Sting's new album and first stage musical turned his thoughts to Wallsend. David Whetstone caught up with him in New York.
It seemed a long way to have come to meet a lad from Wallsend and I'm not just talking air miles. Peering down on Manhattan's road grid from a high-rise hotel room and listening to the sirens, Tyneside could have been light years away.
But it is a small insight into the fabulously successful career of Sting that people can be whizzed from all corners to assist with his projects.
I was here for my passing knowledge of the North East and because words like "hadaway" don't make me go "Eh?" I was here to ask questions about The Last Ship.
This is Sting's current major enterprise which is due to hit the shops as a new album on Monday and Broadway next year as a musical play.
Both have been the catalysts for a burst of creativity. They have taken Sting into the world of musical theatre... and also back to his Wallsend roots. So here we are, two Englishmen in New York to talk among the skyscrapers about a small town whose last ship sailed long ago - and whose own iconic soaring structures, the shipyard cranes, are now gainfully employed in India.
I had attended an early try-out performance of The Last Ship at Newcastle's Live Theatre early last year.
A cracking band and a great cast, British and American, had been assembled by the Broadway director. A grizzled Jimmy Nail, as a shipyard foreman, put in a particularly fine shift.
Real-life former shipyard workers in the audience clapped their approval. The day before our meeting in the cavernous office of a Manhattan media company I attended another private performance of the still evolving show. The music was good. The Geordie accents... hmm!
A smiling Sting, hair close cropped, bag over shoulder, slipped into the room. I asked if he'd enjoyed the previous day's run-through.
"Not really," he said, his face clouding briefly.
Sitting in the audience wasn't easy, murmured a man used to being centre stage and in control
On Tyneside he had told me he got the idea for the musical from a newspaper story about some Polish shipyard workers who, learning that their yard was to close, made their own ship and headed for the high seas.
Here, a year on, he said the roots of the idea went deeper than that, way back to 1990 when he was writing The Soul Cages.
That album, he said, "had a kind of landscape which was of my home town of Wallsend. And writing it coincided with the death of my father.
"As a metaphor I used the death of the shipyards, which I was born and raised next to. You know, my early memories are of the shipyard and all the men going to work every day."
From his home on Gerald Street, he would set out to deliver their milk, helping his father on his morning rounds, and then sell the same men newspapers on their way home. He felt a strong connection with the yards. His grandfather had been a shipwright and his father had wanted him to go to sea.
"The Soul Cages," he explained, "is a strange record, probably my least understood or accepted record, but it has a rolling constituency of the recently bereaved.
"I get a lot of letters from people who say this record gives them some solace."
It was, he suggested, "a mood piece" with no linking story.
"But then I began to think: I wonder if there's a story that we could tell, that would use The Soul Cages as their starting point and have a narrative, with characters.
"And this thing coincided with a very dry period for me as a songwriter.
"You know, I hadn't written songs in about eight years, either because I'd lost the juice or I wasn't inspired or I was afraid... I don't know.
"I make my living as a songwriter so it's kind of worrying when that well runs dry.
"And as soon as I began to think of writing for other people, for other voices, for other characters, from other viewpoints apart from my own, this stuff started to flow - because I wasn't in the way any more."
He had drawn up a list of characters who might fit into a story.
They were shipyard people - foremen, platers, welders - but he was also conscious a love angle was a necessary part of the mix.
He swore that in naming his leading male character Gideon he wasn't making a play on his own name, Gordon. It hadn't occurred to him at all, although he had been aware that facets of his own life and personality were reflected in the piece.
Anyway, this whole process had unplugged something within him.
"For the first time in a long time, I felt that I could use my skill as a songwriter just freely and openly without putting me in front of it, because I was bored to death with me. And these songs came very quickly."
Sting is not quite a theatre rookie.
He recalled: "My first professional job as a musician was in the university theatre (now Northern Stage) at Newcastle, in the pit playing the bass for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I loved. I thought it was great."
This had been followed by a play called Rock Nativity and then "another similar quasi-religious thing called Hellfire". Overlooking his short time as a teacher, when he would take his pupils to see the shows he was in, he said: "I began my professional life in the theatre, never imagining that I would ever attempt to write something or ever end up on a stage in one of them. I was happy in the pit. I was very proud of my 60 quid a week."
Sting earns a bit more than that now and maybe his standards have risen. On the other hand, so have expectations.
It's a fair bet there will be people waiting to pan Sting's musical. For his wealth and the causes he espouses - never mind the music whose appeal is quantifiable in millions of records sold - Sting has always had detractors as well as fans.
But nobody could accuse him of being less than fully immersed in this project. It struck me that launching a ship and launching a musical are comparable, apart from the fact that a dud musical is likely to sink sooner.
Undaunted, Sting said he had been enjoying the process of creating characters and working out if they would fit into the plot.
"It's a fascinating three-dimensional puzzle," he enthused, "which, at some point, you have to abandon and say, ‘Well, this is it. This version of the puzzle is what we're going to present'." He had assembled a good production team and things were moving along nicely.
His research had taken him to the theatre a lot, he told me. Becoming involved had been an introduction to serious collaboration and compromise.
