Interview: Q (1999)

November 14, 1999

The following article by Adrian Deevoy appeared in the November 1999 issue of Q magazine...

Sumner Holiday - Sometimes even Q needs a break. Usually this means a week in a prefab on Selsea Bill, but this year Signor Sting - Tuscan summer host to the Blairs, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman and Christy Turlington - put us up. The price? Losing at chess. "My house," he tells Adrian Deevoy. "I'll do what I want."

Sting is sitting on his front step strumming a vintage guitar. He is wearing an old pair of indigo dungarees, a white T-shirt and biblical sandals. The sun has tanned his skin and lightened his hair; he looks weathered and well. He plucks an elegant run of notes. The melody has been haunting him all day and he wants to make contact before it leaves for good. He murmurs some unformed words in his husky falsetto, probing the tune, gently willing it to life. As his fingers move over the strings, he sings quietly and squints into the middle distance.

Before him lies a deep valley, lined with vineyards and olive groves, edged with forest and mountains. He is contemplating a walk over the furthest peak. He'll go tomorrow, maybe the next day when the haze has lifted. There's no rush. He concludes his playing with a spreading diminished chord then sets the guitar down. The church bell sounds four. He casts a cautious eye down the seemingly endless drive his large, square palms together.

Time for a nose-pick.

He delves in manfully but it is apparent that all is not going to plan. Without wishing to be coarse, it's stringy. Sting struggles with the aftermath, cursing his lack of a handkerchief and resorting to the time honoured wind-and-wipe. This temporary measure works in the short-term but leaves him with a residue. What's worse, the weekend guests have just shown up and are extending hands of greeting.

Sting does what any right-handed person would do in such a situation. He reaches behind the stone Portal and smears the doorpost with his celebrity secretions. The guests look on aghast. Handshakes are hastily withdrawn. "My house," grins Sting. "I'll do what I want."

This is Sting's house - his fifth, if anyone's counting - and quite a house it is too. Perched high on a "Chiantishire" hill, Il Palagio is a simple three-storey terracotta structure surrounded by discreet sandstone out-buildings and pillared courtyards, this is Tuscany at its most haughtily tasteful. The ceilings are vaulted, the floors are flagstone, the walls are wavy. Assorted greenery cling to the exterior. The rest, as they say, is wisteria.

It's unbearable. More unbearable still, everything you can see, from the pines behind to the lake beyond, Sting owns. Swallows swoop in the Sting-owned cobalt skies, the sunflowers in the field below bow their heads deferentially and the horses snort in their Sting-owned stables. It's paradise squared, except owned by Sting and not actually God.

For a few days, the baron has invited Q to share his wonderful life. "Treat the place as your own," he says. Tempting as it is to take him at his word and sell the property, we accept his reckless offer and move in.

Upon arrival we are shown to our villa, which Sting and his other half Trudie Styler refer to as Casa Colonica (loose translation: Arsehole House). Dinner will be served at dusk. "You might be asked to drink a lot of wine as well," warns Sting, who seems inhumanly relaxed. So it is with this harrowing thought in mind that we make our way down the shingle hill to our new home.

The living areas of Arsehole House are tastefully furnished with rustic Italian antiques and artfully distressed sofas. There are plump, purple grapes growing on the balcony and 40 satellite channels on the TV. The kitchen is fitted out with Zanussi's finest and the cupboards boast a bewildering selection of herbal teas. There is bread and milk in the fridge and, reassuringly, a Findus pizza in the deep freeze.

A pair of shrink-wrapped ecologically inclined wooden toothbrushes sit on the bathroom window ledge alongside some locally manufactured lavender shampoo and chunky tablets of right-on soap. Needless to say, it doesn't muster enough lather to blind a small animal. The disquieting rustle of the lavatory paper whispers recycled.

The bedroom is all dark beauty and white bed-linen. On the bedside table lies a book about Mexico in Spanish and a text on the old Versailles in French. Harold Robbins is conspicuous by his absence. Last week, Christy Turlington stayed here. The month before that, Madonna. Let's just hope they've changed the sheets...

Sundry Sumners collect in the courtyard for their evening meal. But before they can there is a small sporting event to negotiate. Table tennis is a tricky enough proposition sober but when combined with pre-dinner drinks it becomes a minefield. Trudie Styler proves to be no slouch in matters ping and pong. A deceptively fast serve and ruthless smash see her through to the finals where bad fight stops play and the match is abandoned until tomorrow. "f***," she says. "I was on a roll."

