MUSICIANAugust 01, 1991
The following interview with Bill Flanagan appeared in the August 1991 issue of Musician magazine...
What a piece of work is Sting - the rock star races toward 40...
It's a beautiful May afternoon in Holland. Sting is in the dining room eating. Peter Gabriel is in the foyer talking and Sinead O'Connor is outside in the garden with her friend, waltzing. All of these luminaries are waiting to board the tour bus outside their hotel in the Hague and go to the concert hall where Sting is in the middle of a five-night stand. Gabriel and Sinead have flown over to guest-star in a segment of tonight's concert which will be broadcast around the world as part of the Simple Truth Appeal, a charity telecast to benefit the Kurdish refugees in Iraq.
Sting is having second thoughts about the whole affair. As everyone boards the bus he wonders aloud if it wouldn't be better to share the money about to be raised with the new disaster victims in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. "Three weeks ago the Kurds really needed help," Sting sighs. "But now the Kurds seem well taken care of. From now on their problem is political. But the situation in Bangladesh is just horrible. So I've spent the afternoon sending faxes, trying to see if there's some way to re-direct some of this - and I've been causing panic with everyone."
Sting is told that if he allows himself to be paralysed because he can't do everything, he'll never do anything. Probably best to just let the Kurds have this one. Sting shakes his head and says, "Once you open this can of worms..."
Peter Gabriel kids two security men that he and Sting whipped in tennis earlier. That cheers up Sting, who says that he sort of wishes he were a professional athlete instead of an entertainer because "an athlete has to do only one thing really well." It is pointed out to the 39-year-old musician that if he had been an athlete, his career would now be over. "I hadn't thought of that," Sting says as Gabriel laughs. "Forget it."
Sting will turn 40 on October 2nd. "I'm playing at Hollywood Bowl," he says. "I'm going to make a big thing of it. A lot of people try to disguise the fact, like 40's the threshold of middle age. I say, 'Hey, I'm 40 and I'm proud!' Why not? We're the biggest generation in history and we're all getting older. It doesn't mean anything anymore. I just feel in the prime of my life. Why shouldn't I crow about it?" He adds, half-jokingly, "Actually, I'm a baby compared with the rest of our international rock stars. Peter's 41. Bruce is 42 or 43". No one mentions that Springsteen is actually 41. No one mentions U2, Prince, or Michael Jackson. All anybody says is, "Dylan is 50," and everyone nods and agrees.
At the Staten Hall, Sting and his band - drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious - run through a soundcheck for an audience of film crew and arena fast-food vendors. The band's main job this afternoon is to rehearse the guest-star segments. The finale of Sting's version of 'Purple Haze' is the cue for Gabriel and guitarist David Rhodes to come onstage and go into 'Games Without Frontiers'. Sting slips easily from the spotlight to being Gabriel's bass player. Still, the overall sound is ragged. As 'Games' finishes, Sinead appears. Sting moves to upright bass and supports her on a new song, 'My Special Child'. Then Gabriel and Sinead duet on his 'Don't Give Up'. Sinead has a tough time getting a grip on the female part sung on Gabriel's album by Kate Bush. Gabriel himself seems stiff. That this shaky newborn supergroup will have to sing to the world in just a few hours seems more than intimidating. They run through the sequence a second time and everything's vastly improved. This is what separates the pros from the amateurs - not what they can do but how quickly they can learn to do it. At the end of the four-song cycle everyone is relieved. But Sting still isn't satisfied. "Come on," he calls, "let's do the whole thing once more!" ("I'm still a schoolteacher," he explains a few minutes later.) On the third run-through it all clicks. Gabriel is suddenly animated, dancing as if the house were packed. As 'Don't Give Up' climaxes and fades Gabriel raises his fist in the air and looks over at Sinead to see if she's following suit. Sinead looks back at him like 'You gotta be kidding' and instead sings a snatch of a rowdy punk jig. Dominic Miller starts playing Elvis' 'Guitar Man' and Sting and the band jump in, pulling off a swinging little rendition. As they finish Sting says, "That oughta help the Kurds."
