Interview: THE TIMES (1997)

December 02, 1997

The following article by Alan Jackson appeared in a December 1997 issue of The Times newspaper...

Every breath he takes...

Sting and I meet at London's Dorchester Hotel. He is without his wife, Trudie Styler, who is in Milan, supporting Donatella Versace at the unveiling of the first collection since her brother Gianni's death. And so he has come alone to be feted by the BMI, the body that monitors television and radio use throughout America. Did you know that 'Every Breath You Take' has now been played an official four million times there? That is 17 years and two months of airtime. No wonder Sting refers to his songs as his children.

I am impressed by this. He is gracious. "Normally, I don't much like these sort of occasions," he tells me, his distinctly less glamorous substitute as dinner companion. "But it does make you feel 'Wow! I'm in the Champion's League now', when you are told that one of your compositions has been played in America as often as Let It Be or whatever." I nod my head sagely, but will never in this lifetime know the same feeling. Or that of receiving the evening's chief BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) trophy, a one-off humanitarian award to Sting and Styler in recognition of work achieved in Brazil by their Rainforest Foundation.

He looks uncomfortable as we watch a short explanatory video - shots of a younger, blonder Sting bonding with Chief Raoni, or looking worried in verdant, shiny-leafed locations. He is self-deprecating when called upon to accept an impressive silver bowl: "I'm highly embarrassed. I don't deserve it. Just the other day, I was told that two-thirds of the world's rainforest has been destroyed during the past ten years - that shows just how effective I've been." A ripple of laughter. "What Trudie and I have done, if anything, is speak our minds on the subject. That's it. And if it's helped at all, I'm glad."

Dodging the torrent of handshakes, flashbulbs and applause, he slips back into the adjoining seat. "Wish my better half had been here to help," he mutters sotto voce. Then, clowning for the benefit of the rest of the table, he pantomimes putting the bowl first on his head, then sitting on it. "What do you think? A nice hat - or a potty? Whatever, I'll be down Portobello Road to flog it in the morning."

The evening's official business over, Sting takes his glass of red wine and looks for the quietest corner of the Dorchester's park-sized lobby. He is, he says, in a very happy phase of his life right now: "Which makes what I do for a living very difficult. Happy, contented songs are the hardest to write; those in a major key, the kind that have positivity and heart - especially when you just won't settle for rhyming couplets, as I won't. That said, I find writing any kind of songs hard. It's what I do - what I love to do - yet I spend a lot of my time avoiding doing it. It's why I go out on tour for 18 months or two years at a stretch. Playing live is a way of not writing songs, of not having to face the blank page."

Despite the physical rigours of travelling and performing, there is a mindlessness to life on the road which can be highly appealing, he claims. "Writing songs, you are desperately trying to engage your brain. Out on tour, you can get by with barely no brain at all. Someone just points you in the right direction and you do it." Which begs the question why he is not gearing up to play live now as part of a reformed Police. Currently in the charts is a combined greatest hits package, 'The Best Of Sting and The Police'. Surely any other trio would be hauling themselves round the world, seeking to maximise its sales potential?

Sting shakes his head at the thought. "No," he says. "In fact, it wasn't even my idea to bring a record like this out. But the label and management and actually the others in the band (his former partners Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers) felt that it would be appropriate to mark our 20th anniversary. Well, I can't have any objection to that . . . but touring? The others would probably like to, but then they haven't been out and played for a while. I've been on the road for 12 years pretty much, ever since I left The Police. Plus, the record itself is just about as much nostalgia as I can bear."

Which leaves him, for the most part, holed up in his magnificent Wiltshire home, Lake House, attempting to write songs. "But often avoiding doing so like the plague," he confesses. "I'm trying to write right now, and it's killing me." A case of the dreaded Block then, such as he experienced before eventually coming up with the material for 1991's dark and introspective 'The Soul Cages'? "Well, in that case there was a reason for the avoidance," he points out. "I had only one thing on my mind, and only one thing to write about - the death of my parents. But I was desperately trying not to do so. Until I dealt with what their loss represented for me though, I couldn't write anything.

"As soon as I bit the bullet and actually started down that path, the album all but wrote itself. There was this great release and relief. I'd felt previously that I wasn't mourning properly. I was beating myself up about it - actually damaging myself greatly. The mourning process only really began for me when I stopped short and allowed myself to be honest."

There is more mourning to be done, however. Yes, Sting may be very happy at this point in his life, but his year has been characterised by death. For a start, the song for which he was honoured this evening, 'Every Breath You Take', found itself reinvented by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans as 'I'll Be Missing You', a tribute to the slain gangsta rapper The Notorious B.I.G. - Evans's husband - and has been a world-wide hit, for a second time. Then in July, he and Styler's friend Gianni Versace was murdered outside his Miami home by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. And it was at the resulting funeral that the couple spent time with Diana, Princess of Wales, whom they had previously met on several occasions. Within weeks, of course, they found themselves among the mourners at Westminster Abbey. The singer exhales slowly at the mention of this short, sad list. Best, perhaps, to deal with them one by one, he suggests.

