THE MIAMI HERALDFebruary 01, 1994
The following article by Fernando Gonzalez appeared in a February 1994 issue of The Miami Herald newspaper...
Sting without pain: Pop philosopher king lightens up without laying down his crown.
It is an intriguing paradox, worthy of the Philosopher King of Pop. To most people, money and recognition bring confidence and certainty. To Sting, who seems to have burst onto the world stage fully formed, all brash attitude and raised eyebrow, success - nearly two decades of hits and international adulation - has brought a wise man's doubt. And in doubt, perhaps, some humility - and more success. For Sting, who appears at the Miami Arena on Wednesday, appropriately contrite after two embarrassing last-minute cancellations in Miami last spring, there is no irony in this.
"The more you learn about life the more puzzling and paradoxical it becomes," he said in a recent phone interview.
"I am less certain. I am less confident than I used to be. I think it's a consequence of maturity... When I was a young man I was very sure there was one way. Now, I'm not so sure."
He speaks softly and sounds relaxed, at ease. Answering questions is still work. There is no pretence, none of the phoney, instant familiarity of the practised interview - but he is gracious, almost playful - a far cry from the aloof, arrogant figure of pop mythology. Perhaps it's the relief of a rare day off on a gruelling touring schedule. Then again, perhaps what they say is true: Perhaps Sting has found contentment.
At 42, Gordon Sumner certainly has reinvented himself, turning the hip, bleached-blond, pinup-boy rocker of his days with the Police into today's pop star and gentleman farmer, activist, husband and father of five.
Since the bitter break-up of the Police in the mid '80s, he has negotiated a peculiar career that has included film and Broadway roles and involvement in causes ranging from Live Aid and Amnesty International to the Amazon rain forest. Four solo albums all found critical and commercial success.
In those 10 years, he also has grown from the sophisticated minimalism of the Police into an organic, deceptively easy-on- the-ear mix of pop, rock and jazz - without losing the hard-driving pulse or catchy hooks of his early hits.
In that, he stands with an elite group of ageing rock and pop stars - Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed come to mind - whose later work is stretching the pop idiom.
His intellectual ambition and love of language have resulted at times in a sort of fastidious refinement, earning him a reputation for highbrow pretension. Yet this is a rock star who has titled albums after works of a Swiss psychiatrist (C.G. Jung's 'Synchronicity') and a Hungarian philosopher (Arthur Koestler's 'Ghost In The Machine') - and sold millions of them.
He has already won eight Grammys, and 'Ten Summoner's Tales', his latest release, has been nominated for five more, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Still, bliss seems a conflictive achievement for a brooding rock star who once considered pain a creative spark.
"I used to believe, almost religiously, that pain was essential to the creative process," he admits. To wit: '...Nothing Like The Sun' was written after the death of his mother; 'The Soul Cages' was a sombre meditation on the death of his father.
"Now as I get older I'm not so sure. Some of my favourite music was written by people who were happy. Think about Bach, for instance," he says. "That's what I want. That's what we all want."
Recorded in his living room "looking out at a nice lawn," the light-hearted 'Ten Summoner's Tales' might be Sting's least ambitious work - there are no grand themes or emotions. It plays out as a literary and musical joke. It also is highly satisfying pop.
The title is a sly reference to Chaucer and the Summoner, a character of his Canterbury Tales described as so ugly that he scared children. Summoner also is the root of Sumner, Sting's surname. And despite the title, there are 11, not 10, songs in the album.
Within the album, Sting changes his writing voice often - from the coarser, streetwise language of She's Too Good For Me (She don't like to hear me sing / she don't want no diamond ring") to a faux Romantic tone in 'Seven Days' to the precise, elegant constructions in 'Shape of My Heart' ("He deals the cards to find the answer / the sacred geometry of chance / The hidden law of probable outcome / the numbers lead a dance").
And, at his best, Sting proves again he can compress meaty issues and substantive ideas into the language of pop with unmatched grace: "I never saw no miracle of science / That didn't go from a blessing to a curse / I never saw no military solution / That didn't always end up as something worse."
