The following article by Gerri Hirshey appeared in a September 2003 issue of Parade
Early in his career, Sting lived the life of a rock rebel. Now, the former front man of The Police reflects on what matter most to him...
Early in his career, Sting lived the life of a rock rebel. Now, the former front man of The Police reflects on what matter most to him. "Family Is The Key To My Happiness".
I was the least likely to end up with this sort of life," Sting says. He is standing on the oceanfront deck of his Malibu beach house - an adobe pleasure dome formerly owned by actor Larry Hagman. (Leo DiCaprio has the shack next door.) Inside, a film crew is preparing to shoot a DVD that will accompany his new album, 'Sacred Love', to be released next month. "It ain't Newcastle", he jokes over the crash of the Pacific surf. "The water view is a bit brighter here."
As a child in the dreary Wallsend section of that British shipbuilding city, he would watch the huge ships grow in the yards at the end of Gerald Street. "One after the other, they would sail off to exotic ports, or so I imagined", recalls Sting, who was born Gordon Sumner in 1951. "And we'd still be there. Marooned, it seemed."
The first of four children of Ernest Sumner, a milkman, and his wife, Audrey, a hairdresser, Sting says he felt landlocked by poverty and the rigid limits of the British class system. Just how he made his escape and reinvented himself as a one-named global rock star is very much on his mind today, at 51. He is putting the finishing touches on an autobiography as unconventional as his music, which has incorporated everything from cool jazz to exotic Algerian Rai singing to Nashville pedal steel guitar. Working on the book, due out this November, "has been a great release for me," he says. "It's about this transformation of mine, how this whole thing happened." And he's more than happy, on this sunny afternoon, to give a sneak preview of a few of his hard-won life lessons.
Rule One: "If you want to know yourself, forget the parts that tabloids thrive on. I kept diaries all along the so-called rise to success. I scribbled everything down - the mad rock star adventures, the exotic travel, the parties and big names. I reread them and thought, 'What was I on?' They were useless. They told me nothing about who I was. I had to start from scratch."
The story he wanted to tell is not about his last 25 years as Sting - the permanent nickname he acquired by wearing a beelike black and yellow striped jersey in a jazz band. It's not about the exploits of the spiky-haired blond icon who has earned 16 Grammy Awards and sold 95 million records as bassist and lead singer for the rock trio The Police, then as a solo artist. Nor is it about his elegant homes in Britain, Tuscany and the U.S. or his lush life as a jet-setting but doting daddy of six children (Joe, 26, and Kate, 21, by his first wife, Frances Tomelty: and daughters Mickey, 19, and Coco, 13, and sons Jake, 18, and Giacomo, 7, by his second wife, actress and producer Trudie Styler).
"It's not a celebrity book," he says. "It only takes me up to age 25, on the verge of making it. It's really the story of my parents more than anything else." Sting's new life and celebrity world had so distanced him from his parents, he says, that when both died of cancer within a year of one another in 1987-88, "I didn't shed one tear. I was bewildered by that. But I couldn't. I realized that I had to do something to bring this stuff out." He broke through a two-year writing block in the wake of his parents' deaths with a 1991 album called 'The Soul Cages', written in part about his father. And the record's first line was certainly close to home: "Billy was born within sight of the shipyard." Sting finally found himself weeping in the recording studio. Filming the accompanying video in Newcastle was a healing, if bittersweet, homecoming without the elder Sumners. Sting has dedicated albums to each of them. And now, in his book, he says, "I hope, in some way, to honor their lives."
Which brings us to Sting's next "But not least" basic lesson. Rule Two: "Family, past and present, is the key to my daily life and my happiness today. But it you'd have told me that at 19 - even 25 - I'd have thought you were barking mad. I had to travel great - immense - distances to figure out what home really means." In fact, Sting ran from his roots, as far and fast as he could. "I was unhappy, feeling very alienated as a child," he recalls. "I wasn't ill-treated. I just didn't feel I particularly belonged where I was. Everyone hates being poor, but worse for me was the feeling of having no options. My parents hadn't any, so why would I?"
From age 8, young Gordon rose dutifully to be at the dairy at 4 in the morning to help his dad with the milk rounds before school. But, as a very bright and curious boy, he was a bad fit at the stiflingly old-fashioned St. Cuthbert's Boys School. Since creativity was not encouraged in class, he channeled his energy into schoolboy pranks and impieties, earning himself what he describes as a record 42 beatings by the schoolmasters in one year. And he couldn't bring his frustrations home. "Nothing much got discussed at the kitchen table beyond 'pass the salt,"" he recalls. "My parents were of a class and generation that didn't share feelings or talk much. No one touched. Children weren't hugged. I know now that it wasn't for lack of love - they just hadn't a means of expressing it."
