- 07 Apr 20
42 years ago today, The Police release 'Roxanne' – the first single from their album Outlandos d'Amour. The song peaked at No.12 on the UK Singles Chart in 1979, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. To celebrate, we're revisiting a classic interview with Sting, originally published in Hot Press in 2004.
It’s kind of a nice change to be talking about a book,” Sting remarks as we wrap up our interview. “Talking about a record is like trying to explain comedy to someone.”
Broken Music – a memoir covering the period from Gordon Sumner’s childhood to The Police’s first flush of success – goes some way towards defusing the impression many people might have of Sting as something of a cool customer. If anything, this writer came away from our encounter surprised at the guy’s self-deprecating manner and general likability.
Yet for all the former schoolteacher’s obvious erudition (has anybody else name-dropped Nabokov in a number one single?) Sting admits that he never really considered writing prose until recently.
“I kept a journal for many years and I’ve written the odd letter – some of which I never sent,” he says. “When I was at school I used to write a lot of poems and essays and stuff, but no, I never really had an idea to write a book.”
So what was the spur?
“Probably a bad reason, in that there’d been a few biographies written about me by people who’d never met me, and I’d start reading them and I’d think it was just gleaned from the tabloids, and it really wasn’t reflecting my life. I thought, ‘My life’s actually much more interesting than that and I could probably do a better job myself’ – he said smugly! I knew there was a couple in the pipeline, and my manager said to me, ‘Y’know, the only way you will stop this happening to you is to do it yourself.’ I kind of winced at the idea, but then I just started writing.
“And I’d written about 10,000 words about the first experience in the book, sent it to some publishers and they all got excited that I knew where a gerund would go in a sentence (laughs), and I chose the publishers who agreed to the conditions that I didn’t want my photographs in the book, and I didn’t want to write about fame. I wanted to write about a real person in a real town, a real family.
“And I think the only negative review I’ve had so far was Celebrity Weekly or something (saying) there wasn’t enough celebrities in it, which is a bit like Gardener’s Weekly saying there’s not enough shrubbery in it! That made me laugh. But generally people have responded well and been surprised.”
Besides, even if you’ve never bought a Sting record, you have to admit he’s had an interesting life. Few of us can count among our extracurricular activities appearances in films by David Lynch and Terry Gilliam.
“Both extremely eccentric men, very, very interesting men spiritually and politically,” he observes. “Terry’s my neighbour so I see quite a bit of him. Lynch I hadn’t seen for a while but I picked it up again with him last year, we spent some time together at Cannes and I saw him last month actually for a seminar about film-making. He’s a very interesting man, David.”
Another point of note: Johnny Cash recorded ‘I Hung My Head’ on American IV: The Man Comes Around. How was that?
“Wonderful! You know, I’m an English guy; country songs in my hands are always going to have some sort of reverential irony. But Toby Keith recorded ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’, my divorce song, and it got to like, number one in the country charts. I was very happy and surprised, and they invited me to the CMA in Nashville. I was half expecting to be lynched, but was greeted with great bonhomie.
“I sat next to Brenda Lee who asked me about Trudie and the kids, a legend sitting next to me. And then when Johnny Cash recorded ‘I Hung My Head’, I mean, he did change the time signature to common time, but I was deeply honoured and still am. In many ways a lot of people listened to that song and kind of reassessed me, coming up and saying, ‘I’ve actually started to listen to your lyrics now’. Maybe Johnny Cash had given me a seal of approval.”
Then there are the duets with Mary J Blige and the seemingly endless samples of his songs by R&B and hip-hop artists.
“I do get a lot of respect from the R&B community. I think it’s a case of being a philosopher in your own country. You go to America and if you’re British or Irish, you’re from across the pond; you have a certain glamour, a certain mystery. When you’re here, you’re from Newcastle: ‘Your dad’s a fuckin’ milkman, how could you have anything useful to say to me?!’”
One question answered by Broken Music is how Sting could’ve walked away from the Police at the height of their career at the end of the 1983 Synchronicity tour. Relationships with drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers were always fractious at the best of times, but this was only compounded by the disorientation of the band’s massive American success, plus fallout from the collapse of Sting’s first marriage to actress Frances Tomelty, documented in songs like ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ and the evergreen stalker ballad ‘Every Breath You Take’.