Sting says later, "One of the dangers of raising money with pop stars and big concerts is that people then assume a miracle will take place. There are no miracles. You take part in a process which can last for a lifetime. People come up and say, 'Have you stopped the rainforest burning yet?' It's such an infuriating question and so naive. We started a process that involves real experts who work day to day as they have for years and years. It's like, 'Didn't Live Aid solve the problem in Ethiopia five years ago?' No, the bunch of crooks in the government of Ethiopia who caused the problem are still there. Bomb them!"
The musicians have dinner in the auditorium basement. Sting, who eats nothing, says how great it feels to just play bass while someone else sings - though he immediately qualifies that by, worrying that perhaps that freedom leads to overplaying. So maybe he's a better bassist when he does sing, after all. "You leave holes in the bass part when you sing," Sting says, "which became a kind of style in the Police. Sparse basslines."
Gabriel, friendly but perhaps a little uneasy about the impending broadcast, dines distractedly on trout. He mentions that his new album is coming along slowly, but he hopes to have it out by Christmas. Sting stands up and starts moving around. One gets the impression that, whatever he is doing, Sting is always thinking about what he should do next. He says he's going to go work out. He returns half an hour later, while everyone else is having dessert, and asks Sinead and Peter to join him in the next room for "a meeting of the board." The three stars draft a letter to the Kurd-Aid organisers, formally requesting that some of the money from the benefit be distributed to other disaster victims.
Is Sting always this active? David Sancious smiles. Monday, Sancious says, was supposed to be a deserved day off. Instead, Sting decided the band should play on an Italian TV show. The band woke up in Germany, flew to Italy, did the show and then travelled all the way up to Holland before bedtime. Sting doesn't like to sit still. Dominic Miller, Vinnie Colaiuta and drum tech Donnie FitzSimmonds move upstairs to the band dressing room and fall into over- stuffed chairs. Vinnie, a top US session drummer, heard that Sting was holding auditions in England and phoned him and said he was paying his own way over to try out. Sting asked Vinnie please not to do that, it would just be embarrassing if he didn't like him. Vinnie said, "I'm coming anyway," and he got the gig. Sting wanted an English guitarist - he figures Brits have a quirkiness Americans don't - and producer Hugh Padgham suggested Dominic, a former member of World Party who played on recent albums by Phil Collins and Julia Fordham.
With the Blue Turtles band Sting played guitar. He seemed to float above that group - one felt that if Sting stopped playing it would make no difference to the rest of the band. Now, for the first time since the Police, he's playing bass in a small rock group. Sting figures that by controlling the bottom with his bass and the top with his high voice, he can drive the band without being obviously dictatorial.
"Sting's a great bass player," Vinnie says. "He has a great groove, great timing, he's adventurous. Plus, nobody plays reggae like him. It's interesting that he's a great bassist who's a songwriter. Songwriters look at things differently. He has the ability to look at a part or a riff from a player's standpoint and from a writer's standpoint. All those things are revealed when he plays."
Sting's belief in sparseness is mirrored by Dominic, who says, "I can't listen to a piece of guitar work that is continuous, without a gap. Saxophonists have to take a breath between licks, don't they ? I think guitar players should do that too. Let their fingers take a breath." Dominic says he'd rather hear Neil Young play a heartfelt solo full of mistakes than all the guitar heroes in L.A.
"Heroics are heroics and music is music," Vinnie says. "If somebody doesn't play like a 'hero' that doesn't make him any less of a musician. It's like the way people get used to going to movies to see new levels of violence and shock value. What's the point ? Why does someone have to do that to be judged 'good' or 'better'? It doesn't matter. Ability is just a means to an end: to make music."
Two walls away 10,000 people have entered the hall and watched opening sets by Nashville singer/songwriters Kennedy Rose and vocalist/percussionist Vinx. Sinead is in her dressing room with her friend Tex Axile from Transvision Vamp. There's almost two hours before Sinead goes on and Tex convinces her the time would be well spent learning to juggle. Soon the contents of her complimentary fruit basket are bouncing around the room. Sting's band is about to go on when Vinnie storms by Sinead's door, muttering that the TV people have sent him off to shave so that he can be made-up for tonight's filming. A few minutes later Vinnie is shaved, Sinead has all her fruit in the air and a big roar goes up from 10,000 Dutchmen as Sting and his band run on-stage and swing into All This Time, his latest hit.