Sting says he had no prior knowledge that Puff Daddy had chosen his song as the vehicle for his tribute. "When I heard his and Faith Evans's stories, I was very pleased and honoured that someone should want to use it as a tribute to their friend or husband. And, of course, it went on to become a No 1 hit, and I was very pleased about that too. It meant that one of my children, one of my songs, was given another life. In that sense, it's been a great year for me."

He and Puff Daddy met for the first time at September's MTV awards in New York, and performed the revised track as a duet. "He struck me as a pretty sharp kid," Sting comments. "It was hard to believe he's only in his early twenties - is, in fact, the same age as my eldest son Joe (one of his two children from a first marriage to actress Frances Tomelty). He's very much in control of every aspect of his career. Actually, his intention was that I should dance on stage but I said no, we white people don't do that. And he was cool about it. I think that what he's done with 'Roxanne' is very impressive. Again, it's like a total reinvention."

Moving on to consider the loss of Versace, Sting shivers visibly. "That image of the steps to his house and the blood... the steps that I've walked up and down many times with my children. Believe me, that image will never leave me. I haven't come close to working it out yet. I'm one of those people who tend to say, OK, somebody's died - but now we've got to get on with life. I know, though, that you have to process it all sooner or later."

Most of us expect to go through life without ever having to deal with the loss of a friend in this way. That not everyone is allowed the luxury of such blind faith is made clear when Sting remarks undramatically: "He's only the second person in my life who's been murdered, and the fact of murder really does make a difference to how you feel. They're snatched away. Gone. There is no time to prepare. You don't expect the death. And you are left holding this horrible reality. It really is very tough."

Who was the first? He explains that it was Charlie Minor, an American promoter for his record label, A&M. "He was a true friend, and was shot in cold blood by an old girlfriend. She just came in and unloaded the revolver and..." He stops and laughs softly, perhaps at the absurdity of it all, and takes a deep gulp from his wine.

A change of subject would doubtless be welcome, but he agrees to continue. I put an observation to him. No camera close-ups of him weeping at either Versace's funeral or Diana's memorial service; no coming up with songs to mark either occasion. Not all his musical peers have behaved with such restraint or dignity. How does he decide what is appropriate behaviour in such instances? A long pause, then: "I suppose I think that there's a right way to act in all situations and I would hope that I achieve it."

And what did he think of Elton John's performance at the Abbey? "He was asked to sing by the Spencer family and, you know, I think he did fantastically well under amazing duress."

Could Sting himself have sung, if asked? "I haven't got the right song. But I'd probably have squirmed a lot and then agreed. You would have to, if you were asked to. And again, you'd just try and do it in a way that was appropriate."

He then free falls his way through his memories of the service for Diana, Princess of Wales. "My feelings about it are contradictory - I found it the most harrowing and the most beautiful of occasions. When that coffin came through the door, it was so difficult not to cry. I had seen her not three weeks before, in the full bloom of life. We were sitting with Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and they said at the end, 'You know, sometimes your country is the most amazing place.' I had to agree with them, even though part of me was thinking that this is all a soap opera and we are being manipulated by all the old tricks - the music and the ritual. That didn't make it any the less real, though. And listening to Earl Spencer's speech, I felt very much like we were part of some historic occasion - 200 years earlier and we'd all have been thrown in the Tower. Of course, I wish it had never taken place, but I wouldn't have missed being there."

He admits that the two deaths have provoked him to reflect more deeply on his own situation. "When Gianni died, I questioned the whole idea of fame. I had always been comfortable about it - took it in my stride, kind of enjoyed it. Suddenly, I felt different. A man can be killed on his own doorstep for no reason other than that he is famous. In that case, I don't want fame - absolutely don't want it. But it is futile to think like that, because I do have it, and have to deal with it. The irony of Gianni's situation is that he invited fame. And look at the reward he got...

"So, I feel myself going into a period of hibernation, trying to process all this stuff. Plus, like everyone else, I'm getting older - which is interesting, particularly when you work within a discipline that has always been viewed as the preserve of youth. I have just turned 46. No matter how lucky I might hope to be, that's liable to be over the halfway line."

He has, of course, a greater chance of relative immortality than most of us; not only has he fathered six members of a next generation (he and Styler have four children), but he has amassed a body of work that is already proving to have a life of its own. "And of the two, I particularly like the idea of continuity through my children, which is why I am so concerned about making sure the world they inherit is one worth living in. But, you know, my main concern is preparing for death. I don't want to sound mawkish or macabre, but it's important to do so - in the sense that I would like to die a fearless death, to accept it as something natural and fulfilling and timely."

Which leaves the two of us slumped in a contemplative silence, weighed down by thoughts of the grave. The seconds pass, then: "Oh, I haven't told you about President Mabuto's funeral, have I? Well, I was there. Just because the poor guy dies in the same week as Diana and Mother Theresa, no one's even noticed he's gone. So it felt like the least I could do to be there. In fact, I sang 'Crocodile Rock'..."

My face is wearing its concerned and sympathetic expression. My brain is struggling to keep up with this information. "It's a joke, for God's sake," Sting chides me. "Please Alan, do me a favour. Don't ever take me too seriously. Please?"

© The Times



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