' and, much earlier - and appropriately? - 'Stardust', the story of the disintegration of an early '70s rock star). When asked in suspicious journalistic manner what is going on, Apted replies conspiratorially: 'They're extras - actors and actresses. I wanted to get a really striking shot of the whole thing and I couldn't trust you lot to get it right.'
In fact, the hacks (and especially the British, who still haven't arrived) are about to become unwitting extras in the film set of Sting's Parisian sojourn. A feature-length documentary on the launching of Sting's solo album and new group is being made by A&M Records' film division, at a cost of £3 million. And both star and director deem that the press conference might well prove an interesting sequence.
What's more, Sting plus Apted plus crew have just returned from the hospital bedside of the star's Hampstead co-habitee Ms Trudi Styler, where they witnessed - and filmed - the birth of young Jake Sumner, fourth progeny of the Sting line. You'll be able to see it all on your local cinema screen this October, with Sting doing his proud father bit by cutting the umbilical cord.
Understandably, the star, who has lost two nights of sleep, is looking a trifle bleary-eyed as he appears on the platform - but no more, it must be said, than the British backs who (synchronicity?) arrive at that very moment in a cloud of dandruff, their noses bright red, and who, having suffered the ignominy of being forced to stand at the sides of the room, are beaten to the punch by one of the elegant and beautiful ethnic people, who gets in the first question. 'I just want to ask if you like France,' she inquires. Sting is hardly likely to reply that he can't stand the place. 'I hear you had a child today,' asks someone else.
'Yes, I get my figure my figure back very quickly.'
Musician, film star, comedian - a man for all seasons?
Not that it is all like this. Indeed, Sting - after he has adroitly fielded the expected questions as to whether The Police have broken up (he says they haven't) - is anxious, though perhaps optimistic, that his new group should be questioned as much as himself. (The group was selected following a workshop held in New York last January, to which an open invitation was extended to America's jazz musicians; it consists of four celebrated players: Branford Marsalis on horns, Kenny Kirkland on keyboards, Omar Hakim on drums, and Daryl Jones on bass - it is Jones's consummate mastery of the instrument, claims Sting, that led him to decide to play guitar in the group.) No doubt aware, however, that precious minutes of the hour they have been allocated are ticking away, none of the hacks seems to feel too inclined to spend time asking questions of them.
But eventually an American on the back row stands up and asks the four musicians how they enjoy playing with Sting. The questioner is, in fact, an executive of A&M Records who is seated next to Gil Friesin, President of the record company and the film's executive producer. 'Great,' answers one of the musicians (I fail to spot which).
It is at times like these that you begin to feel a little sorry for Sting.
For although such assiduous filming of the man's solo project may provoke ironic comment on the blurred dividing line between reality and Hollywood-style rock superstardom, such criticism is not wholly appropriate to Sting's case. Despite a millionaire's lifestyle that has him shacked up with his family in Paris in a £1,000-a-day suite at the Hotel Royal Monceau on the Avenue Foch, he seems unaffected and lacking in delusions about his wealth and the trappings of fame.
The matter of the film, moreover, dovetails neatly with his second-string career as an actor, which, since his first appearance as the unnamed Mod 'face' in 'Quadrophenia', has developed steadily through a variety of parts: he has successfully transferred to celluloid the condensed, self-contained presence he exudes both on - and off-stage in a manner that has eluded most other rock musicians who have made the attempt. After The Police played their last dates at the end of 1983, Sting took on two more roles: in 'Plenty' (opposite Meryl Streep) and in 'The Bride of Frankenstein'. Both films open in London on the same day, August 12. Twenty four hours before the press conference, Sting could be found hidden away in one of the rear stalls of the Theatre Mogador, where the previous evening he had played the opening date of a world tour that will end next March. With his 16-month-old son Michael tucked on his knee, he was waiting for the correct sound balance to be reached before miming, in order to save a voice dangerously close to disappearing from exhaustion, to the entire set he had played the night before, so as to give Apted ample footage to intercut with his filming of the show proper.
It has been acting, he told me then in his lingering Geordie burr, that saved him from the worst, most self-destructive excesses of rock superstardom. 'Doing movies,' he mused, 'has been immensely good for me: it set me free from the enclosed, cossetting environment of being a rock star. When you go on to a film set you're just one individual amongst countless technicians, artists, and actors: you're basically working on a factory floor and you're not a star anymore. You can't say, "Here I am - Sting. Sold millions of records. A brilliant actor." They'd kill you.