'All This Time' is from Sting's most recent album, 'The Soul Cages', a meditation on his Newcastle boyhood and the recent death of his parents. Most of the album is slow and moody. 'All This Time' - though its lyrics are full of a boy's first glimpse of death and the rituals around death - has the sort of bouncy pop melody and contagious rhythm Sting turned out regularly when he led the Police. When 'All This Time', complete with funny MTV video, appeared last winter, fans who missed that old Police magic rushed out and bought 'Soul Cages'. But when that song's run was over, 'Soul Cages' began falling down the charts. It's easy to figure that a big part of the public wants the old Sting back.
His first post-Police album, 1985's 'Dream of the Blue Turtles', used jazz musicians and stretched Sting's songwriting in new directions. The follow-up, 1987's 'Nothing Like the Sun', was subdued and delicate. 'All This Time' sounded like a return to the energy and warm hooks of 'When the World is Running Down', 'Roxanne' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. But it was not typical of the ghostly 'Soul Cages'. On-stage tonight, Sting and his band kick the songs through new arrangements. Material that was brooding on Soul Cages becomes more emotionally complex when performed with such fire and joy. The album versions of Sting's latest material are fine. The live versions are better.
Purple Haze brings the already ecstatic audience into chair-stamping, match-lighting heaven. The appearance of Gabriel and Sinead induces rapture. 'Games without Frontiers', 'My Special Child' and 'Don't Give Up' are received like Woodstock. By the time Sting leads everyone through a sing-along 'Every Breath You Take', the crowd is going nuts and Sinead and Gabriel are grinning ear to ear. When Sting and his band play 'Message in a Bottle' Sinead hides behind a speaker at the side of the stage, doing her "Emperor's New Clothes" dance. The dressing rooms after the show turn into a party, as all those pent-up, pre-show nerves give way to glee. Sting crosses the room, cups Sinead's face in his hands and announces, "You are beautiful!" Sinead, with joking lustiness and swinging a beer, grabs an eyeful of Sting's naked chest and declares, "Hey, you're gorgeous!"
"A f***ing great time!" Sinead grins as Sting moves off. "I got to sing the dododos on 'Every Breath You Take', which I've been practising for years." She takes a swig. "Hoping I'd be asked!"
The bus ride back to the hotel is giddy. The musicians are laughing, singing, waving to teenage fans. It feels like a football team returning from a big win. All the gloom is gone from Peter Gabriel, who seems downright light-hearted. Sinead demands a sing-along and Sting leads everyone in Spinal Tap's 'Big Bottom'. They all know 'Big Bottom'. Then Sting and Sinead recite the Tap's 'Stonehenge' monologue. Manager Miles Copeland insists that when Spinal Tap was shown in middle America, audiences thought it was a real documentary.
"Hey, man!" Vinnie yells to Sting. "Were you playing 'Bonanza' on the bass during 'Message in a Bottle'?" "Yes!" Sting shouts. "I knew it!" Vinnie falls back in hysterics. "Only you catch those, Vinnie," Sting says. "I do it for you. I don't play for the audience! I play for the drummer!"
Sancious marvels at the telepathy he and Vinnie were sharing on-stage. It turns out the two of them - and Sting - all memorised the same albums as kids: 'Hymn to the Seventh Gallery' by Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra's 'Inner Mounting Flame'. They start singing John McLaughlin's guitar lines. Sancious announces that he's found note-for-note transcriptions of Chick Corea's 'Seventh Galaxy' solos. "Don't tell me," Sting says. "Done by some guy in Japan, right?" He's right. "It had to be!" "Yeah," Sancious says. "He slowed the record down to 16 and got them all!"
