LAS VEGAS WEEKLYOctober 01, 1999
The following article by Geoff Carter appeared in an October 1999 issue of The Las Vegas Weekly...
Sweet sting of success - Sting has been called a lot of things over the years, but nice hasn't been one of them, until now.
Upon turning 16, I decided to become Sting. It didn't matter to me that the job was ably filled by former schoolteacher Gordon Sumner; the man simply had too many things that I wanted. Blonde hair, for one. The miner's glasses he wore in the inner sleeve photo of The Police's best-selling 'Synchronicity' LP. And I probably wouldn't have minded having a best-selling LP, when you get down to it.
More than anything, I wanted Sting's disaffect - to be the cooler-than-cool public figurehead who seemed capable of saying or doing anything. "In the business I'm in, vanity is a necessity," he declared in an interview. "That's my soul up there," he sang in 'King of Pain'. A Rolling Stone scribe noted that Sting had finished out a bout of mononucleosis on a Swiss skiing trip. He had mono, and he went skiing. To a boy of 16, Sting seemed nearly infallible, and the fact that he came across as something of a jerk in interviews only bolstered my admiration.
Which is why, when the time comes to interview Sting by phone, I fully expect a rough road. I expect my undigested thoughts to be thrown back at me, for my interviewing style to be ridiculed, for the Grammy-winning artist to hang up on me after three agonising minutes. I expect the Sting my 16-year-old self had built from interviews and lyrics. I expect nearly anything but what I get: "Hello, Geoff. Please be kind."
I LIKE WHAT YOU LIKE
"Every day is a long day at the moment. My year planner is huge and very full, but I'm happy with the way things are going."
He's so happy, in fact, that he stops just short of belabouring the point. Though he sounds tired - we speak at the end of a long day that began with an appearance on (why not?) "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" - he also sounds happy. His tone is cheerful and eager; he often says "thank you" and "y'know?" And nearly every response carries a positive-sounding bumper: "I like that song."; "I like that character."
And of course: "I like Las Vegas." Enough to open the tour for his new record, 'Brand New Day', with a three-night stand at the Hard Rock's Joint.
"I saw the Stones play the Hard Rock a year ago, and I liked the vibe," he says. "I thought it would be a good place to try out, to do three nights and see how it goes."
If the effervescent 'Brand New Day' is any indication, it should go just fine. Easily Sting's most enjoyable solo record since 1987's 'Nothing Like The Sun', 'Brand New Day' plays to his strengths: his taste in exotic musical genres ('Desert Rose'), his inner lounge lizard ('Big Lie, Small World'), and, most importantly, his strong ear for melody and arrangements ('A Thousand Years', 'Ghost Story'). Even a somewhat ham-fisted attempt at a gospel number ('Fill Her Up') is redeemed by Sting's newfound earnestness.
"'Brand New Day' is a fine record," I tell him, "but I'm sure you know that."
"Yes," he says. "But it's nice to hear it."
So, not to tell the guy his job or anything, but how the hell does the one-time King of Pain find the emotions necessary to create, now that he's abdicated the throne for an extended stay in Happy Town?
"I still have enough memories of pain, kind of a reservoir," he says. "And I think one of the factors of my maturity is the ability to see things from the point of view of others, and write from others. I don't want to be gazing into my own navel forever. That'd be boring, and not terribly productive."
In other words, Sting recognises that it has been quite some time since he's been considered an alternative talent - if such a discipline ever existed. Like Bowie and Dylan before him, Sting has come to the realisation that there are different ways to do the same job.
"All of these songs were written by the music," he says of his new material. "I wrote the music first, and basically asked the music to tell me a story. It was up to me to translate that story into words."
One such story, 'Tomorrow We'll See', should flip even the most jaded, Sting-weary wigs.
"It's about as far from my own experience as you can imagine," he says. "It's about a transsexual prostitute. That's what the music suggested to me. The music was like a cinema noir. I remember taking the music out for a walk and thinking: who is this? What's the story here? And that's the character that came out, so I went with it. And I've been wearing the tights ever since."
ON A RELATED NOTE
A few years back, Sting made a point of telling interviewers he had taken to practising tantric sex, with all the elevated feeling and five-hour orgasms that entailed. "It was said in fun - and has been a great deal of fun since, I have to tell you! I'm not denying it; I'm not confirming it. How 'bout that?"
I WILL KILL HIM!
