The following article by Phil Sutcliffe appeared in the October 1996 issue of Q
Do us a favour! You, sir, are the tantric titan of tunesmanship. Bawdy baron of blokedom. Gorgeous god of... oh stop it. In Seattle, pondering the last 10 years, Sting assures Phil Sutcliffe, "I'm going to spend all my money before I die."
Between a midnight skyful of stars and the sparkling carpet of Seattle's city lights a small jet-plane winks and twinkles. Within, knee to knee in the rather dowdy and over-intimate confinement of a four-seater at 28,000 feet, sit Sting, his co-manager Kim Turner, and Q. The stewardess, Darcy, glamorous as a Bond girl, smilingly asks after her clients' beverage requirements on this short hop to Vancouver, then struggles to maintain her dignity as she twists, crawls and shuffles aft, bent double, to serve them.
Sting's eyes close and his head droops. He'll be up again in five hours for a video shoot and there's another gig in the evening. Incandescently healthy as he is, he looks a tad hollowed.
An hour earlier he was playing to 20,000 people at The Gorge, an al fresco amphitheatre perched on the lip of the majestic Columbia River valley and miles from anywhere substantial. It's probably the most spectacular rock venue in the world and certainly the only one with a golf driving range that features biodegradable balls.
But, of course, Sting yields nothing to the beauty of the setting, his own superb physique, displayed in a pre-gig yoga session, being a perfect match for Nature's finest.
Midway through the set Sting asked for a volunteer to step up and sing with him. It's a routine he's been running since a Philadelphia show when a bloke in the front row held up a banner saying, "Sting, please let me sing 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' with you". He did, and he kept it in the act because it worked, even when the volunteer turned out to be a tone-deaf duffer.
However, tonight's candidate, a baggy-shorted, shambling fellow called Nate, learns mike technique in one ("Press it against your lips, Nate", "Oh, Hi, howyadoin'!") then really does know all the words and clings fiercely to the tune throughout. At the end the crowd chant "Nate! Nate! Nate!". In the wings, their new hero signs a legally required "release" form and, when proffered the requisite $1 minimum fee by Turner protests, "But I didn't do it for the money!"
Sting's been giving it away like this, encouraging "audience participation", since he was a trainee nobody in Newcastle. When he was a bus conductor, on the last Friday night ride from North Shields to the Ridges estate - notorious in the early '90s as the home of ram-raiding - to promote a cheery alternative to inter-passenger bottlings and head-butting he'd clown it up and get everyone singing. When he was a teacher, he didn't know much about algebra, but he'd hand out every instrument in the music cupboard and start a racket that would make the kids laugh and, he hoped, start to lose their fear of music.
But, of course, he was always quite clear that such shared entertainment demanded someone special stage centre, someone to free the people, so to speak. A star in fact.
From there to here took several seven-league strides: local band Last Exit; The Police, undoubtedly the biggest band in the world for a year or two, who officially broke up 10 years ago, their differences somewhat more pugilistic than musical; the self-styled "fairly singular course" of Sting's solo career.
He played with Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen and Pavarotti, acted on Broadway in 'The Threepenny Opera' and with Meryl Streep and the Sirs Ian McKellen and John Gielgud in movies. On behalf of Amnesty International and Brazilian rainforest Indians, he lobbied presidents, kings and the Pope. Further, of late, via ingestion of a natural and legal Amazonian drug called Dead Man's Root, he reckons to have engaged in a metaphysical meet and greet with those supernatural celebs Death and God.
Being Sting, he found it all very educational.
It's 105 degrees outside, even hotter inside Sting's prefab cabin. The air-conditioning's on the blink. He doesn't shout at anyone, he takes his shirt off - yogic inner peace, no doubt shaded by awareness that Q's photographer and his own film crew are shooting the interview. He begins to talk about the last ten years. He's so quiet he demands proximity; a shameless old seductress when it comes down to it.
He's very happy. Good family, successful career, immense wealth. No incipient varicose veins, piles, incontinence? Nothing to speak of, he says. And to deserve all these blessings, he argues, he must, at least be happy in return.
Nonetheless, while he firmly rejects charges of man-who-has-it-all complacency, doesn't he also seem to take a "no regrets" line on almost everything? "Whatever's happened it leads to this moment now," he says. "I can't regret it because I learnt from it. I leant how to behave, that's what made me, selfishly speaking. I do allow myself to regret negative effects on those around me."
You've crapped on people?
He pauses. Weighs it. Decides to move on from manifesto declaration to true-life experience: "At the beginning of this 10 years I was involved in divorce, not only my marriage but the band. They were both destroyed by my will, basically. Guilty. I hurt people. I've spent the last 10 years justifying, if you like, that...pain."
