ARENADecember 01, 1994
The following interview with Alan Jackson appeared in the December 1994 issue of Arena magazine...
The role of renaissance bloke...
It's 10am on a Saturday at Drapers Brothers Dry Cleaners, and Dougie and Don Draper are preparing for the weekend rush when the door clatters open and in comes a Mr Sting. "I was just wondering if you could clean this donkey jacket, like," he says in rich, Newcastle Brown tones, shrugging out of the garment in question. Dougie D (maroon slacks, fawn cardie, pervert scoutmaster-style nylon wig in a worrying shade of lemon) duly ingratiates himself, customer care skills to the fore. "No problem at all," he oozes. Meanwhile Don D (two-tone overall, spectacles, pervert woodwork teacher-style nylon wig in a worrying shade of chestnut brown) is anticipating a visit to the theatre to see American illusionist David Copperfield. "Every little thing he does is magic," he sings repeatedly. "Every little thing he does..."
"Are you taking the mick?" the Truculent Rock God demands to know, inclining his muscular personage across the hardboard counter in the general direction of Don D. "I wrote that song, you know. And I don't like having the mick taken out of me. Don't like it...and I'm not having it." To prove the point, he throws a right hook of a threatening look.
"Well, I'm sorry that you feel that way Mr Sting - you seem to have a bit of a bee in your bonnet," interjects Dougie D mellifluously, causing everyone under five-feet tall in the building to titter and wriggle, and all those who are taller to wince in pain. The Blonde Pop Icon juts his jaw, appears to consider grievous bodily harm as an option, and then exits noisily by the door through which he entered. The Draper Brothers exchange baffled looks, sigh extravagantly, then resume their respective chores.
"He may be Sting but his donkey jacket sting-ks!" observes Don D, holding the item to his nose momentarily. "Who said that?" threatens its owner, crashing back on to the premises. "Was it you? Or you?"
"I certainly didn't."
"You did, Don."
"No I didn't- it wasn't me, Mr Sting."
"Come here you."
And Don D is pulled outside by the Enraged chart Star to receive a nice and noisy off camera punching. "Biff! Bang! Thwack! Ouch! Ouch! Kerr pow!"
All around the country, kids are eating their breakfasts, grinning as they chew. Parents meanwhile say a prayer of thanks for Saturday morning TV in general, more particularly for the BBC's 'Live And Kicking', whose resident funmongers Trevor and Simon devised, scripted and hammered their way through this little piece of sub-theatre. And in the studio near London's Shepherd's Bush where it is being recorded, two out of five of the former Gordon Sumner's own offspring bathe in the reflected glory that comes from having Dad make a willing fool of himself as guest star of a programme they'd otherwise be at home watching themselves.
Rock aristos are supposed to be too busy standing on their dignity to get involved in stunts like this. "Amazing what people will do though when they've got a record to flog," says someone with a clipboard. Behind the cheerful cynicism is found the essence of a straightforward enough marketing ploy, it's true. One so simple, in fact, that you wonder why the image-makers responsible for other mature stadium-fillers haven't thought of it themselves. Who else, though, among pop's elder statesmen would be prepared to risk looking this silly? And there has been an appealing element of silliness to the British campaign launching 'Fields Of Gold: The Best Of Sting', a compilation of ten years of solo successes by the man who used to front the Police. The day before, for example he'd got up at the crack of dawn ostensibly to flirt his way through two on-the-bed encounters with chum Paula Yates of Channel 4's 'The Big Breakfast'. Bur once at its east London studios, he allowed himself to be inveigled into bouncing up and down between two technicians brandishing large plastic sausages, exhorting viewers to "Beat the banger, beat the banger..." as he sang the theme tune to the programme's daily phone-in competition.
Not something you can imagine Rod or Eric or Elton doing. And it makes a nice change from the Sting of old too. For time was when you'd find him exchanging bon mots and po-faced self analysis with the likes of Melvyn Bragg, not acting as willing straight man to anthropomorphic, post-nursery school favourites like Nobby The Sheep. All part of a revisionist plan however, explanation of which requires a flashback to the time when, like most other artists who achieve a similar celebrity status, he found himself in the situation where the demands on his time and resources made it a good idea to employ a personal Public Relations outfit rather than rely on the efforts of the in-house team at his record company.
