ESQUIRESeptember 01, 1999
The following interview with Bill Flanagan appeared in a September 1999 issue of Esquire magazine...
Can we forgive Sting?
Sting has invited me to listen to some new songs he's recording in New York for his next album, Brand New Day. We're at the studio, Right Track. He pulls out a cassette and makes the usual excuses: rough mixes, unfinished tracks, just a dub. He paces while I listen. He looks like Sgt. Fury today, all in khaki: baggy army pants, tight olive T-shirt, tan lace-up boots, scraggy beard, superhero shoulders. He reads the paper and puts it down. He walks in and out of the room. He eats some pasta and salad. He stands on his head. Sting can stand on his head a long, long time. He does not need to lean against a wall to do it.
The four songs I hear mix Algerian chant singing, American R&B, European art songs, and British pop in a way that feels like a fusion of the whole world's culture at the end of the century. None of it seems shoehorned, though. It all sounds seamless and natural. It just doesn't sound much like anything else. When the last song ends, I tell him it's terrific. He smiles and stands upright again.
I've known Sting for twenty years, since about five minutes before he became a rock star:1979, the year the Police had their first American hit with Roxanne. I met him at a Boston club when my friend Robin asked me to come with her to see her ex-husband Andy Summers's new band, the Police. I hung out in the band's dressing room, met Andy and drummer Stewart Copeland, and asked Sting what they called him at home. "Sting," he claimed.
The Police did not even have enough songs to fill a one-hour set - they had to repeat a couple - but they combined the wild energy of punk with tight, confident playing and Sting's passionate vocals. Sting spent the whole show bouncing up and down with excitement, playing bass like a maniac, singing his ass off, and leading the college-age audience in chant-alongs.
The next day; the Police made an in-store appearance at Strawberries, a record shop in Copley Square. My memory is that not too many fans showed up, but when it was over and the band members were rewarded with free tapes from the record store's cassette cases, I was surprised that all three of them bolted right past the punk, right past the rock, and looted the jazz section. Sting piled up Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke.
He came out as a serious musician in 1985, when he abandoned the Police - then the biggest band in the world - to make a solo album with a group of accomplished jazzmen that included Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis. Some of Sting's rock 'n' roll fans were shocked. So were his two Policemates, who liked playing in football stadiums for screaming fans.
Sting's friend Elton John admires him for walking away from his old band and never looking back. "The Police were gigantic when they stopped," Elton says, "and he's resisted all temptations to reform. Which I think is brilliant. The songs from the Police are still part of his set, but he just wanted to do something else. He wanted to move forward, and he did. It was a very brave move, and he's never gone back. Someone said you can never say never but I think Sting will never reform the Police. Why would he? He's got such a great repertoire on his own."
On a late spring day, Elton and James Taylor, along with Billy Joel, Don Henley, and other stars, make their way to Carnegie Hall to rehearse with Sting for the ninth-annual Rainforest Foundation concert, an all-star fundraiser Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler put on. The rainforest concerts are old-fashioned variety revues, each year organised around a theme. The Motown year saw Sting, Elton, and Taylor donning long white gloves to do Supremes choreography behind a real live Diana Ross. Elvis year found Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon paying tribute to the King. This year the theme is We're Doing It His Way, and it's all Sinatra songs.
Throughout the afternoon, Trudie does not flinch from telling the rock stars when they could do it better, when they should do it over, and how to walk. It reminds me of an observation about Sting that hit me a few years ago. He and Trudie had rented a house in the Hamptons for the summer while he was on tour in the Northeast. After shooting a TV show nearby, he invited some folks back for a cookout, and I tagged along. Around midnight, after a lot of good food and wine, neighbour Billy Joel sat down at the piano, and Sting and Trudie led their guests in a sing-along. Joel started out playing Beatles songs but quickly moved on to show tunes: Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan. Sting and Trudie knew them all and belted them out with gusto. And it struck me: These are show people. In another time, Sting would have been in vaudeville or in the West End, coming through the French doors at stage right carrying a tennis racket and singing about the bluebirds in the bower.
What I realised in the living room on Long Island, listening to Sting sing 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' (Coward's, not Cocker's) and 'I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General', was that the punk-rock Sting with the spiky, bleached hair was as much a role as his acting parts in 'Brimstone & Treacle' and 'Plenty'. Much as the CBGB's crowd would have hated to hear it, the real Sting was the kid who grew up loving the seventies singer-song-writers, and the musician who worked on his chops while memorising Mahavishnu Orchestra records.