“I sent the book to Andy and Stewart,” Sting confesses. “I don’t know if they’ve read it yet, but I hope that they get some understanding of why I didn’t stay in the band, that they might understand or accept it, ’cos they still haven’t really figured it out: why would a man leave what was ostensibly the biggest band in the world at the time, a gravy train, to do something that was starting again? It doesn’t make any logical or rational sense. But it made perfect sense to my instinct, and in the long run I suppose I’ve been proved that my instinct is where I should always follow, if I’m brave enough. Same reason I left teaching, same reason my first marriage broke up. My instinct was maybe cold and abrasive but it was nonetheless what I had to do.”
Broken Music opens in 1987 in a Rio de Janeiro hotel, with Sting and his wife Trudie Styler about to partake in the ritual ingestion of the sacramental drug ayahuasca (immortalised by both Ginsberg and Burroughs under its other name yage), overseen by a mestre elder. The singer had decided to undergo the experience as an attempt to process the then recent deaths of his parents. In his account, Sting swallows the vegetal and hallucinates a succession of disjointed visions, used in the book as portals through which to access his own past – his Catholic upbringing in Newcastle and the troubled relationships with his father and mother – who had an affair with her husband’s workmate when Sting was a boy, eventually leaving the family.
In the ‘Auguries Of Innocence’-influenced ‘Send Your Love’ from Sting’s most recent album Sacred Love, he sings, “There’s no religion but sex and music/There’s no religion but sound and dancing”. The music may be clinical AOR, but the subject matter isn’t that far from Jah Wobble’s bass-heavy Blake explorations.
“Well y’know, I’m fascinated by religion, I really am,” he says. “And I don’t regret my Catholicism, it definitely gave me a set of symbols to navigate that realm. If you have no religious background, when you’re faced with the ‘other’, you don’t have anything to measure it by, so there are certain aspects of Catholicism which I cherish. Love of mystery. I hadn’t a clue what the Latin Mass was about, but I had it down – I could say the whole thing right now.
“The control aspect of it and some of the bullshit that comes out of the Vatican about contraception and gay relationships makes me wince, but…the art was good, some of the music was sublime, the theatre of the thing. But y’know, my church now is a little more specific to my needs, it’s really the people in my life that I love, the mystery of music, that’s my connection to the realm of the spirit.”
Yet if Gordon Sumner managed to stage a complete Catholic recovery, the ghost memories of his parents have continued to haunt him long after their demise – surprisingly, given that he’d made his peace with both his father and mother before they passed away. In one of the book’s more poignant passages, Sting describes taking his dying father’s hands in his own for the first time since he was a boy.
I look from his eyes to the cross on the wall and then down at his two hands cradled in mine. It is then that I receive something like the jolt of an electric shock, because apart from the colour, his hands and mine are identical.
‘We have the same hands, Dad, look.'
I am a child again, desperately trying to get his attention. He looks down at the four separate slabs of flesh and bone.
‘Aye son, but you used yours better than I used mine.’
There’s a lot in that passage, I suggest, not just about the father’s humility, but also something about the fallacy behind the notion of dignity in menial labour.
“Well, I don’t think it denied the dignity of his work at all.” Sting counters. “Y’know, I try in the book to give as much of a heroic aspect to my father’s work, he was out in all weather 365 days a year. I don’t think he was saying that, but there was an artist and an intellect in him that wasn’t utilised. A lot of his life he felt bitter about what happened and bitter because his son had all these opportunities, but to come around at the end and say, ‘You’ve done better than I have son,’ was a huge admission, and the timing was just devastating. We definitely parted on good terms because of that. He sorted it out with one phrase.”
Yet Sting chose not to attend the funerals of either parent, something he admits later wrought havoc in his personal life.
“I say in the book there were complex reasons,” he explains, “that I didn’t want the funerals to be media circuses and all that crap, photographers everywhere. But really I was running away from the ritual. So I worked through it. But I was punished for that; I went the long way about mourning as opposed to the direct route of pouring clay on the grave.
