THE ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
The following article by Eric Snider appeared in a January 1988 issue of The St. Petersburg Times
Making Music On His Own Terms...
Peeling off a sweatsock, Sting winces slightly at the gamy odor wafting through his dressing room. The pop star looks up with a wry smile and says, "Sorry about my feet. I played tennis today. That'd be good for the story: 'Sting plays tennis and he smells.'"
Then, like a guy seated at the next locker, he strips off his long, black sweater to reveal a lithe, athletic upper body. There's no time for modesty. The first show of his American tour begins in two hours and he's squeezing in one more interview before a long massage.
Sting has been called brilliant, enigmatic, arrogant, aloof, pompous, chameleonic and seductive, but rarely has it been said that he's a regular guy. Yet despite the blond handsomeness and articulate formality, sitting on a couch wearing only knee-length shorts, he's open and unpretentious. Sting's celebrity has developed a life of its own - it transcends his accomplishments in pop music and, certainly, film. The musician, composer, actor and former chief of Police is a household name and a household face, a pop-idol poster boy who can appeal to 14-year-old girls and button-down investment bankers alike.
Despite his limited success as a film actor ('Dune', 'The Bride'), Sting continues to make movies; 'Julia and Julia', co-starring Kathleen Turner and directed by Pete Delmonte, opens Friday.
But Sting, whose tour brings him to Madison Square Garden Wednesday night and Nassau Coliseum next Sunday, most often refers to himself as a "musician" these days and says he keeps his superstardom in perspective.
"I cultivate [celebrity] to a certain extent because it gives me the freedom and the power to do exactly what I please," he says, with a steady gaze from piercing blue-green eyes. "But it doesn't affect the way I live or the way I feel about myself. It's not like, 'I'm a star, and therefore I must have a limousine and five bodyguards and people must not speak to me unless I speak to them.' You know? I've met people like this - they live this life of fantasy as if they're different.
"But they're not," he says, shaking his head and chuckling. "I live a normal life, I really do. I'm not kidding you, I live a normal life."
The pitch of his voice rises as if he knows he's really got to sell this point. "I go out on the street, I go to the shops, I go to the pub, to the betting shop, and this is me. I don't have bodyguards or a limousine." He pauses and adds with a smile, "Although I can have. I can have."
One problem with being a normal guy is that sometimes you catch a cold - and Sting has a bad one. The night before, Sting stood centerstage at the Sun Dome, an athletic arena at the University of South Florida in Tampa, with thick billows of smoke clouding around his head. It wasn't showy effect, though; it was steam from a vaporizer. A stuffy nose and a headache didn't stop him from extending the eleventh-hour, pre-tour rehearsal into four hours.
His seven-piece band, which recently toured South America, sounded strong, but Sting - ailing or not - was pushing to sharpen, hone and tighten.
For starters, saxophonist Branford Marsalis - who developed into a key attraction on the tour following the release of Sting's 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' album - just joined up for this leg of the tour. A French drummer, Jean Paul Cecarrelli, recently came aboard and doesn't speak English.
While Sting did interviews with MTV and 'Entertainment Tonight', the musicians waited patiently, jamming a little - except for Marsalis, who tossed a football around with some crew members. But when Sting hit the stage, dressed in baggy black silk slacks and a short jacket; it was time to get down to business.
And he seemed like a pretty good boss. He didn't hand out many compliments - once he slapped five with percussionist Mino Cinelu - but Sting appeared amiable and receptive to suggestions from the group members. At one point he directed the band between spoonfuls of chicken soup. Although he cut up a little, he didn't stray much from the task at hand, and there was never a question who was in control.
Sting is a self-professed "control freak." That's the primary reason he split from the Police, one of the few true superstar acts that emerged from the British new wave. In 1984, after a tour of sold-out stadiums, he bade farewell to drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, with whom he had sold approximately 40 million records.
"My statements musically and lyrically with the Police after the first album [1978's 'Outlandos d'Amour'] became more and more singular. They were my statements," Sting says, running his hands through his long, shaggy-dog hair. "And in the end I didn't want to compromise those statements by the other people not agreeing with me or . . . arguing with me. I didn't want to go through that. I wanted to say, 'Well, this is what I want.' "
When Sting launched his solo career he could have created a safe, commercially foolproof extension of the Police sound. Instead, he rounded up four black youngbloods from the jazz world - Marsalis, Omar Hakim, Victor Jones and Kenny Kirkland - and cut 1985's 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', an ambitious but somewhat stilted attempt to give his postPolice pop a jazzy feel.
"He was doing something dramatically different," Marsalis said as he worked on programs for his newly acquired saxophone synthesizer. "He left one of the most successful rock trios in history, and all of a sudden he's writing all these songs with [more complex] chords and, you know, you don't just make that jump and say, 'Yeah, I'm in.' It was like, 'There's a lot at stake here.'"