All too often though, events thereafter followed a predictable pattern. At-home features in the middle-market weekend supplements, cosy exclusives in the tabloids, the occasional heavyweight profile in a broadsheet or glossy monthly to remind ABC1's of how complex, serious-minded and generally important you are... All of which tends to present the subject as a Personality, an A-List Celebrity, rather than emphasising the working musician whose talent and charisma first brought them to a position of prominence - a fact which, by 1992, had begun to concern Andy Prevezer, Director of Press in the London office of Sting's record company, A&M.
He and his then-MD Howard Berman had received an invitation to go down to the studio where the singer was completing 'Ten Summoner's Tales', the award-winning set which, after a series of ever-more dark and introspective solo albums, was to revive in Britain both the singer's commercial fortunes and his reputation as a great pop songwriter. But it was more than purely a flesh-pressing exercise. Sting and his world manager Miles Copeland were reviewing media relations too, and one option was that of putting responsibility for the record's attendant press campaign back in-house. "Because I'm very earnest by nature, if you ask me a serious question I'll probably give you a serious answer, but there's a tendency for people to think that's all there is to me - whereas in fact, I'm quite daft," the singer tells me when we meet. "Also, contrary to popular opinion, I'm not terribly pretentious - or at all precious about my image or myself. I just do things on a whim, without giving them too much thought."
How then to convince the rest of us of this devil-may-care attitude? Prevezer's brief was to pitch directly to the two men, explaining how he personally would handle the account were it handed back to A&M. A scary prospect, particularly given Copeland's reputation for impatience and hard-headedness, but the 33-year-old whose department also has responsibility for such diverse artists as Suzanne Vega, Dina Carroll, Soundgarden and Bad Boys Inc put his message unequivocally.
"I told Sting that I liked his music but that I didn't like the way he was portrayed in the press - that I felt the usual cycle of reappearing every other year on the covers of Hello! or the Mail On Sunday's You magazine was doing him no favours, and contributed to the climate in which people beyond those readerships were snide about him. Basically it was all a reflection of my own taste, I admit. But my view was that it should all be stripped down. Cut our all that at home, Sting-in-the-kitchen-of his-lovely-mansion stuff, and just do a handful of interviews in which he talked mainly about the music. Stick to the things I myself liked reading too, like the rock titles and the liberal, intelligent end of the nationals."
After saying so, Prevezer sweated it out in an adjoining room while the singer and his manager talked the ideas over. His convictions carried the day though, and in the months that followed, a subtle - and, in the case of a spectacularly laddish 'Q' cover story, not-so-subtle - repositioning took place in the print media. Out of the window went Sting the celebrity square, with all the word-associations of the previous ten years - rainforests, Versace, mansions in Wiltshire, peregrinations into the grown-up world of jazz. Back came Sting the pop musician, happy to busk at Ladbroke Grove tube station for the 'Q' camera then repair to a pub bar with old mucker Bob Geldof and journalist Adrian Deevoy to talk about drugs, potential wife-swaps and a yoga-induced ability to sustain sex for up to five hours without ejaculation. "It's a bit boring for the boiler, isn't it" sneered the self proclaimed ten-second-Bob memorably.
"The day that issue went on sale one of his former PRs called me and said, 'I think you've made a terrible mistake,"' Prevezer recalls. "And I just said, 'Well I don't.' For a start, I was pleased as bollocks that Sting had made the front cover at all. And the whole point of that and a subsequent 'Q' spread is that they took the arrogance out of the old image and presented him as a normal bloke happy to get pissed in a bar with a mate. OK, all the sex stuff was a bit male... But it got everyone talking, and we got all the tabloids indirectly as a result; in fact, the Sun did a whole page of quotes from it. Running in tandem with the release of the LP that reinvented him chart-wise, it made perfect sense."
With the same user-friendly principles now being applied to other areas of his promotional schedule, it's no surprise to find Sting limbering up again backstage at Television Centre in readiness for having the piss taken out of him some more by Trevor and Simon. Again he enters Draper Brothers Dry Cleaners. "I've been sacked by the record company for hitting a top-rated TV personality," he says sheepishly to Don D, who has just been tending brother Dougie D's newly-blackened eye. "Er, any jobs going here?"
"Oh all right, this way Mr Sting," says his new employer, ushering him behind the counter. "But just as long as you bee-hive yourself."
The kids in the studio squeal with delight at this appalling pun, and the popularity of this morning's star guest soars among under-15s everywhere. TV that's so knowingly crap that it's brilliant - perfect, really. Especially for someone who's 43 and, though still sexy and provenly chart-worthy, prone to being portrayed as pretentious, a good cause bloke. For what better way to convince everyone that really you're a nice, fun guy who doesn't take himself too seriously than to field on-air phone calls from Kathryn in Barnsley, Ian in Formby and Louise in Stourbridge, then take it on the chin in some mocking piece of nonsense that runs in the short space between much-valued regular features like "Spike The Wonder Dog" and "Pick Your Nose"?
