Interview: Q (1995)

January 02, 1995

The following article by Adrian Deevoy appeared in the January 1995 issue of Q magazine...

It is the biggest dilemma in the caring career of Pop's Very Own Captain Conscience. Sun City: should I stay or should I go? Sting visits the confusing, garish game park-cum-human hellhole that is the new South Africa.

"Bewildered" is the word we're using. "Confused" and "nonplussed" are jockeying for position. And, when a few drinks have been taken, "guilty" comes stealing up on the inside rail.

Sting is in South Africa. Sun City to be precise. As in "I-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi ain't gonna play Sun City". And tomorrow night he-ye-ye-ye-ye-ye is going to be doing exactly that. Twenty-four hours into our stay and everyone is agreed that this is a country crammed with eye-crossing contradictions. The most pertinent being that 48 million black people live here and up until the recent changes have been shining the political shoes of six million whites. Hello? Where's my Free Nelson Mandela?

The drive from Johannesburg to Sun City takes about two hours or, depending on your point of view, about 400 years. The first shock is the state of the farms at the side of the roads. Cattle are crammed into Portaloo-proportioned corrugated iron huts and the pigs live under crude curves of sheet metal. All around is dry red dirt and any vegetation that has learned to live without water. Pretty shoddy way to treat our four-legged friends, you think, mentally composing a strongly-worded note to Linda McCartney. But then, as you peek into one of these appalling sheds, you realise that they aren't for animals; they are inhabited by people. Black people.

These are the townships you hear about on the news. In summer it's 40 degrees centigrade, come winter it drops down to five below. From microwave to deep freeze and you and your family are stuck in a condemned outdoor khazi.

"I only found out why the blacks live in these things recently," explains our driver, an odious white South African. "It helps them keep mobile. You can dismantle those things in minutes."

Handy for when the army wants to come in with bulldozers to help you "relocate" then?

"You see," continues the Boer bore, "if they want to settle somewhere, they build mud huts like you see here." He gestures towards the rotund, thatched arrangements as if they were a terrace of five-bedroom townhouses in Mayfair.

The problem with the blacks, he explains, further twisting his own loathsome logic, is that even if you gave them money, they'd blow it all on clothes and booze. It's not their fault, they're just unintelligent. But how could he describe these people as unintelligent, you wonder marvelling at the complete paucity of pissed, well-dressed black people parading by, when they are obviously smart enough to hate pond-life like him.

The word "kaffir" (the derogatory white coined term for blacks), he enlightens us further, derives from the Arabic meaning "dog of a disbeliever". Nice. "And over there," he continues pointing to the other side of the road. "Is one of our premium platinum plants..." A little more tea with your dichotomy, Vicar?

The Sting entourage is staying in The Palace at Sun City. Although the people who own the place would love you to think of it as the South African Las Vegas, it isn't even that endearingly grotesque. A couple of overblown hotels, a few thousand fruit machines and a fake inland beach do not a characterful holiday resort make.

Sun City is a weekend playground where the wealthier Johannesburg whites come to spend their hard unearned rands and the paste jewel in this tin foil crown is The Palace. Imagine if Billy Butlin had gone Big Game or if Fred Pontin copped off with Fela Kuti. It's like watching Hi-De-Hi while listening to the Andy Kershaw Show.

It is shamelessly opulent. There are hectares of zebra skin. The taste by-laws are being recklessly contravened. An unignorable old African theme pervades: the entrance is subject to such over-foliage you keep half-expecting Johnny Weissmuller to swing through, chest a-pummel, on a handy vine; stone yaks and wildebeest leap from the masonry; the foyer fountain features an appetite-suppressing scene in which several bronze leopards tuck into a herd of gold-leafed gazelles; carved elephants, some life-sized, are rarely out of eye-shot; Zulu designs cover any un-elephanted surfaces. Such is the bone-through-noseness of it all that it would come as no surprise if the restaurant's dish of the day turned out to be Missionary And Root Vegetable Casserole, dished up in a Don Estelle-style pith helmet. Buy a drink in the "Ivory" Bar and it comes with a white tusk-shaped stirrer.

