10.09.96 THE DAILY TELEGRAPH


The following article by Mick Brown appeared in a November 1996 issue of The Daily Telegraph newspaper...

Sex, drugs - and Sting...

You don't see Sting on 'Top of the Pops' or in the singles charts any more, and be doesn't sell quite as many records as he once did. "I feel more on the margins than I used to do," he admits. But the shrug of his shoulders says that's OK; he's relaxed about this.

At 45 he is richer than he ever dreamt he'd be, happily married and the father of six children (two by his first wife, the actress Frances Tomelty; four by his second Trudie Styler). Even in the gloom of a Dublin night-club where we have adjourned after the first performance of his current tour, he looks terrifyingly fit: the result of practising astanga yoga for two hours a day, which makes him feel "marvellous".

It has been said that to count Sting's blessings you would probably need a calculator. Is it simply envy, then, that seems. to make him so irritating to so many people ? "I love his records," they say. "But all that preaching; the rainforest stuff, the Jung stuff; and then there was the wedding with the white horse and the £20,000 dress..." You hear this a lot.

He gets pilloried for being serious; then for being frivolous. It's as if Sting has never quite mastered the art of bluff and artless blokeishness in the manner of, say, Phil Collins or Eric Clapton. This is a problem. Writers, painters and sculptors are not, held up to scrutiny for their "image", yet pop stars' careers tend to be built on it, their every gesture and pronouncement construed as an act of media manipulation.

Perhaps it's just habit, but Sting uses the word "strategy" a lot - the "strategy" he has employed to ensure his longevity as a performer; the strategy for making his life happy. But when it comes to this question of image, the strategy seems to run out. When asked a serious question, he will answer seriously; no subjects are off limits. You get the sense that Sting is past caring what people think of him. Perhaps that is the strategy. It has not always been effective. Much sport has been made recently, for example, of his pronouncement that through tantric yoga he can sustain love making for five hours at a time. That he says all started as a joke, arising out of a boozy lunch with his friend Bob Geldof (who maintained that 10 seconds was quite enough). None the less, there is a kernel of truth in it, "although the five hours includes dinner and a movie, of course".

But talking about it, I say, just looks boastful. "I know, I know, but I don't mind," he says, laughing. "And I think people should have more sex anyway; its good for you." More seriously, perhaps, a chance remark in a Swedish newspaper last year; suggesting that Ecstasy should be decriminalised - this, shortly after the death of Leah Betts - led to him being excoriated by the tabloid press and branded irresponsible by Leah's family. The remark; he says, was taken out of context in a longer discussion about the illegal status of Ecstasy "criminalising" those who take it (up to a million people a week in Britain, according to some estimates). "What surprised me is that, in a pluralistic democracy, just expressing an opinion could cause such problems," says Sting. "I wasn't advocating drug use: I was just saying it should be decriminalised. "It's tragic that Leah Betts died. But I think her death was misused. When you tell lies to young people, that all drugs kill you they lose respect for the people who tell the lies and for the people who have to enforce them, like the police. It creates a huge wedge in society."

He has, he says, always been candid with his children about drugs, "because all our children are exposed to drugs at some stage, and we're deluding ourselves if we think they're not. If you don't have the ability to talk honestly about them, you're in big trouble. "If any of my children had a drug problem - and they don't - I'd want to deal with it, not the police, because they're not qualified to. They have an impossible job. Drug abuse is a health problem, not a moral or a legal problem. The sooner we start thinking about it in those terms; the sooner we can hope to solve it."