'It's a terrible cliché, but success really is hard to take. Especially when it comes to such an extent, when you go out in front of 90,000 people, like The Police did at Shea Stadium, and they applaud everything you do. If you can't become objective about that and realise it is all just a ritual, then you believe all the crap. You end up isolated, surrounded by a small coterie of sycophants going, "Yes, Sting. Yes, Sting. Well done, Sting. Everything you do is wonderful." Jesus, I don't want to live like that.'
But had he?
'Well, I tried quite hard,' he laughed. 'But it didn't seem to sit on me very well.'
What with babies and the girl from Newsweek still needing her eight hours of Sting's thoughts and the arrival of the team from MTV and the unexpected, though unsurprising, onset of exhaustion, it did not seem the most propitious of times to conduct my own, ostensibly scheduled interview. In fact, it was another five days before we met again.
By this time, with only minor matters like a 'Whistle Test' interview to be filmed, a video for the single to be made, the German press to be dealt with (plus a backstage summit meeting with the legendary but diminutive French rocker Johnny Halliday), and the odd nappy to be changed, Sting seems rather less harassed.
Towards noon, in the immeasurable opulence of his four-room suite at the Royal Monceau, he sits in an armchair sipping orange juice. Gone is the distracted sense of almost visible distance he had placed between himself and those about him the previous week; no longer does he appear to be running on automatic transmission. Such a holding back of himself in times of stress is, in fact, a developed survival mechanism; but it is also the reason why many journalists have found him cold, and even condescending, particularly when he gave voice to his largely self-taught erudition, about which there seemed something uncomfortably ponderous and one-sided, as though it was the product of endlessly striving, undiluted ego - which, to a large extent, it was.
Now he admits that until comparatively recently his approach to life was entirely linear. 'I was just a robot. Very Aryan energy, going for something but never really entertaining anything else but what I wanted. In The Police I was terrible to work with. Or to be around. I was a complete nightmare: Unsympathetic, aggressive, mean, selfish, egotistical. But,' he smiles, 'so were the others.'
It took, he says, 'crisis and turmoil' to break him out of that vortex in which he was beginning to spin with increasing rapidity, and which is an archetypal trap for young and powerful rock stars. A large part of that crisis, he admits, was the break-up of his marriage to actress Frances Tomelty, after he'd fallen in love with her best friend Trudi Styler. Yet that would appear to have been only one small symptom of the madness of the deifying process caused by his immense and sudden fame.
'I don't regret what happened to me,' he decides. 'I'm lucky to have survived it. And I survived it through my interest in reading. The other way is drugs and drink and women and all the other crutches that are so easily available. I tried those. But it didn't seem to get me anywhere.'
After reading the works of Carl Jung, Sting was inspired to give the fifth Police album the title of 'Synchronicity', one result of which was his introduction to a Jungian analyst in London who seems to have had a direct influence on his activities in Paris. For 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', the title of Sting's solo album, is inspired by a dream he had early in the formation of the new group.
'I dreamt about my garden in Hampstead,' he says, 'which is quite small and neat and surrounded by a wall covered in ivy. It's very organised. There are ordered flower-beds, a neat lawn, a lilac tree - it's full of English discipline.
'And in the dream a gaping hole appears in one of the walls, and through it crawl four enormous, brilliant blue turtles. They are really magical, spectacular creatures: very virile turtles. And they start goofin around, doing backflips and somersaults, and in the process wrecking the garden and completely churning everything up. There's soil everywhere, glasses broken. And as I watch it I am laughing, really joyous about it - though you would think I would be annoyed and angry that my backyard has been ruined.
'Analysing it, I suppose the four blue turtles are the band, and what they are doing is destroying my formulas, my safe haven, my backyard. And the churning up of the ground is like a symbolic turning over of a field so you can grow next year's crop.
'It was a very positive, spectacular dream. And a confirming dream. It happened during the formation of the group. I was thinking, "What am I doing? Is this the right thing to do?" There was a certain amount of anxiety about it. It was really just confirming that I'd made the right decision, I think: that, yes, it is going to be exciting, that there is going to be turmoil, and in the long term it is going to be a very positive thing.'
