The following article by John Mackie in an August 1991 issue of The Vancouver Sun newspaper...
Death, here is thy Sting album...
It's been a mighty long road down rock and roll for Gordon Sumner: from peroxide-blond bassist in the Police to budding actor in movies like 'Dune', 'Brimstone and Treacle', and 'Stormy Monday' to crusader for the Amazon rainforest and its people.
Now, the Thinking Person's Pop Star is back in his guise as Sting on a globe-girdling tour to support his third solo album, 'The Soul Cages'. (He appears Monday at the Pacific Coliseum.)
All his solo work is a far cry from 'De Do Da Da, De Do Da Da', but 'The Soul Cages' is his most serious, sombre outing to date. The three recurring themes are death, the sea and Sting's hometown, Newcastle - subject matter directly related to the death of his father.
"It's not a common subject for pop music, death," concedes Sting, 39, on the phone from New York. "We kind of avoid it in life generally, we kind of avoid thinking about it. But my way of dealing with most emotional issues is to put them into songs... that's where I meditate most deeply, is when I write music and write songs. I didn't really have any alternative but to write about what was on my mind, what I was preoccupied with, this was my way of dealing with it.
"I don't think it's a depressing record. I just think for me it was the only record I could make, it was the only thing on my mind at the time. But then again, the emotions that I have gone through aren't unique to me, it's what everyone has to face up to. So maybe the album has some kind of universe usefulness. It was useful for me, as therapy."
Sting was told of his father's death in November 1987, shortly before he was about to take the stage before 200,000 fans in Rio de Janiero. He chose to go on, rather than cancel the show. "It was kind of a celebration in a way," he says. "There's this sort of tradition of throwing a wake when somebody dies... this was a wake and a half, to go out in front of that many people and have one thing on your mind, have to put a show on."
It was only later that he felt the full impact of his father's death (his mother had also died a few months previously). He developed a severe case of writer's block, which only eased when he tried writing with his left hand.
"When you want to write something, to spark creativity you'll do almost anything," he laughs. "Stand on your head. Writing with your left hand, you use a different part of your brain. That can activate a different sensibility. It's good to... mix up the way you work, to go against regular patterns and say 'OK, let's try this now.'"
He free-associated, writing down anything that sprang to mind, and found himself going back to his youth and his first memories growing up near a shipyard in Newcastle in northeast England. Once the themes became apparent, the songs came - 40 in all.
He whittled them down to nine for the album, putting the kibosh on anything with an Afro-Caribbean or Latin feel and concentrating on music that reflected his English roots. (Among the musicians is Kathryn Tickell, the Northumbrian piper who's become a favorite at the folk festival here.)
The subject matter is gloomy, but hidden here and there are snatches of black humor. 'All This Time', for example, features a pair of bungling priests trying to serve last rites on a dying man who'll have none of it, and a son who wants to spirit his father's body away to bury him with King Neptune.
"Most of my work has black humor, it's just pretty difficult to find sometimes," laughs Sting. "It's a pretty macabre story, someone who wants to take the body of his father and bury him at sea. But I think my father would have appreciated the irony."
He may come off a bit serious on record and in interviews, but in conversation Sting displays a light, self-deprecating wit. He's serious about music, but is able to laugh at what others might perceive as his pretentiousness. (Asked about his current musical favorites, he replies: "I like modern orchestral music... by people with unpronounceable Eastern European names which I can't spell.")
As for his ever-changing sound, he feels it's a natural evolution. "If you're learning about music as a process, you tend to become interested in more and more sophisticated types of music, you tend to listen to more and more sophisticated types of music, music that perhaps is a refined taste.
"So I suppose eventually you wind up making music that is of a refined taste, and you lose your popular appeal. I think that's a natural process. It's not one that frightens me. I think it's perfectly normal. You can't expect to coincide with the popular taste forever, and you shouldn't really change what you do and what you think because of that."
He's still involved in the campaign to save the Amazon rainforest.
"The world tour was really a way of bringing the problem to people's attention, and I think we did that pretty successfully. We weren't the only people doing this, but... the Brazilian government was embarrassed enough to start doing things itself to stop the destruction.
"The burning has, to a large extent, stopped and that's because they stopped giving tax breaks to people who were doing it. That is really a function of the world attention being directed toward the problem. I think, largely, things worked, but there's no miracle, the problem continues."
Sting experienced the Amazon first hand, camping out in a Kayapo village for a couple of weeks. Then he took the Kayapo tribal chief, Raoni, to New York and Paris to publicize their cause. What was Raoni's reaction to cities?
"You have to understand he's a warrior, and he's not afraid or daunted by very much. He... was kind of interested, but he wasn't that impressed. He couldn't really figure out why anybody would want to live in a city when they could live in the jungle. Having spent some time with him in the jungle, I probably sympathize with him."
And is it true that Raoni nicknamed him Potima, "the liver of a live armadillo"?
"Yeah. I have no idea what that means, but that's what he calls me. He seems to get a big kick out of it, so that's my name, okay?"
© The Vancouver Sun