The following article appeared in a November 1983 issue of Esquire magazine...
The Man Who Could Not Be Touched...
At the height of his fame, in 1983, Sting made both Synchronicity with his band the Police and Dune with David Lynch. As he escaped his native U.K. for anonymity in America, Esquire spent time with the star.
Sting sits, in his stocking feet and a loose bulky sweater, in the living room of a friend's apartment in New York. This is as much home as anywhere; he and his wife of seven years have recently separated.
“I enjoy putting myself in uncomfortable positions, being away from security and safety,” he tells me. “I prefer being an itinerant.”
He points to a filled suitcase on the floor beside him. “I never unpack,” he explains.
“I never unpack and I never want to get there. I always want the journey to last forever. I suppose, in my life, the journey does last forever. I must have been around the world about sixty times. I'm addicted to being a traveler. Jupiter in my nightclothes.”
The son of an English Catholic milkman, Gordon Sumner grew up in Newcastle, went to teacher-training college, and then took a job as a schoolteacher at a school where most of the other teachers were nuns. “Not terribly comfortable there,” he says. He stayed for two years, then left to become a jazz musician. He began to perform in a yellow-and-black-striped jersey. They called him Sting.
“He was incredibly nice to me,” says someone who knew him when he played the Newcastle gigs, “but many people disliked him because he was arrogant. He loved success even then. He had such a strong personality that he leaped forward, suddenly became really popular, suddenly a name, and therefore lost supporters among his musician friends. He abandoned them and went to London.”
After settling in he met the Copeland brothers, who were forming a new band named the Police. Stewart Copeland was the drummer, Ian Copeland was to become the booking agent, and Miles Copeland its manager. When Sting and guitarist Andy Summers joined, the group was complete.
“It was not just a new form of music, but a generational change,” says Miles Copeland, matter-of-factly. “The Police combined the best of the new music and the new ways of thinking about doing business with the musicianship of the previous era. It wasn’t planned, really. They synthesized by mistake some of the most important things that were going on in music. They combined reggae, which had been building up, with the energy of the punk era. And they ended up with a reggae/pop/punk, or whatever. It worked. And on top of that you had three intelligent, good-looking guys who had great attitudes, who worked hard to get to where they are.”
Sting has always been the most visible member of the Police. “His face is our face,” one of the other group members has been quoted as saying. From the beginning he has sung, fronted the band, and written most of its material. All of the hit songs were written by him: “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and, on the latest album, “Every Breath You Take.” In the seven years since its inception, the group has sold over twenty-five million records.
But the band members’ feuds are notorious and openly acknowledged. Even in the midst of their most successful year, as they left for Munich on a seven-month worldwide tour, there were fresh rumors in the music business that the band would break up when the tour was over. “Sting is much too hooked on singing to give it up,” asserted an A&M Records representative. And yet, while business people who work with the Police pragmatically declared that “the group is too big to break up before they have milked it for all it’s worth,” Sting’s increasingly publicized viability in Hollywood had made their alliance seem more uneasy than ever. It was clear that even if the group’s breakup was not imminent, it was only a matter of time before Sting abandoned this scene too.
On a night early this year, we are on our way to shoot the album cover for the new record, Synchronicity—a title taken from a work by C.G. Jung. Sting devised a scheme according to which each of the three band members will make up his own photo for the album cover with none knowing what the other two are planning. It’s all in accordance with Jung’s concept of the convergence of causally related events, says Sting, but one wonders whether he has thought this up to avoid posing for yet another cover shot with his two colleagues. At any rate, for his third of the cover, Sting has chosen as his environment the dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.
In the limo, Sting is accompanied by his roadie/aide-de-camp, Danny Quatrocchi, and A&M Records art director Jeff Ayeroff. Sting is being even quieter than usual while the others chatter. Perhaps because Sting is often conspicuously subdued, people seem to talk more among themselves than they would if he weren’t there. Bank shots.
When we arrive at the museum, photographer Duane Michaels and his assistant are already there. A stylist for the record company joins us. So now there are seven of us stalking the silent rooms. We amble down the empty stone hallways, with the umbrella the photographer’s assistant is carrying adding an especially absurd note to our procession. Now and then we pass a guard, who only nods at our approach. Sting walks at the edge of the group, silently. The guard, if he has noticed Sting, probably assumes that he’s only tagging along with the others. “He’s shy,” a friend had told me earlier. “People refuse to believe that, but it’s true.” And yet, his restraint elicits response in a way that more-flamboyant behavior wouldn’t.