Beyond the wildlife-festooned lobby is a swimming pool that could double as God's footbath, Poolside, under-dressed, over-monied Jo'burg princesses sip local sparkling white wine from plastic champagne flutes and complain in nails down-blackboard accents when the temperature drops below 100.

Hairy-chested won't-be rugby internationals plunge in and knock off a few hundred lengths before lunch but if it's the unreal thing you're after there is a man-made beach (complete with tidal wave machine) just the far side of the synthetic mountain. There are stables out the back and a fenced off game reserve the size of Yorkshire, if you're man enough. But, hey, be careful. It isn't a jungle out there.

Sting's first Sun City show is as slick as a codpiece made out of real cod. He plays everything you want to hear and a few other things that you don't: the fast and funky numbers from 'Ten Summoner's Tales'; 'Fields Of Gold' the gorgeous love song for wife Trudie Styler; that one about Quentin Crisp; some nape-tingling old Police hits and not too much off 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles'. The gaudy auditorium is packed with gyrating bodies and smiling faces. All white. Out of the 5,000 people present, security staff apart, you count 11 black people.

The problem is this: if you happen to come from a township - assuming you could afford the obscenely priced tickets: £22 when a beer is the equivalent of 50p - you can't physically get up to Sun City unless you have a car because there is no public transport whatsoever (all the black workers live in provided accommodation in Sun City itself). And even if you're that rare kind of township dweller who happens to own a car, you need a concert ticket or a resident's pass to get into the compound. Consequently, our townshipular brothers and sisters get to stay in the comfort and safety of their temperature-sensitive shit shacks and Sting gets a rich, honky audience.

Sitting backstage after the gig, Sting has added the words "weird" and "a bit uncomfortable" to his Towards An Understanding Of South Africa vocabulary. He is concerned that UB40 have apparently pulled a South African show because of some ruling that doesn't give blacks a full vote unless they are property owners. News later filters through that, in the event, the loveable Brummies performed to an ecstatic national response.

David Sancious, Sting's keyboard player, mooches around silently. Such is the sensitivity of the subject, one can hardly go and ask him if, as a black man, he feels stranger being here than the rest of us.

Sting perks up when talk turns to Nelson Mandela who, despite having to leave the country for a meeting in New York this morning, has sent a message regretting that he couldn't meet Sting at the airport. "It's the first time I've ever had a message from the president of a country," Sting says, swelling proudly. "Nelson Mandela is one of the few statesmen in the world that I would actually cross the road to meet. I'd like to wish him well because he has the chance here of pulling off a miracle."

The possibility of them playing a cheaper show later in Johannesburg has, it transpires, now become more a probability. Sting knows that this is partly a conscience-salving exercise but at least it means that some fans will be able to get to see him for less than the price of a World Of Leather three-Piece suite.

An expedition on horseback around the game reserve is suggested. Sting and Trudie, who ride well return after an hour marvelling at the handsome countryside and still trembling a little. They found a pile of rhino dung. It was still warm. And as if that wasn't worrying enough, we learn that the oddly-spoken and curiously mannered boxer Chris Eubank is staying in the same hotel while he trains for a title defence in South Africa.

A meeting (4.30pm by the big carved elephant) between these twin colossi is promptly arranged. Eubank turns out to be a sweetheart. A tenth of the cartoon character he comes across as in the media and a thoughtful family man too. Ask him if he would let any of his children box and he says "No, that is why I box. So that they do not have to." When they meet, Eubank bashfully says that must ask Sting a question as it has been playing on his mind for some time. Sting assumes this must about Apartheid, the difficulties of being a black professional in a white-run country or perhaps a more general enquiry about colour ratios in his audience. No. Chris Eubank wants to ask Sting this:

"What is your real name?"

