01.01.93 THE TIMES
The following interview with Alan Jackson appeared in a January 1993 issue of The Times newspaper...
Change the record: Sting has evolved several public personae, from a peroxide pop pin-up with all-too-clever lyrics to a defender of the rain forest. Now, with his eco-man suit packed away and film flops behind him, the musician has found a personal middle ground.
Few of us take kindly to being reminded of our inadequacies and ill-formed attitudes. We enjoy the process still less when the hectoring voice belongs to someone who, although a contemporary in age, is far richer, far more celebrated, and infinitely more glamorous than ourselves. That, one supposes, is why so many people in Britain have come to think of Sting as smug, pretentious, a bit of a clever-dick. And, if we examine our consciences, we will admit that there are few things we Britons like less. Hardly surprising, then, that the once pawing hand of popular interest suddenly slapped rock's former golden boy roundly in the face.
Fame is a game, of course. We know (and he knows that, sooner or later, the public and the media will always tire of their latest affair. It is then that the hapless superstar is lampooned and lambasted, for all the reasons he or she was once loved. Back in the days when he was a spiky-haired peroxide blond, shouting out the words to those smart and catchy Police hits, how the thinking-persons pop star was loved. Cerebral, yet - all too frequently - too sexy for his shirt: graduates everywhere swooned. More than that, everybody who ever sat an O level caught the bug.
It all changed for Sting some time around 1985. It was then that, following the disbanding of the Police two years earlier, he released his first solo LP. Written at a time when he was undergoing Jungian therapy, it was called 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', employed the talents of some of the very best of America's young jazz players, and was a huge success. It also notified fans that the uppity ex-Novocastrian was no longer prepared to limit himself to the three-and-a-half minute pop song. 1987's 'Nothing Like the Sun', recorded after his participation in the first Amnesty International world concert tour, only underlined the point. A popular theory was that the former Gordon Matthew Sumner, milkman's son, had got too big for his boots.
By 1989, the knives were well and truly out. And Sting's announcement that he was setting up a foundation to raise public awareness of the devastation of Brazil's rain forests, in particular the Xingu Park, an area of native land the size of Switzerland, gave them the impetus to wound. He was a do-gooder, a dilettante: worst of all, a bore¬Ö "What a career move," cynics hissed, as he introduced heads of state and chat-show hosts to Chief Raoni, leader of the Kayapo tribe, whom they would remember more for the plate that distended his bottom lip than for dignity of his pleas for the protection of his people and their environment.
A personal crusade written off as a self-aggrandising global photo opportunity, it speeded up the ritual debagging that always follows a media love affair. By the time he returned home, the backlash was complete: the one-time rock hero was now Eco-Sting, a cartoon-like caped crusader flying around in loincloth and body paint, hell-bent on saving the planet from destruction. We British, preferring our environmentalists to look like Attenborough or Bellamy, chortled with ill-concealed delight. Sting himself bit his tongue. "It's an old adage, but no act of kindness goes unpunished," was his only comment at the time. Two years on he allowed his anger to show. "Cynicism doesn't matter." he said, in an interview given to promote his third studio LP, 'The Soul Cages'.
"Basically, cynics are people who are afraid, They want you to fail because your failure would mean they don't have to try anything themselves. They can continue to sit and do nothing... I'd like to take a few to the jungle and see how they fare."
But there was an irony, not apparent at the time to the charge that Sting was using ecological campaigning as an elaborate form of self-publicity. 'The Soul Cages' topped the British charts "for about three days", then dropped quickly out of sight, failing to sell the requisite 300,000 copies to be accorded platinum status. In doing so, it represented his lowest ever British sale for a studio LP. But then, with its downbeat feel and difficult lyrical themes, largely related to filial guilt and uncertainty following the death of his parents, the album had never been tailor-made for squeamish British tastes.
If anything, this regretful and retrospective tone confirmed everything that the floating voter now felt about Sting - and then added two more insults to the list. Smug, pretentious, clever-dick, boring, and now dreary and embarrassingly personal as well. Fortunately for his record company, A&M, therapy-loving America - always keen to pore over someone else's neuroses - liked it rather better. "It's a steady seller among the recently bereaved," Sting says today.
