The following interview with John Milward appeared in the December 1991 issue of GQ magazine...
Everyone knows how Sting has used his image to save the rainforest and to sell himself. Now, John Milward tracks down rock's blond conscience down to New York's Madison Square Garden, to watch him turn forty in the most public way possible.
"C'mon, Jimbo, you old fart," screams Sting in the direction of the television. He is in the dressing area of New York's Madison Square Garden, watching Jimmy Connors begin the match that will get the tennis warhorse a place in the quarter-finals of the US Open. As Connors plays on, Sting ditches his loose-fitting silk shirt to get a vigorous upper-body massage.
On the televised match, happening just ten miles to the east, all anybody can talk about is the middle-aged miracle of Jimmy Connors' remarkable performance. At the Garden, Sting, who has just turned 40, slips into a tight, black T-shirt, straps on his 1962 Fender Jazz Bass guitar - which he has played since he was seventeen - and leads his quartet out on to the stage.
"So," Sting tells the sold-out house, "Jimmy Connors won the second set. Then he adds, petulantly: "Thirty-nine's not so old." Not if you're Sting, a pop star who started trying to avoid a mid-life crisis almost as soon as he became a rock star Sting's strategy has been to establish himself as a highly-successful, multi-platinum solo act, an actor on stage and screen, and a political activist concerned with the areas of human rights and the environment. To keep this number of roles going, Sting knows that he has got to put out.
"Roxanne you don't have to turn on your red light, sings Sting, as the quietly respectful New York crowd leaps to its feet. 'Roxanne', about a Parisian prostitute whose smitten suitor attempts to sweep her away from her life on the street, was the first hit Sting wrote for The Police, back in 1978. Pop stars also know how to turn on the red light. That is why Sting still spikes his set with several of the songs he made famous with The Police.
Sting is that rare rock star who can make a young girl swoon without making an adult cringe. He's the eternal, and ultimate, graduate student - gifted, wealthy beyond dreams, and handsome enough to burn a libidinous hole through any college. He's also very ambitious, and usually, gets what he wants.
"I don't know who it was that said that if you're a musician you can't be an actor, or if you're an actor, you can't be a musician or a writer," says Sting, "but I remember this story about Orson Welles facing down a roomful of his critics and saying, 'I'm a writer, I'm an actor, I'm a director I put on radio plays, I put plays in the theatre. How come there are so many of me and so few of you?"' Sting laughs. "Good for him."
So Sting bucks the conventional wisdom by singing in a Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera', acting in films with Meryl Streep and Melanie Griffith, and jamming with jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. He seemingly lives to work, and works to live. He's got homes in London, New York and Malibu, yet, clarifies Sting: "I'm not sure I have a home. I've got so I can feel at home almost anywhere, to the extent that I'm starting to look at myself as a traveller, and my home is when I'm travelling."
The traveller nonetheless gravitates to a family in Britain that includes two children from a failed marriage, and three more with his long-time companion, Trudie Styler ("The only serious pressure to get married comes from the children asking, when are you two going to get married?" explains Sting, who has also commented that he considers his greatest failure in life to be the break-up of his first marriage - to actress Frances Tomelty.)
In the downstairs bathroom of Sting's London home is a framed copy of a cartoon published in the New Yorker. Two fat cats are sitting at a bar "Oh, I'm pretty happy," one of the men confides to the other "I just wish my life were more like Sting's."
"What is my life?" says Sting, curled up on a couch in the bowels of the Garden. "I live on the road. Planes and buses and dressing rooms - it's not that interesting. But I think the psychological journey you make is quite interesting, particularly within the sort of pressure cooker environment that fame can create. Things are exaggerated constantly, both inside and outside of you. In a way you can see things clearer, and in another way, things can appear confusing. It's like a big magnifying glass, being famous."
These are not new thoughts for Sting. He says he's felt like a star ever since he won races as an adolescent (Sting quit running when he stopped coming in first). As far as everybody else is concerned, the once Gordon Sumner has been famous for a dozen years.
Today, however, he's a lot more than just the singer in a reggae-style rock band, he's an activist pop star besieged by requests to pitch in on a variety of causes. ("What they mean," he says, "is will you tie yourself to the front of our train?") When Sting was recently confronted by a bedraggled New York street kid, he didn't break into a rendition of 'Roxanne' but said, "Hey man, thanks a lot for helping to save the rainforest."
Sting's taken his share of slings and slaps since the Police bleached their hair to play punks in a chewing gum ad, and he is perfectly aware that in some quarters he's regarded as self obsessed and pretentious. Some people even call him Stink. When asked why his critics consider him to be "a cold, calculating, son of a bitch", he says: "Well, there's a certain ring of truth to it." Yet, one thing is clear: Sting makes the most of a rushy, artistic lifestyle, but accepts that being an icon is a full-time job, with lots of overtime.