"My real name?" asks Sting incredulously. "Everyone knows that."

"I don't," says Eubank incontestably.

"It's Gordon."

Eubank starts giggling. "Gordon. Gordon what?"

"Gordon Sumner," says Sting.

"I think I'll call you Sting." Round One to Eubank.

"They're all my kids," says Eubank, motioning four toddlers clambering all over his broken-nosed trainer. "How many kids have you got ?"

"Five," breezes Sting, clinching Round Two.

Eubank tells a touching story about how he used to listen to The Police when he was in a boy's home as a youngster. Then he goes and spoils it all by saying, "But I lost interest after that period you went solo and became commercial."

"No," corrects Sting. "The Police were a pop group. When I went solo, I got less commercial."

"Precisely," says Eubank, perplexingly.

Sting invites Eubank to the gig that night and Eubank returns the compliment by asking Sting if he'd like to watch him train.

"Only if I can spar with you," quips Sting.

"You wouldn't want to do that," frowns Eubank. "You'd get hurt."

En route to the concert, Eubank admits to being something of a gig novice, if not virgin. "Just stand there and enjoy it," we advise and that's exactly what Eubank does. Hands on hips, muscles engorged, stare unblinking for an hour and a half. He taps a spatted foot to 'Every Breath You Take' jiggles a jodhpured knee during the dub-out in a revised 'Roxanne' but otherwise he remains eerily still and alarmingly alert. His wife Karron ("Marry me, Karron! ") seems more at ease, occasionally tugging at the pugilist's lethal hands, encouraging him to relax. He leaves before the encores and we never see him again. Odd fellow.

Backstage, spirits are high. Firstly, the show went well, the audience loved it, the whole atmosphere was more relaxed and although technically they didn't play as well as the previous evening, the vibe was better. Secondly, tonight is Sting's birthday - 43 years young, ladies and gentlemen - and everyone intends to let their hair, receding or otherwise, down. This uninhibited tonsorial descent is tempered by the fact that everyone is still mildly freaked, but out on the hotel terrace tequila is thirstily consumed, gifts are given, top-grade grass is puffed and an amusingly Sting-ified version of Happy Birthday-Ee-Oh-Ooo is sung.

Down by the pool the following day, Sting, Trudie and Coco (the most recent result of the celebrated Sumner/Styler interface) are soaking up the souped up sun en famille. In his microscopic briefs, Sting has the body of a man 20 years his junior. He daubs on some sun cream and throws a few yoga shapes (he still completes a two-hour programme every day) just to rub it in. Although he enjoys his celebrity, there are times, such as these, when he doesn't like to be bothered even by the kindest of well wishers. So, when a young girl summons up the courage and strides over, pen in hand, Trudie intercepts her.

"Can't you see he's trying to relax?" she snaps protectively. "Could you leave us alone for a while." "No, it's OK," smiles Sting, signing, then, as she walks away, reading the fan's mind aloud. "He was really nice but his wife is a right bitch." Slap!

"You're just jealous," says the smarting Sting to his fuming wife. "You'll notice that she didn't ask you for your autograph." Sur-lap!

Very soon they're friends again: stroking, pecking, billing, and indeed, cooing in the rather sickening fashion that either the seven-pints-drunk or very-in-love conduct themselves. Later, Sting, examine the reasons for the success of their year relationship: "We're very similar in ways," he says. "Both born in the early '50s, went to grammar school, both from families with relatively low income. We have the same nostalgias, we remember the same commercials. And she makes me laugh and takes the piss out of me, my best friend, my lover, my companion and I really don't want to contemplate life without her."

Over lunch, we talk with a woman who, for duration of the trip, is looking after Coco. She comes from Soweto and seems withdrawn and slightly distracted. We ask about the possibility us visiting her hometown but she's having none of it. "They'll probably kill you," she says What if we had a police escort? "Oh, they kill them as well. Police are getting killed all the time. Why would they kill us? "You're white, rich, they'd want your car, your watch." But, you say isn't this just hysterical scaremongering? "Well," she sighs patiently, "most of my family have been murdered in the last two years; three weeks ago my brother was shot in the head for his car."