"Quite sexy in a Valerie Singleton-ish way," Sting says afterwards, as he breezes into the library of his Highgate home. With him is personal manager Kim Turner, who is asking what he made of 'Live And Kicking' presenter Emma Forbes, all smiles and self consciousness in her red pinafore dress and crisp white blouse. He's in a sunny mood. "it was fun," he insists, of a show that no-one could have persuaded him to appear on had he not wanted to. "And you get points from your own children for appearing on something they like to see themselves. 'Cause they're generally puzzled about what it is I do for a living. So seeing me on something like that puts it all in a context they can understand."
While Turner and Prevezer head off to a nearby pub, Sting negotiates the last mouthfuls of a sandwich prepared by his house-keeper and, settling on a battered leather Chesterfield, submits to questioning. He is wearing boots, check trousers in soft wool, a long, hooded cardigan and a tight grey T-shirt that is filled out by a seriously built-up torso. The hair is tousled and the face unshaven, but the eyes are bright and the demeanour briskly cheerful: everything about him radiates contentment, despite a schedule that has seen him performing or promoting in South Africa, Japan, America and England within the space of ten days. Which is good to see, I suggest, given that other male stars of a certain age seem to have been falling apart with mid-life crises of late, either faxing unexpected news of divorce to their wives or being done over by the tabloids for shagging the nanny.
Sting raises his eyebrows disparagingly at the first option. "But while I suppose I could shag the nanny, I generally don't use Chris de Burgh as a role model," he notes smilingly, immediately shooting a shouldn't-have-said-that look at the tape machine that has just recorded his reference to a fellow A&M artist. "Yes I am very content though, and isn't that the way it should be. As you get older, wouldn't you hope to become calmer and more sure of yourself, rather than less so ? I can't think of anything worse than being some middle-aged medallion man, forever chasing blondes. That has no appeal to me at all."
Nor will he circumscribe his life with the possibility that his own name may have as much if not more appeal for tabloid newsdesks as those of Collins and de Burgh. "I don't read the Sun, I won't have it near me. If I'm ever in it - and I probably am sometimes - I don't know about it. Collaborating with it and the other tabloids in the way that some other people do is a big mistake, I think. But then I don't have that temptation to think that if I'm not in the papers, I no longer exist. Obviously I'll play the game to sell records... I don't want my private life in the papers though. If it is, then it's no longer my private life."
Nor does he allow himself to entertain the possibility that celebrities of his stature may carry a price on their heads. "I don't think I do - says he touching wood. But anyway I think it's wrong to treat all that fake Calvinism within the British press - all that 'Shock! Horror!' - as anything other than total bullshit. Far better to handle it like Mitterand did the other week when it was discovered that he had a love child. 'Yes, so what' he said, which was exactly the right response. 'Yes! So f***ing what. Big Deal! Bye!' Instead you get people issuing denials or making public confessions through the papers. You shouldn't even begin to play those games."
In his own case, hints of dilettantism and worthiness have done almost as much damage to his public image as could any salacious expose. While we loved the peroxide popstar who bobbed up and down at the front of the Police, we were generally unsettled by what became cartooned as the Jung and Wittgenstein-quoting eco-bore who saw fit to name his first solo LP 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles'. More recently 'The Soul Cages' threw the problems inherent in this approach into sharp relief. "Still my best work," he notes wryly of a collection of meandering songs inspired by the death of his father. It was the least-user- friendly of his albums however, and sold barely 300,000 copies - not only a fraction of the tallies for previous releases but, following the million-selling return-to-popular-form that was 'Ten Summoner's Tales', the exact same amount that 'Fields Of Gold' shipped in its first week alone.
Fans of old who found multi-media, multi-option Sting a little too much to take ought-to be glad therefore that activities extra-curricular to music are being played down these days. Much ridicule was heaped on his acting career, for instance despite creditable performances in such films as 'Brimstone And Treacle' ("You're a sick man," he says, when I tell him I watched it on video recently) and 'Plenty', and on stage in the us in 'The Threepenny Opera'. Now though regretting that scheduling made it impossible for him to take up the Peter O'Toole role in Bertolucci's 'The Last Emperor' recently he is of a mood to turn down the still-steady stream of offers from Hollywood and elsewhere. "Big stuff?" Yes-ish. I haven't got the time though. Nor am I burning with desire to do anything else right now."