One reason Sting's a big star and the rest of us are not might be that unlike every less secure young player growing up in the'70s, Sting was devoted to fusion and the folkies before catching a ride into the record biz with punk (punk-reggae, come to think of it). He didn't let barriers or snobbery obstruct his musical education. This guy who knows his Mahavishnu note for note, who got famous tearing up places like CBGB with spiked hair and punk songs like 'Fall Out' and Peanuts, who was in Quadrophenia and plays Hendrix songs on-stage, is also the last of the sensitive'70s singer/songwriters. In concert Sting's been doing 'Ain't No Sunshine' by Bill Withers and 'If I Were a Carpenter' by Tim Hardin. The next afternoon we head off to a Dutch recording studio so Sting can cut a version of Elton John's 1970 ballad 'Come Down in Time'. Joni Mitchell just told Rolling Stone that she considers Sting the child she and James Taylor never had. Sting says he agrees.
"It's funny to say that, but probably right," Sting says. "Both of them were primal influences on my work. I can play and sing every song from 'Ladies of the Canyon' and 'Sweet Baby James'. I know those songs back to front. The sensibility they had as lyricists and songwriters, but also with a great understanding of music from a wider perspective than just a folk club. Their music reached into jazz, it reached into rock'n'roll, it reached into pop. That's where I saw my niche. I could write songs but I was also a musician and I wanted my songwriting to not be ghettoised into three chords on an acoustic guitar. It could actually be broadened. So yeah, I would be the first to admit that James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were prime influences on everything. Joni on my vocal style - high, keening vocals."
Sting's in the back seat of a small car, heading toward the town of Hilversum. In the front seat, next to the driver, is Hugh Padgham, who produced 'Soul Cages', as well as 'Ghost in the Machine' and 'Synchronicity', the two biggest Police albums. Trudie Styler, Sting's long-time girlfriend and the mother of three of his five kids, sits next to him. Trudie arrived at the hotel from England just as Sting was leaving. She and Sting kissed in the lobby like schoolkids, and they continue to cuddle as Sting talks.
"The whole movement in rock music is to ghettoise and to try to find a pure form," he says. "The musicians I use aren't like that. Branford Marsalis is a complete polyglot - jazz, classical music, a Led Zeppelin riff - he knows everything. People in my band have no prejudice about what music is. I'm not interested in pure form. 'You can't go here and you can't do this because this isn't pure rock'n'roll.' Bullshit! I don't like it. That's why I get called pretentious a lot of the time. 'How dare you break this code!' There is a formula for good reviews and bad reviews. I've noticed a tendency in the New York Times. Anything that obeys the strict rules of a genre - ZZ Top for example - and doesn't explore anything outside that genre is reviewed well. A heavy metal band, a jazz group. They are favourably received. They confirm the structure, the ghettoisation. Anything that steps outside of that is hammered fiercely. That's how they work. They are afraid of anything that moves outside its parameters. And that's killing music. "I think writers have a tendency to think of intellectual areas as their private domain. They like artists to be idiot savants so that the writer can patronise and analyse and then create or deconstruct the artist. Anyone who can analyse themselves gets hammered for that."
Do a lot of Sting's fans wish he'd go back to the sort of rock'n'roll he used to play? "Why the f*** should I go back?" he asks. "You have to keep moving on, even at the risk of losing your popularity. You can't expect your music to coincide with popular tastes forever.
"When we were turning out those Police albums I felt very close to the pulse. I had my finger on the pulse. I knew when I was writing hits. 'This is a hit, that's not a hit, this is a hit.' Now I don't know anymore. I don't really feel I have my finger on the pulse anymore. I think I go a little bit deeper, so it takes longer. And also your standards get raised all the time. You always want to make a record or write a song that's better than the last one. Ideas don't come that readily. When Dylan was at his peak he just poured this stuff out, incredible song after incredible song. Now he finds it more difficult. You can't be on that level of output forever. So then you have to go for quality, you have to go for saying more with less. I couldn't put out more than one album a year. Lucky if I get one out every two. Peter Gabriel puts one out every five years - it's always great. It's a slow process. I'd like to make a record next year cause it's enjoyable, it's a good process, it's good therapy. But I don't know what to write about."