Prior to taking our dining places, Styler unveils the cookery book she has recently written with family chef Joe Sponzo. Sting leafs through the glossy pages, revisiting the various recipes that have sustained him for the last decade. "I'm very proud of Trudie and Joe," he glows. "There's a lot of love gone into this book. And a lot of calories."

Tonight, Joe has prepared a typically exotic and eclectic feast: dim sum to start; a dense seafood-festooned broth as a main course and Satan's own chocolate pudding to finish. All organic, of course. "You can see why we have to do yoga," says Sting patting his flat stomach. "We're just treading water."

The Sumners tuck in with relish. Sitting around a long table in the back courtyard we meet Coco, who is nine and pretty. Jake, who is 13 and caustic in that way unique to 13-year-old boys. Mickey is 16 and terribly cool - she has a curious finishing school accent that is equal parts English, American and Swiss. Then there is Giacomo. He is three-and-a-half and just plain eccentric. Obsessed by technical detail, he asks a non-stop stream of extraordinary questions in a lilting sing-song. "Will the rotors of the helicopter chop my head off" he wonders aloud while listening to Beethoven, his bedtime music of choice.

"I truly believe he's my father reincarnated," sighs Sting. "He's totally machine-minded and he has no time for me at all. Just like my dad. It's spooky."

Spookier still are the ghost stories that Sting and Trudie relive during dessert. The scene is a house in Hampstead where the couple stayed for four years in the early-80's, shortly after they'd met. Ceremonial masks crash to the floor, kitchen knives fly into unsuspecting human flesh, huge mirrors - previously battened to the wall - are lain flat atop of unscathed children, drinking glasses are cut neatly in half, wind chimes rattle above babies cots. It's chilling stuff.

"I woke up one night," recalls a shivery Sting. "Trudie was standing in the doorway holding a baby. I was wondering what was wrong when Trudie woke up beside me and touched my arm and said, What's happening? Who is that Woman? We both saw the same apparition - a woman holding a child. It was very frightening."

"But we were very energised by it," frowns Trudie. "We stayed awake for hours afterwards."

"That's because we were shitting ourselves," says Sting.

We decide to exorcise the ghosts of our moaning predecessors with a vigorous hand of Perudo - a South American dice game distantly related to poker. Sting is an expert at Perudo and is therefore mildly perplexed to find himself getting beaten. Jake is quick to berate his father, calling him Bad Loser and even Mr I Can't Stand Losing. Sting takes the abuse in his stride. "Shut up or I'll cut off your inheritance," he smiles. After a particularly Machiavellian manoeuvre, Q privately curses Sting. "What was that?" he demands, "a plague on all five of your houses?" When Sting is eventually sent spiralling out of the gate, he polishes of his wine, politely informs us that we are "c****", and heads off to bed.

Sting comes down for an al fresco breakfast at 8am, showered and shining, wearing an elaborately embroidered bathrobe. "This is from Voyage," he says, carelessly name-dropping the exclusive Fulham boutique. "Have you ever been there? You have to he a member just get into the bloody place. And the prices..."

Breakfast is wholemeal toast, muesli and carrot juice, Stoke Newington social worker staples of the late-'70s. Sting puts forth that carrot juice - more accurately carrot presse - is used in the treatment of cancer and can act as a powerful preventative. It is a persuasive argument and we all drink another glass of carrot juice just to he on the safe side.

But this health-mania cannot endure and, fuelled by pots of Earl Grey and double espressos, a meandering mid-morning conversation ensues. We mull over the majesty of Stevie Wonder; the mystery of the Himalayas; cheese-making; Elgar; acceptable trouser length; the Oasis dilemma; David Beckham ("He is brilliant at what he does and he's a good-looking lad"); horse-riding; testicles and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis whom, Sting tells the amused company, has given up acting to become an apprentice cobbler in Florence. "Perhaps," he suggests generously, "it's what he needs to do."

At one point Sting recalls leaving The Police. "I told the others I was going to go and they didn't seem especially bothered. So I said, But I'll be taking all the publishing for the songs I've written. They just shrugged. Their thinking was that I'd be the one losing out by leaving this great band."

Sting lets slip that he recently wrote a love song from the perspective of a dolphin. The chorus went, "I need you like I need this hole in my head."