The Police - who raced in five years and five albums from obscurity to football stadiums to farewell - were not the essence of Sting. That band was his way of getting to a place where he could do what he really wanted - star in The Threepenny Opera on Broadway or make records with Stevie Wonder and James Taylor. "You can't get a better background than by listening to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan," Elton John says. "And Paul Simon - Sting's a huge fan of Paul Simon. Those are the best contemporary songwriters there are. Their stuff never dates because they're just great songs. And that's one thing Sting's inherited - he's written timeless songs. That's really hard to do."
Onstage, all of the singers rise to the Sinatra challenge in their own way, but Billy Joel is clearly the Chairman's best disciple. When he wails, "I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and dieeeeeee," he sounds so much like Frank that I have to hear it twice to believe someone's not running a tape of the real Sinatra over the PA. Joel's got the chops, the attitude, and the New Yawk, New Yawk, in his voice.
Sting takes an entirely different approach to a solo turn on 'Witchcraft'. He wraps his high voice around the notes from underneath and takes them by surprise, breathing intimacy and vulnerability into a song Sinatra made all swagger. Frank put the emphasis on "When you arouse"; Sting nails "the need in me."
This is the Sting women go wild for: the poetic millionaire who can make his muscular body do all sorts of swami tricks. He famously claimed in the British rock magazine "Q" that his mastery of tantric yoga lets him make love for hours upon hours without stopping - just the sort of thing chicks go for in a sensitive poet.
"It wasn't my intention that that drunken conversation should become so celebrated and repeated," Sting says of the great tantric interview. "It was a pretty outrageous conversation, and it was all in the spirit of fun. I'm saying, 'I f*** for seven hours.' " He shrugs and explains, "But that includes dinner and a movie!"
More power to him. What I don't like is how he makes the rest of us look bad. It's nice that whenever he sees my wife, he flatters her about how pretty she is, but I wish he'd stop asking what she's doing with me. Once, he offered us a ride back to the hotel on his tour bus after a show and then made a great display of standing up and taking off his shirt because, he said, the bus was so hot: The bus was air-conditioned. About ten years ago, we were sitting at the bar with a pal who was - like many of us - not as muscular, tall, rich, famous, or handsome as Sting. This pal was looking across the room at a beautiful woman and sighing that one such as he would never be able to put the moves on one such as she. Sting launched into a tutorial on picking up women. "I've been telling him, just go up to her and say hello and start talking," he said. "It's easy!" He told our friend the woman would fall into his arms in no time and asked me if it was not true.
"It's not like that for the rest of us," I said.
It was a long time before Sting gave up free love, and lately he claims to have devoted himself to the ideal of fidelity.
"It's a revelation that's coming to me," he says carefully. "I'm still a dog. I still desire women. I love," he says, raising his arms to indicate vastness; "every woman. As most men do. But I'm coming to realise more and more that one woman is all women. If I put enough energy and care into that one relationship I have, then all of the myriad possibilities that the romantic and sexual world offer will be included in that one. I believe that now. Because I think in all of that multiplicity, you get diminishing returns.
"I'm coming to this," he cautions. "This is a process I'm going through. It's not like I suddenly woke up and said, That's it!" He claps his hands loudly. "Eureka! No, I'm coming to this more and more. And revelling in it. I still look at women, and I'll still express desire and admiration for women - in my wife's hearing. She may hit me around a bit." He mimes a gentle slap on the cheek. "I say, 'Look, when I'm sick of looking at beautiful women; I'll be sick of you.' So I kind of get away with it.
"But she knows that I love her. It's a process. I think it's partly to do with wisdom. I wouldn't like to be spending any energy on having affairs now. It's counterproductive and ultimately demeaning. You've got to hang your boots up at some point. I'm not going to walk down that path anymore."
We sit there in the glow of virtue, and Sting says conspiratorially, "I think, actually, as a strategic move, it makes you more attractive. That's a very Machiavellian statement, I realise, but it just makes you more attractive to women if you're not necessarily open game."
Saturday evening, Carnegie Hall is packed with swells in their tuxedos and gowns and hoi polloi in suits and skirts. Sting, Elton, and James Taylor swing a little stiffly through 'Well, Did You Evah?' but before long everyone loosens up. Billy Joel introduces Sting as "the man who bought my apartment," and Sting mumbles, "For far too much."