“Do I regret it? No. Y’know, I wrote two albums based on my parents’ deaths as a way to utilise the detour I took from the established ritual – having said goodbye to my parents in my own way, I just didn’t want to go through that ritual. I’d probably go to the funeral now.”
It is a pretty brutal ritual: the lowering of the casket into a hole in the ground and the finality of the dirt hitting the lid.
“It is over when it’s over, and I suppose I was trying to keep my parents’ ghosts in the air for as long as possible. And did. In fact my dad and my ma are still with me.”
Does he still talk to them?
“Yeah. I do. And they come back in my dreams. And I’m grateful for that. Y’know, they’re there all the time now.”
Given that Sting came from a working-class Northern English background to making more money per month than his father might have seen in a lifetime – did he experience the guilt of the newly moneyed?
“I don’t know about guilt,” he considers. “I certainly appreciated money perhaps more than somebody who’d been born into it, having spent a long period without it and without much prospect of having it, to suddenly being given a lot. I think I’d feel guilty if I hadn’t spent my money well, put it up my nose or something, or gambled it away. But the fact is I’ve brought up six kids, I’ve had some beautiful houses around the world which I’ve all used, I’ve invested the money back into the economy, I employ nearly a hundred people.”
That’s a lot of people.
“That is a lot of people.”
We’re not talking entourage here presumably.
“No, I’m talkin’, well, people like the entourage, like band, like crew, like gardeners and housekeepers blah-blah-blah. So I spend the money that comes my way, I don’t hoard it. I’ve told my kids I’m spending all my money before they get their hands on it – mainly to not kill the fire in their bellies. I mean, they’re very well shod my kids, but they’re not actually expecting a trust fund! (laughs) Go out and earn your own money!”
Because his father was quite distant, as were most of the men of his generation, did Sting attempt to deprogramme that from his own behaviour when he became a parent?
“I’m still trying to. I’m still remote. I’m still the missing father most of the time. Y’know, trying to achieve the balance of responsibilities as a dad and a husband and having this passion for work and travelling and touring – I get it wrong a lot of the time. And my kids are outspoken enough to tell me that. ‘Listen, you’d better come home! (laughs) We’re not speaking to you on the phone!’ Yeah, I’m still cursed with that legacy of male remoteness that my dad had, and I suspect his father had, and his father before him. So I think that stuff is passed down and it’s going to take a long time to get through it. But y’know, hopefully my sons will be less remote than I am. The girls are fine!”
Well, girls always know better how to manipulate their daddies. Fathers and sons tend to lock antlers.
“Well, I think because our generation, because of our fathers’ remoteness, maybe we sometimes try and overcompensate – every crayon drawing the kid does is a masterpiece! But genuine intimacy comes slowly. When each one of my kids come to a certain age I take them away somewhere that’s remote – that’s interesting! I took my middle son to a place in the summer, it’s a bit of Nepal, it’s actually Tibet without Chinese oppression, and it’s the most remote place you’ll ever go. We spent time there and lived in a monastery, trekking out in the desert. I’ve done that with all the kids as they get to 18, just to get to know a bit of me in that environment so we always have a touchstone, something in common. My dad never took me away. So I’m making some progress, but I’m not cured.”
Where does his workaholism stem from? Is he one of these people who slumps into depression when he’s not wired up from work?
“Yeah, I think so. I carry that legacy too, of depression.”
Has he been diagnosed?
“No. No, no. I diagnosed myself. I feel when I’m stuck and I’m not being creative, when I’m not working, I could quite easily fall into that, and I don’t really want to, so I keep trying to achieve this balance.”
Is that workaholism difficult for his wife to deal with?
“Well, like most women (and their husbands) she’s smarter than me,” he laughs. “No, she’s aware of who she married. She didn’t marry a bank teller or she didn’t marry a schoolteacher really, she married a travelling salesman who sings for money. So she’s come to terms with that, loves me for it, will tell me when I’ve got things out of whack. Y’know, that’s why we’ve been married for so long, she’s painfully honest with me. Again, being aware of it is my safeguard. Maybe the cure isn’t travelling, but I’m definitely working on that. I haven’t got any answers really!”