Finally, we reach the hall of the Late Dinosaurs. Sting stares for a while at the creatures among which he will pose, seeming to make eye contact with a trachodont. Then he changes into the clothes he’s selected for the cover shot, but he puts his shirt on peculiarly, holding it close to his body in an odd way, almost as if to keep his chest covered. I look around and see that everyone else is also watching this famous sex symbol, with ostensibly casual interest. Then Sting buttons up his shirt, and he looks, well, relieved.
Now he climbs over the rail into position beyond the Flying Reptiles, under the colossal trachodont that shares its graveled island with the equally forbidding triceratops and tyrannosaur. Sting stands there in his black pants, white shirt, and black coat, holding a white paperback copy of Synchronicity; he makes a mild joke now and then. “Shall I read to you all?” He reaches up and pats the grotesque jaw. “Anybody got some sugar?”
When the photographer has finished setting up his equipment, he looks at Sting. “Ready?” Sting runs his fingers through his hair, says, “Ready,” and then it happens: the famous cheekbones are ejected from the face, the lips become narrow and almost cruel, the eyebrows lift slightly, just enough. In twenty seconds Gordon Sumner has become Sting. If he is self-conscious, none of us in that room will ever know.
While he poses, the others wander among the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, some of the last dinosaurs to live on earth. Then Sting spots the art director and the stylist in a confab in a corner.
“What are you whispering about?”
The art director clears his throat. “Holly was just suggesting you take off your shirt.”
“I will not,” the photographer interjects. They all laugh.
Sting makes a moue.
“Would it be okay?” the photographer asks him. Clearly, any photographer would think it a good idea to have Sting pose half-nude inside the rib cage of a stegosaur.
“Oh, all right then,” concedes Sting, and then, bare-chested, Sting becomes mobile again, the occasional joke the only sign of his discomfort; “This one’s got BO,” he says.
“How about some profile?” suggests the art director.
“Okay, we can try that,” says the photographer, “but what’s beautiful about his face is what he does with his eyes, and the thing with the bones.”
Later the photographer says, “Maybe you’re right about the profile.” Sting’s got a lot of angles.
Everyone else is tired, but Sting still doesn’t show his fatigue. Finally, traces of tedium begin to show. “A dinosaur song!” he declaims while the photographer is changing rolls. Then Sting starts to hum a Gregorian-like dirge that reverberates eerily in the big hall.
Finally he’s relaxed a bit too much. The photographer says, “No, do that fierce thing,” and again it happens.
By now everyone but Sting is sitting down. Sting has been standing inside a stegosaur for almost an hour.
As the photographer is winding up, it is clear that Sting is near the end of his considerable resources of stamina. The jokes are becoming feebler. “Mommy,” he says, “I want to get out.”
Sometimes in his photographs Sting is the devilish punk rocker; sometimes he’s the glacially handsome young man. Seemingly at will, he’s the abrasive, mod proletarian or the irresistibly endearing choirboy. In the course of our talks his very physiognomy seems to alter as his mood changes.
“I’m blessed with a very mobile face,” he says softly. We are back in the apartment, and Sting is doodling on a yellow pad of paper. “I look different every day. Some days I look really ugly and some days I look handsome. I’m not bragging, but sometimes I do look really handsome. The next day I look like a frog. But I think that’s a blessing in a way. People can’t really pin me down. In England they tried to pin on me the idea that I’m a sex symbol. And I’m not. I don’t want to be. My mobility has fended that off.
“Some of it’s okay,” he says about sex appeal. His glance stays fixed on his doodling. “I can do that,” he says, his pencil outlining yet another useless parallelogram. “I’m an actor and I can do a lot of things. I mean an actor in the sense that all the world’s a stage. It’s part of my job, after singing, to be a sexual projection. I don’t know why. I’m not particularly handsome.”
Sting has put a great deal of work into being flexible. “Immobility is corruption, the lack of courage to move on,” he tells me. It’s easy to see he feels it’s one of his best traits to loathe the security of predictability. That’s why, perhaps, he mentions with ease that he loves dangerous sports; that he competes, successfully, in marathons; that he’s had skiing accidents; and that one of his favorite touring memories is of a near-crash in a small plane over Venezuela: “When it was over, it was the best feeling I’d had in a long time.” And, of course, that he drives a motorcycle. “You can flirt with danger; you can laugh at it.” Danger may also be the most alluring remedy for chronic restlessness. Perhaps that’s how he has adjusted with such apparent ease to flying from one city to another every few weeks; staying in one hotel room after another or a friend’s guest room now and then, the suitcase never unpacked. His own wanderings in America are interrupted only now and then by the more structured peregrination of a Police tour.
