02.03.88 NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS


The following interview with Alan Jackson appeared in a February 1988 issue of the New Musical Express...

St Francis of Wallsend.

It was on the night of his sell-out appearance at New York's Madison Square Gardens that Sting, patron saint of consciousness-raising pop, video-taped his BPI acceptance speech.

Because his touring commitments would make it impossible for him to be in London for the awards ceremony five days later, he was told in advance that 'Nothing Like The Sun' had won in the Best British Album category. His A&M label bosses Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss flew in from Los Angeles to make the presentation, eventually to be seen by a TV audience of millions, not just in Britain but all over the world.

"I was asked to make a short speech, so I decided to write something about Clause 28," Sting comments the day after his concert. "I said that I was proud to accept an award from the British Phonographic Institute because I was proud to be British, and one of the reasons why was because we generally treat our minorities reasonably well, at least in comparison with the rest of the world. Certainly the way we accept homosexuals has been an example to other countries, and I said that I wanted to accept the award in a spirit of tolerance and understanding and goodwill, a spirit that Clause 28 put under threat."

Then, settling back into a chair in his business manager Miles Copeland's offices on Broadway, he develops his theme: "In the light of what is happening in England at the moment, I think people need to be reminded of just what an asset the homosexual community is. Although I know there's a danger of sounding patronising, I think it's important to say that most minority communities - blacks, Asians, gays, whatever - enrich us. not take away from us or threaten us, and I think Clause 28 seeks to deny this. I'm deeply shocked that it's even being considered, I can hardly believe it. And so-called 'straight' people have to speak out against it because it impinges on everybody's freedom."

It was for these reasons, Sting sums up, that he decided to use the platform of the BPI to draw people's attention to the threat. "But", he predicts all too accurately, "it was on video and it can be edited..." It was. While all sections of the acting community have, with the co-operation of the major TV networks, spoken in opposition to Clause 28 recently on such occasions as the Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier theatre awards, the BPI chose to cut Sting's speech down to a grin, a handshake and a 'Thank You'.

Not everybody was disappointed, of course. "Saving grace of the show - Sting's acceptance speech was cut in half," wrote The Sun's Rick Sky in his BPI round-up the following morning, adding: "The singer had filmed a boring outburst about the state of Third World countries." Not quite, but then maybe Rick was still bearing a grudge about being dubbed into French in a press conference scene in Sting's documentary movie 'Bring On The Night'.

"I just hope it was a question of time," said Sting, when phoned in New York the day after the Awards and told of the editing. The BBC referred any queries about the programme to the BPI itself, saying that any editing of pre-recorded speeches was their responsibility. A spokesman for the BPI disclaimed any knowledge of the contents of Sting's speech however, and could not confirm why or when it had been cut.

Whatever the reason for Sting being denied his say on Clause 28, it's ironic that censorship of his speech should coincide with the release of his new single 'Englishman In New York', a song from 'Nothing Like The Sun' that is part self-referential but is in the main a tribute to one of the gay community's most celebrated elder statesmen, Quentin Crisp. The two men met when Sting suggested him for the role of his assistant in the Gothic monstrosity 'The Bride', by admission one of the singer's least successful forays into the film world. The friendship grew when both found themselves resident in New York.

"Quentin is one of my heroes," says Sting in his quiet, thoughtful voice. "He's one of the most courageous men I've ever met, as well as one of the funniest and most singular. He was homosexual in England at a time when being so was physically dangerous, and he was himself, with no apologies, in such a flamboyant and brave way that he was an example to everyone."

It's admirable to find a resolutely heterosexual star lining up in support of gay rights, but rare as well. Does Sting feel safe to speak up because, with a high-profile relationship with a beautiful woman and as the father of four children, his (in conventional terms) masculinity is not in question?

"Well, it's certainly not in question," he says firmly, "but it's true that this gives me a strong platform from which to speak. The spectre of Aids hangs over everything here - people are still calling it the gay plague. But that's history now, if it were even true at anytime. It's a heterosexual disease which threatens us all. We're all involved. Attempting to apportion blame is pointless. We have to find a cure, not a culprit."

Growing up in Wallsend, Sting says he was never aware of homosexuality and hence was not exposed to any prejudice about it. It was when he moved to London with his former wife, the actress Frances Tomelty, that he first knowingly met gay people and made friendships with them. Now, not only does he make no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, but he readily acknowledges the traditionally feminine aspects of his own personality.