Back at Madison Square Garden, between the sound check and the concert, Sting and Styler are waiting in line at the backstage caterer Sting's quick and vivacious significant other is going to grab a plane to London straight after dinner "I've seen 40 shows," she explains, eyes rolling upward.
The singer's American publicist, who's worked with Sting since the Police played their first American show at the club that punk built, CBGB's, shouts over: "The masseuse will be in your dressing room just as soon as you're done eating."
"Oh," Sting whines, "it's my ego that needs a massage." "I thought it was your bottom?" says Styler, as deadpan as anybody who would hang a cartoon like the New Yorker one in the bathroom.
"You only have a certain amount of control over what your image becomes," says Sting, who's left a paper trail of interviews around the globe. "You can try to manipulate it to a degree, but once your life moves into the public domain, that data can be forever shifted and the emphasis changed. So much of what's out there doesn't seem like me. Maybe it is me, maybe I'm kidding myself, but it seems very odd."
Sting says he wishes he'd never given a single interview, but recognises that working the media is a key component of his continuing popularity, especially as his work drifts further from the mainstream. He also knows that the constant exposure leaves him open to cynical potshots. It's what he calls his deal with the Devil".
For instance, Sting knew that his public embrace of Chief Raoni and other members of the Kayapo Indian tribe in Brazil was going to prompt snide comments about Sting putting a bone through his nose. He also knew that the tribe, concerned both for its native surrounding rainforest, had contacted him precisely because of his ability to draw a crowd. So Sting shook hands with the Devil.
Sting's calculated use of his celebrity status isn't unrelated to his self conscious view of his own creative process. "I like to intellectualise things," he explains, "and get a distance from them. Having processed those emotions, and having written the words that would suggest those emotions, I don't fancy having to go through them again. So, when I'm singing an emotional song, I presume the words and music will work, and that I don't have to cry to sell the song. I don't want to recreate the emotion," he continues. "It's painful, especially when you're talking about loss and grief. If you've really done your job well, and captured the mood in the work you've done, you can find yourself conjuring up things that you don't really want to conjure up. I'm not a method actor. I would rather just sing the songs."
During the 1988 world tour in support of Amnesty International, Sting and Peter Gabriel surprised Bruce Springsteen by joining him onstage dressed in Springsteen's standard outfit of black jeans and vest. The gambit got a good laugh, and also emphasised the wildly different approaches of the two cerebral British rock stars and their far more visceral and openly emotional American counterpart.
"Yes, I think he's less cold than I am, certainly," explains Sting of Springsteen, "but I think that is an element of his personality. He is just a warmer person than I am, but we both entertain people. And I'm not doing so badly for being so aloof."
Sting is autographing an illustrated book of his lyrics in a Manhattan bookstore and the queue of fans stretches around the block. A representative of the store works the crowd. "This is the page that Sting will sign," she says, holding open a book to the title page. "Don't ask him to sign your name. He won't. And please don't take any pictures. That is not allowed."
Inside, Sting sits at a table and scribbles his autograph with a practised, felt-tip sweep that suggests he appreciates being known by just one name. To his left, a dozen news photographers hoist their cameras into position and wait for the green light from Sting's publicist. When she gives the nod, bulbs pop in a photographic feeding frenzy. Part of Sting's job is to be a photo opportunity.
"The question is," says Sting to nobody in particular, "does Anthony Burgess do this?" Most authors do it gladly, secure in the knowledge that a book signed is a book sold. One difference, however, is that Burgess doesn't have a two-page spread in his volumes advertising T-shirts that bear his likeness. It is no coincidence that the book in question is the first to be published by IRS, the multimedia company run by Miles Copeland, who's been the singer's manager since he was a member of the Police.
"Is that Stewart Copeland?" asks a woman at the edge of the crowd, craning her neck to get a good look at the two men signing books. She's told that the other man is the book's illustrator, Roberto Gligorov, but her mistake is not at all surprising.
Stewart Copeland was the drummer in the Police; he now writes film scores and plays in a group called Animal Logic. He's also managed by his brother Miles.
Superstar bands don't just die, they turn into ongoing business relationships. Right from the beginning, the Police were known as very shrewd operators, trading a big advance from the A&M Records label for a higher royalty rate, and nurturing a grass roots following by touring throughout the US in the back of a cost-effective van. Sting still shakes his head, wondering where exactly they got their confident hustle.
"Sting was going to make it somehow," offers Miles Copeland, "because he has what I'd call a real positive, powerful drive. By hook or crook, he was going to surface."
"The story had already been written," says Sting of the group's approach to the business of pop, "and the pitfalls were very clear. When the Police came along, the pie was also much bigger, because people realised that you could sell T-shirts, and merchandise yourself. If The Beatles had known that, they would have been unbelievably rich."