He has described Ernest Sumner as a hardworking, taciturn man who never seemed to notice his son's track trophies or academic achievements. Hustling to please his father on the milk rounds, Sting realized that he had inherited the same workingman hands: His own were large enough to grasp 10 empty milk bottles at one. But he had other plans for them. "As a teenager, I found they also wrapped easily around a guitar neck," he says. "I escaped into music, into playing the guitar, fantasizing about my heroes, like Miles Davis."
Finally, fate tossed him a critical lifeline: a scholarship to a fine private school. "It was a miracle, really," he says. "I got a good education and read like a madman - everything I could. I began to see a world outside that of my parents." He still listened to his mum's Buddy Holly records but discovered Thelonious Monk for himself at 17. "It's an old story, but education was the means of escape," he says. "That and a certain musical aptitude." He laughs. "And an absolutely burning desire to get out." But freedom had its price: "It only set me further apart," he says. "I traveled out of the neighborhood to a posh grammar school, wearing a posh uniform. I'd left my mates behind and begun a life very distant from my family's."
He left home at 19 to begin university, where he was still a happy hooligan by night, far too fond of "brownie", the local brown ale, and female students and faculty. He transferred to a teachers college, graduated and began cobbling a life between bar bands and "respectable" work. He played in a band on a cruise ship and taught English in a primary school. His 1976 marriage at 25 to actress Frances Tomelty would bring two children. But domesticity coincided with a new and volatile collaboration: He met Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland in 1977 and formed a new band, The Police.
Sting was still running from his past. He worked hard to lose his "Geordie" (Newcastle) accent and bleached his hair. Like so many rock rebels, he says he "fell fairly deeply into AA: Alienation and Anger. This can be hard on the loved ones, but I suppose history has proven it's often quite saleable."
As a songwriter, Sting expressed his brooding frustrations laced with witty literary references from all that reading, which served The Police well. In 1978, the trio's first hit, 'Roxanne', was a love song to a prostitute. 'Every Breath You Take' sounded like the dark confessions of a stalker. The title of another hit, 'King of Pain', proved all too apt: The band wasn't getting along. And by 1982, Sting and Tomelty had separated; he moved in with their mutual friend, Trudie Styler. The Police broke up two years later.
"Really, the sun came out with Trudie," Sting says. The babies began coming immediately. The Police reunited, happily, to play at the couple's wedding in 1992. During those first 10 years with Trudie, "I came to understand the value of home," Sting says. "Home for me is not the bricks and mortar, really. It's a firm relationship. And I've definitely had that with Trudie. That's kept me sane."
The song titles, like his life, have brightened, with hits like 'Fields of Gold' and 'Brand New Day'. Touring, though necessary, is no longer as lonely. "It took me nearly 30 years to get it right," he says. Sting has worked out a way to commute on tour - by private jet - that puts him in his own bed many nights. And to carve out more family time, Sting and Trudie clear their schedules every August so they can all be together in their home in Tuscany. Those are "the best of times," he says, adding that the best measure of a life well spent are the six younger Sumners.
"The most compliments I get are about my children and how well-behaved they are, what extraordinary human beings they are. Despite their father." He laughs. "They've all managed to become strong individuals and sure of themselves in the world." He thinks he knows Joe, his eldest child, best: "We have a lot in common. We toured together for a long time - he changed strings and things, roadie'd." Joe is now a guitarist in a rock band. "He's very good," says his father, grinning. "That's all I'm gonna say."
Mickey recently surprised, and pleased, her parents by taking a year off before university to work with AIDS orphans in Bangkok.
It's likely that Mickey learned some of her activist values at home. Both of her parents have been involved in humanitarian causes, notably The Rainforest Foundation, dedicated to protecting the forest and indigenous peoples of the Amazon. This June, Sting was honored by Queen Elizabeth as a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). Noting the honor, the London Times reported that "Sting has been a vigorous environmental fund-raiser and human-rights campaigner."
He also tries to be a hands-on dad, arranging special one-on-one escapes. This July, Sting trekked in Mustang, an isolated community in the mountains of Nepal, with his second oldest son. "Jake is 18, about to launch himself," he explains. "I just wanted to spend some time with him, to make sure he knows who I am and I know who he is. To be alone with your son is a very important thing. I've taken them all away at some point at about this age - when they're about to leave you. I took my daughter Kate to Bali, just she and I. It was fantastic."
Ask Sting for his most fundamental life lesson, and he says it's embedded in the first single due out from 'Sacred Love', called 'Send Your Love'. It was written during what he calls "the post-9/11 confusion." But it's optimistic: "I've found what's truly sacred in life's small things," he says. "My religion is simple things, like love for my family. Hopefully, the world can be changed through acts of kindness, acts of affection and love - the idea of doing normal, everyday things that actually have an effect down the line. Plant a tree, have a baby. Be kind. Because the opposite works as well. You can send your hatred to the future. And we all know the end result.
© Parade magazine