The following article by Eric Snider appeared in a February 1988 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper...
Sting - A solo star with a 'normal' life.
The camera is in place, the lighting is set, and Entertainment Tonight's John Tesh sits on a couch with questions at the ready. Sting bounds into the makeshift interview set backstage at the Tampa Sun Dome, offers a cordial hello and grabs a seat at the other end of the sofa.
The mercurial pop star, and former chief of Police, is in a hurry. His seven-piece band awaits him on stage for a final Florida rehearsal before embarking on the long American tour that will reach Philadelphia tonight in a sold-out Spectrum show. His shaggy-dog hair looks as though it could use a good washing. The tour publicist hands Sting a black pocket comb - he frowns and hands it back. The interview segment will beam nationwide into people's living rooms the next night, and here's Sting, one of the world's most visible pop artists, not afraid to look a little grungy.
Whether his chiseled good looks are groomed or not, the musician/composer/actor is now a bona fide megastar, a performer whose celebrity has taken on a life of its own. It transcends his accomplishments in pop music and film. Sting is a household name and a household face, a pop-idol poster boy who can appeal to 14-year-old girls and buttoned-down investment bankers alike.
Though he co-stars with Kathleen Turner in Julia and Julia (opening Friday) and in 'Stormy Monday' (coming later in the spring), this ex-Cop most often refers to himself as a "musician" these days. He appears to have his superstardom in perspective. "I cultivate (celebrity) to a certain extent because it gives me the freedom and the power to do exactly what I please," he says during an interview in his dressing room the next night, just before a long, pre-show massage. "But it doesn't affect the way I live or the way I feel about myself. It's not like, 'I'm a star, and therefore I must have a limousine and five bodyguards and people must not speak to me unless I speak to them.' You know? I've met people like this - they live this life of fantasy as if they're different.
"But they're not," he says, shaking his head and chuckling. "I live a normal life, I really do. I'm not kidding you, I live a normal life." His voice rises, as if he knows he's really got to sell this point. "I go out on the street, I go to the shops, I go to the pub, to the betting shop, and this is me. I don't have bodyguards or a limousine." He pauses and adds with a smile, "Although I can have. I can have."
The problem with being a normal guy is that sometimes you catch a cold, and Sting has a bad one this day. During the rehearsal, Sting stands center-stage at the Sun Dome with thick billows of smoke around his head. It is not some showy effect: It's steam from a vaporiser. A stuffy nose and a headache don't stop him from pushing the 11th-hour, pre-tour rehearsal into its fourth hour, however.
The band sounds strong, but Sting is striving - ailing or not - to sharpen and tighten. Although Sting and company recently brought their jazzy pop sound to Latin America for a series of concerts, there is still plenty to be done.
For starters, saxophonist Branford Marsalis - who developed into a key attraction during Sting's 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' shows two years ago - has just joined for this leg of the current tour, in support of Sting's latest album, '...Nothing Like the Sun'. A French drummer, Jean Paul Ceccarelli, recently has come aboard and doesn't speak English.
While Sting meets the media, the musicians wait patiently, jamming a little - except for Marsalis, who tosses a football around with crew members. But when Sting hits the stage, dressed in black silk baggies and a matching short jacket, it's get-down-to-business time.
The superstar seems a pretty good boss. He doesn't hand out many compliments - once he slaps five with percussionist Mino Cinelu - but is amiable and receptive to input from group members. At one point he directs the band between spoonfuls of chicken soup. Sting cuts up a little, smiles a lot, but doesn't stray much from the task at hand, and there is never a question of who is in control.
Sting is a self-described "control freak." That's the primary reason he split with the Police, one of the few superstar acts that emerged from the British New Wave. In 1984, after a tour of sold-out stadiums, he bid farewell to drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, with whom he had sold 40 million records. Sting was tired of the near-constant internal struggle.
"My statements musically and lyrically with the Police after the first album (1978's 'Outlandos D'Amour') became more and more singular. They were my statements," Sting says, staring intently with piercing blue-green eyes. ''And in the end I didn't want to compromise those statements by the other people not agreeing with me or... arguing with me. I didn't want to go through that. I wanted to say, 'Well, this is what I want.' "
When Sting launched his solo flight he could have created a safe, commercially foolproof extension of the Police sound. Instead, he rounded up four black youngbloods from the jazz world (including Marsalis) and cut 1985's 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', an ambitious but somewhat stilted attempt to give his post-Police pop a jazzy feel.
'Blue Turtles' was a hit, but drew its share of controversy: Sting was blasted by some jazz pundits who charged that he was hijacking a vital component of black culture for his own ends; others glowingly viewed it as a magnanimous gesture of racial equanimity. Actually, the album didn't justify all the commotion: It was a solid pop record with a twist that, if anything, failed to best use the talents of his jazz cohorts.
