The following article by Tom Moon appeared in a February 1988 issue of The Chicago Tribune
The pop singer proves that rock isn't kid stuff...
At one point during his show at the UIC Pavilion next Sunday, Sting will give his seven-piece band a breather and play 'Roxanne', the song that introduced the Police, his former band, to the world.
With only strumming guitar accompaniment-and the voices of his audience singing along-Sting's version will sound substantially different. Once a harsh, almost sneering song of love for a prostitute, 'Roxanne' in the hands of this year's Sting is more delicate, vulnerable, pleading.
Gone is the menacing punk energy. Gone is the overbearing attitude. Gone are the once-surging Police rhythms and chiming, pinpoint-specific guitars. They are replaced by gently syncopated tugs at the tempo, and the quiet fire of the newly confident Sting. Longtime followers will not be surprised by any of this. Ever since he left the Police at the peak of success in 1984, turning his back on a rock- money machine that sold more than 8 million records, Gordon Sumner (Sting's real name) has been on a mission.
Then, he called it "finding a music without categories." Now, four years later, the 36-year-old pop star avoids labels, but the message is the same.
"The trouble with music forms-be it jazz, reggae, blues, whatever-is that it becomes ghetto music in a way," Sting said in late January, after the final rehearsal for his U.S. tour.
"I don't mean racially. It's like, 'Okay, these are the perimeters of R&B. That's it, we can't go outside of that.' So of course it dies: Reggae is dead. What Bob Marley did, I think incredibly successfully, was go outside of that culture. It was 'our music's gonna change, but we're gonna change your music, too.' It's the going outside that's important."
This reasoned contemplation hardly sounds like the Sting of old. Once, he used chanted lyrics like "the bed's too big without you" to express loneliness. Now, in the ballads on his new album 'Nothing Like the Sun', he positively croons, his words dripping with significance. "Lying in a mother's arms/the primal root of a woman's charms" opens one verse on the blue Sister Moon'.
"I'm a normal person," he insists these days. "I'm not indulging in the rock-star fantasy trip anymore."
What brought the change?
Sting has attributed it to many things: his ability to shake the set-em- up, knock-em-down criticism of the star machine, his still-developing relationships with jazz musicians, the death of his mother during the 'Nothing Like the Sun' recording sessions.
He also says that, in the last year, he has become more domesticated. Sting and his wife, actress Trudie Styler, have two children, and Sting has two children from a previous marriage. He says his personality is more settled, his musical demeanor more relaxed.
Watching him rehearse, perform and carry on conversation bears this out.
One minute, he's substituting 'The Girl from Ipanema' for his hit 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. The next he's doing cartwheels into stage center, foxtrotting with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, demonstrating how to dance in 7/4 meter.
For this tour, the band was expanded to seven, with only Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland holding over from the Blue Turtles band. New recruits include keyboardist/vocalist Delmar Brown and percussionist Minu Cinelu.
The band, together less than a week when the tour began, has developed a system of touchy-feely communication in which high-fives are the highest compliment. The feeling is that of an intimate party.
And Sting, at the center of it, is radiant.
His recently long hair is a marked contrast to the angular, punky, statement-making looks of previous years. He's in his element, convinced that his cross-cultural music experiment is working, despite some negative reaction from musicians and critics, and comparatively sluggish sales for the new LP.
He has managed to pump an air of improvisation into pop music. The man who recently confessed to being a "control freak" is learning to loosen the reins.
If concerts early in the tour are any indication, Sting's new thing is a rare and delicate success. Like the indoor shows mounted by the Police, it is a music-first affair, with lighting and stagecraft playing a subordinate role to the music. As anyone who has been to a concert recently knows, this is rare for pop music.
Blazing, anything-can-happen treatments of Police songs are sprinkled through the set, as are updates of material from the 1985 jazz-oriented 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', Sting's first album as a solo artist, recorded with an all-black band. 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', introduced as an impassioned uptempo plea in 1983 and re-recorded as a more subdued pop tune last year, evolves into an early-rock flag-waver not unlike 'Back in the USSR' in the hands of the Sting band.
But most dramatic is the material from Sting's 'Nothing Like the Sun' LP, released in November. Conceived and recorded primarily with computer-assisted synthesis, the album was slammed by some critics for its cold calculation-especially since Sting used artists known for their improvisational prowess. In live concert, however, songs like 'Straight to the Heart' and 'Englishman in New York' ring out loose and unhurried, growing with each contribution from the increasingly spontaneous Sting.
Other critics were not very receptive to the social and political messages on the new album. Writing in the Village Voice, critic Howard Hampton called 'Nothing Like the Sun' "perfumed gunk."
Stung by this and other critical receptions, Sting responded with a letter, and is still visibly smarting from the episode: "He said he wanted to bash my head into a wall. You can't threaten someone with violence and get away with it. That's not criticism."
Even as they panned 'Nothing Like the Sun', however, many critics had to acknowledge that Sting was tying together elements not ordinarily represented in popular music, particularly with 'They Dance Alone', a ceremonial dance scene-sketch about the mothers of the disappeared in Chile.
Sting began his current tour in South America, where he performed that song and others in Spanish. (An EP of Spanish-language Sting also has been released.) "It was very important to me that as many people as possible understood what I was saying," he explains. "The inspiration for many of these songs, both musically and lyrically, was South American.