"Justifying" in what sense?
"Trying to make it right. Trying to make sense of it. Trying, uh, at least to prove to myself that my instincts were correct even though what I did was more messy and more painful than it should have been. I've tried to build the bridges back to the people I left 10 years ago, the marriage and the band. It hasn't been easy. But I changed my life and my way of thinking and became a better person."
Never a bad idea - if you can pull it off. But the Sting way to self-improvement is to both work at it and take reasonably controllable risks. Bach on the piano for up to an hour and a half a day because he knows it's aesthetically good for him even though it sounds "as if I'm wearing gloves". Two hours of ferociously bendy ashtana a hatha yoga. And, intermittently, the more chancy approach with Dead Man's Root.
Further, he's put himself about socially, not just among his peers but with a number of much older men: Quentin Crisp (subject of 'An Englishman In New York'), Gil Evans (late, great jazz arranger), Raoni (the Kayapo Indian chief), Larry Adler (who played harmonica on 'Ten Summoner's Tales').
"I suppose I've been looking for father figures," he concludes, obviously enough. "I don't mean consciously. Not 'Quentin's out of town I must find some other old bloke to talk to'. Maybe it's some way of preparing to be an old codger yourself."
Sting's parents died within five months of one another in 1987, both of cancer, both in their fifties, having separated a few years earlier. Sting took a tabloid pasting because he didn't attend the funerals. He thought he was protecting his family and himself from a media circus, but now he feels that staying away may have harmed him.
"What was extraordinary was that I really felt unable to mourn," he says. "I mean just crying. I didn't shed one tear about my father's death or my mother's death. I was totally bewildered by that. I was expecting it. It was, Okay, I'm ready. But I couldn't. I couldn't. I don't know why. I realised that I had to do something to, uh, bring this stuff out. And my only source of that kind of release is music.
"But for two years I couldn't write. I'd did anything to distract myself. (He launched the Rainforest Foundation and appeared in 'The Threepenny Opera' during that period). Finally, when I finished 'The Soul Cages' and I was alone in the studio and I played the album, I wept, I completely lost it. I felt better after that.
"There's a polarity of feeling about that record. It was roundly panned by the critics, but some people got it: The recently bereaved write to me about it. There's always a market (laughs). Small; but steady. People say, My brother died, or, My parents died, and the record helped me.
"My father was... snatched away from me at the wrong time. For me and for him. It was just at the point when I was beginning to make my journey home and understand my parents more - the decisions they made, the way they behaved - as an adult man, as a father myself I felt cheated, I felt angry that they'd allowed themselves to be taken like that. I know it's standard.
"Having written the songs, what I learnt was to forgive myself for my part in it and forgive my father and my mother for what they did that hurt me.
"I miss my parents. When I'm with my sons I feel there's someone behind me (glances over his shoulder, just checking). I tell my sons, At this moment, I'm missing my father. (Laughs) I suppose I'm telling them they should appreciate me while I'm here. I think they understand, though. They can learn from it. They'll have to."
Of course, Sting has been called "philoprogenitive" without fear of a libel suit. So how is he as a father ? "It's something I take extremely seriously, given that I'm not a normal father coming home from the office every night. If I give them anything consciously, it's the sense that I have a job which I love. I tell them I'd do it for nothing, and they should try to find work which they love too. Work defines you. Work is your self-esteem. It's you. Find that work and you'll be happy."
How do they deal with your wealth?
"They know they're privileged and that there's a responsibility which goes with privilege. You can't escape that. I've also told them, Don't assume that whatever money I have is yours. I have long arguments with my ten-year-old about this. He says, You've got plenty of money. I say, Yes, but it's mine. I'm going to spend it all before I die. You've got to earn your own. In a funny way, I'm trying to get him out of the trap of thinking that he's a rich kid and he can just waste his life."
Are there areas in which wealth and the natural wish to do your best for your children have made you go against the socialist political principles you've always held?
"No. But on education I had to work out some rationale to come to terms with my beliefs. I have put my kids through private school because no state school available to them was much good. That's about the government spending a large chunk of our tax money on schools and paying teachers a decent wage. I am a socialist and I think everyone deserves the best education, but I'm glad I did everything I could to help my children."
Indeed, Sting and Trudie Styler got married primarily for the sake of their children. The vagueness of their romantic post-hippy explanations about "renewing their commitment every day" wouldn't wash with the kids.
"They wanted to feel we would be together forever," he says. "But I'd made those vows before and broken them and I was terribly afraid that the relationship we'd had for 10 years would be changed by any formalisation. In the end, though, we enjoyed it and nothing changed except that Trudie got more respect. Even in the '90s that ring on the finger still works."
