PENTHOUSEJanuary 01, 1984
The following interview with Timothy White appeared in the January 1984 issue of Penthouse magazine...
Friendly, articulate and witty - not always the most obvious qualities in a rock star but there is something of the chameleon, too, in the chief of Police...
In 1977, Sting (aka Gordon Sumner), tenor sax-like jazz vocalist and bassist with a faltering British band called Last Exit, quit that gig to become part of a London-based rock quartet called the Police. The group had recently been founded by drummer Stewart Copeland, third son of an ex-CIA agent. Soon afterward, Corsican rhythm guitarist Henry Padovani was fired and the Police became a threesome, with classically trained Andy Summers, late of Eric Burden's Animals and the Soft Machine, on lead guitar. With a loan of 800 pounds they recorded and pressed their own record, a single called 'Fall Out'. It would eventually sell 70,000 copies.
Three years later, the Police found they had risen above embattled Britain's punk upheaval on the strength of Sting's haunting, reggae-fired songs of loveless prostitutes, mass alienation and the spectre of apocalypse, to become one of the most popular mainstream rock bands in the world. Yet Sting, a young, handsome, rich, outlandishly successful chap with a pretty wife and a kindergarden-age son, found himself full of the foulest sort of contempt for life.
"I was catatonically sullen for a full 12 months," he says: "Very difficult to be with. Very aggressive. Impossible. I knew I was just treading water artistically, and behind that knowledge was an awesome feeling of negativity and a detesting of everything. In a sense my son Joseph, who's now six years old, created my nihilistic period, in that I felt that if I died tomorrow, I'd had a good life with a lot of vivid experiences - but my child was entering a world that was increasingly violent, increasingly meaningless. especially if we were all going to blown up next week by a tactical nuclear device. 1 felt he was being cheated out of a full life, and so what was the f***ing point?"
As the soaring voice, pop theorist and popular focal point for the Police, Sting found himself turning out razor-edged compositions with titles like 'Bombs Away', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', 'Shadows in the Rain', 'Driven to Tears', and 'When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around'. 'Zenyatta Mondatta', the album on which these songs appeared, was a huge commercial success, easily selling over a million copies in America in the penny-pinching winter of 1981 and spawning two singles that ruled the Top Ten for months.
Sting, however, now feels that the record was "a failure; a very, very poor record." Describing the intense bleakness of his outlook during that period, he conjures up visions of a charred, smouldering mental landscape, riddled with fantastic rubble and cramped pockets of chaos, nightmarish scenes from which there, seemed to be no avenue of escape. He almost relishes the recollection that he could have allowed himself to skid that close to the brink. And the only thing that pulled him back, he is sure, was a mere book. One he had first chanced upon many years before, but in his callowness had not grasped and appreciated. Yet, on a second reading, he was more prepared to heed its urgent message. Or so he offers, with the soft-spoken serenity of one who assumes he is in control of all things tangible, a tentative convert to the mysterious, solitary religion of self-love. That's why he urged the other Policemen to abandon the silly, annoyingly exotic titles ('Outlandos d'amour', 'Reggatta de Blanc', etc) they'd been giving to their albums, and name their fourth, and best, effort after the controversial treatise on behavioral psychology that Sting sincerely believes may have saved his mortal arse, Arthur Koestler's 'Ghost In The Machine'.
"Through the book, I became more spiritual in a very scientific way," he says, sipping from a steaming cup of tea in his anonymous suite in the Parker Meridian Hotel in Manhattan. He is wearing blue sweatpants and a VICTOR MATURE LIVES! T-shirt that depicts Mature as Tarzan thinking: "I wish I was deep instead of just macho."