Sting acts in feature films, but not without consequences. There was a period - about five years - during which whatever character he played would be killed off. 'Dune', 1984: fatal knife wound to the throat. 'The Bride', 1985: thrown off a tower by Frankenstein. 'The Adventures of Baron M?ºnchhausen', 1988: executed off-screen a scant thirty seconds after his character was introduced.
He survived last year's left-field hit 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', but even if he'd been on the receiving end of one of those smoking guns, he wouldn't have minded. It's just fun.
"I've been very fortunate, never having trained as an actor, to have worked with some of the finest people in the business - Meryl Streep, for example; Joan Plowright. I've been learning how to do it from the best. I don't regard myself as an actor, I can tell you that. I fell into it by accident. It's a kind of hobby. I do a film when I'm offered a film, but I'm not burning myself at the stake to be an actor. There are plenty of actors who deserve to work, and I don't want to get in their way."
His next big-screen project combines his enthusiasms in a unique way: he's writing songs for 'Kingdom of the Sun', an animated film from Walt Disney Pictures. This way, the only people who can kill him are the critics, irate 13-year-olds, and maybe Rosie O'Donnell.
Though he's always been active in political causes - most notably in conjunction with the human rights organisation Amnesty International - it has been a while since Sting's politics have drawn attention to him, which made it somewhat shocking to see his name on a blacklist compiled by the Fraternal Order of Police; it alleges that Sting has offered his support to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a jailed black activist who's facing the death penalty over accusations of killing a cop.
When I ask if he regrets offering his support of Abu-Jamal, Sting draws his first and only honest-to-God blank in the interview. It's not that he's conflicted - he honestly doesn't remember officially offering his support.
"I never knew this!" he chuckles, a bit uneasily. "I honestly didn't know about it." Later, he asks, "Who has me blacklisted, again? I need to check that out."
LOOSE TALK IN THE CLASSROOM
"I trust my instinct. If I'd been logical, I'd have never left The Police. I must continue to trust my instinct, because it has usually paid off."
Those hoping that Sting's instincts are favouring another The Police reunion - they reunited briefly in 1986, and made an unremarkable version of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' - had best lay those hopes aside. Sting may be happy, but he ain't that happy.
"It's very flattering, the fans' desire for the band to get back together again. It's nice that the fans would want that. I think it's largely because the legacy of The Police, the myth of The Police is intact. We finished at the top. And I'd like to keep it intact; I want to keep those happy memories. So I don't think it's gonna happen."
BRAND NEW STING
It's been a long time since Sting's been a schoolteacher, but to him the business of being a touring musician isn't much different.
"For me, teaching never existed," he says. "What happened in the classroom was, hopefully, learning. Your job as a teacher was to create an atmosphere where people were willing to learn, and I found the easiest way to do that was to entertain. So as an entertainer, I feel as if I'm doing virtually the same job. You can't ask people to learn anything unless they're entertained first."
And here's what I've learned from Nice Guy Sting, some fifteen years after I gave up the notion of emulating him: It is an artist's prerogative to change his tune. He's taken a lot of shit from critics and fans who would have him retrace his steps, deny his own muse - people whose notion of what Sting should be saying and doing is out of date, and based on a false front.
Sting has every right to be happy; has every right to express that happiness through his music. And if we don't like it, we can vote with our money, but don't expect Sting to lose any sleep over it.
"You were very kind," says Sting at the conclusion of the interview. "Make me sound intelligent?"
I assure him he's in no danger of sounding otherwise, and thank him for writing some songs in which I have found personal meaning at one time or another. It satisfies the starstruck 16-year-old inside me, who never got his mining glasses and never went skiing with mono, but can still enjoy good a song, when he hears one.
WHOSE STING IS IT ANYWAY?
"It's very hard for me to pick a favourite album or a song," Sting claims. "It's a body of work, and it evolves and develops. I don't really have favourites."
Not surprising. Sting has been several different musicians over his career, from reggae-rocker to arty-jazzbo; it's entirely possible that he may not even recognise half the guys he's been, beginning with his big-league debut in The Police in 1977.
Some bands are album bands, others are singles bands. The Police were neither - despite having spawned their share of hit singles ('Don't Stand So Close To Me', 'Every Breath You Take') and albums ('Synchronicity'). Knowing what we know now of the parties involved, one can't help but hear The Police's music as an amalgam of brilliant, oddly shaped pieces that never quite fit together. Andy Summers is a classic guitar hero, madly in love with his effects pedals. Stewart Copeland treats music like math, creating complex, layered instrumentals perfect for movie soundtracks. Sting is - and always has been - a mellow-jazz guy with a wicked ear for melody and a penchant for lyrical pedantry.