Sting's Jungian analyst liberated the musician from the conditioning of his background, putting him in touch with that world of the past, present, and future in which we exist during sleep. 'I was the sort of person who would have thought it was slightly feminine to have a dream at an in the first place,' he admits, revealing a background of unexpected rigidity. 'I was brought up in a culture where you didn't admit to dreaming - it wasn't considered manly. So I would have said that I never dreamt: for whatever reasons I was repressing my dream state. Once I discovered my dreams and began to write them down I realised that it was a rich source of inspiration, and that I led an exciting life when I was asleep.
'At first it was occasionally horrific, with ghastly nightmares. But after a while, having dealt with them, I began to get positive help from my dreams, in the way that things were balanced out. For example, if I'd been unpleasant to someone that day, that person would often later appear in a dream in an exalted state. Dreaming is really like a psychic balancing act. There is definitely a logic to it beyond the causal universe.
'But using them creatively is a good way of dealing with dreams, because you can actually enjoy it. And I really enjoyed the dream about the blue turtles, and I want to go back to it. In a way I'm living it out at this moment: this is all a dream.
'This week onstage,' he adds, 'I've been incredibly happy: I've been playing with an amazing band and having a ball. And that's a kind of dream.'
At the Centre Pompidou press conference a French writer asked a question that drew titters from some of the smugger journalists present. Demanding why Sting had chosen to work with black musicians, he inquired, "Ave you a leetle a black 'eart?'
Instead of the dismissive response he gave, Sting could have replied with eliptical and metaphysical complexity. Interviews in the popular press have often dwelled on some Prince of Darkness persona developed, apparently, through his roles in films like 'Brimstone and Treacle' and 'Dune'. Sting, of course, is not a sinister figure, though he is certainly capable of being elusive: to imagine he has sold his soul for success undervalues a combination of back-breaking hard work and the caprices of fortune.
He believes, in fact, that it was intuition that led him to select such roles. 'I think I'm lucky to get paid for publicly going through therapy,' he says. 'I'm very lucky that I can exorcise my shadow, my demon, on screen. Most people have to repress any shadow that they have: I'm allowed to bring it out. I believe that if you don't accept the possibility that you might be evil, then you can't control that side of you. I think that Hitler had no idea he was evil, and therefore everything he did was good and worthy, and therefore he could commit the most horrendous atrocities.
'Accepting the shadow, accepting the dark side, and bringing him out means that you can see him and you can control him. I do that in songs as well. Brecht wrote two kinds of songs, what he called freundlich - friendly - songs and unfriendly songs. And my work has two separate strains: one for peace and brotherhood and one world, and the other side is this mean 'Demolition Man', 'Every Breath You Take' guy who wants to selfishly own everything and control everything.'
Not surprisingly, Sting achieves his most successful expression to date of the light and dark aspects of his writing on his new album, and mixes songs of irresistible commerciality with intense paeans to truth. The work seems bereft of the self-indulgence that marks many solo outings, and happily avoids the thrashing excesses that mar his previous Police recordings. Indeed, it gives the impression of being a fully realised, unified whole.
Yet one song in particular, 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', which climaxes with the howl of a vampire, will inevitably be considered as a direct, autobiographical expression of the singer's dark side. The character in the song is based on the protagonist in the book 'Interview With A Vampire', by the American writer Anne Rice: 'One of the most wonderful, erotic, sensual books ever written.' Set in New Orleans (where Sting wrote the song) in the nineteenth century, it concerns a vampire whose nocturnal pleasures are somewhat diluted by his problem of still possessing an intact conscience. 'In order to live he must devour live blood, whilst at the same time being tormented by his guilt. He's a very poignant character, because he does evil yet knows evil. I love these characters who have a sense of good and evil, who are both devil and angel.
'But as far as people assuming that I am myself connected with the character... Well, that's not entirely negative: I'm only too well aware that by transmitting various images to the media, you can escape all the images. The Prince of Darkness character I'm presented as is the antidote to the Golden Boy I was in 1979: married, good-looking, talented with a child - everything was wonderful. Then suddenly... a total dive. And all the press coverage about me was about drug-taking and philandering and being a complete maniac. But that, too, was useful. Because it allowed me the freedom to be what I wanted to be. Now no one knows what to expect of me, whether I'm a decent bloke or a complete ego-manic.'
