ESQUIREMarch 01, 1993
The following interview with Doug Stanton appeared in the March 1993 issue of Esquire magazine...
Standing tall, chin up, he places his arms gently at his sides and raises them in a slow up-sweep, palms touching at the apex. "It makes me feel like a young man again. I can do things now I could do twenty years ago. All those poor weight lifters," he says, "building all that bulk that someday will turn to nothing but flab. This is called the down dog."
Sting drops to the floor and is soon swooning over the elegant carpet of his hotel suite rocking back and forth in a watery push-up; now he is leaping back and forth between his hands spread on the carpet like a sprinter's. Now he is standing on his right leg while his left juts out parallel to the floor, air gushing in and out through his nose.
"I don't want to get too spiritual," he says, "too esoteric"-as he says this he reaches out and snatches his big toe, which is wiggling in the air - "but for some reason it took me a while to get this one, and when I did, I was happy. You find all kinds of places in your body you never knew about."
He tucks his right shoulder underneath his hamstring and laces his right arm up through his crotch and reaches around with the left to shake hands with himself. He stops.
"Can you stand on your head?"
We both leap down and kick up. "The guy who came to my house," Sting says from an inverted position, "he came for six months he lived with me -"
"You know this reminds me of the Addams Family," I say.
"That's right, like Gomez. And this guy who taught me said, 'You think you don't have the time to do this. But I guarantee you: The day will expand.' And he was right."
Early in his career Sting described himself as "a perfect freak who would never be part of normal society" and "a robot." "Not only does he hate humanity," Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police, once said, "but every human within the species, except for his family."
In the fashion of the post-punk late '70s, he entered the pop-music arena with hair bleached the colour of chrome and tortured into spikes. He gave up his good Christian name Gordon Sumner for something more like a threat, but never did he affect the era's most popular pose, that of a lout. In fact, he had long been doing his best to transcend his working class origins (the dreary industrial town of Newcastle, father a milkman, mother a hairdresser). Young Gordon was bookish and artistic but also won a national trophy for track. At twenty-four, a year before the Police formed, he was teaching English poetry in a convent school and moonlighting in jazz clubs. He may always remain the only rock figure to title one album after a book by Hungarian philosopher Arthur Koestler ('Ghost in the Machine') and another after a volume by Jung ('Synchronicity').
The latter contained his most successful song, 'Every Breath You Take', and sold 5 million copies; all the usual reward followed, including movie roles and the freedom to pursue a reputation for being an unpleasant person. Today Sting allows that he was "fearsome, a bit aggressive... I don't how much of it was chemically induced. Apparently I was pretty horrible. Emotionally impacted."
He seemed to revel in some difficult-to-explain bitterness and angst he felt. "The really good stuff comes from pain, not comfort," he told one interviewer. "Pain is essential. If you have not got pain, you had better get some." But what was the source of his? "I come from a family of losers," he told a reporter in 1980. "And I've rejected my family as something I don't want to be like. I lived in Newcastle, which would be like living in Pittsburgh, and the whole thing for me was escape." The effect of his inner turmoil on those around him was demonstrated one night prior to going on-stage before seventy thousand ticket holders in Shea Stadium, when a brotherly scuffle between Stewart Copeland and Sting left the latter with three broken ribs. In 1983, when Sting quietly broke up the band, fans were discouraged but not surprised.
His dissatisfaction with rock success led him to glean black musicians from Miles Davis's band and Weather Report and to record 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' and 'Nothing Like the Sun', an attempt at mature ruminations on politics and love. "Sting and his niggers!" cried a writer in The Village Voice, but Sting didn't care, having gotten fairly cynical about how he was seen by the rest of the world. "What kind of sex am I selling?" he said in an interview. "Sensitive tender, romantic, literary - like being f***ed by a college professor."
He'd escaped through the keyhole of his talent, leaving his past behind, until the phone rang one night when he had just finished enjoying one of his well-deserved rewards - a game of billiards in Montserrat - and he learned that his mother had died of cancer. Six months later, cancer got his father, too.
"When his father died," says Branford Marsalis, who toured with Sting for four and a half years, "you couldn't see any sign that he was under stress. He wasn't trying to pretend he wasn't dealing with it - he wasn't f***ing dealing with it. Denial to the tenth degree.
"I spent the whole tour trying to make him laugh, break his concentration on-stage. He will not look into the audience when he plays. He has this sense of decorum, because if he does look down, he's afraid he will laugh. We threw dead chickens across the stage, all kinds of shit, trying to get him. Nothing. I took Billy Francis, his road manager, this big white guy and dressed him in one of my suits and put him in blackface and gave him a sax while I stood offstage playing the song. I knew exactly when during 'Roxanne' Sting would look at me. So when he looked up and saw Billy his eyes jumped out of his head. But he didn't lose it. He said, 'On saxophone - Branford Marsalis!'