That's not to say that listening to old Police records (there's no other kind - their last album of new material was released in '83) isn't a considerable amount of fun. The novelty of white guys playing reggae garage-style is still a ticklish one - just ask the Long Beach Dub All-Stars. But to hear the brilliance in these records, you really have to examine the parts. I could listen to the verses of 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' forever, but I lose interest at the chorus, and Sting's vocal is so cold one wonders if Hugh Padgham mixed it in the refrigerator. The insidious charm of 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' masks the fact that it's kind of lame. And no matter what Sting does, no matter where he goes, the deeply silly 'Roxanne' follows him - sung in a mockingbird's timbre by Eddie Murphy.
But when they came close, boy, did they ever come close. 'Synchronicity I' whips along like a engineer-less train - it is dark and scary and exciting and sends chills down my spine 16 years on. 'Walking On The Moon', 'Driven To Tears', 'O My God' and 'Invisible Sun' are as cool as they come, and as contemporary as today's news. If there's a book of near-perfect pop songs somewhere, the creepy stalking anthem 'Every Breath You Take' is the introductory chapter. And 'King of Pain' is - not to put too fine a point on it - a goddamn classic.
The Police parted company in 1986 and never regrouped. Though they later rekindled their friendship, it must have been obvious to them that they had spent nine years working at cross-purposes. Summers and Copeland followed their individual muses, and Sting, unfettered by democracy, became a pop star with all the hills and valleys that path entails.
Initially, he came out swinging. Sting's first solo record, 1985's 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', was an audacious debut, an unexpected reincarnation and one hell of a summer record all at once. 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', a considered and positive response to the 'Every Breath You Take's poisoned outlook, stands up to the previous hit like David to Goliath. 'Russians' - an anti-nuke anthem set to Sergei Prokofiev's lovely 'Lieutenant Kije' - took Sting's scornful pedantry to new heights, but was affecting nonetheless. Part of the joyous sweep of the record came from the young jazz talents Sting hand-picked to play his songs (Branford Marsalis, in particular, owes Sting a huge debt for the career-making gig), but for the most part, the pleasure of 'Blue Turtles' stems from its feeling of catharsis - the sound of Sting free of the machine.
Though enjoyable, his follow-up, 1987's 'Nothing Like the Sun', suffered from its creator's grand ambitions: Sting got too much jam the first time out, and used it to drown the bread. Swinging wildly from ersatz P-Funk ('We'll Be Together') to a Bertolt Brecht cover ('The Secret Marriage'), Sting tried his hand at many forms of expression and flubbed as many. Oddly enough, two of the record's strongest tracks - 'Be Still My Beating Heart', 'The Lazarus Heart' - featured his old Police bandmate Andy Summers on guitar.
It took a horrible set of events to reground Sting. The death of both his parents, only a few months apart, resulted in 1991's coldly beautiful 'The Soul Cages', Sting's re-examination of the life that made his art. The best track, 'Why Should I Cry For You', floats his grief on murmuring synthesisers and world beat percussion, the latter courtesy of Vinx; the final mix sounds like gently rolling waves (the sea is a recurring album motif). It made Sting human in a way that no previous release had hinted at, and set the stage for a new phase in his career - the happy phase.
Beginning with the plaintive bop of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You' - a love song, but also a reaffirmation of his love for his music and himself - 'Ten Summoners Tales' is a commercial record down to its last note. Every song on the record could be a hit single - in fact, several of them were ('It's Probably Me', 'Fields of Gold', 'Faith'). The venom that swam through the veins of 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Why Should I Cry For You' was gone, and it wasn't surprising that 'Ten Summoners Tales' brought in four times more fans than it alienated.
These days, Sting would just as soon wine and dine his audience than strap it down and overwhelm it. His last two records, 'Mercury Falling', and the superior follow-up, this year's 'Brand New Day', are crisp, chipper pop albums. They're not necessarily my favourites, but that's the beautiful thing about Sting's repertoire - it's varied enough for any number of listeners to find resonance in some part of it. It's not impossible to believe that even the guy who wrote these songs may, eventually, deign to pick a favourite or two.
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