THE OBSERVERJanuary 01, 1994
The following interview with Barney Hoskyns appeared in the January 1994 issue of The Observer...
Great rock bore or saviour of the planet? Barney Hoskyns visits Sting in his country manor and leaves wanting to marry him...
On the drizzly Monday morning before Christmas, I'm sitting in an oak-panelled room in deepest Wiltshire, awaiting the entrance of the owner of a Jacobean pile called Lake House. I picture striding in from the rain like a jodhpured charmer from a Jilly Cooper novel, but the Italo Calvino and Cormac McCarthy books on the table do their bit to belie the rock star turned country squire cliches.
When he does enter, wearing breeches and mud-caked boots, the Lord of the Lake informs me that the room we're in is the 'Captain's Room', so named by him after the old seafarer who fell asleep in it one day and never woke up. 'By the end,' he adds in his boyish Geordie-inflected voice, 'the guy was just living in this one room, all alone. Sad really.'
The fact that the 'Captain' left the rest of Lake House to fend for itself explains the constant banging that still resounds through its corridors two years after Sting's arrival. 'You won't believe how much work we've had to do.' At his feet, a springer spaniel named William gives off the musty smell of ersatz aristocracy, while all around us staff come and go; pinning up Christmas decorations.
It's all too easy to lampoon the Rock God on His Estate: we've all chortled at Roger Daltrey in his wellies at his trout farm, Ian Anderson in his Range Rover on his Scottish island: The problem with this 42-years-old son of a milkman, is that it's just one more reason to loathe him. I mean this is the man with everything: the looks, the talent, the money, even the conscience: You'd think divine distribution could have been a little fairer.
He even has the grace to appear bashful when you tell him this. The awful, embarrassing truth is that despite having come down on the 9:35 from Waterloo with what I believed was nothing but scorn for Sting's slick, verbose overly musicianly music, I went back on 3:23 from Salisbury wanting to marry him.
And actually, 'Ten Summoner's Tales', the album he released last year, has a lot more going for it than anything else the former Gordon Sumner has produced since disbanding the Police in 1985 to hook up with the cream of America's jazz-rock session musicians: it contains genuinely hummable tunes, irresistible rhythmic twists and turns, far less ponderous lyrics than those on 'Nothing Like The Sun' (1987) or 'The Soul Cages' (1991). It has songs on it - 'Seven Days', 'Everybody Laughed But You' - that I like almost as much as the late, dark Police of, say; 'King of Pain'. And though a lot of what Sting produces sounds like incidental background muzak for Hollywood blockbusters, or a jazz-funk version of progressive pomp-rock, he can still deliver quality adult pop when he wants to.
In the vast dining hall where he recorded 'Ten Summoner's Tales', Sting says, 'The solo path hasn't been an easy one to take.' One senses that critics' mockery of his intellectual pretensions, commencing with their guffawing at the Jungian references on his debut album, 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' (1985), still rankles. 'People don't like it when you break up a successful band. But I really wanted to stand on my own two feet, even if it meant selling a quarter as many records. I didn't want to be in a gang anymore.'
This chimes with much of what. Sting goes on to say about growing up - about the personal journey he has undertaken since the ill-tempered split from fellow Police men; Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. Western society, he says, is set up to keep people in what he describes as 'a gross infantile state', a retrogression which rock music actively fosters. 'I don't want to stay a child,' says the man who, by the time the Police had their first hit single; 'Can't Stand Losing You' (1978), was 27, married with a child, and had only recently abandoned a career as a convent primary school teacher. 'I actually want to grow up, and I think my music has partly been about the struggle for that kind of maturity.'
A large part of growing up for Sting involves his responsibilities as a husband and a father of five: his 1992 marriage to actress Trudie Styler, mother of three of the children, seems to have consolidated the importance to him of family. Indeed, despite the break-up of his first marriage to Frances Tomelty, another actress - it's almost as if he's consciously chosen to follow the Paul McCartney Family Man route rather than the John Lennon example. 'I think there's probably no better thing to have achieved at the end of your life than to have had a family that people are pleased to belong to', he says. 'I do take that job seriously, although being on tour for much of the year means I simply cannot be the ideal father. My kids'll probably end up writing Daddy Dearest - y' know, 'He was off saving the rainforest but he was beating the crap out of us at home!'