"Finally we got him in Australia. Every night he'd yell to his roadie, 'Dah-nee, my jahhkut!' And this night Danny walked out on-stage, held the jacket out to Sting, and then tossed it into the audience. The audience ripped the jacket to shreds. 'I don't f***ing believe you!' Sting screamed. He went nuts. Because, you see, he'd lost his favourite jahh-kut."
He spreads his bare feet on the floor, bends his knees lightly. His legs tense under black sweat pants, which he's rolled jauntily at the waist, like a ballet dancer's. He is as lean as the flank of an antelope, staring at his stomach, engrossed.
"Okay you're really going to have to get into this, that shirt won't do. Good, now look at your stomach. Deeeeeep breath, very good. In through the nose, out through the nose, the molecules come in, the molecules come out, filling you with air, the body needs new - come on, Doug! You're going to have to get a bit more militant with your breathing!"
His nostrils are flaring and chuffing like crazed valves, shh, shh, shh -
"Better. Good. Watch." He bends at the waist, staring hard at the floor as if he's lost something, and with great deliberateness he punches his palms into the tops of his thighs. "Deep breath! Huuuuuuuuuhhh." His chin plunges into his chest; simultaneously his stomach rises up into its cavity as if feeding on itself. "Yesss, li' tha'," he croaks.
"Li' diss?" I croak back, straining to coax my stomach over the top of my waistband.
"Watch." Suddenly Sting's stomach muscles bunch up in a golden loaf actually it looks as if he's swallowed two amorous moles. His stomach is moving smoothly back and forth in an undulating brick across his body right to left, returning to the right mechanically like the carriage of a typewriter. He stops; the golden loaf disappears. He looks at me. He smiles politely. I'm staring at my stomach, trying to make it go. It's like trying to bend a spoon by staring at it. "It's done with these muscles down here," he says, shaking the tops of his thighs. I grab my muscles, push down on them, give a little hop. Nothing. "Here's the next part-watch this."
Really, the first two hours after sipping the drugged tea were the most horrifying, a bottomless fear that he was dissolving, losing control, and nothing could save him - he was a control freak, and here he was losing it, floating into the Brazilian rain forest in a swirl of paint the Indians had dabbed on his famous face, a face he'd contorted - the lips, the eyes, the cheekbones - into a mask that helped make him a millionaire several times over. And now he was losing control of himself, maskless, flowing into the trees, no longer impermeable, part of the greenness sliding around him. This fear was certainly unequalled by anything he had encountered during Jungian analysis, which he entered after the break-up of his first marriage - a memory that, like his childhood, was painful. During the Jungian sessions he was supposed to meet his dark side, but he made up most of the dreams he told the analyst. It was shameful, really but oh, well. After the feeling that he'd lost control came two hours of the most intense weeping, followed by pure joy, his body swirling out beyond the thatched huts, the fires, the hammocks where he slept, farting and talking late into the night with the Indians.
He was outside himself, in that perfect state of detachment he'd always sought as a sleepless young man with drugs or women in the best hotels, singing 'Roxanne'. Hiding from reporters' questions had been a game. Now he could hide from nothing; the mask could not save him from melting into the million trees, the billion leaves. "The Indians know stuff," he said. The Indians' hands were near him; he was not alone when he took the drug. To have been alone on ayahuasca would have been madness. You imagined you were dead. The Indian chief Raoni once looked at Sting and drummed his fingers on his chest and said, "Lot of pain here." Quite unexpectedly, tears sprang from Sting's eyes. The wise man ruffled his balding head and said, "You're cute." The world thought he was in the jungle to save it; but first he was looking for something he couldn't name, and then he found it: a father he could love when his own had just been snatched from him. He learned his dad was dead moments before walking on-stage before two hundred thousand people in Rio. Three days after the Rio show he was in the jungle - flying low in a Cessna over miles of charred, red soil, tree stumps, miles of desolation, the plane zooming up suddenly over the wall of jungle. "A living emerald cathedral," he whispered to the window at the richness that jammed in on his desolation. f***ing wild. Dream.
Suddenly his stomach is rising up again. It's a tidal wave, and it begins travelling freely back and forth in both directions, rolling, curling over, turning abruptly and heading back for the other side. "What's this called?" I ask.
"The maha baand." He does it again. It seems to please him a great deal, doing this thing with his stomach. He looks down at it in great concentration, his palms moving ever so lightly on his thighs, adjusting pressure as if with invisible buttons. It is the most interesting thing I have ever seen a rock star do.