We are not the only guests at Il Palagio this week: Menno Meyjes, the Hollywood screenwriter ('The Color Purple', 'The Siege') and his family are in the Naomi Campbell Suite. "I don't know what her problem was," says Sting of the grumpy temptress. "She complained from the moment she got here."

There is also a free-range playboy called Misha who roams about in a sarong dispensing bonhomie and gaming tips. One afternoon he swims a length of the outdoor Roman-style pool underwater "Not bad for a 54-year-old," he beams. "But now I must retire to my oxygen tent."

At midday we take two quad bikes out to the lake. "There's actually two lakes," shouts Sting as we motor through the forest, "You've got to have a spare one, haven't you?"

Over lunch we talk about the film Meyjes currently has in production. Entitled Hoffman, it tells the story of Hitler's eponymous art dealer and spans one year of their lives, when young Adolf was a promising painter. "He desperately wanted to be famous," explains Meyjes, who has written the movie and will direct it. "Nothing was going to stop him. He was absolutely driven by a desire to be... a superstar."

Sound like anyone we know? Meyjes laughs heartily. "Same drive," he smirks. "Slightly different intentions."

Upstairs in the big house, the air-conditioned recording studio offers welcome respite from the 35-degree afternoon burn. Sting is listening to a water-weak remix of his latest single and eloquency expressing his misgivings. "I want nine inches of throbbing gristle and all I'm getting is limp dick," he scowls. Another remix is hastily arranged.

Later, as we sit by the fountain watching another bloody sunset, Sting proposes a chess match. "I've been playing quite a lot on the Internet recently," he says. "You have this really tough match and then you get this little message from a six-year-old in Idaho thanking you for the game."

It's a messy fixture. Sting is a shrewdly aggressive but oddly courteous opponent. As each of his elaborate strategies are brought crashing down by sheer belligerence he re-groups then comes back, all guns blazing. After half an hour it has degenerated into a good-natured slug-fest, two punchy old fairground boxers hauling each other to the canvas just to have a last pop. Sting's terrorist-like tenacity eventually wins him the game. "I thought you'd never roll over," he says shaking his head. We agree to a re-match when the bruises have gone down.

You can sleep with me and Trudie tonight if you want," offers our thoughtful host. "Come in for a few hours anyway, see if you can keep up."

It had been Qs intention to avoid the topic of prolonged sexual congress while staying with the Stings. Yet, it insists on rearing its bulbous head. This first incidence occurred at the dinner table when Jake interrupted a conversation of a steamy nature to sneer, "God, Dad, you're not going to get all tantric, are you? Tantric sex. That's so interesting." Sting had disarmed the surly adolescent by saying, "Listen, if it wasn't for tantric sex you wouldn't be here".

But Mrs Sting seemed hell bent on exploding the master's Marathon Man myth. Although she laughingly revealed that the labourers in the vine-yard call her Senora Cinquehoures (Mrs Fivehours) behind her back, she also appeared keen to blow (as it were) Sting's reputation. Whenever the legendary love-span was mentioned, she would mutter, "Five minutes, more like".

Late one night, and just a little drunk, Sting leans across to his beloved and mouths the words, "Fancy a shag?" Styler pauses for a moment before replying tartly. "No, I don't. Not with you anyway."

As if to dispel the rumour that the Stingly sap is struggling to rise, he decides to make that trek over the distant mountain ridge. He changes into full hiking gear and loads a rucksack with bottles of water. "It's about 20 kilometres," he says briskly. "It should only take four hours."

We agree to join him for the first few kilometres which, as misfortune would have it, is a few kilometres of agonising vertical ascent. To distract from the physical pain we discuss financial discomfort in the form of Keith Moore, the crooked accountant who embezzled £6m of Sting's money. "He's out of prison now," says his former boss and for the first time this week sounds rather sad.

He did three and a half years. You know, I got no satisfaction from him going to prison. What he did was so foolish, he was making an extremely good living and now he can't." Has he been in touch since he got out? "Oh yeah," Sting chuckles ironically. "He's back working for me. Starting at the bottom."

On our last night, in gentle mood, Sting is sipping Limoncello, the life-shortening local liqueur, and thinking big thoughts. We are talking about the end of an epoch and what it means to a man who has made the fairytale transition from school-teacher to 95 million album-selling megastar. How does he feel now that this time, arguably his time, is ending? Sting looks around at his loving family, his magnificent home, his contented friends. Then he turns his chiselled face to the stars and says, "Thank God it's over. It's been crap."

© Q magazine



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