"I think some of the best parts of my personality are those given to me by my mother. What the mother gives you, in symbolic terms, is gentleness, kindness, intuition, creativity, while the father gives you logic and a sense of strength. Together those two sides make up a whole person. To deny one side is to become like Michael Ryan, completely immersed in the masculine symbol of the gun and all that Rambo bullshit. I hate this fucking Stallone shit, I can't bear it. I hate seeing actors with guns - there they are on every movie poster, looking like complete dickheads. I've been offered those movies and I won't do them. There's a scene in 'Stormy Monday' (the film he completed in Newcastle last summer with Tommy Lee Jones and Melanie Griffith) involving a gun and I wouldn't do it unless my character were allowed to say how much he hated them."

This talk of evil bastards prompts me to ask about Sting's relationship with Miles Copeland. Arriving at the headquarters of CIA Management, I'd been alarmed to see the singer's two-year-old son Jake running around happily clutching a junior baseball. For those of us led to believe that Copeland eats small children for breakfast in preparation for the working day, there was something profoundly disturbing about Sting's smiling complicity in this potentially dangerous scenario. Exactly why is someone so resolutely right-on closely involved with someone widely portrayed as Lucretia Borgia in trousers?

"Oh, I think there have been some pretty unfair generalisations expounded in the press about Miles," grins Sting. "Let's see - we know his father was one of the founders of the CIA. We know he was brought up in Beirut. He's definitely right of centre, although whether or not he's a Republican I don't know. But the thing is that, as well as being my business manager Miles is now a very close friend. Yes I disagree with him on almost everything, there is constant theological and ideological conflict, but I would die for his right to express his views... So there is some justification for the stereotyping, but it isn't all true. To talk of him as some kind of fascist and me as a Saint Francis figure is bullshit. And let's face it, the world of business is a jungle. If you're going to have a business manager out there for you, you want a pitbull - the biggest, nastiest pitbull you can find. Miles is a brilliant manager, but he's also got a very sensitive and enlightened side. He's very involved in setting up the forthcoming Amnesty tour: He's even got a friendship with Billy Bragg, which seems a strange combination in some ways."

Having cleverly killed off the Barking Bard's career with one throwaway sentence, Sting moves on to ponder the advantages and disadvantages of his current level of celebrity hood. I'm actually surprised that he still submits himself to the interview process - most other stars of his magnitude (The Queen, Pope John II, Morrissey) grant only the occasional audience, if that.

"People are surprised that I still tour and that I still make records," he smiles: "I don't need to, I just do it. I actually enjoy interviews, both as a social thing and as a kind of confessional. It's good to have your work questioned, even if there is the risk that things backfire and you end up looking like a total arsehole. The challenge is in inviting scrutiny and yet in keeping something of yourself private. You don't want to give too much away, because people aren't really interested in what you're really like anyway. They'd find it too horrible. There are certain things we don't want to know about each other or life would become unbearable."

"The thing about success is that you become the victim of a cell structure. You travel the world with a pod of people - the band, your manager, the tour accountant - and you never meet anyone else, apart from when someone jumps on stage and that's very brief. So it's good to step outside that and talk to different people. One of the reasons I do films is because you're taken out of that pod, and you have to strike up new relationships. It keeps you normal."

Are you saying you're surrounded by yes-men?

"Not by any means. If anything, the people around me are selected for their jaundice, particularly my management. But while those relationships are very rich and rewarding, it's good to get outside of them: That's why I live here in New York, because you're exposed to so much more. I have an apartment here, I go to the deli and the laundry, get taxis and walk the streets. People know who I am and speak to me. 'Love your music'. 'Hate your music'. It's upfront and it's real.

"I mean, poor Michael Jackson. I feel so sorry for him. The reward for his wonderful success and his wonderful talent is that he's trapped. He's surrounded by huge fences and electronic eyes and Doberman pinschers."

But doesn't that level of protection become inevitable at some stage? After all, this is the city in which John Lennon was murdered.

"No, absolutely not. Anyway, I'm from Newcastle."

I know.

"Well, actually I'm from Wallsend."

I know that too.

Sting laughs good-naturedly.

All the same, I find this confidence in his own physical safety quite extraordinary. Has he never been attacked or threatened while wandering the streets?

"No," he insists with a grin. "I'm more likely to attack other people."

If it's hard adjusting to the demands and constrictions of fame, it must be just as difficult coping with gilt by association. Sting's brother is, like his father before him, a milkman in Wallsend and must have his own set of problems.

