The following interview with Chris Wilman appeared in an August 1996 issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine...
As his album Mercury Falling does just that, the ex-Policeman is facing domestic triumph and professional tribulation. King of Painlessness.
"Didn't we use Southampton as a base on the 'Synchronicity' tour, Stinger?" asks Kim Turner, long-time co-manager of the artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner. Their chauffeured car is on the way to a tiny Hamptons airport where awaits the Learjet that will carry Sting from Long Island to the evening's gig just outside Boston.
The voice from the front passenger seat pleads ignorance. "I don't remember anything from that tour," Sting insists, aborting Turner's trip down memory lane. For him, the last days of the Police are little more than a lucrative blackout. "The only thing I remember," he adds, not too regretfully, "is that when it ended I wasn't in the band anymore." And with that, he hits the scan button on the car radio again.
Ah, the days of wine and neuroses and little black spots on the sun - not to mention divorce proceedings, intra-band squabbling, maybe even a bit of substance abuse. Those were the early '80s, and there hasn't been much nastiness to have to block out since. For the last dozen years or so, Sting, 44, has seemed to enjoy an enviably demonless existence. His solo career has a flourished, with the respect of jazz-bos supplanting the new-wave spitters of old; he and his second wife Trudie Styler, an actress and filmmaker, have become famously inveterate baby makers, with the wealth to provide their four kids (Sting has two others from a previous marriage) with several good homes; rather than continuing to imagine himself a sunspot, he's chipped in to help save the environment. Any downside to all this positively has been the ridicule of those who would accuse him of appearing smug, or to the manor born. But don't hate him because he's beatific.
"I used to believe very strongly that in order to write anything worthwhile, you needed to be in some sort of crisis," Sting says. "And I would manufacture crises in order to be able to write. I was that sick. And I wasn't alone; a lot of people still believe that. So I made a conscious decision in my life to say, 'Well, I've worked hard enough to deserve to be happy and still be creative and not in some kind of emotional turmoil.' And," he adds, "I think I've proved that that can be done." Meet the Sting of middle age: King of Painlessness, unbloodied, unbowed.
And speaking of no pain, considerable gain, Sting has embarked on this North American summer amphitheater tour of more than 50 cities without a single hotel check-in. He'll fly out of the Hamptons for all the Eastern gigs, returning nightly from stops as far away as Cleveland; a mid-west swing will have him based out of Chicago; for the West Coast leg, he'll jet nightly from his home in Malibu and back. This way, he can get up in the morning with "my babies" - just your regular commuter dad with two pilots on standby. "This kind of privilege comes with success," he allows. "I've been (touring) for 20 years, and I think if you can make it more civilised, you should."
If he's determined to throw off the boys' club mentality of rock'n'roll in his approach to the road, this more gentlemanly attitude has filtered into his music, too. Sting's latest and mellowest album, 'Mercury Falling' deals with some of the same themes that have consumed him in the past, minus most of the angst. The arc of the songs has to do with "acceptance" of things immutable, so if he now touches on, say, mortality (as he did for the entire bitter course of 1991's 'The Soul Cages', triggered by his father's death), it results in a more philosophically bemused, peacefully resigned tone than before.
Alas, this collection - out for five months now - has lived up too well to its title, declining to No.82 on the latest Billboard chart; without a significant hit single soon, 'Mercury' will go down as the first serious commercial disappointment of Sting's career. If it does come down to a marketplace failure, well, he's willing to accept, too.
The jet is still being readied. And so Sting is leaning against the chain-link fence separating the tarmac from the airport's outdoor waiting area, trying to hold a business conversation with his manager, while an uninvited photographer on Hamptons stakeout circles round astonished at his good fortune in happening upon this sun-splashed Adonis in frayed denim. The discussion topic amid this ambush snapping is 'I Was Brought To My Senses', which will be the next single in England. "What did you think of the edit?" Turner asks, pregnantly.
"I liked the first one," the singer says.
"The first edit?"
"No, the first one," Sting repeats, meaning he liked the damn song the way he originally recorded it, thank you very much. It seems that his European label has undertaken a remix that takes the ballad's tricky 6/8 rhythm and recasts it in a straighter time signature so as not to preclude even the dumbest toe from tapping. Naturally, Sting (who calls Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen's 4/4 remake of Lalo Schifrin's 'Mission: Impossible' theme "crap - my 4-year-old could do that") is reluctant at best about submitting to the "tyranny" of 4/4 in popular music. But right now others would rather not take any chances.