And though the philanthropic element of the Sting portfolio remains active, its importance too is being deliberately down-played. "I'm still involved in a very real way in all the same sorts of things that people associate me with, but I try to keep it behind the scenes. It's not important that I'm seen to be doing that stuff - not for the causes themselves, anyway. And frankly I don't want to be pigeon-holed as a tree-hugging New Ager, or whatever else it is they like to say. It certainly doesn't help Sting the musician. I'm very proud of the work I've done with the Rainforest Foundation among other things, but it's not what I do for a living. It's a side issue that's important to me personally, but which I will carry on with regardless of it being in the papers or otherwise."
Specific issues can still get him worked up enough to mount a soapbox though. On the day we met, the (quality) nationals littered across his library floor reported the activities of a bunch of protesters who signalled their opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill by climbing on to the roof of the Palace of Westminster. "'Criminal Justice', so-called," Sting sneers of its loaded title. "I feel very, very strongly about it. It strikes me as being terribly un-English and horribly sinister - as sinister as the right-wing of the Conservative party. No original idea, I know, but I think they're such a bunch of sleazeballs. Spivs. Interested only in themselves. They certainly shouldn't be in government."
Although he has homes in Los Angeles and New York, as well as two in the UK, he maintains he would never leave Britain for good. "Go into exile ? No. A lot of people in my position have felt that way and moved to California but all you get there is a different set of problems. I'm English and I like living here. I miss it when I'm away. And I think that if something's going wrong politically, it's up to all of us to get on board and try to change things. We've left the Conservatives in power for far too long and we need a new government. Fortunately, it looks like we have one. There are a great many positive signs that Tony Blair is going to be a good leader, a man who can galvanise people and bring us together. I've met the man backstage (at a Sting gig, it turns out), and I like and respect him. I'm quite hopeful for the future."
Would he campaign for Blair and the Labour party?
"I'm campaigning for him now, aren't I? I don't know about standing on a platform, but I think it's important to stand up for Socialism itself. OK, it's not the Socialism of old, but there were a lot of nineteenth-century ideas about it that needed to be abandoned and this is as good a time as any. Yes, it's a form of pragmatism, but let's get the chance to form a government first of all. Because the Tories have to go. Just have to."
Elsewhere in his life, Sting the family man is to the fore. He and his second wife Trudie Styler, actress turned documentary film-maker, have three children, aged ten, nine and four. From his previous marriage to actress Frances Tomelty he has a son, just turned 18, and a daughter, aged 12. He enjoys spending time with them, tries to keep channels of communication open on every topic under the sun, and hopes that time will judge him to have been a good father. He is actively supportive of Styler's work too. Recently completed and screened television programmes on Brazilian travesti and Chinese dissidents have brought her a small avalanche of other offers, and he is keen for her to pursue them. And it's serious stuff she's being asked to do, which is just great. She's won more awards than me this past year, and I don't mind staying at home to be a house-husband if that's what it takes."
Not an idle thought either, because January 1 will bring with it a completely blank diary for possibly the first time in his adult life. "A bit frightening, but I'm just going to see what happens," he says, after a black-and-white spaniel called Hector has ambled into the room, snuffled around good-naturedly for a minute, then ambled back out again. "The dog's bored with me already, it's obvious, so who knows how long everyone else will put up with me hanging around here."
"Er, one last question," I venture, as we gather up our jackets and Sting dusts the last sandwich crumbs from his trousers. "About making sex last for five hours without orgasm..." "It's all to do with learning to control the muscles between your anus and your scrotum," he begins, as we shut the front door behind us. Further explanation is rendered impossible however, for we are negotiating banks of fallen leaves in an attempt to cross the busy road that separates us from the pub. North Londoners piloting Volvos and Saabs through busy Highgate all but career into parked cars as they realise just who has jaywalked in front of them. And in the crowded bar, the sort of affluent, Saturday lunchtime drinkers who might think themselves above staring at a passing celebrity stare anyway on seeing a rock star alight at a table where two men he knows are drinking.
He places an order for a half of Guinness, and the inquest into this morning's Live And Kicking resumes. One by one all the same old puns are resurrected, bandied round the table: Bee-hive yourself Sting. Did it give you a buzz. Don't get a bee in your bonnet... "Don't take the mick. I won't have you taking the mick," he orders us sternly, putting his glass down untouched. But for the second time today, he doesn't mean what he's saying, and he grins as we carry on doing so regardless.
© Arena magazine