At this juncture, the Police were halfway through an extensive 1981 American tour to support 'Ghost In The Machine' (in early spring the No 1 album in the nation), and the transformation the book brought about in Sting was still very much on his mind. "Rereading it, it spoke to me, and in a logical way it ended my lazy grip on logic," he says. "Prior to that, I was very much a robot. Let me explain one of Koestler's theories, When the railway train, the renowned Iron Horse, first reached the Plains Indians in America, the Indians were examining it, searching for the spirit in the steam locomotive, wondering where it resided in the machine. Seems ridiculous, right? But, in fact, modern nuclear physics has brought us to the point where the simplistic Newtonian universe has fallen apart. The atom's been split once, twice, and then geometrically, with new, smaller particles being discovered within it every day. And the particles being discovered aren't hard little pellets but rather things like quarks, which exist outside of normal lime and space and are a form of magic.
"Consider this!" he barks, bending over to rap sharply the shiny surface of a glass coffee table as he slowly stalks about the room, flexing and stretching his slim, sinewy frame. "if you get down deep enough inside the atomic structure of that glass, the particles become magical in their structure, in their properties, in their very selves. Therefore, the idea of a hard, mechanistic universe is ludicrous. Therefore, we are not machines either."
He leaps, catlike, to the open window and bellows down into the park stretched out far below his eerie: "We are spirits in the material world!"
Sting shakes your hand, and as he stares you down, you think you might be gripping a velvet glove with only skeleton fingers underneath. His piercing gaze finds that queer fear and blinks it back at you with a slight snigger. And then he's just this agitated, hyperactive guy again, hopping or mooching around the room, bright but ungenerous about it, arrogant yet likeable, friendly although utterly self- absorbed. A lanky, 30-year-old, bleached-blond bass plunker slouching in dirty track shoes.
Sting, Copeland, and Summers were hungry for an income when they became a trio. Sting (he got the nickname from wearing a ratty black-and-yellow striped jersey while playing with a traditional jazz band called Phoenix) was married, unemployed, and had a month-old baby; Stewart was down on his luck after having quit college in California to join a now-defunct band called Curved Air; and Andy had tried everything from digging with Zoot Money to backing up Neil Sedaka for a live LP. Everyone was moonlighting, with meagre returns, in the wake of the release of 'Fall Out', so Stewart went to brother Miles, a prosperous music enterpreneur-manager-record executive, asking for seed money to finance an album demo. Al- though given to dumping on the group, Miles came up with the cash and they began cutting what would become Outlandos d'amour in January of 1978 in the 16-track Surrey Sound Studios, located in a seedy section of London. Miles would drop by on the odd sleepless night to listen and reaffirm his belief that the Police were a bust. That is, until the evening he heard Sting and company run through the reggae-propelled 'Roxanne', a plea to a hapless Parisian hooker from her lover for her speedy retirement. Seems Sting had gotten the idea while strolling through a red-light district.
The band, which had been getting into reggae jams at rehearsals, was reluctant at first to play the new song for Miles because it wasn't aligned with the strident' New Wave cants that were then cresting commercially. As Miles listened, his cynicism evaporated, and he pronounced the song "a classic." He offered to take the track to A&M Records, which was doing quite well with another of his acts, Squeeze. He returned to the studio the following night to announce that A&M had agreed to release 'Roxanne' as a one-shot single. When it appeared in the late spring of 1978, the Police were touring in Germany and Miles, who had become their manager, was off in the States on business, so it didn't get the corporate push it might have. Worse, the BBC didn't like the idea of programming a serenade to a French whore. Adieu, 'Roxanne'. A&M agreed to float a second reggae-flavored Sting single called 'Cant Stand Losing You', but it also stiffed, suffering from radio censorship because the lyric concerned a spurned lover threatening suicide.
At this point, the trip was drifting apart. Stewart took some of his own songs into the studio and cut them under the pseudonym Klark Kent. Sting, on a tip from his wife's agent, was considering auditioning for a film about the mid-Sixties clashes in Britain between the mods and rockers. It was to be based on the Who's concept album 'Quadrophenia'.