Unfortunately, following the McCartney route leaves you open to all the derision that acerbic (and usually childless) rock critics can heap on you. In addition, Sting has unforgivably wormed his way into the pantheon of Great Rock Bores - singing with Knopfler, cronying with Clapton et al - which makes him an arch-enemy in the eyes of, anyone struggling to stop rock'n'roll from turning into a giant back-slapping Hall of Fame. It is hard not to pigeonhole him as an Eighties icon, stalwart of the 'charidee' circus and veteran of Live-Aid, Mandela Day, and the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour.
Even more derided than all those charity bashes is the foundation he set up in 1989 to protect an area of the Brazilian rainforest the size of Switzerland from rapacious logging companies: the photographs of Sting posing with Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe, daubed in warpaint, had the pop press in stitches. 'The thing about the Rainforest Foundation,' he says wearily, 'was that we actually did it. We demarcated an area of land, we got the Brazilian government to ratify that demarcation, and it's now done. So I don't really give a f*** what anyone says.'
But could it not be said that the project - like the Third World missions of movie stars such as Richard Gere - was motivated partly by the guilt of being a superstar, even just a teensy-weensy bit by the exhibitionism that fuels the need to be onstage in the first place? Why not simply help the homeless in grotty old Blighty?
'Listen, the guy asked me to help him. All I had to give him was my celebrity. What it's really about is that people in this country prefer you to stay in your place, whereas for me the whole thing is up for grabs. If someone asks me to do a movie, I'll try, and if someone asks me to save their rainforest, I'll have a go. There may be some exhibitionism in it, but it's also because I'm curious and brave. And I have an interesting life because of it.'
I ask Sting if he shares the Messianic, world-saving tendencies of his friend Bono, with whom he shares a taste for the single-word stage moniker ('Like God', adds Sting.) 'It's funny, I feel fairly close to Bono, because we played a lot together in the early days and we've both been called pretentious wankers. But do I wanna be a messiah? I don't think so. I mean, I've always stated my sources. Whenever I've found something that's been useful to my music and my own development, I've tended to say where it came from. And that's when you get called pretentious - like, "How dare you mention Kierkegaard!" But I do not see myself as some sort of messianic figurehead leading people into the light. I'm struggling the same as every other f***er, I'm just doing it in public.'
These days, in any case, Sting carries a little less of the world's weight on his shoulders, despite his continuing involvement with the Rainforest Foundation. 'There's no point in being too anxious about it all because history is largely out of our control,' he says. 'I mean, I'm frightened by what's happening in the world, whether it's this maniac Zhirinovsky or the BNP guy in Tower Hamlets, but there's a limit to what you can do.'
At present, he commences the second leg of a world tour that will take him through to April, Sting's main anxiety is the recurring one of preparing himself for a next album. Early in 1990 when he was suffering from writer's block, he was rash enough to say he might have to 'manufacture some personal tragedy,' if he was ever going to start writing again. Shortly afterwards, his father died, resulting in the anguished , if overwrought, The Soul Cages. This time, he's choosing his words more carefully. 'There's always anxiety at this stage of the game, but I think you need that,' he says. 'You need to be empty and to worry about being empty - it's like being hungry for the next meal. The question is, can I continue to create music within the context of a happy life? I'd like to think so.'
After our interview, Sting shows me round the immaculately landscaped gardens of Lake House. When we come to his own farmyard Noah's Ark - pairs of cows, goats and horses, along with some of the turkeys that he won't have eaten at Christmas - he looks so ripe for the part that I can't resist making the comparison with that other Geordie working class hero Paul Gascoigne.
'I love Gascoigne, I knew a lot of people like him in Newcastle. But I don't think he and I really have that much in common.'
Does he think Gazza will 'grow up' in the way he himself has managed to do?
'There's nothing to stop Paul Gascoigne becoming more sophisticated as he gets older,' he says - then breaks up in laughter at the absurdity of the thought.
© The Observer