Sting says, "People like to have a label. 'Oh, he's making a jazz record.' Any musician will tell you that it wasn't jazz. I got jazz players just because," he pauses and grins whimsically, "...because they were there. They could play wonderfully and I also love jazz."
The Blue Turtles project bordered on becoming a monstrosity: After a world tour, it yielded the movie 'Bring on the Night' (which drew critical scorn for its narcissistic tone) and a double live album of the same name.
After the Police's mini-reunion as part of an Amnesty International tour in 1986, the odds-on bet among rock-watchers was that the the Cops would become partners again. Nothing doing. Instead, Sting released '...Nothing Like the Sun', a double LP/single compact-disc and cassette that streamlines the approach of its predecessor while introducing a dollop of Brazilian flavour and bringing back a trace of the reggae lilt that the Police used in the late '70s.
Consisting mostly of midtempo material, the album (holding steady at No. 13 on the Billboard pop-album chart) is cool, sophisticated, fully textured and, most important, more relaxed than Blue Turtles was. It's far from the siren cry of 'Roxanne', the first Police hit, or the lean, pummelling edge of such songs as 'Message in a Bottle', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'.
Some have criticised the album for its lack of energy and over-reliance on mood and atmosphere. But it would be difficult to make the same argument about Sting's current show. Devoid of spectacle, the two-hour-plus set, broken by an intermission, is propelled by strong ensemble playing, spirited improvisation and Sting's expressive voice and natural stage presence. He strikes a few rock poses, dances and jumps around a bit, but that's about as stagy as it gets.
The show includes most of the songs from the new album, several from 'Blue Turtles' (most notably a rambunctious 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free') and such reworked Police classics as 'One World Is Enough', 'Too Much Information', 'Spirits in the Material World', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' and 'When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around'. (Although Sting had said he was going to give Roxanne a rest for this tour, he played a moving version in Tampa, backed only by his own guitar and Marsalis' sax.) Most interestingly, the pop icon at times takes a back seat to his crack ensemble, whether he likes it or not.
Marsalis says the esprit de corps on the tour is strong, adding, "This is not the kind of gig where my harmonic knowledge is going to advance tenfold, but I enjoy the music tremendously, and if it wasn't for that and Sting as a person, I wouldn't be here."
Sting was born Gordon Sumner 35 years go in Newcastle, a drab city in northern England. He started guitar at age 10, loved jazz in his teens and was enthralled with Jimi Hendrix. The young Sumner was a good, if rather rebellious, student who "won prizes for writing essays and things." He later taught English at a Catholic school and earned the nickname Sting for the beelike black-and-yellow soccer jersey he wore while playing a night-time jazz gig.
In 1977, Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA man, came to Newcastle scouting talent for his new band. Sting jumped at the chance and moved to London as the new bassist/singer for the Police. Managed by Stewart's brother Miles, the band's early tours of America were austere affairs - a station wagon, rented equipment and cheap motel rooms. Within five years, the band went from playing little dives to Shea Stadium in New York. In that time, the creative balance of power had shifted significantly toward Sting, who increasingly infused the music with political messages and literary themes. The 1983 album 'Synchronicity', with the haunting hit 'Every Breath You Take', was one of the year's hottest-selling and most acclaimed albums. And it was the Police's last original work.
The trio's split was announced as a hiatus - there were no public recriminations or never-agains. As a result, fans are still hoping the Police will return to the same precinct. But lately, Sting's stance has been clear. He rises from the couch to walk toward the massage table. One last question The Police? Categorically ...Sting, his back turned, finishes the sentence, "...over."
With the Police file apparently closed, Sting is challenging himself and his listeners. The tour is slated to last most of the year, putting Sting's primary focus on music. It's just as well - his forays into acting, which include film roles in Dune, Plenty, The Bride and others, have largely been a disappointment.
He is a pop artist intent on reconciling his instincts as an innovator with life as a rich and famous star who makes crafted, mainstream music. "It's a balancing act, you know," he says. "It would upset me if I made a record and no one bought it and no one listened to it. The way I've been presented to the world is as someone who makes hit records.
"So I have a choice: I can either just make those formula hit records and become someone who just keeps putting them out with no real thought; or I can satisfy a certain number of criteria for a pop record but also add something else - a little medicine if you like - a political belief or a song about an issue. At the same time, my first function is to entertain. And if I'm not entertaining I can't inform. So I have to do that first. But there's nothing stopping me from putting some information in the songs."
He smiles broadly, and then laughs. "No one can stop me."
© The Philadelphia Inquirer