The car pulls into the wooded driveway of Wisseloord Studios, where the Police recorded their third album, 1980's 'Zenyatta Mondatta' ('Don't Stand So Close to Me', 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da') and, according to Sting, broke up emotionally (they did not break up officially for another five years). Outside the studio is a small statue of a figure laden with drums. As Sting passes it he mumbles, "Hello, Stewart." Stewart Copeland was the drummer in the Police.
A copy of 'Zenyatta' hangs on the lobby wall, and the folks who run the studio greet Sting like a returning brother. After a quick cup of tea and honey, he finds a grand piano and plays quietly while a film crew anxious to document Sting's singing argues with Padgham about the relative importance of sound and pictures. Sting is recording Come Down in Time for an album of other artists performing Elton John songs.
"It's not a charity album," Sting explains. "It's actually for profit." Sting thinks the world of Elton, who he says is greatly loved but vastly underrated. Elton has recorded a piano track in England, now Sting has to add vocals and bass. Sting deserts the piano for his stand-up bass and begins to play jazzy licks, then the Pink Panther theme. Padgham's voice comes from the control room, inviting Sting in to listen to the tracks. Sting says no: "I don't want to get too precise." The studio is big and open. Padgham wonders aloud if they should build a screen of baffles behind Sting. "Build?" Sting sighs, walking off to pee. "We're not Fleetwood Mac."
Padgham rolls the piano track to get levels and Sting, singing softly in his head voice, performs a gorgeous reading of Come Down in Time. He doesn't need written lyrics; he's living the song. He sways gently, eyes closed pouring out the melody, in a sensual croon. When we think of Sting's voice we think of his high, powerful howl. That he's a fine singer is well-known. But this subtle ballad style shows a range even a fan doesn't expect. When Sting finishes the boys in the control room say, okay, they've got a level, they're ready to begin. "Did you keep any of that take?" Sting asks. "No. Sorry." ("Sting has a low threshold of boredom," Padgham says later. "You don't let him sing unless the machine's in record 'cause you never know what you're going to miss.")
Padgham says there was a bit of popping on that version anyway, and asks for a pop shield, a round screen that is put between microphone and Sting's face - to the horror of the film crew who are now looking at a filter where a rock star just disappeared. Sting says a lady's silk stocking over the mike will solve both problems.
Sting performs the song for real now, in his full voice. It's great singing, great use of dynamics, but loses a bit of the sexy intimacy of the run-through. A second recorded take is a little huskier and, one bad line aside, good enough for Sting. He says to the booth, "Let's play some bass."
The bass parts don't take long at all, but Padgham thinks the last note needs to ring out so it can fade slowly with the piano and vocal. Sting suggests that he bow the last two notes goes back out and does it. "It didn't sound very pretty to me, that," Padgham says. "There's a lot of harmonic, to start with. You can do better."
"Back to school," Sting laughs. He plays the two notes a different way. Padgham's voice comes over the talk-back. "You can't do it smoother, without the jumps?" "Yeah, I can." Sting bows the two notes without vibrato. Padgham says, "That's it. Cool." Sting lays down his fiddle and goes into the studio's front office to phone a public statement about Kurd-Aid to his London publicist: "Following a meeting last night in the Hague, both Peter, Sinead and I feel that it would be ludicrous and inhuman not to take into account the need for relief in Bangladesh and Ethiopia which has recently arisen. We also feel that if the scope of relief was widened, it would encourage a greater awareness to raise the ceiling of relief sought. We do not propose to dictate the proportions of money that should be allotted to each cause and we can leave that to the experts. We just feel it should have urgent consideration and we are trying to force the organisation to realise this."
Padgham comes out of the booth, sits down on a couch in the corridor and relaxes. "In the old days," he smiles, "if I asked Sting to do a bass part again he'd probably - have just told me to f*** off. Nowadays he's probably a bit more amenable. We're all 10 years older and more experienced. He's a great guy to work with in the studio because he's such a good musician. When he goes in to sing a song there's no fits or tantrums, the moon doesn't have to be in the right house. We're normal human beings. We just get down and do the job."