Early on a Saturday morning, padding around his home in Highgate, north London, with a dishevelled air. Sting claims distance from the media rollercoaster that so eagerly built him up, only to knock him down again. Settling into the corner depths of a vast, tapestry upholstered sofa, the man who has sold more than 50 million albums during a 15-year career seems, if anything, grateful that his popularity is at last being allowed to find a comfortable and sustainable level. "Some personalities offer very good vehicles for other people's projections, which is why you're successful in the first place," he suggests.
"At the beginning of my career, those projections were all very positive, and brought me a meteoric kind of fame: I got very, very famous, very quickly. But inevitably it turns back on you. People don't like you suddenly. They wonder who the hell you think you are. It's the other aspect of the fame phenomenon, and you should he able to see it coming. You can't enjoy the up-side and then be shocked by the down. You just have to accept it will follow.
"I don't live my life as the media projection of myself. I live underneath and behind all that, at street level. I demand my right to walk around in a normal way, without protection or bodyguards. I go out and get the newspapers in the morning; I walk the dogs. And I demand respect from people on the street, not as Sting, but as a guy whose got the same right to be there as anyone else in the community. I'm a citizen, if you like, and I have citizen's rights."
Sting's problem - no, he would say, not his problem - is that we seem to like our rock elders to mug and ham for our affections. Just as his own image is painted with broad, rather crude brush-strokes, so too are those of his fellow aristocrats: there is Rod, the tart with a heart; Phil, the perennially nice geezer-next-door; Macca, thumbs aloft and boyish grin unwavering. Passive consumption of their music serves only to reinforce these easily digestible stereotypes, so reinforcing their position in the publics affection. Sting, however gives the impression that he would rather be written off as a prat than take part in the same cosy charade.
Yes, not even those artists who pursue a direction as singular as his own - Eric Clapton perhaps, or Peter Gabriel - have attracted anything like the same sneering press. Why? Because neither has had to live down quite the same intensity of extended, super-glamorous celebrity as that created by the Police's success. Nor have they tried to combine stardom with the role of multi-issue lobbyist. Perhaps what causes many people to hold Sting at arm's length is his still schoolmasterly air of knowing best. Whatever introspection has surfaced in the lyrics of his solo work, his public persona is one of unwavering self-confidence, and it can be hard to love a man who never admits uncertainty about his attitudes to the outside world.
"I think that's probably just his interview mask - it's certainly not the Sting I know," says his wife, Trudie Styler, surprised at such an observation of her husband. "He's very vulnerable, as I think are most sensitive and intelligent individuals. He's constantly questioning and reassessing his beliefs. The world is changing so rapidly: how could he not? If he chooses to have his prepared statements for the press, I think that's for self-protection."
Sting himself draws a distinction between his public and private salves. "Obviously I have doubts in some areas of my life, but they're not for general consumption: they're for me and my family to deal with. I don't think the outside world wants or needs to know everything about a person. That's why I found the Camillagate tapes so chilling. I'm appalled beyond measure that someone should record this intensely private conversation, and that we should be made privy to it.
"I'm actually a republican, if you want to know the truth; I don't see the necessity of the royal family, apart from maybe pulling in tourist bucks. But they're human beings, and I think it's an intolerable situation for them to be put in. I feel very sorry for the people involved. I want to be private in certain areas of my life, and so does everyone else."
Unusually for someone still so enormously, comprehensively successful in America, where all powerful PRs regularly trade access to their celebrities for the glossiest front covers and acres of eulogising copy, Sting does not seek to move out of reach of the slings and arrows of a free press. "Would I rather read glowing, orchestrated praise of myself in the US or be called a pretentious wanker in Britain - which I have been, a lot?" He smiles. "You have to remember that either way, those are other people's perceptions, and that you yourself have to decide where you exist, somewhere in between the two extremes."