Three years in, Sting has gone so far as to advocate a heinous breach of the rock'n'roll Code Of Practice: monogamy.
"I'm sure we're genetically programmed to impregnate as many women as we can," he allows. "But as Katherine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart (in The African Queen), Mr Allnut, human nature is something we're put here to rise above."
Nate's number, 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', a story of divorce, depression and, eventual recovery from "the darkness", finds Sting taking his turn with the children in a park "full of Sunday fathers".
"I've been there," he says, picking at a well-worn acoustic. "But I was usually being chased by a posse from the Fourth Estate (he casts a momentarily beady eye at the cameramen) so I needed ... my own park!"
He laughs fit to fall off the sofa. Partly at himself, because he's fully aware of the rock'n'roll cliché he coined when he signed the deed to his 15th-century mansion and estate, Lake House in Wiltshire.
"I bought it for a song," he says, with another big guffaw at this corking pun. "I'm totally unashamed. I grew up in a council house and I never thought I'd own my own home at all. Although I do remember one day when we'd just moved to London in 1977; we were sleeping on the floor of some flat in Battersea and I took Joe, who was about four months old, across the bridge in a pushchair. We walked along Chelsea Embankment and I looked up at all those luxury apartments and said, Joe, one day we'll own a big house like that. He said, Yes, Dad.
"I'm a city boy. But about four years ago I had this urge to grow food, a fantasy about buying a piece of land, planting seeds and watching them grow. When we found this amazing house I just thought, f*** it, I want to live here. It's a wonderful place for my children to grow up in, I make records there, the family lives there, it's a retreat, a great place to have parties in. I spend so much of my life in hotels, I needed something that really was home. I want to die there."
Although he's perfectly clear that Lake House represents consumption of a particularly conspicuous kind, Sting was quite prepared to flaunt it for Melvyn Bragg and The South Bank Show's cameras earlier this year. Does he have any reservations about being loaded?
"I would feel guilty if I lived off unearned income that daddy had left me (he drops in a posh accent, remnant of traditional Geordie class aggro). But I've earned every penny. I've sweated f***ing hard for it. I think you have to. I don't believe human beings are set up psychologically to readily accept anything that's free."
Of course, three years ago he discovered that his accountant had defrauded him of £6 million, and when the miscreant refused the offered opportunity to return the cash without recourse to the law, Sting sought (successfully) to retrieve it with what he calls "great tenacity". But, in his teens, hadn't he ever declaimed that "All property is theft"?
"Chauvin wrote that. Mmm. I think the words have passed my lips. If I had abused anybody to make my money, if somebody had been cheated or bullied, I'd feel guilty, but the fact is I've made money out of giving people enjoyment. I'm very proud of that."
Sting's Chauvin/Proudhon mix-up notwithstanding, what's the biggest sum of money he's ever given away? "I just paid the Inland Revenue a vast sum," he chortles.
Sting the public figure has lately begun something of a transition. Generally, he used to be even better known for worthy political activities that were endlessly questioned by cynics than for his music.
Live Aid, Artists Against Apartheid, the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, the Amnesty International Human Rights Now ! world tour, the Rainforest Foundation: he rode a whole stable of hobbyhorses. Some admired. More, it seemed, thought him a "pretentious wanker". The label stuck and wounded even his seemingly bullet-proof self-assurance.
"The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood," he says, "the idea that you do it to advance your career."
On the rainforest campaign, the carping was particularly relentless.
"All the same, eventually the criticism did evaporate simply because I stayed in it this long. It was all shit, utter crap. Nasty. Here's a rock star doing something he shouldn't, let's get him. But they didn't get me. I stuck to my guns and, lo and behold, they leave me alone."
He concluded some time ago that the value celeb publicity for the rainforest tribes was exhausted. The Foundation achieved the demarcation of the Kayapos' land and continues its work in the Amazon basin and elsewhere, thanks mainly to the annual $1.6 million raised by a Carnegie Hall benefit organised by the wife. But, for a couple of years, his withdrawal from media campaigning on the issue left something of a vacuum in public awareness of an extra-musical Sting - until sex and drugs came along and a more good-time, bolshie, controversial, if you must, "pretentious wanker" emerged.
Two years ago in Q, being arseholed, he boasted to Bob Geldof that yogic discipline enabled him to "keep it up" for five hours at a time - as compared to Saint Bob's untutored 10 seconds, it transpired. Of course, the tabloids lapped it up and, ever since, Sting has been developing this new legend with unbridled creative enthusiasm. In a recent Q Diary his poker-faced prose even lulled some readers into overexcited credulity when he wrote of a "session" with his wife in which they overcame the difficulties presented by her broken foot: "I find her crutches incredibly sexy. They make her look so vulnerable. Fell asleep wondering, Am I a pervert?"