It's not surprising, then, to find that Sting does other writing. There is prose, and a journal, "but," he quickly qualifies, "I'm no Henry James."
Song lyrics, he argues, are an ideal vehicle for a writer because "in the pop song you have to condense ideas into couplets and verses. That's a very good discipline. It has very strict rules. It's a little like writing sonnets."
Musically, he stretches pop conventions as well - not only harmonically and in song form but in his improbable mix-and- match of styles, as in the country-jazz-western-movie theme 'Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)' or the Scottish-Latin mix of 'Fields of Gold'.
Without the baggage of some large theme or therapeutic self-examination, the album affords Sting emotional and intellectual distance. As he relaxes, he makes his world accessible. When things click - and in 'Ten Summoner's Tales' it happens often - pop craftsmanship turns into simple, good rock 'n' roll fun. Those are the rarest Sting moments: invitations to the listener to let it all hang out, get lost in the music and sing out loud, playing air guitar.
It's a dramatic contrast to his highly personal 'The Soul Cages', a complex, lush but often forbidding meditation on the death of his father. It is a contrast that mirrors his life.
"It's essential to sometimes take me out of the picture because there is so much known about me that I tend to distort things," he explains.
"In ('Ten Summoner's Tales') I was writing stories not necessarily about myself." He pauses. "Of course, having said that, you always put something about yourself in them."
In one of Tales' best-crafted pieces, 'Shape of My Heart', he writes about a gambler not necessarily interested in winning. "The card player in my song is more interested in the mystical aspect of luck rather than just winning money. It's his meditation, his spirituality. Winning is not important, playing the game is."
Elaborating further, he concedes the tale might be more personal than intended.
"...It's me playing a game with my career: It's not about having hit records or Grammy nominations or making lots of money at all. It's really about playing the creative game. It's play - but it's serious play."
After all these years of hit records, after developing a world-wide audience (he has even done Portuguese and Spanish language versions of some of his work) he says he writes his songs with a small, specific audience in mind. And after establishing ambitious goals as an artist he feels free to concede that, well, yes, he also peeks at the bottom line now and then.
"My wife, my band, my children and myself ...I'd like to entertain those people. Once I've engaged and entertained them, I think I'm on to something ...everybody else is cream on the cake... I must admit I enjoy selling lots of records. It's good to appeal to a broad audience. But I don't tailor my music to suit that. I don't sit one day and say, 'OK I'm going to write a big hit.' I wish I could. It's difficult. But I've been lucky. My own particular taste in music has coincided, a lot of the time, with the popular taste - without me having to compromise what I do."
It's been almost two years since he wrote the songs in 'Ten Summoner's Tales', but he says "I never tire of singing my songs. I really don't. I love performing. I'm still performing songs I wrote 15 years ago, and I don't really think about it. I think every time you perform a song you have to breathe new life into it, and sometimes the meaning evolves. The meaning of a song like 'Fragile' (from '...Nothing Like the Sun', 1987) changes yearly. When I sing it now I think of Bosnia and Yugoslavia."
He says he is bringing his show to the Arena this week with some embarrassment. Almost exactly a year ago, and then again in April, he was to present 'Ten Summoner's Tales' at performances at the Knight Center and Gusman Center. After consecutive last-minute cancellations, even the star of the show is getting impatient.
"I'm actually ashamed," he says. "It has been a terrible sequence of coincidences. It's uncanny. We always say, 'Let's start in Miami because at this time of the year the weather is going to be great' - and then I get sick. Twice. So this time, even if I'm in a wheelchair I'm going to be performing. I will be there."
In the current tour, he says he is singing material from 'Ten Summoner's Tales', some Police songs, a couple of pieces from previous albums and "the odd Beatles song."
He is not performing any of the songs on 'The Soul Cages'. Maybe in the next tour.
Even in pop, a Philosopher King will always find time to contemplate tragedy. For now, he's simply taking stock of pleasure.
"I didn't want to become the artist who can only write deeply personal statements and needs some sort of trauma to spark the creative process," he says, rushing the words slightly, as if arguing with himself.
"I'd like to be able to be creative as well as happy and comfortable - because I think I deserve to be... I think we all deserve to be."
© The Miami Herald