Sting and Trudie say goodbye to everyone at the studio and climb into their car for the hour-long drive back to the Hague and tonight's concert. As farms and windmills flash by the window, Sting considers the proposition that his concerts have regained some of the joy that was a big part of early Police shows, but which had not been apparent for many years. "I think it reflects that I'm very happy in my personal life," he says. "My life has balanced out. When the Police became successful, that meteoric rise coincided with a terrible ennui, a terrible sense of displacement. My first marriage was breaking up, my personal life was a mess. Just when you think everything is going fantastic, beneath it is this swamp. Having balanced that out over the last 10 years, I feel I can enjoy my work and it's real. I'm not surprised that I seem more happy on-stage - I am more happy on-stage. The Police was not a happy little outfit."
The road to such happiness had lots of potholes. After the break-up of the Police, Sting faced the slow deaths of his parents. His mother died while he was making 'Nothing Like The Sun', and three weeks later he returned to Newcastle to star in a film, 'Stormy Monday'. At home with his grieving family and dying father, he gave his best screen performance, as a tough, aloof night-club owner. He says he modelled that character on his brother. His father's death gave Sting the inspiration to compose the songs on 'The Soul Cages'. And the entire painful process, he says, helped him reconcile himself to his hometown, the people he comes from and who Gordon Sumner really is.
Of course, Gordon Sumner is still Sting and Sting is still the only rock star who'd answer a question about the use of bird symbols to represent both his mother's death (in 'Lazarus Heart') and his father's (in 'All This Time') by saying, "Free association leads us to the collective unconscious. Birds symbolise death in myth, certainly - in Jungian terms. Once you start accepting these archetypal images they just keep occurring. The songs stand scrutiny because they were written almost unconsciously. The fragments that they're built from are from the subconscious. The art of putting them together was crafted, but the inspiration was very natural, almost automatic."
Sting is working in a distinct tradition. The great untold history of rock'n'roll is that so much of it is about mothers dying. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Rotten, U2, Madonna, Sinead O'Connor - all of their music to some degree deals with, "My mummy's dead."
"What else do we write about really?" Sting says. "It's such an enormous concept. Death! What is any storytelling about? What are myths about? It's all about dealing with death. Something that we can't understand, that we can't quite grasp, that really terrifies us. So we put it on a big screen and try to figure it out with symbols. It doesn't surprise me that pop music is about that. Everything is about that. Sex is about death!"
Trudie looks up at her profound sweetie and say's, "Really?" Sting cracks a smile and says, "Like the phrase, 'I'm gonna f***in' kill ya!'" Everyone laughs.
Wherever Gordon Sumner ends, there's no question that the public image of Sting has taken on a life of its own. There is a bleached blond wrestler in the States who calls himself Sting ("I'm gonna have to take him on!" Sting declares. "That's something I might actually do!") After Sting mentioned that he liked Anne Rice's novel 'Interview with the Vampire', Rice published a sequel in which her Vampire became a blond rock star (somebody's agent must have smelled a movie). Last night Sting was talking about the DC superhero comics of the early '60s when he was reminded that these days DC has a supernatural hero, Hellblazer, modelled after Sting. As a kid Sting read about Superman and Batman. Now he's in the comics hanging out with them.
"That's not me," Sting says. "That's the public domain creation. Anything can happen to that, bad or good. It doesn't affect the core of me. Having created a kind of mask or image, you should then put it aside and get on with your life. The mistake [celebrities] make is they, confuse that thing that's been created by them and by the media for reality. Then they sit inside that thing and they wonder why everything's f***ed up. That character is someone else. It's not me. And thank God. Nice things happen to it, bad things happen to it - fine. Just leave me out of it!
"Every year my press agent sends me everything that's been written about me. It's quite amusing to look through it. 'I was never there, never f***ed her, wasn't in that restaurant, never met this person.' A certain percentage of it is true but the perception is a complete fabrication. That's consoling - its not me!"
Sting and Trudie laugh. He looks out at the horizon of Amsterdam passing by. "I think I've remained fairly objective to the process of fame and becoming successful," Sting smiles. "I don't, contrary to popular opinion, take myself so seriously that I can't see the jokes sometimes."
© Musician magazine