"My history has been as a lone songwriter," he said. "I never really had a collaborator that I could work with."
It had always worked like this: he would present his new song to whatever band he was and they could take it or leave it.
"They usually took it," he smiled.
And now? "For the first time I have to present the work - even though this whole project was my idea - to professionals who will say, ‘Well, that works for us and that doesn't'."
He had had to "learn humility". On the other hand, he had been comforted by the knowledge that he was in "the safe hands" of people at the top of their profession.
The Last Ship is due to open next year on Broadway and the music, a good deal of which is on the new album, will be brilliant.
We must hope the show merits a transfer to London and maybe, in the fullness of time, a regional tour to bring it to the North East on the crest of a wave.
Part 2 - The Young Dreamer...
In an office in Manhattan, just minutes from the Empire State Building in one direction and the construction site of Ground Zero in the other, Sting was talking about the place where he spent his formative years.
"I was born and raised in Wallsend," he said. "It's never been a pretty place. It's a tough place. Nonetheless, I am fiercely proud of it, of being from Wallsend.
"The ships they built were the biggest ships ever built in the world and yet there was always an ambiguity.
"It was a tough life those men led. A lot of them hated the yards, but they were fiercely proud of the ships they built with their hands."
Sting lived in Gerald Street, “one of those streets leading down to Swan Hunter”. He recalled going to the ship launches as a child.
“And that memory of the ship at the end of the street is emblazoned on my memory bank. I’d stand on the pavement and wave my Union Flag as the Queen Mother came down the street in her Rolls-Royce.
“She actually looked at me. I swear she did. She noticed me.”
He laughed. But this, clearly, was a significant moment for a small boy in the late 1950s or early ‘60s.
“It was a big deal. I mean we’re not just talking about celebrity here. We’re talking about royalty coming to your town, down your street. That was a major thing.
“In the past, in the olden days, kids would be held up to touch the Queen’s garment. It would cure scrofula or something like that. You’d just see a royal person, even if it was the duchess of whoever, and it was a big deal.
“I’d never seen a Rolls-Royce before and I think I got infected, a little bit, by that sense of: Gee, I want a different life to this one. I want that life, that glamorous… I want that. And I think the seed of the life I have now was probably there – seeing what that life was that visited us.
“Once a year they’d come and make a speech and throw a bottle at a ship. And I went, ‘Mmm.”
Sting’s ship in his forthcoming musical play The Last Ship, he suggested, was a “kind of symbol”.
“It’s from there but its job is elsewhere. The ship gets too big to come back.”
Sting, as if thinking aloud, spoke about his sadness at what had happened to Wallsend, a shipyard closing at one end of the town and a pit closing at the other.
He recalled the thriving high street and Braidford’s Music Shop, next to the Gaumont cinema. It was run by Mr Braidford who had a speech impediment.
“It was hard to understand but I got to understand his language. I was always in that shop, buying records or guitar strings. You could listen to 45s. I’d spend most of my Saturday in there.”
Seeing the thousands of men walking to work every day, Sting – then just young Gordon Sumner – would wonder what the hell he was going to do.
The shipyard was a “terrifying, noisy, dangerous place” but he wondered if that was what was in store for him.
Then he passed the old 11-plus which meant he could go to the grammar school. His father, however, put him down for the technical school where he would learn a trade. Sting remembered a big row.
“He went off to the pub and my mother said, ‘Come here, we’ll fix the form’. So we fixed the form. We put a piece of white paper where he’d put the technical school and we put grammar.”
Sting went to St. Cuthbert’s, a Roman Catholic grammar school for boys, and was taught French and Latin.
“I’m not sure what good it did me but that’s what I wanted. I wanted something vague and he (Sting's dad0 wanted something specific."
A self-confessed dreamer, Sting didn't know where he would end up. His dad, he said, thought he was "just singing and just wasting my life".
Then, in 1963, when he was 12, came The Beatles. "They were from Liverpool, which is a similar environment. They were grammar school kids and they wrote their songs and they conquered the world.
"So, that gave people of my generation, 10 years younger, the permission to try. And some of us succeeded. But where the confidence came from to actually pull that off, I do not know. No idea!"
Towards the end of my interview with Sting, he became a little emotional as we ventured onto subjects he deals with in detail in his autobiography, Broken Music, which was published 10 years ago.
Writing the book, which details his parents fractured relationship and his sense of being a a square peg in a round hole, had been "quite a painful process", yet therapeutic. He had ended up forgiving people, forgiving himself, or at least giving himself the benefit of the doubt.
"The engine that drove me was an important one and it was escape. I wanted to escape my family. I wanted to escape the environment that I didn't feel had any future for me. And that engine drove me for a very long time. I just drove myself to escape. Luckily I did."
But having escaped, he said, his natural eloquence momentarily eluding him, he felt grateful for where he had come from.
"You know, I was watching the play yesterday and I got quite taken with it, even though I wrote it and this is my idea and I know what's going to happen. I'm still, you know... it still wells up."
In The Last Ship, both the new album and the stage musical (opening on Broadway next year), Sting moulds these powerful memories and emotions into material we can all enjoy and which should stand the test of time. And Wallsend doesn't come out of it badly at all.
(c) The Journal by David Whetstone