In America, Mercury's first two singles 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot' and 'You Still Touch Me', stiffed. "Rock radio in the States has gone down this alternative path, and those didn't fit the format," sighs Sting, passing up an obvious chance to wax ironic on how it was the Police, after all, who were instrumental in bringing those harsher tones to the mainstream. Now that he's gone soul balladeer, he may be a victim of the monster he helped to create. "If a record is a hit, it's nice, but it's an accident," he philosophises. "You know, largely in my career, my direction or taste has coincided with popular tastes, but you can't expect that to be a given for the rest of your career."
But there's another single waiting in the wings. The next choice in America is 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', the centrepiece cited almost universally as the high point of 'Mercury Falling', but an exceptionally risky choice for pop radio because of its genre-bending country overtones. If the tune is a pop hit, it'll be the first ever to describe the epiphanies experienced during a messy post-divorce child-custody battle, which may play out a little oddly juxtaposed with 'Macarena' or 'Just A Girl'.
Either way, Sting's determined to act his age, not his Doc Marten size. "We're not really encouraged to grow up. Not many people do. You can end up at 50 years old still in your tight leather trousers with your hair plugs and your corset and pretending your in a street gang. I would find that undignified... I have a stake in being grown up. I vote," he chuckles. I think I can make a difference in the world sometimes, and not just by posing in my leather jacket." A pause. "I have a leather jacket by the way."
Off the plane and onto the stage at the Great Woods amphitheater in suburban Boston, Sting is in his most crowd-pleasing form: encouraging clap-alongs, inviting fans on stage to take over a chorus or deliver a trembling marriage proposal, emphasising greatest hits after getting a block of the latest album out of the way early.
But, jazzed as the crowd is by the mellow gold of Sting's solo career, you can't help but notice that the late-inning number that really gets them galvanised is the edgy old Police staple that has the most old-fashioned unresolved rock tension in it, 'Synchronicity II' - which, after all, is a song about a domestic crisis so anxiety producing that it wakes up the Loch Ness monster
What does Sting have to be anxious about 13 years after that Jungian anthem? "I think mortality is really it," he says in the van on the way back to the airport. "At 44, you have to accept that you're probably - if you're lucky - halfway through your life. And once you've accepted the idea of getting old, the idea of death, then everything dovetails from that. You know, I like Timothy Leary's idea that death to him was the most exciting adventure he had yet to experience. And his last words were 'Why not?,' which I thought was very inspiring... It's a subject that interests me, and after sex, what could be more fascinating?"
His longtime pal and cohort, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, figures fans are reluctant to follow Sting down the path of maturity. "When I look at how much smaller his fan base has gotten and why people are not comfortable with this record, I think of Bruce Springsteen," says Marsalis. "When Bruce got married and had a child and then wrote music that a married man who's in love with a child would write, a lot of the criticism was that he had somehow fallen off, that he had lost his edge. But the 'edge' always deals with that sort of plastic angst, that manufactured intensity. The idea of that very popular, Alanis Morrisette-type pain - Sting really had his pulse on that shit at one point in his life, and it resonated in people. But it's a way of not dealing with real pain.
"Sting was one of those road dogs," Marsalis says. "We'd be on the road for a year and a half straight, and it was easier to do that than to confront the demons. But I think the deaths of his parents really put him in a place where he had to confront some shit about himself... When I went to record ('Mercury Falling') with him, he was so peaceful, man, that it really touched me. Now, even his songs that are light still deal with a certain amount of depth and a certain level of mortality."
Headed back to the Hamptons on a foggy night, Sting is a heady mixture of control freak and resignee - sometimes easily focusing in on the chess game he's sharing with guitarist Dominic Miller (and winning naturally), sometimes obsessively turning around to look into the cockpit, as if he might see something looming through the windows that the pilots wouldn't.
The jet descends through the fog, looking for runway lights; finding none, the pilots make a sudden ascent, and the plane is on to the next airport. The manager indulges in morbid speculation about what might happen in that kind of blind flying. "Just think if we came down and there was the ground and boom - that'd be it!" says Turner, clapping his hands together. "No more tours." He turns to the visiting journalist. "No more reports!"
"No more worries," Sting says softly, almost to himself, as if mulling over something as harmless as an upgrade in yoga regimens. And with that, still peering out the window into the soup, he shrugs.
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