"I didn't think there was a hope in hell of getting the part," says Sting, referring to the role of Ace Face, the icy-cool, mod lady killer, "so I strolled into the Who's office on Wardour Street in filthy overalls, looking like a garage mechanic. I was carrying a copy of Hermann Hesse's 'The Glass Bead Game', and Frank Rodham, 'Quadrophenia's' director, asked me about the book. We got on like a house on fire - it turned out he was a poor Newcastle grammar school boy like me - and finally, without even auditioning me, he said, "Okay, you've got the part." I kept thinking, "Jeeze, I'm in a major motion picture!"
Well received critically and a big box-office draw in England, the film established Sting as a solid screen presence, a fact reaffirmed in his other movie experiences: 'The Rock And Roll Swindle', 'Radio On', 'The Secret Policeman's Other Ball', and 'Brimstone And Treacle'.
Suddenly Sting was a cult hero, Stewart Copeland was enjoying his own cull status as the elusive Klark Kent, and A&M realised it might be the ideal moment to exercise their album option on the Police. 'Outlandos d'Amour' was hurriedly re- leased to strongly favorable reviews.
Especially surprising about the sudden shift in fortunes was the care with which the band indemnified itself against future reversals. The Police decided to decline the standard huge advance a hot new group gets when signing for a major label, knowing that the giddiness that accompanies the receipt of such a lavish cash outlay is followed almost inevitably by the painful payback when profits begin to trickle in. Instead, the members shrewdly opted for an unusually substantial royalty rate. The next matter was the organising of the all-important initial American tour. After further deliberations, the band shunned all pop-star pretense "d the road-trip pageantry of private jets and limos. They got themselves a van, were their own roadies, rented any other hardware they required along the way from local outlets, and stayed in fleabag motels. Lastly, they played their hearts out, and the critics' and public's response was such that their record company was virtually compelled to give 'Roxanne' a second chance on American Top Forty radio. It hit, but the band continued to keep its collective head - and overhead - down, quietly recording their second album for a mere $6000 (only twice as much as the first). The third was done for $40,000 and 'Ghost In The Machine' for a more conventional, but still relatively modest, $100,000. By December of 1982, the Police were shuttling between the tropical hedonism of Air Studios in Montserrat and the baronial splendor of Le Studio in Quebec, signing the cheques for major-leaque rock star bills.
But what's most amazing about the Police is the fact that they were able to stay together long enough to get anywhere at all. To say that there are long-standing tensions within the ranks is a pale exercise in understatement, on a par with the assertion that George Burns wears a bad toupee.
A standard impromptu appraisal of Sting from all-American hard-arse Stewart Copeland: " Not only does he hate humanity, but every human within the species, except for his family [wife and son] ... If Sting, because people say he is in the driver's seat, wants to throw his weight around and take over, no way am I going to let him do that. Nobody is going to push me around! It Sting felt that he was going to try and push me around and commanded me to do something, saying, 'Look, f***head, I wrote 'Roxanne', so you do this,' then I would tell him to piss off."
Of his relationship with the band-members, Sting says evenly: "The things the band have said and would be likely to say have more to do with them than with me. I think that Andy likes me more than he used to, because I've changed. He disliked my machinery, my cold side. That side was necessary for me at the time but hard for others to deal with. He likes the now-more-flexible me.
"As for Stewart, he's less and less close to me, knows me less and less. He tends to talk a lot about me in interviews, but the things I've read have all been untrue. It's not that he's lying, it's that his impressions of me are distorted by his image of himself. He, too, is a machine, but far more rigid than me, and the gap between us is widening daily. Not in some stupid, petty way, but in a profound, sad, inevitable way. We're growing away from each other, and it impairs what's good between us, which is our music. Our egos get in the way because of the intense differences in the way we behave, and because I'm moving faster than either of my colleagues in every sense. It is Stewart who is most aware of the fact.
"It's hard when friends outgrow each other, and we're more than friends - we're locked together in a dance. The things that made us all good together in the first place are still there, but they're more difficult to sustain.
"Movement causes waves," he adds. "People get stretched, and if you're a rocket, personality-wise, bystanders get burned by your exhaust. But that doesn't mean I have to stop."