"Obviously it's a double-edged thing," considers Sting, who professes to be the less good-looking of the two. "He's very proud of me and gets a certain amount of kudos from being my brother, but at the same time it must be hell. Every time I say anything in the press that's stupid or gets misconstrued he gets it in the neck on his round. I was once asked what I thought of Wallsend and I said it was a nice place to bring up your food - a dumb, dumb thing to say and not at all funny for anyone living there. He was on the phone straight away saying 'You f***ing stupid c***'. And there was nothing I could do but say 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I won't do it again'."

While back in the north-east last summer to film 'Stormy Monday', Sting made pilgrimages back to all the houses he'd lived in and all the schools he'd attended, St Cuthbert's Grammar included: "It was the summer holidays so no one was there," he says. "I drove in through the gate and still got that feeling of horror in my stomach, the feeling you get when you're late, you haven't done your homework and you're going to get caned. I couldn't believe it of myself - a grown man, successful, four kids, and I'm still a kid in short trousers, terrified of the teachers. It's strange how those old feelings of dread can come back to haunt you."

Strange too for someone who has been on both sides of the pupil-teacher relationship to find himself in a schoolmasterly role now both musically and ideologically. The jazz influences, the literary references, the worthy causes... does he feel an obligation to repackage difficult concepts for mass consumption?

"I come in for a lot of flak on this score, for pretension or whatever," he acknowledges. "And maybe it is pretension, but fine, I can live with that. I get letters from kids who read something because I referred to it on an album - a Shakespearean sonnet or something by Jung or Koestler or Nabokov's Lolita. I can't say I'm sorry. I think it's great. Exposure to literature is one of the mainstays of my life. I read all the time. It gives me fresh ideas, fresh inspiration, allows me to rethink a lot of stuff. so if I can point anybody else in the right direction, it gives me a really good, positive feeling."

And musically, with the band of jazz greats you now work with?

"I get accused of being a dilettante. People keep telling me that what I'm playing isn't jazz. I know it's not jazz. My music is structured and arranged, there's a very rigid discipline which I impose, but within that the musicians are allowed to paint their own colours. I'm not trying to play jazz or rip off black music - these musicians are my friends, for f***'s sake. But I checked the demographics at last night's concert and they went from 12 to 45, which makes me really happy.

"I think it's one thing appealing to a cult minority, but quite another reaching a broad spectrum of people with music that does not rely on a low common denominator: I think it's pretty sophisticated music, and to me the idea of any 12-year-old listening to Kenny Kirkland or Branford Marsalis or any other of these musicians represents victory: I have broad shoulders and a thick skin. I can live with the praise and the blame."

It's a nicely ironic truth that much of the activity at CIA Management is currently geared up towards the organisation of this year's six-week, world-wide Amnesty International tour. Planning it is, says Sting, akin to masterminding the Normandy Invasion, and just one of the many problems is that of finding ideologically pure corporate sponsor. "There's always a skeleton in the corporate closet, and Amnesty can't be seen to be sponsored by someone who's tainted," he explains.

Yet given the level of influence that he and the other performers involved in promoting such organisations as Amnesty have, isn't it disappointing to look around the western world and see right-wing governments firmly in power and a seemingly large proportion of youth more concerned with acquisitions than ideologies? Is Sting just preaching to the converted?

"I don't agree," he says, shaking his head. "I'm not pessimistic about young people at all. Most of the people I meet 10 or 15 years younger than me are incredibly involved and in tune with what's going on - far more so than I was at that age. I'm sounding like a grand old man here, but it always fills me with optimism."

A smiling Jake has just burst into the room and is radiating cheerfulness in all directions. Sting continues: "Our generation, which is the largest in history, is just about to come into power. The Reagans and Thatchers are on their way out. It's their last chapter, just as South Africa is the last chapter of slavery...

Just then he and I become aware of a pungent smell hanging in the air between us and emanating from somewhere in the direction of the still-smiling Jake.

"Have you done a pooh?" asks father of son in mock-serious tones.

"Yes, I'm afraid he has," says a smiling Trudie Styler, Jake's mother, coming through the door and scooping up the little lad who, by now, is chucking with delight and waving both his arms.

Sting grins with fatherly pride. It's the ultimate endorsement of his liberal sensitivities - a son who passes a bowel movement at the very mention of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. What a shame the BPI didn't allow Jake to comment on Sting's behalf.

© The New Musical Express
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