“Day by day, I’ve been transformed,” Sting tells me.
I ask if he likes the new person better.
“I think the new person is more adaptable, and also that I’m now more appropriate to my life situation. I mean, the person of seven years ago could not have coped with what’s going on today. ”
In England Sting is a huge star. He’s in the news almost daily; the breakup of his marriage, the affairs, the tempestuous relationships among the Police members, the audacious career moves are all fodder for the British press. In a class-conscious society, the exploits of the conspicuously ungovernable son of a Catholic milkman are of perennial interest. And when he exiled himself from England, Sting also left behind the “enfant terrible” label that had characterized his public image for years. “I’m not as famous here,” he explains. “I can go out and do what I like.” For a man who says he hates to have a label pinned on him, it was a natural move.
And after all, it was in America, not England, that the Police made their reputation. “They were beginning to lose interest in England,” says booking agent Ian Copeland. “And, well, you can’t stay in England that long without overplaying the place. You have to get out, and I was offering them an out. I guaranteed them that if they toured America they would do what had never been done before, and they did. They changed the course of music history. None of these punk clubs would have started if the Police hadn’t opened up the field in this country. Now it’s ridiculously easy to book tours for them.”
Clearly America is the terrain on which Sting can get the space he needs to maneuver. There’s upward, lateral, every kind of mobility here, if you’ve got help, luck, and talent.
Sting seldom talks about talent. He describes himself as having a valve. “My best songs are about alienation. Sadness is an emotion that teaches, so it’s useful. I’ve used my sadness. I’ve exploited the emotions it’s brought up. It’s a gift to be able to do this. I think that most people don’t have the ability or the opportunity to exploit their emotional selves. They have them, and they don’t know what to do with them. They feel unhappy. And it is uncreative ... and therefore just goes inside you and builds up and builds up. Until you become psychotic. That is what psychosis is. A buildup of this pressure. Whereas I have a valve. I just turn it on.
“I’m very much a person who creates his own crises. I think crisis is essential to creativity; it’s what makes you do things you couldn’t do before. Being in a stable situation is probably conducive to producing nicely balanced work. But not the really good stuff. That comes from pain, not comfort. Pain is essential,” he says. “If you have not got pain, then you had better go and get some.”
The people around Sting describe him as perspicacious, attentive, generous, but very withdrawn. “He will come in and be very charming, and then the NO VACANCY sign goes up.” “Aloof” you hear constantly, “almost reclusive,” and, over and over again, “guarded.”
“He’s always on his guard, especially when he is being flamboyant,” says a close woman friend. “He’s very good at playing that role. When he walks into a party he will realize that he is the center of attention and he will act out his part. He’s aware that there’s a job behind being a star. Yet when you get him alone he suddenly becomes very intellectual, and very quiet. He listens to what you say and wants to know why you think that. But it’s very hard to give warmth to him and have him give it back.”
“He’s developed an aura, which scares people,” says Police manager Miles Copeland abruptly. Asked whether he is susceptible to Sting’s charm, his response is pragmatic: “I would say charm is irrelevant,” he says. “It’s something that is valuable. The fact that he is charming, as the others in the group are as well, is something I’ve used to our advantage. When I’ve sent them in to do a radio interview, I knew that when they walked out the people at that scene were going to like them. They’re liked. That means that people will work harder to promote and sell our records. It’s an obvious ingredient in Sting’s success: people like him.”
If star quality is the ability to make people bond, Sting has large reserves of that power, whether from instinct or craft. They’re there even as he constantly changes his mind—or seems to—as to his ratio of luck and aptitude. Sting makes an art of ambivalence.
“When you talk about luck,” I say to him, “it’s as though you’re talking about your career as something you didn’t earn or deserve.”
“The fact that I can sing is an accident of genetics,” Sting replies.
“And do you pay a preposterous price for that?”
“It is preposterous in that, because I can do that, then people ask me questions, serious questions, about life. Who am I? I’m just a guy with a good voice. Yet, why not? Why shouldn’t you take me seriously? I do feel guilty about it. I suppose I have to get over that. ”
There is much that Sting apparently feels guilty about. He talks with ease about sadness in the abstract, but it’s clear that he doesn’t want to talk much about his marriage, or about the children he sees only sporadically. Yet he shows me photographs. A tiny little girl and a pretty six-year-old boy.