Indeed, it seems that nothing could be further from Sting's itinerary as he moves from divorce proceedings with wife Frances Tomelty to light housekeeping with children Joseph, seven, Kate, 18 months, and the expectant girlfriend Trudie Styler, and a projected solo album.
"I'll keep going," says Sting, "until the fuel runs out - fssssssssst!" He throws his head back and out comes the familiar, chilling cackle.
Gordon Sumner came upon music entirely by accident, and developed it entirely on his own. "As far as I was concerned, music was just another barrier to shut the world out; what bothered me most as an adolescent was the sensation that I didn't know if I had any place whatsoever in it. As a boy, I always regarded myself as a perfect freak, and spent a lot of time trying to fit in. The effort always ended in failure, because I was different. I felt I was cleverer than the people who roamed together in gangs, but I made the mistake let him do that and no way Andy is going to of thinking that it was important to get to them to recognise and respect that. I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't have the feeling of 'apartness' that allows me to express myself in a very exhibitionist and noisy way.
"I knew I would never be a part of normal society," he says solemnly, almost to himself, "but if I didn't find some freedom, considering the life that likelihood seemed to have planned for me in my teens, I think that eventually madness would have interceded."
After completing a working vacation as a bass player on a cruise ship, Gordon, who had passed his three A-Levels, enrolled at Warwick University but quit after one term out of "numbing boredom". He dug ditches for a construction crew, and then found a job as a tax clerk in the Inland Revenue branch of the civil service. For six months he abused the post, arriving late, leaving early, taking four-hour lunches, and rereading James Joyce's 'Ulysses', his favorite book, on the job. After almost being fired, he went back to college - a teacher training school - for three years. After graduation, he "slogged" back to his home town of Newcastle to teach English at St Catherine's Convent school and coach the soccer team. During a side gig as a bassist for a theatre troupe, he met his Belfast-reared wife and got married at 24. Stewart Copeland showed up, scouting talent for the Police, and Sting moved to London, he and his family sleeping on the floor of a friend's flat.
Among the things he left behind "for what I promised myself to be the absolute last time," were the depressions of Newcastle and any attachments to Catholicism or the Church of England.
"Protestantism is based on Cartesian philosophy and Newtonian physics, which have largely been discredited," he says. "it's a very clean, scientific religion with no mysticism in it. The Catholic Church is full of blood sacrifice and magic, which is probably its attraction. If it were not murky and full of ghostly presences, if it were clinical like Protestantism, it would now be virtually dead. Its appeal lies in its unsettling symbols, its blood-drenched dogmas and rule of fear. I've rejected the Catholic religion, but I'm grateful to it for firing my imagination."
Apparently, he has the same conflicting feelings about his homeland, but has decided to continue living in London.
"England today is a melting pot of raw emotions - mostly shattered pride and agony. Musically, it's very vital because of its current pain, and I'm grateful for it. That's very selfish, I suppose, like saying, 'I enjoyed the Second World War.. it made a man out of me and gave me a few book ideas.' But that's how I feel about the current hard times. I'm becoming increasingly aware of how self-motivated and self- interested I am. Everybody is, really, but the people who are f***ed up are those who won't admit it."
He goes on to say that his marriage and the raising of a son have engendered in him a new but restricted sense of responsibility towards loved ones. Viewing life as a process in which people reach maturity by accepting the inevitability of risk, danger, failure, and the nearness of despair, he regards his chief parental duty to be supportiveness - not sustainment. He has already made a judgement on the parameters of the help he intends to extend to his child. "I'm very aware that everything I say to him has to go through the father-son filtering process, which means that he has to reject almost everything I stand for. In order to become himself, my son must in fact destroy me. Therefore, anything I really care about I'm very chary to discuss with him. I'd rather he finds out on his own. I intend to leave him to his own devices a lot."
Which includes, Sting volunteers, a firm resolve on his own part not to leave his son any of his accumulated wealth. "I don't intend to leave him any money," he declares. "I don't intend to give him a nest egg or a head start. He has no right to expect any privileges. If, for example, at the age of 12 I had been given a million dollars, it would have harmed me greatly. I've seen people who, assured at an early age of receiving great sums of money, then turned into vegetables. I think my son is capable of a lot, but it's not for me to sweeten the pot or lighten the load for him. I'm his father and that's it.