However, "There is a serious core to all of this," he rejoins, rather disappointingly, and proceeds to expound, re ancient sexual wisdom, the shortcomings of the gigglesome British knee-trembler with its attendant disregard for the female orgasm, and so on until it's plain this campaign should be conducted solely in soft-porn double-entendre terms.
He then proceeds to deny that his yogic onslaught and subsequent interventions in favour of decriminalising all drugs were "strategic" endeavours to reposition his image. Rather, he's simply hanging looser these days regardless of whether this curries widespread disfavour - arguably, moving out to the fringes of popular opinion, becoming a colourful eccentric perhaps.
"But that's what democracy is," insists Sting. "You're allowed to say exactly what you feel. I won't be shut up."
Oddly enough, talk of his outsider's stance on various social issues leads on to the unsurprising admission that he feels "marginalised" in the music world.
"I don't think I've ever been the darling of a particular group of people," he says, apparently a touch resentful. "I don't think I have a constituency. I sell a lot of records and tickets, but I don't inspire an amazing amount of devotion like David Bowie, say. People like my records, but I don't get stalked, I don't invite hysteria, I don't get chased down the street."
That doesn't sound like such a bad deal.
"Oh no, I'm happy about it. It means I can lead a fairly normal life, a citizen's life."
In your first Q interview you said, "I'm sure that one day mass appeal and my personal taste will separate." Given 'Mercury Falling's' sales dip, has that day come?
"It may be round the corner, but the game on 'Mercury Falling' isn't over. We've sold about three million world-wide so far. It's not an instantly loveable record, it's quite dense and difficult. I'm not off in left-field with a 12-tone scale and three people in the audience just yet, though."
Could he see himself in 10 or 20 years playing a small hall, the seating selectively occupied?
"Maybe. I'll go on playing anyway. If rows of empty seats is it, that's what I'll do. I hope I can retain my sense of humour about it (laughs uncertainly). Eventually, it'll come down to entertaining the dog I suppose. He likes me. Tail wags every time I play."
Still, being a person who talks almost as good a song as he writes, there is no evident reason why he shouldn't hit the lucrative lecture circuit if pop per se ever lets him down. You want sweeping music theories? You got' em.
"A few weeks ago I did a show for VH-1 called Storytellers where you talk about your music," he enthuses. "In doing that, I found something out about song structure. Basically in the first verse the lyric sets up what's usually a negative situation. You're down and low and all alone. The second verse moves on to something more symbolic: is this what life's about, does everyone feel like this? Then, if you're obeying the rules, the middle eight forces you into a harmonic change which should be reflected in a thematic change in the story. In a perfect song, that will lead to a key change which makes you look for a way out musically and lyrically. You can't write a third verse about still being down in the dumps.
"So the rules of pop song structure will force you into some kind of catharsis, the thing will move. It's therapy. It puts the songwriter and the listener into a state of grace.
"I deconstructed 'Every Breath You Take', my most popular song. It does obey all the rules, except that the twist is there's no escape: it's circular, this guy is trapped and enjoying it. That's why it's a dark song. But what I've learnt in the last ten years is to try to make songs that do have that escape, that catharsis, which is good for me and good for the listener."
You mean you won't follow the pattern of your most successful song?
"If I wrote it now I think I would make it move on, break the guy out of the cycle he's in. I've been thinking about music and spiritually a lot. Musicians are basically the lowest of the low, philandering, wife-beating, drug-taking scumbags. But there's something at the heart of our work which is close to God. Or whatever. The more you go into music, the more deeply spiritual it becomes."
But what do you mean by "spirituality"?
"I suppose in anybody's job, whether you're a journalist or a cameraman or a musician, you get to the point where you ask, What am I doing? And then, Why are we here?
"I have this industry round me, hundreds of people, an infrastructure of accountants, lawyers, managers, sound engineers, all paying their mortgages or whatever on my tenuous ability to match rhyming couplets with melodies. It's a tiny fragile, little membrane. And I have to ask, How am I doing this and why am I doing this and what is it for?
"The answer I've come up with is, This is what I'm meant to do, this is what I'm here for. It's hard to put into words, but I think spirituality is that question, Why are we here ? We're here to ask that question and try to find the answer through work."
The stars look down. Over at the driving range another box of biodegradable golf balls soar out into the gorge. Sting leans on a fence, looking out over the great valley, at his ease mere moments before he's due on.
He remarks that the stage is his "living room", No fear, no nerves, no worries.
© Q magazine