The following article by Bernard Zuel appeared in an October 1996 issue of the Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald
He's calculated, ego-driven, unapologetic, and an eco-opportunist, critics sneer. Oh, yeah, and one of music's towering figures of the past 20 years. Shame he didn't die young - he'd be a legend.
Sting doesn't live in a two-up two down in Newcastle upon Tyne. He doesn't even live in a city mansion once owned by some minor lord. No, Mr Gordon Sumner, ex school teacher; ex-singer for The Police, environmental activist, friend of world leaders, actor and musician, lives in a Jacobean castle. With servants, vast grounds and the smell of success. So what? Well, exactly, except that it occupies the minds of so many people, from tabloid journalists to other musicians. It's as if this is the ultimate up yours (according to his critics) or just sheer bloody gall.
That undercurrent of resentment, of jealousy, which percolates through a lot of commentary about Sting, of course predates his ascent to the landed gentry. It was there when, in his songs, he started name dropping the authors he valued (what, reading?), when he took up various causes, when he started playing with jazz musicians. But it is the money that riles so many. He has it, he spends it. As he once put it: "Those days are over, you don't have to sell your body to the night." And you know what? He doesn't care what you or anyone else says about it.
"I know what it's like to be poor," Sting says calmly. "And I've got no interest in seeing it again. Absolutely not."
You get the feeling, in hearing the accusations about Sting - intellectual wanker, pretentious musical wally, boring old fart - that it comes down to the one thing. Ideally, our rock stars die young and get mythologised. But, if they live, we want them dumb. We want them poor. We want them angry about something, or nothing, but angry nonetheless. Sting won't play the game.
"I hardly consider myself as an intellectual," he demurs. "But I am what I am, I make no apology about what I am. People either respond to me or they don't, but they don't have to."
He then starts to laugh, a small laugh which betrays very little, if any, contrivance despite the appearance of the words: "I don't have to be loved by everybody, I don't care that much, really."
But can you be angry enough to change minds, change the world, if you lack for nothing? "Well, I'm still angry about a number of things but I don't think it's a major part of the front that I present any more," he says. "I think it's fine to be an angry young man, it's perfectly laudable to be idealistic and all of that, but when you get to a certain age it gets boring, repetitive, you get trapped in this angry loop, this 'If I'm not happy then no-one should be'. I'm so blessed in my life in many different ways. I have to be honest, I'm actually a happy guy. I don't sing about happiness all that often. I don't think my songs are about 'I love you and you love me,' the words are dark, but they are written from a perspective of someone who is happy. I mean, I've had enough misery and sadness in my life to last me the rest of my life and I've got enough to process in songs for the rest of my life."
Sting has been talking about himself for so many years that he has practised all permutations of personal disclosure. You can hear the smoothness in delivery, the well-structured anecdote that suggests he has mastered the politician's art of answering the question he wanted, not necessarily the one you asked. But, at the same time, he has never been shy about revealing the very structures of his intellectual, musical and emotional life. That includes everything from the vaguely comical tantric sex (wherein he has boasted he could sustain his erection for five hours) to the shock and mind-shifting force of losing his parents (the subject of his near concept album, 'Soul Cages', in 1991). Therefore when he begins to answer a question about the relative optimism of his work (both lyrically and musically) since 'Soul Cages', the initial feeling is that you are getting the obvious response. But the subtext is more revealing.
"I like the idea of evolution, I like the idea that I might be able to evolve as a musician as well as a person," he says. "And they're both linked. My evolution as a musician has a lot to do with my evolution as a person and if it seems more positive to the listener then I'm very happy. I think music has the power to heal, ultimately. It's a very powerful influence, you shouldn't discount that. I think musicians who stay the course actually learn about these things as they go, find that out, that it's healing for them."
Healing for whom, the listener or the musician?
"Both. First and foremost for the musician himself. When you meet older musicians, in their 60s or 70s, you see they have the spark of youth still. The music gives that to you. That sense of wonder about music I want to continue to have."