"The problem Chile suffers at the moment is the same problem Brazil and Argentina have suffered for a long time," he says, recalling a meeting he had with mothers of the disappeared in Buenos Aires.
The mothers asked if he could do anything to help them. He said, "What are you doing tonight?" During 'They Dance Alone', before an 80,000-seat stadium and a live television audience, the mothers came onstage.
"As soon as they appeared everyone knew who they were. The stadium erupted. We were filming as well, and as the cameras moved across each face you saw the reality of it. It wasn't a pop concert anymore. It was something very real."
Sting is not evangelical, or even comfortable, about his role at one front of political cause-rock. He is careful with every claim he makes.
But he does defend his right to take things seriously. "I'm so sick of this word 'pretentious.' The idea of pretension is b.s.-as if the only ones who have the right to a political opinion are the writers and lawyers, the political class.
"I get up there and have a good time. I am not a preachy performer. Anybody wants to get into what the songs are about, they do it voluntarily. I don't hammer them over the head with political invective. I'm not that way." At the same time, Sting acknowledges the major influence on his work of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht. "They wrote political songs that were full of information, and opinion and muse. At the same time, they were incredibly entertaining, showstoppers. I don't think there's anything wrong with entertaining people and giving them information. If I could do one-fourth of what they did..."
Perhaps the most argumentative Brecht-Weill style song on the new album is the much-misunderstood 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'. Sting expected the song would be taken literally, and it was: "It's a statement designed to start a debate. Of course there's an alternative. I don't really get behind that statement, but it can be argued that history really is nothing but bloodshed, cheating and lying. What goes on in places like Ireland is history gets in the way of rational thought."
He cites South Africa as another example. "South Africa was originally uninhabited. The white settlers were the first people there. That's an important perspective. The Zulus came down later. Both people have a right to it, neither should be thrown out. So I say it's important to know the real history, which is the opposite of what the song says."
Despite his seriousness, Sting has made a point of including a blatantly commercial single, like 'We'll Be Together', on each record.
"They're fun," he says. "You can dance to them. They make funny videos."
More than that, however, Sting says those songs serve a purpose. "They are radio's handle on the record. If you present an album of nothing but 'They Dance Alone', there's only so much they (radio programmers) can do. I want to get these songs across to as many people as possible. You need to give the marketplace something they can program easily, and then follow with something else that you really want to do. It's a compromise, but not one that involves an ethical decision."
In the Police, Sting was not faced with "ethical" decisions like that, at least not outwardly. Born in 1977 out of the English punk scene, the trio (bassist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, drummer Stewart Copeland) became famous for bridging the gaps between punk attitude, the then-groundbreaking rhythms of reggae and the corporate rock that ruled America.
With each album, the trio's strident, less-is-more sound grew increasingly refined, and Sting's songwriting more economical. The Police pursued radio from the start, supplying a stream of chant-filled three-minute masterpieces that stand as textbook examples of early '80s pop: 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', 'Driven To Tears', 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', 'Roxanne', 'King of Pain', 'Every Breath You Take'.
When Sting went solo, he didn't leave the songs behind. "I see the songs not as a commodity used up when the album goes off the charts, which is often the case with pop songs. I see them as a body of work. Life should be breathed into them. I like taking old songs, saying, "Okay, here's the bare bones of it, let's make it live, let's transform it.' I use my own, I use other people's songs. It's not stealing, it's a mark of respect."
Sting's audience got its first glimpse of this philosophy last year, when the singer released 'Bring on the Night', a two-LP compilation of material recorded on the 'Blue Turtles' tour. It captures the group turning songs like the reggae anthem 'One World' into vehicles for highly interactive bantering in the manner of a jam session.
"I'm not interested in slavishly copying the record when we play live," Sting explains. "With 'Blue Turtles', I created the structure. The band was able to paint their own colors within that structure, but they couldn't go beyond that. The live situation is more flexible. And with this band now, the music is different again, which is as it should be."
For several years, the blond singer has been pursuing different outlets for his energy. He starred in 'The Bride of Frankenstein' and 'Dune', and can be seen in the just-released "Julia and Julia" and the forthcoming 'Stormy Monday'. He is considering film roles again, to begin when his tour ends in December.
And, in a move many perceive as a post-stardom fail-safe, he has set up his own label, Pangaea Records, with the mandate to present a wide variety of music. Included in the first release are a country act and a band from the French Caribbean.
"I want all the acts to tour together, revue-style," he says. "That would really fry people's brains."
Sting, however, no longer wants to fry people's brains. He wants to calm them, to make them think. It is no accident that most of the songs on 'Nothing Like the Sun' are cast in medium tempos, and that his shows contain fewer moments of 100-miles-an-hour fury than the Police concerts did. The album, which he dedicated to his mother, allowed him to explore the feminine side of his psyche, he says.
"I'm starting to come to terms with a lot of things a young man suppresses. Gentleness-there's nothing sissified about that. I think a man at his highest is someone who can look after children.
"I'm not a kid anymore," Sting says today. "I don't want to just play the music of the young. There should be room in this thing for some adult thinking."
© The Chicago Tribune