01.02.91 THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH


The following article by Anthony DeCurtis appeared in a January 1991 issue of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper...

A time of healing - Sting's 'Soul Cages' confronts grief over his parents' deaths...

Sting is the pop idol adults can admire. His infallible instinct for hooks made the Police one of the world's biggest bands, but his ventures into jazz-inflected rock on 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', 'Bring on the Night' and 'Nothing Like the Sun' made him an acceptable figure even to the most recalcitrant members of a thirtysomething generation. He is an active and highly visible supporter of Amnesty International and the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest. Now 39, he is handsome, but no pretty boy, and his movie roles and his appearance on Broadway last year as Macheath in a production of Bertolt Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera' attest to a range of talents that is increasingly rare in what often seems the increasingly one-dimensional world of pop culture. Indeed, Sting's life seems charmed. But the command and personal control that Sting projects at all times does not come without a price. Sting begins speaking about the difficulties he experienced writing the songs for 'The Soul Cages', his first new album since '...Nothing Like the Sun' in 1987. "It's afflicted me every time I've tried to write something, but never to the extent where I haven't written anything for three years," Sting says about the writer's block that crippled him after his tour in support of 'Nothing Like the Sun'. "Not even a couplet, not an idea. Obviously, if you make your living writing, as you know, and you can't write anything, it's over. It's very frightening. Hence you have to really start working out why, and I think once you discover why you're not writing, that's the key to finding out how you can write."

The search for the cause of his literary paralysis - interestingly, he continued to be able to write music - forced Sting to address some painful emotional issues. "I think it really goes back to what I did at the end of the last record," he says. "I immediately went to work and did a mammoth tour. At the same time, I was just getting over the death of my mother, and my father died about six months later. I figured the modern way to cope with death is to ignore it, just work through it. Really, I think, it's fear. You're scared to actually deal with the enormity of what's happened and you try and pretend it hasn't happened. "So I did that," he continues. "I worked my butt off, and I got to the end of the tour, and I went off on some rain-forest project, and I just didn't stop. I didn't want to think about it. Then, having done all that, I said: 'Well, I have to make a living here, I have to make a new record. What will I write about?' Nothing. There was nothing. I was punished, in a way, because I didn't actually go through the mourning process."

The friendship Sting established with chief Raoni and other members of the Kaiapo Indian tribe in Brazil in the course of his rain-forest work bore personal, as well as environmental, results for him and helped him break his creative logjam. "Having lived and spent a lot of time with these so-called primitive people," Sting says, "I realized that death is something that is obviously important to them, because they mourn. I figured that I'd have to go through some sort of process where I would get this stuff out. Once I'd worked that out, I realized that I was going to have to write a record about death. I didn't really want to." Sting dedicated 'The Soul Cages' to his father - along with two colleagues from 'The Threepenny Opera', director John Dexter and actor Ethyl Eichelberger, both of whom died last year - and the album is suffused with imagery drawn from the singer's childhood in Newcastle, a shipping town in the north of England.

Struggling with the notion of death for Sting meant coming to grips with the notion of his own mortality and led to a questioning of his life and its purpose.

"I'd reached the age of 38," Sting says, "and I wanted to assess my life - figure out what had gone wrong, what had gone right. ...As soon as I remembered the first memory of my life, everything started to flow. The first memory was of a ship, because I lived next to a shipyard when I was young. It was a very powerful image of this huge ship towering above the house." "Tapping into that was a godsend. Once I began with that, the album just flowed. It was written in about three or four weeks. Having written all these words in a big burst, I then fitted them in with the musical fragments I had and put it together. I'm fairly pleased with the record. I think it achieved what I wanted it to achieve.

"I was brought up in a very strong Catholic community," Sting says. "My parents were Catholic, and in the '50s and '60s, Catholicism was very strong. ...In a way I'm grateful for that background. There's a very rich imagery in Catholicism: blood, guilt, death, all that stuff."

He laughs. "I'm not sure it goes far enough to explain our situation. At my age, I feel some of it is inadequate to explain a lot of things. So the album, although it has this religious element, is about a deeper religion."

Sting's sense of what he regards as the "pretty profound" inadequacies of Catholicism and Christianity is intimately linked with the passion for the environment that has consumed him in recent years. "I've come to believe that we made a mistake in trying to imagine God outside of nature, that God doesn't exist in nature," he says. "Therefore to find God, we have to destroy nature. I think that's a Judeo-Christian idea, and it's not in any of the other religions of the world. I think that is the key to our disastrous treatment of the world. We don't see God in this tree - God is somewhere else. Therefore, why should we respect the tree? Why should we respect the earth, the river, the sea? 'Man is the most important thing,' they say. 'The animals are at our beck and call, they're at our service.' "Wrong! Absolutely wrong. 'We can have as many people on the Earth as we can possibly make.' Wrong. I'm sorry, I just don't agree with it anymore. ...We are not the most important thing on the planet, we're part of the planet, and until we realize that, we're in big trouble."

Sting's work in support of the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest has not been universally lauded. Critics have questioned how appropriately the funds raised by the Rain Forest Foundation, which he established, have been used. And some observers say Sting's international jaunts and high-level diplomatic meetings in the company of Raoni are the best public-relations gambits the Brazilian government could hope for. A great deal of worldwide publicity attended Sting and Raoni's meetings with Jose Sarney, who at the time was president of Brazil, creating the impression that the Brazilian government was seriously attempting to address the rain-forest issue. Sarney failed to keep his promise to demarcate the 19,000-square-mile area that Sting and Raoni wanted set aside as a preserve for the Indians who live in the rain forest. Now Brazil's new president, Fernando Collor de Mello, is having similar meetings and making similar promises. When asked about the charge that he is being exploited by the Brazilian government, Sting first laughs with a kind of glee - a master of control, he seems almost titillated by the prospect of being outmaneuvered - then bristles.

"I think I'm a focus for international attention," he says. "The Brazilian government, if they don't want to change anything, does not welcome any kind of focus on that problem. I don't think I'm being used at all; if anything, I'm an embarrassment." While Sting is a longtime supporter of Amnesty International, having played benefits for the organization in England well before it was fashionable, the ardency of his activism in recent years is notable because it represents such a departure for him. This is a man, after all, who, in his conviction about the importance of the spiritual world, declared in one song that "there is no political solution" and titled another one 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'. "I'm still, in a sense, a believer in transcendent cures for various problems," Sting says.

"Contemplating your navel will perhaps move the mountain one day. I think people can change one by one. "If you work on yourself, you change the world in a microcosmic way - but it's getting a bit late, unfortunately. I feel that with certain issues, like the environment, for example, you have to be active. You can't just sit there with your legs crossed and hope that the air is going to be fit to breathe tomorrow. I think we don't have very long left, frankly."

© The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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