The sense of wonder is one leg of the Sting story: The sense which was awakened by Otis Redding and the other Stax soul men of the late'60s (recreated on his new album 'Mercury Falling', by the use of the original Stax brass section) and refuelled by his absorption of reggae in the mid '70s. The other leg is his ability to set himself goals and then single mindedly work to them. The sort of determination which had him sitting down as a teenager with Thelonious Monk albums knowing that, despite not understanding it yet, it was going to do him some good. The focus which saw him take up teaching because it was a job which allowed him nights for his music, and which drove him to London in 1976 with a pregnant wife and no immediate prospect of work because that was where music was being made. It is what always separated him from the live for the moment punks and post punks who sprayed their talent and their energies anywhere and everywhere. And it is what annoyed journalists, who are the biggest romantics of the rock'n'roll myth.
But what many of those who see only ego have neglected to observe is that this calculated approach has always involved a recognition of what Sting needed around him: the best musicians. Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland weren't just a pick-up pair. The Police's songs depended as much on Copeland's busy high-hat driven fills and rhythm and Summers's shimmering guitar parts as they did on Stings melody-line bass and his striking voice.
And when he chose, post-Police, to investigate jazz and soul - and now, even country - it has been with musicians such as Branford Marsalis and the staples of his band, the great pianist Kenny Kirkland, guitarist Dominic Miller, and Frank Zappa alumnus drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.
So the decision to move to a castle in England's Wiltshire region was not just the whim of a man with wealth variously estimated at anything up to $80 million. If nothing else it has served its purpose in the ambience of this new album. Recorded in the high-ceilinged, panelled-wall rooms of his home, 'Mercury Falling' is a softer, even gentler effort than the challenging but intriguing 'Ten Summoners Tales' album of 1993. Written in a plain hut overlooking the river, some distance from the house. Its floor is bare, save for a plain scatter rug, and a small pot-bellied stove provides the warmth which is never quite enough to encourage him to shed his heavy coat in winter.
"I wrote the songs going for long walks and finding my spirit there aided the record," Sting says. "For somebody who spent 20 years in hotel rooms, to be working at home, kids coming in from school, to be able to walk the dog in the garden, to me is profound pleasure. Having spent all my life travelling, to find somewhere where you say, 'I'd like to die here', that's something special."
No longer the King Of Pain, he explains this further in 'I Was Brought To My Senses', a love song which also reflects his overwhelming feel of senses working overtime in this environment. "I walked out this morning / It was like a veil had been removed from before my eyes / For the first time I saw the work of heaven / In the line where the hills had been married to the sky".
Away from the work of heaven, Sting's more earthly pursuits continue to provide grist for the mill of the critics. In the mid-'80s he took up both the Amazon forests and Amnesty International, playing concerts, founding the Rainforest Foundation (which has spent more than $3 million on social and education programs for the indigenous Indians of the Amazon) and using his media profile to directly pressure the Brazilian Government.
Along the way he was accused of being a naive do-gooder, an opportunist and self publicist, but a decade of involvement (he still does a Rainforest concert each year, for example) suggests otherwise. And he can point to some substantial achievements.
"With the Rainforest Foundation (we achieved) something very specific," he says. We set up to demarcate a large area of land probably about the size of NSW - this piece of forest that we saved, and we did it. It has been so successful that it has been used as a model now in other areas - Madagascar, Thailand, Africa. We've won a couple of battles, but the war isn't over."
You wonder whether he has ever been tempted to fight that war closer to the heat, politically speaking. Although never a member of the anti Thatcher/pro-Labour Party musical force Red Wedge - which featured Paul Weller and Billy Bragg among its members - he can claim friends among the ranks of politicians such as Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.
He laughs when asked about political ambition, "doing a Glenda" (as in Jackson, the actor turned UK Labour politician). But his answer is in tune with a man who has always known just how far he wanted to go, how much he could achieve and how much good it would do him.
"I'm a singer, that's what I do, this is my job. Singer to politician is not an obvious transition to me at all," he says.
"Artists have to tell the truth, that's what people listen to us for. Political parties don't tell the truth; no one expects a political party to tell the truth and stay in power, therefore aligning yourself with a political party is dangerous. I'll vote for a political party as a member of the public, but standing up there and saying 'this is my party' is something entirely different because you have no power over that party."
© The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)