07.17.00 THE NATIONAL POST


The following article by Jeff Breithaupt appeared in a July 2000 issue of The National Post newspaper...

Tantric sting - With a 22-year rock'n'roll career under his belt, a sixth solo album and a Canadian tour coming up, Sting goes head-to-head with the rapsters and boy bands.

"Shock. Horror. Titillation." Sting is on the phone from Budapest, where his 18-month world tour has settled for a one-night stand, and he's recalling the reaction to "the Tantric sex episode," wherein he, in a moment of boozy braggadocio, made a loose-lipped boast that inadvertently floated tantric thought onto the world stage.

"[Bob] Geldof and I were drunk one lunchtime in a club in London," he told the Weekend Post, "and, as old rock stars do when they're drunk, we tend to bulls***. Well, we totally forgot that there was a journalist present who was taking everything down verbatim. Then this story went 'round the world that we were having seven-hour sex - not Bob and I, of course - and I didn't deny it. I just sort of played it for all it was worth because it was so funny. Now people ask me about it, and I say, 'Well, seven hours includes dinner and a movie... a very long movie."

For Sting, whose career longevity - he's been a rock star for 22 years - is (almost) as impressive as his alleged potential in the bedroom, it must be vaguely reassuring that a macho quip like that can still make the rounds. "I've had a lot of fun with it," admits the 48-year-old.

His ongoing relevance, however, is better measured by the more than four million copies of 'Brand New Day', his excellent, sixth solo album, that have sold worldwide since its release last fall. Supported by the current tour, which runs through Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto during the first week of July, then Vancouver later in the month, the album has enjoyed its own level of tantric performance. It's been a fixture on the Billboard chart for 37 weeks, never moving higher than No. 15, but never slipping out of the Top 50, either. (Most recently, it was at No. 31.)

"I'd much rather have that than a quick burn up the charts and then gone," says Sting. "It's much more satisfying to have them stick around. It allows the music to grow in people's minds, and also, in my experience, performing them live, the songs have a longer life."

A couple of key tracks have maintained the album's steady chart pulse. Its title piece, an upbeat celebration of romantic rebirth, was adopted as an anthem for the new millennium ("we turn the clock to zero, honey... "), and a single from the album, 'Desert Rose', has recently been added to the playbill of radio stations around the world. The latter, which features a memorable guest vocal from Algerian singer Cheb Mami, practically aches with romantic longing, while successfully fusing rock and world music into a seamless, powerful whole. "And there it is," says an obviously tickled Sting, "back-to-back with all the boy bands and the rap."

Although temporarily locked into life on the road, the former Police chief has cultivated a rich personal life, one that seems capable of surviving the long absences and rigours of the lifestyle. "I've been on the road for 25 years," he says. "It's my job. My wife [actress and documentary film producer Trudie Styler] knew that she was marrying a travelling musician. It's not as if it was a big surprise to her. Yeah, there are hardships and there's loneliness, but this is what I do."

When he's not on the road, Sting has a home in every port. He and Styler own a number of properties, including a New York apartment that the couple bought from Billy Joel; a 16th-century mansion in Wiltshire; a London townhouse; a Tuscan palazzo in the hills outside Florence; a palatial home in Paris; and a beach house in Malibu. "To pay for that life, I have to go on the road. But I love my work. I'm defined by my work."

He's also defined by his six children, two from his first marriage to Frances Tomelty, and four from his marriage to Styler. "It's a whole spread," Sting laughs, "three boys and three girls from ages 4 to 24. The younger ones benefit from hand-me-down wisdom. I think I'm a better father than I used to be. I'm more attuned to their needs, just through experience."

His own childhood in working class Newcastle is in marked contrast to the privileged, cosmopolitan upbringing that his offspring enjoy. Gordon Matthew Sumner, as he was once named, was one of four children growing up in the shadow of a shipyard, just across town from a coal mine. His father, a milkman, and his mother, a homemaker, were determined their children would receive the higher education that they had missed.

It was his mother, Audrey, who first brought rock 'n' roll records by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis into the Sumner household. And it was his mother who encouraged him when he began to pick away at the guitar owned by his uncle, John Sumner, who had left the instrument behind after emigrating to Canada.

By the time he was 18, Sumner found himself "in a trad band, playing Dixieland music with people much older." He took to wearing a black-and-gold striped jersey onstage, which his bandmates likened to a bumblebee. "They named me 'Sting' after that ridiculous thing, and it just stayed with me. No one calls me Gordon. Anyone calls me Gordon, I just ignore them."

He graduated from university with a teaching degree, and, following a brief stint at a convent school teaching English (the experience informed the Police hit 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'), moved to London in the mid-'70s to pursue a music career.

'Outlandos d'Amour', the 1979 debut album from the Sting-fronted trio The Police, soon followed. That album's red-light-district hit, 'Roxanne', opened doors on North American radio.

"Canada was one of the band's breakout markets," Sting recalls, "along with San Francisco and Austin, Tex. We did have a rapport with Toronto, particularly. We played a club called The Edge, and then we did the picnics [the Police Picnic was an annual outdoor concert at the height of the band's popularity]. We always felt as if we were coming home whenever we came to Toronto. The city sort of adopted us."

The Police mixed a punkish attitude, bleached blond hair, expert musicianship and a frenetic rock-'n'-roll take on reggae to great effect. They rode in on the New Wave but, unlike many of their fashion-challenged contemporaries who littered the seas once that nouveau punk swell broke, The Police made it to shore. The band put Sting's singing and songwriting out front, but Andy Summers' angular guitar playing and Stewart Copeland's choppy drumming were integral to the sound.

They distinguished themselves as business-savvy artists early on, structuring a record deal with A&M that eschewed a big advance in favour of future royalties. "That way, we never had a feudal relationship with the record label," Sting says. "We were always sort of individually contracted. I think that paid off; we had complete artistic control over whatever we did. We had this idea that we wanted freedom, and it worked."

It was that impulse to creative freedom that ultimately led Sting to leave the group in 1984 at the height of its success. "I'm always interested in having flexibility in any situation I'm in, and I don't want to be held by sentimental bonds. I'm sentimental, but not that sentimental. Freedom is essential for any kind of creativity."

There's no question that Sting's solo material, incorporating detailed lyrical narratives and a musical palette that draws from rock, jazz, show tunes and myriad world influences, has opened up his songwriting in ways that would probably not have been possible in his rock trio. "Yes, I feel that way, but I don't want to jettison the rapport that The Police had with the audience. I still play Police songs. They're still loved, and I still love them."

It's perhaps Sting's ambitious approach to songwriting that has created an impression of him as pretentious. "It's very easy to call someone pretentious, but I'm never quite sure what it means. I'm not pretending to do anything. I'm actually doing my job extremely well - at least to the best of my ability."

The pretentious tag is probably also a by-product of his "serious artist" album covers (on which he's always brooding, never smiling), the not-particularly subtle literary allusions in his work (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jung), and his palpable self-confidence (he's also been tagged as arrogant). All true, perhaps, but one must also acknowledge the often exhilarating result of his musical ambition. And his wicked sense of humour.

Which brings us back to that whole tantric thing. "People have this misunderstanding that tantric sex is all about doing it forever," he says, "but it's actually a way of treating all aspects of life as a way of practising devotion. It's saying sex is a mechanism invented by God and by doing it in the right kind of way - by acknowledging that it is - then you give thanks. And," he adds, "it gives life. It is fun, but it's also incredibly significant. It's not just something to do for half an hour."

And then, just as it seems we may have stumbled upon the real truth about Sting's tantric endurance, he adds, "... or seven hours."

© The National Post (Canada)
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