Sting is staying in the Royal Suite, an immodest and imminuscule residence which fills an entire turret of The Palace. It is preposterously spacious. And indubitably round. There is a bodyguard, black, be-blazered, outside the main door. Are they worried that you might want to assassinate Sting? Why, apart from maybe Side Two of The Soul Cages, would anyone want to assassinate him?

"Come in," says Sting, with a broad and ironic sweep of the arm. "Have a look around, though you'll probably need a map." He's right. If the regular rooms are deceptively large then this is working on an illusory level. Its what estate agents might term "bloody enormous". The bar along one wall of the main lounge is actual pub size.

Sting, although he isn't letting on, is faintly embarrassed by the size of his living quarters. He perches his narrow behind on a hard chair and begins plucking nervously on an antique Spanish guitar. There is really only one question that can open this conversation and it runs thus:

Q: Sting, here you are in Sun City. Justify yourself, Running Dog Rock Star Bastard.

STING: "I didn't think I'd ever come to South Africa. I never thought Nelson Mandela would ever get out of prison. I thought he'd die first. So it came as a bit of a surprise. But having been part of that consensus of attacking South Africa, once the change happened I was intrigued to come. I think you should come if you have criticised the place and then there's a change; you have to come and support that change."

Q: That's a difficult argument to sustain.

STING: "Oh, I don't know. I really don't. I've thought about it a lot now and I haven't got a coherent answer. Sun City is a massive contradiction in terms of ethics. This place is dedicated to money. It makes a fortune and yet we're surrounded, literally, by people living in shacks."

Q: How does it make you feel?

STING: "Same way it makes you feel."

Q: But you're wealthy.

STING: "So are you compared to people in shacks."

Q: You're wealthy compared to the people holidaying in Sun City.

STING: "This isn't my idea of a holiday. Trudie and I drove here from Johannesburg, which is a pretty ugly place. And when we saw Sun City looming on the horizon, this ridiculous palace, we both burst out laughing. The driver was really bewildered by this reaction because he's ever so proud of this place. But it's like Disneyland. Gone wrong. But, look, for Christ's sake, I'm playing the joint."

Q: Again. Why?

STING: "I'm here out of curiosity. The invitation to play here is a long-standing one which we've turned down out of hand every year."

Q: How effective do you feel, in retrospect, the musical boycott of South Africa was?

STING: "I think for white South Africans, the fact that the international musical community wouldn't play here was very powerful. Particularly when we played in Zimbabwe on the Amnesty tour with Bruce and Peter because the audience was white South Africans. There were hardly any black people there. They came over the border. So not playing here was a formidable weapon."

Q: Is it an emotional experience to play here?

STING: "It's pretty emotional. Especially in Cape Town. They're just so thrilled to see you. You know, because of charts and so forth, that they've been following your music, so it's good in that respect to come and play. I haven't got a handle on the situation here at all. I don't want to play politics. You can just hope that the institutionalised unfairness has gone."

Q: But economic apartheid is still in place.

STING: "Yes, and that will take generations to change. But that's part of the ANC strategy. They don't want a massive exodus. They have to maintain the infrastructure or else what do they inherit? So I think they're playing a balancing act and you have to let them do it."

Q: Doesn't it feel uncomfortable playing to an audience that is 95 per cent white?

STING: "That would be the case anyway. When I play in America the audiences are pretty well all white."

Q: Tickets in Sun City are prohibitively expensive.

STING: "But to be viable to come here economically you need to have either a sponsor or a high ticket price. And the only people that will sponsor you are whiskey or cigarette companies."

Q: Are you getting paid a lot to play here?

STING: "I'm not going to take very much home."