"What's it for?"
"It vacuums my bowels."
"Yeah, cleans everything out, loosens it up, makes it fresh." He gasps and releases his magical stomach. "In fact," he says, "I've got to go right now." He makes a vaudevillian trot for the bathroom. "Just kidding." He's quiet a moment. "Shall we go on?"
After his father died it was as if time had shrunk to a nightmarishly thin tube through which Sting squeezed himself by performing in two Amnesty International tours (with Bruce Springsteen), on Broadway in 'The Threepenny Opera', and as organiser of a six-week, dozen-country media tour to showcase Chief Raoni and his fight to save his Brazilian homeland from mining and logging activity. When the rain-forest tour ended, Sting faced terrifying writer's blocks, during which he wandered the streets of New York, took long baths, and got drunk. Four years passed before he recorded an album, The Soul Cages, about his uneasy relationship with his father.
"I really hadn't managed to say to him, 'I have made this journey and I have come back.' We hadn't sat down man-to-man. I didn't say 'I now understand what you have been through, I'm a man now' and that hurts. I never connected with my father, except briefly, before he died. I was massaging his hand and he was in a terrible state. I realised we had the same hands, exactly the same. I said, 'We have the same hands,' and he said, 'You've made better use of yours than I have mine.' I realised that was the first compliment he had ever paid me.
"I am angry now" Sting says, "because I have the time and desire to give my parents something in their lives. Last month I was on a yacht in the Caribbean and I was thinking, Where the f*** is my father? He should be here and he is not. My whole life has been about trying to please my parents. And here I am. So where the f*** are they?"
Sting is in New York to attend to business, but he'd rather disappear back to his four-century-old house in the country. Maybe he'd pick up his fly rod and ride his big hunting horse down to the Avon River, which flows through his property and is one of the best trout streams in England. But maybe not - he'd tried to like fishing, but he says he couldn't stand imagining the fish's pain. He'd tell his wife, "Trudie, I'm going fishing now."
"Okay Pookie," she'd reply. "See you."
And a few minutes would pass and suddenly he'd be back at the house, looking lost. "Hi."
"How was it, Pookie?"
"Oh fine. It is a bit like Zen."
And then an hour later he'd traipse off again, but just as quickly she'd see him returning. Sting is walking through the lobby of the Ritz and out the door alone, without a bodyguard or dark glasses, as always, and sidles down past Carnegie Hall, where he happens upon the aftermath of a shooting. This seems to thrill him. A man getting shot. Hello, New York. The cops came rushing up the street just like Starsky and Hutch - perhaps this was something for the journal. He filled one notebook a year; now he had twelve of them. He was thinking of burning them. It was an impulse he'd resisted, but yes, he thought, perhaps he'd burn them when he got back home.
He is already homesick, worrying about his seven-year-old son, Jake, who's disrupting his school classes. "The teacher's trying to break his spirit. My son is not a pony," Sting says in a fatherly tone (he's got five children: Joe, sixteen, and Kate, eleven, from his first marriage; and Mickey ten, Jake, and Coco, two, with Trudie Styler). Schoolmates had convinced a terrified Jake that he was adopted because his parents weren't married; after much pestering by the little ones, Sting and Trudie ended their eleven-year courtship in 1992 and made their match official. "The most romantic thing I've ever done," Sting says.
He's happier at forty-one than he's ever been, Trudie says, "but he still tries the old star on. In fact, he lives in the mirror. Sucking in his cheeks. I have this quite large mouth, and he curls his lips back and makes himself look like a grotesque fashion of me, which I find very funny. If I am pissed at him, I will whack him across the head properly."
"I am bored with the mask now," Sting says. "You can make the muscles in your face appear quite immovable like a suit of armour. It looks very cold. I think it was quite effective in keeping people away, but then people drew the conclusion that I was aloof and a snot. It is so transparent to me now. Look up. This is how I look."
"Which is how?"
"I am not pretty. I want to be an adult."
He is in New York partly to look after the final mixing of his new record, 'Ten Summoner's Tales'. His hearing is bad now verging on tinnitus - wherever he goes he hears birds singing in his head, like a hedge of twittering sparrows, and he was having a hard time telling one mix from another. He'd hired someone to serve as his ears, a man named Bob Ludwig who's known for having the best ears in the business. So there was that to do. He is in town also to discuss tour dates with Miles Copeland, his manager. Sting hadn't wanted to tour, but Miles cautioned him, "What if the album hiccups the first week and the record company panics and we don't have a tour to boost sales? Do I have to tell you what happened to Springsteen?" He also warned Sting to take it easy on the heavy introspection stuff with the journalists. That kind of talk had accompanied the release of 'The Soul Cages', made the record seem funereal, and possibly hurt its sales.