"There needs to be danger for the young. I am, for all intents and purposes, fairly safe in the material world, but if I need to create new dangers for myself in order to remain creative I will - absolutely, I feel that responsibility toward myself.
"And I will not," he vows, his voice rising, "create a cocoon for another human being."
On one of our last afternoons together shortly before he is to finish up the last few dates on the Police's 1982 American tour Sting proudly hands me a typewritten draft of a film script he had finished writing the previous evening. He says he wrote most of it on a battered portable typewriter, on planes and in hotel rooms.
The script, called 'Gormenghast', is adapted from two books of the famous 'Gormenghast' fantasy trilogy by the late British novelist-poet-illustrator Mervyn Peake. 'Titus Groan', the first book, from which most of Sting's script is drawn (he's already bought the screen rights to the series) appeared in 1946, coming at a time when Britons were suffering through the last cruel days of the war and the start of the peace. They had their noses buried in novels like 'Brideshead Revisited', 'The Loved One', 'Animal Farm', '1984' - and 'Titus Groan'. Combining elements of Gothic romance and horror, and the inventive mythic genealogy and Anglo-Saxon scholarship of 'Lord Of The Rings', the 'Titus Groan' instalment of the 'Gormenghast' trilogy was immediately hailed as a modern classic.
"It's a real arcane allegory for the change that happened in England after the war," Sting bubbles excitedly, "when the old Empire had decayed, and the working class had a new consciousness and began to rise, destroying the old order. Gormenghast is an ancient castle, as vast as New York. It exists in many eras simultaneously, outside of normal history and normal human progress. The script is about a particular force in the castle - an evil one - that alters things for the better. The evil is embodied in a person who comes from the lower caste within the castle - the kitchen - who by his innate wit and cunning ends up in a position of enormous power. Which he, of course, abuses.
Who plays the evil force?
"Me, naturally!" he says, beaming. "The catalyst! The upstart from the lower depths! In many ways, the story is like a fairy tale." There's a parallel with Star Wars in that it seeks to create an autonomous world. In fighting against his evil foe, Titus Groan realises he can escape 'Gormenghast' for good, and he eventually does.
"All that actors do when they aren't working is sit and wait for the phone to ring with the perfect job. You might as well wait to win the f***ing lottery! I think you have to decide what the perfect job for you is and then go and create it. Whether or not you succeed is beside the point."
So what happens next for Sting?
"I go home to London to try to sell the script to people with $20 million to waste," he explains as he begins loading his canvas carryall bag with gear for the night's concert. "Between now and Christmas, I'm just going to peddle Gormenghast, weight a host of other film offers, think about a solo record, and maybe spend some more lime with scientists funded by the Koestler-sponsored KIB Foundation who are experimenting with para-psychology and phenomena like levitation."
What about the Police? When will he find time to write material for the next album?
"I've stopped writing songs right now. I'm going through a period of intake. I used to call it writer's block; now I just regard it as a tight shit.
"We're free to make our own timetable for the next LP. We're not ruled by medieval puppet masters, and we don't have to make another album until late 1984."
But will there still be a Police in late 1984?
"I suppose, but in terms of the competition there's nothing that comes close to the band. It's all so easy, I'm bored with it, not interested anymore. The game is won. My ambitions are wide, which is why I'm interested in film - another game, with still more chaos. "You know," he says, stuffing the last of his things inside the bag, "ageing is not so bad. It's illness, staticness, imprisonment, and decay that scare me. I think I'm coming to terms with death more and more. I feel like the man on the highest tightrope in the circus tent." He pauses, sealing his satchel with a violent zzzzip! The vulpine eyes gleam.
"You see, the spectators want to see me fall..." Out comes the wild, eerie cackle. "Or fly!"
© Penthouse magazine