Q: Are you saying money isn't a motivation for playing Sun City? Surely that's the attraction?

STING: "No, not really. Money isn't a motivation for me. I've got plenty of money. I wanted to play here. I mean, I'll definitely get a wage but it's not going to be a big payday for me."

Q: Are people, in their most basic form, racist?

STING: "I don't think people who are comfortable in themselves are racist. People who are uncomfortable feel hard done by and have a tendency to project on to another race. I exist in a multi-racial community of musicians. We share music and we have that sense of self-esteem that music gives you so there is very little racism."

Q: Have you ever felt racism within yourself?

STING: "No. I have enough black friends to be able to criticise them or argue with them openly without the issue of race coming into it. I've lived with black people enough to feel unself-conscious about that."

Q: Have you ever felt you've ripped off black musicians?

STING: "I was certainly influenced greatly by black music. It's been a major force in my life and I'm grateful in the most respectful way. Whether or not that's ripping them off I guess would depend on who's saying it."

Q: This from Mr White Reggae?

STING: "Well, it was never white reggae in the first place. 'Roxanne' was a tango. But no. I owe a great debt to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley and Miles Davis. They form and informed my world view."

Q: Have you come to any conclusions about South Africa since we've been talking?

STING: "One thing I'm arriving at is that the places where you'd expect racism to be worst, like here or in the Southern states of America, it's not the case. They seem to exist in a very easy manner."

Q: Only easy in the way that every person in the service industry here seems to be black.

STING: "Yes, but isn't the counter-argument that this place has provided 5,000 jobs? I don't know, I'm still bewildered. That's the conclusion I've reached for now. I'm bewildered."

We bid a fond, and let's be frank, two-fingered farewell to Sun City and its attendant miseries and walk to the bus that will take us through the townships, back to Johannesburg. It's quiet as we board. Maybe we're thinking of the emotional chord it struck when Sting finished his set with Fragile; maybe we're wondering whether the thin, inscrutable bellhops in their traditional African costumes are hoping you'll return or are just glad to see the back of you. With the now familiar combination of skewed humour and gentle sadness, you notice that the young, black boy who is loading the bags has a name tag on his shirt. It might be the heat but it seems somehow poignant and, anyway, it raises a smile when someone says, "We'll probably see you some time again soon then, Lazarus."

© Q magazine



Dec 2, 1994

Gentleman's Agreement: Sting dreams a world without junk. "In The Police he was a pop star, the best we've had, a potent force delivering blistering reggae-tinged chart-friendly hits apparently to order." That's the new Q on Sting, delivering Britain's attitude about its homeboy. Here, he came across as the lead blond of a fluffy threesome who successfully crafted themselves into heavy new-wavers with AOR cred, and by the time he went solo he was a guaranteed rock-mag cover. He had attempted the oddest new career - jazz, don't you know - with music that, in retrospect, unfolds like a single piece of steel, ignoring orthodoxy yet achieving the field's flexibility and no hot-tub vapor, laughing in the face of rock yet getting on more different sets of nerves than most punks ever manage, skipping pop rules yet selling millions, admitting in public to a yen for Mozart...

Dec 1, 1994

The role of renaissance bloke: It's 10am on a Saturday at Drapers Brothers Dry Cleaners, and Dougie and Don Draper are preparing for the weekend rush when the door clatters open and in comes a Mr Sting. "I was just wondering if you could clean this donkey jacket, like," he says in rich, Newcastle Brown tones, shrugging out of the garment in question. Dougie D (maroon slacks, fawn cardie, pervert scoutmaster-style nylon wig in a worrying shade of lemon) duly ingratiates himself, customer care skills to the fore. "No problem at all," he oozes. Meanwhile Don D (two-tone overall, spectacles, pervert woodwork teacher-style nylon wig in a worrying shade of chestnut brown) is anticipating a visit to the theatre to see American illusionist David Copperfield. "Every little thing he does is magic," he sings repeatedly...