The Police broke up at the height of its popularity, with the album 'Synchronicity' having sold twelve million copies and 'Every Breath You Take' on everybody's lips.
For Sting, who earned the largest slice of the financial pie due to his songwriting royalties, quitting when the band was at the top was the logical, adult move. "Bands are like gangs," he explains, "and it's impossible to grow up when you're part of a gang. I mean, look at the Rolling Stones, going into their fifties and still playing the same roles. I just couldn't do that - I like to change too much."
According to Hugh Padgham, who's produced albums by both Sting and the Police, Sting also likes to call the shots. "There's less fighting," says Padgham when asked to contrast the recording of an album by Sting with one by his former group. "With the Police there were three major egos to deal with. Now there's only one."
The death of a superstar group, however, always gives its members the option of a lucrative reunion. Ask Mick Jagger. Sting's three studio albums - 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', 'Nothing Like the Sun', and most recently, 'The Soul Cages' - have each sold around six million copies world-wide. 'Synchronicity' sold over eight million copies in the United States alone.
Still, Sting consistently discourages any talk of working with Stewart Copeland and lead guitarist Andy Summers, and says he doesn't even think there'd be much of a demand even if the band did get back together.
Miles Copeland, however, holds no such doubts, and says he fields a constant flow of offers. The only question in Copeland's mind is how many millions a reunion of the Police would be worth.
Sting, meanwhile, rails against the homogenised rigidity of pop music; and says that to fail to grow is to roll over and die. All the same, singing songs made famous by the Police has kept Sting playing to sold-out arenas, and whether he acknowledges it or not, allows him to walk an independent path with a whale of a safety net.
"I don't take Sting home with me," he says, but sometimes he invites people to his home to meet Sting. Today, the video music channel VH-1 is setting up cameras for an interview in the living room of the Central Park duplex that Sting bought from singer Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. The setting is as tastefully elegant as you would expect.
Sting, who continues to take periodic music lessons, is in a Bach phase. The score for 'Symphonia Number Nine' sits open on the grand piano. A cello stands sentry in one corner of the room. On an antique music stand positioned to overlook Central Park is the music for Bach's 'Six Suites for Violoncello'. A cherry red Gibson electric guitar sits on the couch looking like a rock'n'roll afterthought.
Sting is in the kitchen eating a breakfast of pancakes and fruit with his yoga instructor. The pair have already done two hours of yoga, a typical daily regimen for the singer. In just an hour's time Sting will fly to Boston for an evening concert. Before the show, he will meet with representatives from the Reebok sport shoe company to talk about candidates for its annual human rights award. Former President Jimmy Carter has already called Sting's office to see if he would be available to present the award in Paris.
"I am on the top of absolutely everybody's list," he groans, "and my presence has become a bit of a cliche. I think it might be somebody else's turn to take over. You also get sick of being characterised as a do-gooder. I've thought that maybe I'll start a campaign to destroy the rainforest."
But first, he must play Sting once more for the cameras. The role, like his typically malevolent movie appearances, is never much of a stretch. "Madonna is an extreme version of this process," Sting had said earlier "Madonna is all image, total image, that's her art. Take Madonna away from her music and there's nothing there. I'm not putting the music down" - much - "but saying that her interest lies in playing with her image. It's an extreme version of what's happened to music in the last ten years."
Sting's no virgin when it comes to exploiting his image; his latest coup was playing himself in an episode of The Simpsons. But Sting's richest cameo was on the Dire Straits standard 'Money for Nothing', a cynical number about the power of music videos that was embraced by MTV, in part because of Sting's insistent chant "I want my, I want my, I want my MTV". Both Sting and MTV like to have it both ways - to be successfully rebellious, to bite the hand gently.
Sting has long ago learned to mix the public with the private. To promote 'The Soul Cages', he was back in Newcastle with television cameras. The unseeded tennis player, Jimmy Connors, just so happened to turn 39 on the evening of a come-from-behind qualifying match at the US Open. Sting, for his fortieth birthday, will perform a pay-per-view concert from the Hollywood Bowl.
"I think Sting is philosophical about it," says Miles Copeland, "and doesn't expect to wake up the next morning and find a changed man. There are plenty of people who'd want to hide their fortieth birthday. Sting's going to celebrate it on TV."
He has, after all, always thought of himself as a star. Sting is a ball of existential confusion - he sings 'Set Them Free' from the best seat in the house, he's a father of five who frets about over-population, and a man who dismisses organised religion, yet underscores a "goodbye" with a "God bless" - but he's never made any apologies about his ego.
Backstage at Madison Square Garden, a crew member asks Copeland who he's looking for. "El Grande," he answers. Sting was watching tennis and thinking, maybe, that turning 40 wasn't such a big deal. After all, every other breath he takes is already on public record. So it makes perfect sense: Sting will take an extra deep inhalation, and blow out his candles in public.
© GQ magazine