The event in Sting's recent life most likely to have observers opting for the latter conclusion was his marriage last year to Styler, an actress turned documentary film producer, and mother of his three younger children. Their wedding celebrations were reported in slavish detail throughout the world - most spectacularly the way in which the bride, on horseback in her ¬£25,000 Versace dress, was led to the celebrations by the groom. Surely a shooting in the foot for a man keen to play down his past tabloid ubiquity?
"We were surprised by the amount of press interest when we announced the marriage, and wondered how best to retain its spirit - a day essentially for us and the family - and prevent it becoming a media circus," he says. Accordingly, he and Styler posed for assembled photographs after their civil ceremony in Camden, and did so again outside the church where their marriage was blessed. Their own photographer then took pictures at the private celebrations servicing all interested media and giving the proceeds to charity.
"The impression was that we'd rigged a media event, whereas in fact we were trying to protect it from becoming that. OK, the horse was something I organised for Trudie - it was an important day, and I wanted it to be romantic and fun. And Versace did the dress because, well, he's a friend and he announced that he wanted to. Yet ironically, we said no to Hello! I think they offered us something like ¬£100,000, and still we ended up in the f***ing magazine. You can't win."
That the couple should marry after a decade of living together was a decision prompted by the wishes of their three children. "They started to ask very pertinent questions. Are you married? Why aren't you? What's our status in all of this? Very, very militantly. They were saying we should get marred. We asked why it was important to them, and they said it would make them feel better - the influence of their peers, I suppose.
"At first we resisted them. I have to say that, having made the promises before and failed to keep them, I was loath to make them again. Anyway, I felt our relationship was renewed on a day-to-day basis and worked well as it was. But then, in a romantic burst, I proposed, and Trudie said yes. At that point the idea became fun - and we're still enjoying it. Obviously, it involves day-to-day maintenance - you can't expect to get an instant bed of roses. And for that reason alone, I'm glad we had a ten-year apprenticeship."
Sting says he regards the break-up of his first marriage to the actress Frances Tomelty, whom he met while he was a teacher in Newcastle, as his one failure in life. "It was my fault. I didn't pay attention to the details." In terms of fidelity? "I'm not going to talk about that. But I was distracted by other things, partly because I was too young - just 23 when I got married - and partly because shortly afterwards my life changed, dramatically and overnight. So yes, the marriage failed, but I have two children from it and obviously I have a lot of work to do there. I maintain a pretty good relationship with them, and with Frances. We have too. It's like a business with assets."
Their eldest son, Joe, now 16, is studying for A levels and has a band of his own. The concerned father, mindful of the restrained relationship he had with his own parents, is anxious to offer informed advice and encouragement. "Music to him is a retreat, something he goes to when he wants to escape, and I easily recognise myself at that age in him. I'm very, very proud of his desire to be a musician, yet I'm afraid for him, too. I try to encourage him without smothering him. I keep asking to go to rehearsals, so I can be of use and he says, 'No, you can't come.'
In this, as in other areas of his life, the 41 year-old Sting is exercising restraint. "Celebrity is good for kick-starting something, but nowadays I'm steering clear of being tied to the front of the train", he says of his environmental involvement's. He remains on the board of the Rainforest Foundation, which recently succeeded in winning for the Xingu Park the relative protection of legal and physical demarcation, and it consulted on all important policy matters. He also does an annual fund-raising concert with other like-minded performers, but is otherwise taking a back seat. "The day-to-day decisions are made by people in Brazil, doctors and ethno-biologists," he says. "I'm not an expert at all."
Asked how their organisation views his past efforts, representatives of Friends of the Earth prove that not everyone is struck down with terminal cynicism at the sight of a rock star posing bare-chested for the camera against a jungle backdrop. "I think it must have taken a lot of guts to continue to ride this issue through and not to have jumped off the minute that there was a suggestion it might be affecting his commercial viability," says David Kester, responsible for co-ordinating his organisations use of famous names in campaigning. "He's obviously been prepared to stand up for his beliefs, and for that I have immense respect for him on a personal level."