Producer Trudie, leaving nothing to chance, has covered her bets with a couple of surprises. Latin sensation Ricky Martin slides out onstage and gets the crowd bouncing with an up-tempo 'I've Got the World on a String'. Tony Bennett rolls in and slays 'I Wish I Were in Love Again'. But the showstopper is at the climax of the second set, when Bill Murray staggers from the wings and lets loose a mutant hybrid of his Saturday Night Live lounge singer and the worst Kitty Kelley caricature of Sinatra's dark side. Lunging up and down the stage, berating the orchestra, Murray howls out 'My Way' like a defiant Ol' Blue Eyes being shipped off to hell.
"Regrets?" he sings. "Not tonight, Jack! This guy did exactly what he wanted to dooooo, and this cat saw it through without exception."
Murray glares around madly and introduces a celebrity not present "Mr. Paul Anka! " - before returning to the melody to warble, "I banged 'em all, / fat, short, and tall, / and did it myyyyyyyy way!"
No wonder Frank Sinatra Jr. bailed out of conducting the orchestra tonight. After the show, Murray explains why he agreed to join the cause: "America loves Sting. America's embraced Sting." He fixes a cocked-up grin and declares, "'Cause we feel he's about as good as a Brit can get."
On Memorial Day Weekend, Sting is in another world. It's a brilliant Sunday morning, and he's sitting on a stone step under a great arched doorway, looking out across Tuscany from his hilltop villa. His kids are splashing in a big pool. His mansion in the hills outside Florence is extraordinary, a five-hundred-year-old suite of great stone buildings with pillars, archways, cantilevered ceilings, and magnificent grounds. What makes it more than a museum is the laughter of the kids running around in their bathing suits, and the dusty tractor and other working farm equipment. Sting has vineyards and vegetable gardens. The estate raises its own food, including chickens and turkeys. This is not Sting's only estate. He has a great house in London, a castle in the English countryside, Billy Joel's old apartment on Central Park, and a beach house in Malibu. Most rock stars split their lives between the public-touring; recording, PR-and long stretches of private time at home. With Sting, there is very little division. He tours often, fills the gaps between his own albums with side projects and one-offs, and is always on a plane.
"I'm never not working," he says. "If I seem to be not working, I'm worrying about not working and planning to work."
Walking through the meadows and orchards of his Italian retreat, Sting admits that he fears that if he stopped using his musical gifts for even a little while, they would go away. He says that the same inner drive that got the Police to the top is what drove him right out of the band when it got there.
"Part of the engine that was running me was being dissatisfied," he says. "That's why I got there in the first place. I just wanted to succeed, to do something, to escape. I don't think the other two had that engine. So we had this amazing success, and it just wasn't enough for me. I wasn't satisfied. At the time I should have been happiest in my life, I was most unhappy."
When we get back to the house, a large, canopied table on the side lawn has been set for lunch. Sting and I sit in two porch chairs and talk while his kids play games around a small fountain. They are having wheelbarrow races across the grass. Sting watches with delight as fourteen-year-old Jake lets three-year-old Giacomo beat him.
Do his kids mind his public life - Dad as a sex symbol, all the tantric - marathon jokes?
"I think they always deal with us in this double-edged way," Sting says. "One, we're incredibly embarrassing as parents. Two, they're really proud of us. They have to take the rough with the smooth, from 'Dad, why do they want your autograph? Why can't we be a normal family and no one looks at us?' to 'Dad, I'm really proud of you when you walk onstage and people clap.' It's not entirely a bed of roses, but it's not bad."
I wonder whether, having become a sex symbol in the early eighties, he was anxious to try to push his image the other way, to come off as an intellectual as an antidote to being seen as a bimbo.
"Oh, no, I enjoyed the hell out of that. I wasn't running away from it. I just wanted to make it a little more interesting. I was happy to be looked at like that, but I also wanted people to think I had a brain. I wanted to be Marilyn Monroe with a brain."
Sting and Trudie lived together for years and had three children before they finally married in 1992. It was their kids who pushed them to make it legal.
"The kids come home from school and go, 'What's a bastard?'
'"What do you mean, what's a bastard?'
"'Well, I'm a bastard, aren't I?'
"'No! I mean, yes. I mean...'
"'We want you to get married.'
"'We'll feel better.'"
Sting shakes his head. "That was heavy. So we began to talk about it seriously. And Trudie loves parties..." He grins. "So it became like that, a big event." He sighs and looks at his children. "But if you stand there and make those vows; you have to take it seriously. Every man should."
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