Sting is in a constant state of evolution, pushing himself to take risks while maintaining an almost mystical sense of self-awareness. This is one flexible man.
It's a brilliantly sunny - and blazingly hot - afternoon in the leafy Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and Sting is idly walking around on the stage of the Pavilion, an outdoor theatre that extends onto an expansive lawn. In a few hours, Sting and his band, with the support of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra of Britain, will perform the first of two sold-out shows as part of the town's prestigious Ravinia Festival. The Pavilion's 3,200 seats will be filled, and the lawn will be crowded with thousands of picnickers content to hear the music from afar while dining on gourmet fare lit by candelabras.
Right now, however, the seats and the lawn are empty, and everyone onstage is preparing for a sound check. Conductor Steve Mercurio chats with members of the orchestra, several of whom are concerned about having their instruments, worth tens of thousands of dollars in some instances, exposed for too long to the hot sun. On the other end of the spectrum, guitarist Dominic Miller, one of Sting's steady collaborators for 20 years, looks as if he awoke just moments ago. Lanky, pale, his hair dishevelled, his instrument dangling carelessly (and perfectly) on his hips, he wears the expression of luxurious boredom that rock musicians coolly affect for all occasions except playing.
Sting, meanwhile, wanders over to the conductor's bench at centre stage, straddles it, sits down and slowly lowers his back until he is lying flat. He puts his hands behind his head and lifts himself from the waist, turning first to one side, then to the other. His T-shirt rides up above his tight black jeans, exposing a slim band of taut stomach muscles. Sting's tanned face and muscular arms glisten in the 90-degree heat. He repeats the exercise until it's time to begin playing.
It is a perfect Sting gesture, at once sensual, unapologetically exhibitionistic and dauntingly efficient. After all, if you have a few spare moments before performing in font of thousands of fans, what better way to spend it than by slipping in a few impromptu stomach crunches in the crushing heat?
This is rock 'n' roll? Weren't rock stars supposed to burn the candle at both ends, burn out before they faded away? Sure, Sting, who is 59, looks, if anything, better than he did when he was the scrawny, spiky-haired lead singer of The Police, which he helped make one of the most successful bands in rock history.
Burning with passion after making music for three decades is one thing. But burning out is something that Sting has no intention of allowing to happen.
"Look at the people who still perform rock 'n' roll successfully onstage right now: Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop..." Sting hesitates for a moment, then smiles, adding, "and me. They're athletes. The old hard-living school of rock 'n' roll doesn't last very long. That's Janis Joplin. She lasted until she was 27. I'm in my 50s, those other guys are in their 60s, but we're still athletes.
"You have to make a choice," he continues. "You want to play music for a long time? You want to be energetic and do the job of a 25-year-old when you're 50? You can. But it takes discipline, a bit of vanity and a bit of scientific study."
For Sting, "scientific study" means the practice of yoga, which he has seriously pursued for more than two decades. If people are aware of that, it's often because Sting raised eyebrows and became the butt of endless jokes in the 1990s when in a Rolling Stone interview, he joked about how tantric yoga techniques enabled him and his wife, Trudie Styler, to have sex "for up to four or five hours at a time." He wisely avoids such claims these days, but he remains an ardent and articulate proponent of yoga's benefits (as does Styler, who released a DVD, Trudie Styler's Warrior Yoga, last year).
Ten days after his concert in Illinois, Sting relaxes in his dressing room before a performance at the Jones Beach Theatre in Wantagh, Long Island, outside of New York City. It is late afternoon, and the room is lit by candles and shaded lamps. Sting sits on a couch and munches on a snack.
"I've studied yoga for 22 years," he says. "And what I've learned in that time is that the problem the body has is one of conditioning. The reason that we talk ourselves into being inflexible or stiff is a conditioning of the mind. We tell ourselves that. It's the mind that's controlling everything. Yoga is really about deconditioning the mind, getting the mind to surrender, so that the body can achieve its fullest potential and movement."