Whatever the consensus on his extra-curricular activities (he himself describes 'The Bride' as "the real Christmas turkey"), Sting is keen to remind us that he is just a journeyman musician at heart. He has admitted that he struggled for months to coax forth the inspiration for The Soul Cages: his new solo LP, released next month, was born relatively quickly.
Generally upbeat, even jaunty on occasions, it represents his most accessible work since the demise of the Police. That the lyrics contain scarcely a hint of personal trauma reflects the fact, he says, that he is a happy man. He cannot resist painting the odd cloud on the horizon, however the overwrought Chaucerian pun on his own surname that provides it's title, 'Ten Summoner's Tales', should ensure that the tradition of music press maulings is at least partially maintained come review time. Sting, the clever-dick, rears his pretty head again.
"It marks a new start," he says. "It's not a confessional record, nor a therapeutic exercise - it's a pop record. It's even got a sense of humour. I wanted to show I could work without dredging up personal demons or slashing my wrists. This I've done for the fun and the craft of it." Which will come as a blessed relief to those admirers who like to flip on a CD to escape their own problems, and who have spent the past few years wishing he would stop trying so hard to be pale and interesting and get back to what he once made such a virtue of - writing music with its own high IQ.
Consequently, it is telling that the first track to have been written and completed was written in response to an outside commission. The makers of 'Lethal Weapon 3' required a song to highlight the unspoken trust between the film's two male-cop protagonists, and Sting's lyric on 'It's Probably Me' fulfils the brief perfectly. In so doing, it offers further proof that the man who wrote the deeply malevolent 'Every Breath You Take' and 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', as well as the new single 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', released on Monday, is a master of the unconventional love song.
When asked if he has a role model for the future, Sting mentions the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. This suggests that the relative cheeriness of 'Ten Summoner's Tales' should not be taken as a guarantee of the commercial appeal of future work. Jobim, like Sting, was a popular hero - a man whose interests married briefly with popular taste in the bossa nova years. But his subsequent direction has been maverick and his profile increasingly low, and his younger disciple too, may eschew the easy option.
"I'd rather pursue a singular path and fail than conform to a stereotype and succeed," Sting says. "I don't feel compelled to activate whatever residual affection there may be for me outside by pandering to expectations. I'm loved enough in this house to not need to do that."
As he speaks, he points a balletic toe skywards in a seemingly unselfconscious but disconcerting movement. It is just a yoga exercise, the early start to his schedule has not left him time to go through his normal two hour routine. As he speaks, Sting extends his foot again. "I'm more supple now than I ever was at 21, when I was a sportsman," he says to which a look of innocent admiration seems the only polite response.
As long as he does not queer the pitch by launching a fitness video, it is safe to predict that Sting will soon enjoy an upturn in his British popularity rating. Whilst he has been quietly ploughing his own furrow, public sentiment has continued its inevitable orbit and the passage of time alone may make him ripe for rehabilitation. But there has been something of a critical reappraisal too, although it was based on his least user-friendly material. 1991's British leg of his 14 month 'Soul Cages' itinerary attracted the best reviews he has seen in a decade. And interest in his forthcoming Albert Hall dates at the beginning of March, precursors to another world tour, is such that a fifth night has been added, without concert-goers having heard a whisper of the new album.
Yet whether celebrated or sneered at, it seems unlikely that Sting will lose sleep. "Your popularity moves around the world and eventually comes back to you - it's not the most important thing and you don't have much control over it," he shrugs, climbing out of his nest of cushions to look out towards the tree-tops of Hampstead Heath. "When I turned 40, I found myself taking stock of my life and asking questions: What have I achieved? Am I going in the right direction? Am I going to be happy when I'm 50 or 60?
"I knew that my initial drive was a very powerful one to escape my environment and be successful, but that what drives me now is a love of working and of being creative.
Today it's all about the desire to get better at what I do, not the outer signs of it all, which is what success is. Having realised that, I feel good about myself and still do. I'm a lot more happier than when I was younger." To his energetic detractors, news of that recognition may well be the ultimate disappointment. Sting is the clever bastard they feared all along.
© The Times