'Blue Turtles' was a hit, but Sting was blasted by some critics and musicians who claimed he was hijacking a vital component of black culture for his own ends. Others glowingly viewed it as a magnanimous gesture of racial equanimity. Actually, the album didn't call for all the commotion: It was a solid pop record with a jazz twist. If anything, he failed to best use the talents of his jazz cohorts.
Sting says, "People like to have a label. 'Oh he's making a jazz record.' Any musician will tell you that it wasn't jazz. I got jazz players just because," he pauses and grins whimsically, "because they were there. They could play wonderfully, and I also love jazz."
The Police reunited briefly as part of the 1986 Amnesty International tour, and some observers believed the Police would become partners again. Instead, last fall Sting released 'Nothing Like the Sun', a double LP / single CD and cassette that streamlines the direction of Blue Turtles while introducing a dollop of Brazilian flavor and bringing back a trace of the reggae lilt that the Police used effectively on their early records.
Composed mostly of mid-tempo material, the album is cool and sophisticated, but most important, it breathes more than Sting's first solo album. With an expanded ensemble featuring work by Eric Clapton,Mark Knopfler and Ruben Blades, it's also more fully textured. The songs on 'Nothing Like the Sun' are a far cry from the siren cry of 'Roxanne', the first Police hit, or the lean punch of such songs as 'Message in a Bottle', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'.
Some have criticized the album for its lack of energy and say it relies too heavily on mood and atmosphere.
But it would be difficult to make the same argument about Sting's current show. The opening-night concert was devoid of spectacle, a two-hour-plus set broken by an intermission and propelled by strong ensemble playing, spirited improvisation and Sting's expressive voice and natural stage presence. He strikes a few rock poses, dances and jumps around a bit, but that's about as stagy as it gets.
The show includes most of of the songs from 'Nothing Like the Sun', several from 'Blue Turtles' (most notably a rambunctious 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free') and such reworked Police classics as 'One World Is Enough', 'Too Much Information', 'Spirits in the Material World', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' and 'When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around'. (Although Sting had said he was going to give 'Roxanne' a rest for this tour, he played a moving version in Tampa, backed only by his own guitar and Marsalis' sax.)
Most interestingly, at times the crack ensemble goes into such high gear that Sting is no longer the show's focal point, whether he likes it or not.
Marsalis said the esprit de corps on the tour is strong, adding, "This is not the kind of gig where my harmonic knowledge is going to advance tenfold, but I enjoy the music tremendously, and if it wasn't for that and Sting as a person, I wouldn't be here."
Sting was born Gordon Sumner 35 years go in Newcastle, a dank city in northern England. He started playing guitar at age 10, loved jazz in his teens and was enthralled by Jimi Hendrix (he covers Hendrix' 'Little Wing' on the current album). The young Sumner was a good, if rather rebellious, student who "won prizes for writing essays and things." He later taught English at a Catholic school and earned the nickname Sting for the bumblebee black-and-yellow soccer jersey he wore when he played in a jazz band at night.
In 1977, Stewart Copeland, the son of a CIA man, came to Newcastle scouting talent for his new band. Sting jumped at the chance and moved to London as the new bassist / singer for the Police. Managed by Stewart's brother Miles, the band's early tours of America were austere affairs - a station wagon, rented equipment and cheap motel rooms. Within five years, the band went from playing dives to filling Shea Stadium.
The creative balance of power had shifted significantly toward Sting, who increasingly infused the music with political messages and literary themes. In 1983, the album 'Synchronicity', with the haunting hit song 'Every Breath You Take', was one of the year's biggest selling and most acclaimed records. And it was the Police's last original work.
'My first function is to entertain. And if I'm not entertaining, I can't inform. So I have to do that first. But there's nothing stopping me from putting some information in the songs.'
The trio's split was announced as a hiatus - there was no public vindictiveness or vows they would never reunite. As such, fans are still hoping the Police will return to record together again. But lately, Sting's stance has been clear.
He rises from the couch to walk toward the massage table. Asked about the Police, Sting, his back turned, says flatly, "Over."
The Police file apparently closed, Sting is intent on reconciling his instincts as an innovator with life as a rich - and famous - star who makes mainstream music.
"It's a balancing act, you know," he says. "It would upset me if I made a record and no one bought it and no one listened to it. The way I've been presented to the world is as someone who makes hit records.
"So I have a choice: I can either just make those formula hit records and become someone who just keeps putting them out with no real thought, or I can satisfy a certain number of criteria for a pop record but also add something else - a little medicine, if you like - a political belief or a song about an issue. At the same time my first function is to entertain. And if I'm not entertaining, I can't inform. So I have to do that first. But there's nothing stopping me from putting some information in the songs."
He smiles broadly and then laughs. "No one can stop me."
© The St. Petersburg Times