Sting makes no distinction among what he sees as the physical, spiritual and psychological advantages of yoga. They are inextricably linked, and, in his view, progress or stagnation in one realm inevitably affects the others in his view. "If you have an inflexible body, your mind is not flexible either," he says. "It is one thing. You see this inflexibility in the way the political system works - I wish politicians would do yoga. Yoga tends to open things out - literally."
To extend that line of thinking further, Sting believes supposed dichotomy between the mind and the body is an entirely false distinction. "They're the same thing," he says. "The mind is part of the body - or at least the brain is. If the mind is separate from the body, then that's a serious problem!"
He laughs. "I think that the vehicle for the discovery of consciousness, for exploring different aspects of consciousness, is the body," he continues. "We're given these tools - our hands, our legs, our brains - to explore. It's weird to me that people think they're different things." In conclusion, he simply states: "I'm a yogi."
He's also a world-class singer and songwriter, and the same restless exploration that drives his yoga practice has been a central motif in his long musical career. That first became clear when he left The Police in 1983, when the band was at the peak of its fame. It's hard to think of another rock star who has made a move remotely as bold. "It was an odd, completely illogical choice to make," he admits. "If you're in the biggest band in the world, what do you do? You stay in the biggest band in the world. But that's not what I do. I go the opposite way. I go, 'OK, I've got the biggest band in the world. Now, what's next? What's over that hill?' "
Since then, he's worked hard to reinvent himself time and time again, refusing to allow commercial success or the expectations of fans or critics to determine his artistic direction. His first step after The Police was to assemble a band of top-tier jazz musicians and nudge his music in that direction. After that, in addition to reeling off such indelible hits as "Desert Rose," "Fields of Gold" and "All This Time," he has made albums that centred on English Renaissance folk songs (Songs from the Labyrinth), the mysterious music of the winter solstice (If on a Winter's Night . . .); and, most recently, orchestral arrangements of his own songs (Symphonicities, which came out in July and will be followed by a DVD/live album slated for release late this month). He's acted both onstage and in films, and as a political activist, he's achieved an international reputation for his efforts on behalf of the environment and human rights.
He even reunited The Police for a massive world tour, though that did not prove fully satisfying. "It was an interesting experiment, to try to go back 30 years and recreate what we had then," he says. "And I think to a large extent we did. People enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it, too. But for me, it wasn't progress. It was an exercise in nostalgia, an exercise in creating something that had already been. That's not really what I'm interested in doing. I'm interested in moving forward. Forward momentum is very important."
And sustaining that propulsion requires taking chances. "I don't think that anything that doesn't involve a risk is worth doing," he says. "There needs to be some element of danger, some element of me completely failing, for the thing to be worthwhile. When you succeed against that, it feels so much better. So I like being challenged. I like doing things that are difficult."
It was in that intrepid spirit that, at Sting's diabolical urging, I climbed onstage during a sound check at Jones Beach to join him and a few fans whom he'd also conscripted to sing "Englishman in New York" backed by his band and the full orchestra. "Anthony, come on up," he chided from centre stage. "I love to see a music critic onstage. It'll be good for you - you'll see what it's like!"
I reached back to grade school choir and my years in high school fronting a rock band to belt out the song's lilting chorus: "Be yourself, no matter what they say/I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien/I'm an Englishman in New York." Sting put his arm around me. "Hey, you can sing," he said, smiling broadly, both amused and amazed. "We've got some talent here!" Now if I can only motivate myself to do more of those stomach crunches, I might really be on my way.
Whether or not that unlikely day ever arrives, however, Sting will continue on his own creative path, an ambitious, seeking spirit in a body challenged to its highest possibilities. "What drives me more than anything is curiosity," he says, "a sense that you can never really get to the end of music. It's an eternal journey. You think you know a lot, but the more you find out, the more you realize you don't know anything. It's a constant source of curiosity and search. And wonder."
© Delta Sky Magazine by Anthony DeCurtis