His eldest child, Joe, is a 20-year-old musician. Would Sting take Ecstasy with him? "No, I wouldn't. I don't believe in the frivolous use of drugs." This is perilous ground, and he treads carefully. There are, he believes, two kinds of drug: "the kind that separates you from the world" and the kind that "totally connects you to it". Travelling in Brazil some years ago, in connection with his Rainforest Foundation, he was introduced to a substance called ayahuasca, which is made from the roots of a jungle vine and brewed into a tea. Used for centuries by tribesmen to induce visions, the tea is now used ritualistically - and legally, Sting emphasises - in a syncretic Christian church called the Uniao do Vegetal. He is not, he says, the least bit interested in belonging to a religion, but he has participated in the tea-drinking ritual several times in Brazil, "and it's taught me an awful lot about myself". This has nothing to with hedonism or escape, he says; quite the reverse. "You're forced to face issues in your life which you would normally reject or hide, principally the fact that you're going to die. The first time I took it, I had an hour of absolute mortal terror, and then spent a good hour just crying for everything in my life; relationships I'd had with my parents, family, wives, girlfriends, children. I went through all of these things, and all of these issues where I'd failed. And I just cried and cried and cried."

He is not advocating the experience for anyone else; simply describing what happened. The main effect of what he describes as "a purging" has been to make him re-evaluate his ethics: "The basic realisation for me is that real intelligence is not about being a trickster and winning in that shallow way, but about being good, being helpful and thoughtful. I'm becoming aware that that's how you should behave."

So, he has come to like himself more? "Yes." He smiles ruefully. "The truth is that there was a time when I really didn't like myself." He was not alone in this. Stewart Copeland, his colleague in his early band, Police, once said of Sting that "not only does he hate humanity, but every human within the species, except for his family". The suggestion was that, as far as Copeland was concerned, the feeling was reciprocated. "Well, Stewart and I have a very intense relationship," says Sting. "And I've had my misanthropic periods, but not so much now." He has developed a rationale for this. The son of a Newcastle milkman; who always dreamt of being a musician he had fought all his life against his background, his class, his family, his education, to the point where it became almost habitual. "So then I decided to fight against everything I'd created as an alternative, which was this world of music. That's what I was good at - fighting against everything and being gnarly and angry and... this maniac, basically."

It led to the break-up of his first marriage, the break-up of Police - at a time when they were the most successful group in the world - and the break up of numerous friendships. "The one relationship that saved me was with Trudie. She saved my life. She knew me and, despite knowing me, she loved me. When I talk to other people who knew me through that period, they say, 'God, you were a bastard.' And I was. "I was very confused about who I was and what I was doing. I was very destructive. I was taking a fair amount of cocaine, which changes your personality in a bad way. I was feeling alienated and isolated and lost and unhappy. This was coinciding with the most successful period in my life - which was a wonderful lesson in a way, because we tend to equate happiness and success as if they're the same thing, and they're not."

It used to concern him, he says, when people said he was pretentious or sanctimonious, because he doesn't think he is - but campaigning on behalf of the Amazonian Indians inured him to criticism. If you take it on yourself to focus attention on an issue, he says, you must accept that some of that attention will inevitably be negative. "It's human nature. Being a public figure helped to get it off the ground but, at the same time, the scrutiny was intense and everybody was pooh-poohing, us." Partly as a result of his efforts, the Brazilian government has created a protected area of rainforest the size of Switzerland, which has become a model for schemes in other areas of the Amazon, as well as in Madagascar and Thailand. He is on the board of trustees and contributes about £1 million a year by performing benefit concerts.

Despite appearances to the contrary, he says he is not an extravagant man, "except that I have some very nice homes" - the mansion in Wiltshire, an apartment in New York, a beach house in Malibu. He does not collect sports cars or racehorses; nor does he have expensive habits. "I do yoga; I play chess; I read a lot and I spend time with my family. I play music. Really, that's my life." Rock music tends towards "giantism", he says: the imperative to be forever in the spotlight, the king of the hill. But he's done that. "I don't have any more ambitions in that regard," he says. "I don't need any more Grammies; I just want to carry on doing what I'm doing. I have this little margin that's mine, and there's a certain amount of longevity in accepting that, because I'd like to be a singer when I'm 60. I don't want to be washed up."

© The Daily Telegraph
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