Sting also must call on Chiat Day the advertising agency, to hear a presentation of a new TV campaign for the Rainforest Foundation. This month Sting will perform at a benefit show in New York at Carnegie Hall with Luciano Pavarotti and James Taylor, and he was fine with that but he says he can no longer stand the mental mutilation of dealing with the press, or the endless meetings around the globe, the pressure, the machinations.
"I was very naive," he says. "This is not 'Buy a T-shirt and save the world.' I accomplished very little. I don't want to be tied to the front of the train anymore. I'm married, I've settled down, I'm leaving behind my wild and woolly days."
The phone rings. "My darling," he whispers "just talking about you. Yes, I'll call you later. Okay. ...hello Jakie-boy, how are you? What time is it there? How was school today? You saw a play? What was it about? Nativity play I see. Have you got a part? An innkeeper. That's a bad guy right?" Softer now. "Okay my sweetheart, I will speak to you tomorrow. Okay my love. Bye."
Sting turns back in his chair. "Now I look for solutions outside of politics. What is happening to the world is not a political problem it is a psychological problem. Look at Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing? Ireland. Neo-Nazis." He slaps the morning paper against his passport. "There's a psychosis at loose. It's out there. You need some kind of balance."
He is still afraid now he says, but as much for himself as for the planet. He keeps thinking he will get cancer or AIDS. He's had his blood tested for everything. He believed the rainforest was a giant laboratory where the plants were cooking a cure for cancer. Now he says, "I trust in a sympathetic and magical way that I'll be stronger and able to resist it if I do yoga." He hasn't spoken to Raoni in a year, although he still loves him. Yoga is his jungle now.
Walking through the Chiat Day offices, Sting doesn't look especially happy. His neck was badly nicked by shaving, his short blond hair is dirty and sticks straight up at the back of his head, he's nervously fiddling with a brown suede cap. He began losing his hair when he was twenty-five, and this fact had bothered him. Now he simply hopes that he won't be forced to develop what he calls "tonsorial strategies."
He slides down into the billowy couch in the viewing room, crosses his legs, and stares pensively into the coffee cup a young woman has brought him. She sits in a chair nearby scooting sideways so she can watch him from the corner of her eye without being obtrusive.
So far Sting's efforts have made a difference to the state of the rain forest. The Brazilian government has recently decreed a portion of Indian territory protected from logging and mining activities, and the Rainforest Foundation, which Sting was fundamental in organising, has sent nearly $2 million to establish social and educational programs for the Indians. Still, he's plagued by the feeling that he's accomplished little. The Indians could sell the protected land to business interests tomorrow he says, and probably will. The Indians, he observes, tend to see whites as assets rather than as friends. All that has led him to view his work for the rain forest with a less absolute fervour than before.
"What we need," the ad executive begins, explaining the fund-raising TV commercial for the Rainforest Foundation, "we need to get people to act out of self interest rather than altruism. We need to get them to think that by saving the rainforest they are saving themselves." Sting looks up from his coffee at the mention of the word saving. The executive plays a tape of the commercial, which includes the slogan "The Rainforest Foundation has saved an area the size of Switzerland, now you save the rest."
"Really, it's brilliant," Sting says. "But we didn't save anything."
"Saved is saving, is protected," the executive replies. "If you pull a child from the path of a car, have you saved his life, or have you protected him?"
"You're not going to win this point," Miles tells him. "People will jump all over this. We have to be very careful."
"Saved is so deceptive," says Sting.
"Now let's do the levitation. Can you sit in the lotus position? No? Okay I'll do this first. Watch me." He folds his legs rather effortlessly up and under and lifts himself off the floor, his weight resting on his hands. "Now you must breathe," he says. "Deeply very deeply, like a bellows. Try it."
I get one leg folded in; the other dangles disobediently. "Lift yourself." He jams his foot under my loose leg. "Breathe, fast as you can, faster." I breathe, trying to go like bellows. I'm hyperventilating. He hops back up on his hands, his folded legs swinging slightly beneath him like a pendulum, and he begins to breathe, fast, deep, faster, gazing ahead with a look of fierce beatitude, until it seems he won't be able to continue, but he does, finally reaching a crescendo of breathlessness, and he lowers himself back down, into the wan light of the Ritz.
He seems stunned, suddenly unaware of my presence. It's the first time since we've met that he doesn't seem to have his head cocked to the light as if he's being photographed. "Now I'm high," he says.
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