Has this been deliberate?
'I don't know if I've consciously created these characters. I simply seem to have instinctively gone that way. And now, in a way, I'm pretty impregnable: I've got these various personae that can take all of the glory and A of the bullshit and all of the blame, and it leaves me intact to a certain extent.'
In complete contrast, his new work also encompasses songs of a more worldly, political nature, notably 'Russians', 'Black Seam', and 'Children's Crusade'. The last named sets the current heroin epidemic in the context of previous exploitations of young people: the eleventh-century Children's Crusade, whose participants ended up not in confrontation the Saracens but as slaves in North Africa, and the more recent slaughter of World War One.
'It's not a song about addiction. I think addicts need as much care and love as we can give them. They shouldn't be ostracised from society. they're part of it and need understanding. What the song is against are the people who make vast amounts of money out of this problem, the people who are growing fat on the huge profits of their own greed. From killing people, from attempting to ruin an entire generation. They are the same people who enslaved children in the eleventh century, the same who sent boys to die in the trenches in the First World War. It's a bitter song. But I think justifiably so. Because I wish them in hell.'
In other interviews he gave in Paris, Sting seemed reluctant to define the political content of such songs. Were his equivocations mere slipperiness, or indicative, perhaps, of insecurity? Whatever, his confident demeanor and leonine appearance occasionally slip to reveal an ambivalent and uncertain man who might well regard the role of pop political spokesman as unseemly.
'I think,' he tells me, 'that to call them political songs is slightly confusing. And to add to the confusion I would probably say they are apolitical.
'A song like "Russians", which expresses the fact that just because people are from the Soviet Union doesn't mean they love their children any less than anyone else, isn't pro-Soviet. And neither is it pro-West. It's pro the children. And 'Black Seam', the song about the miners, is not pro the strike. The strike was a fucking disaster for the labour movement, a terrible disaster.
'What the song is an attempt at doing is stating a case for coal which never seemed to be heard. The country didn't seem to be given the argument - all we heard about was the personality clash between Thatcher and Scargill. And all we saw was the violence on the picket lines. But the real issue - of coal versus nuclear power, of jobs versus nothing - was hardly expressed at all. The song is about the dignity and heroism of coalmining as a way of life, and also, in a symbolic sense, about what coalmining means to us as a nation. As a symbol for the working man the coalminer is much more useful than, say, a computer operator.
'I'm from Newcastle where the mining communities are very close. I taught in a mining village where all the kids' fathers were miners. I know that mining communities are culturally very strong, very cohesive, law-abiding communities, which have great value. To say they are uneconomic and therefore useless is basically saying that economics don't have to entertain the fact that people matter.
'And the alternative we're offered ... Near my home town on the North East coast there's a place called Druridge Bay, a place with a beautiful unspoilt beach with coal mines nearby which are being closed down as we speak. And they're building a nuclear power station there. And frankly there are too many stories about leukaemia and poisoned streams around existing power stations for it to be just scare-mongering, for it to be just superstition. And I don't think the Government is addressing this problem at all. Even if you can turn the things off you couldn't go in there for the next 6,000 years. Which is an immense, awful responsibility for what we are doing for the future of humanity.
'The alternative that we still have 300 years' supply of coal in the British Isles. And although there are problems like silicosis, and although mining is a hard life, it's a damn sight safer than these fast breeder reactors that are dotted around the country. I think the Government has this vision of a clean, simple future, where nuclear power costs nothing and is clean with no dirt or grime. And along with it there's no working class and everything is wonderful. But there's no such thing as a free lunch. Nuclear power is expensive. To even control it we have to be very careful, and at the moment we are being irresponsible.
'Anyway,' he adds, 'although I vote Labour I have very little faith in the political process as it stands. I think the alternative is that we all have to become involved to a certain extent in what's happening to the country. I think we all have to make a statement about it.
'What I do is write songs, and I think I can write them well. And if I'm addressing an important issue that's all I can do. But it's something. I'm not just sitting back and writing songs about how cold the swimming pool is this morning.
'I could,' he laughs wryly. 'But I don't chose to.'
© Time Out magazine