“Is he like you?” I ask.
“He’s clever,” is all Sting says. But then he looks at the photograph for quite a while.
“I always wanted to escape,” he says about his own childhood. And there’s a story that he tells: In the grim industrial town of Newcastle, where he grew up, he lived on a street of terraced houses. And at the end of his street, he could see the great bows of a ship being built. Each year a ship was built, and each year when it was completed, it would sail away. Then they’d start to build a new ship.
“Cyclic creation and decay,” he says. “It’s a primary image with me. I am a traveler more than anything. ”
There’s a silence for a moment, except for the sound of his pencil as it glides on the yellow pad.
“I think,” he says, “I probably had a terrible fear of being left. What I tend to do psychologically is leave first. It’s quite a stupid thing.”
“This year,” says Sting, “is a watershed year for me.” He is referring to the breakup of his marriage and his departure from his home in England, and also to his current commitment to expand his career beyond—or someday to leave—rock ’n’ roll. Early on he began to flirt with a few small film roles. Most recently, he had a starring part in Brimstone & Treacle, a prestigious British film that has yet to prove itself at the box office, although it brought Sting superlative reviews and a front-page piece in Variety and positioned him for a good shot at getting his way with Hollywood. “I no longer have to do the talking,” says his Los Angeles manager, Keith Addis. “All I have to do is show them the tape.”
Now Sting is filming Dune, an eagerly awaited high-budget power production due to open in December 1984, in which he plays a seductive arch-villain. “I don’t want to make acting my career,” he says, “but I’d like to learn how to do it. At the moment, I’m kind of on a plateau, so I’m looking for other things to do apart from rock ’n’ roll. If there is discovery, it’s in challenge. Discovery is happiness.”
He has composed film scores. He has ambitions to produce and, eventually, to direct movies. He’s also written a screenplay, Gormenghast, an adaptation of a three-volume English novel that contains a role for him: again a vicious but attractive upstart, his favorite. In Hollywood, where he’s trying to sell this property, he’s confronting the rock-star stigma directly. Hollywood is ambivalent about rock performers. It wants the drawing power and the vestigial glamour, yet can’t help but be equivocal about these outsiders, these stars who have made their name with a “dubious” audience.
And yet a first-class rock ’n’ roll star has many of the qualities of a fine actor: he has to be able to perform and project, to hold an audience with his gaze and with his physical equipment, the power of his personality. He has to be brave.
“Even when I first began on the set of Brimstone, I always felt natural,” says Sting. “But I knew I was a novice. I’m not a good actor. I’m just a learner-actor. So I forgot about being successful in another field, even though that success was one of the reasons I was given the role. ”
Sting is well equipped to transfer his performance ability to film. He’s talented, industrious, almost unequivocally ambitious, and a natural exhibitionist. “The problem,” he says, “is getting the same adrenaline rush that you get from fifteen thousand people, getting the same amount from one director. He is the audience at first. You have to work for him. It’s difficult. When you go onstage you feel low, and suddenly you’re plugged into a socket and you explode. Doing that for one person, a camera, and some technicians is quite difficult—exploding in front of them. I suppose the analogy is masturbation. How do you masturbate in front of people? It’s hard, difficult, embarrassing. It’s a dangerous situation to put myself in. I can really fall flat on my face. I enjoy risk taking. I enjoy just going back to square one. It’s a relief. Because I feel if I can do this, if I can succeed in this, then it means I do have talent. I can do anything. If I apply myself.”
“He’s not crippled by self-doubt,” a Hollywood insider muses. “He doesn’t make you like him. He doesn’t court you. He is not solicitous. He’s more interesting than that. It’s not arrogance, it’s the self-confidence of someone who has created himself. It’s not the usual bravado of rock ’n’ roll people. It’s the smugness of the truly, truly hip.
“Sting could be a very successful actor,” the man continues. “He’s talented, not self-destructive, and very methodical. He has picked the right people to work with. The only thing that may limit him is his own taste, if he always wants to play the dark prince. He’s terrific at it, but, really, how many times can you play the dark prince?”
When Sting is in town for the weekend again, I go over to see him. He’s perched on a high stool, bent over a Prophet Synthesizer, working on a film score. I step over the ubiquitous unpacked suitcase to a seat. When he joins me, he seems more relaxed than usual, as if working had exorcised some of his tension.
“People around you say that you don’t confide in them,” I tell him.
“I have,” he says, “about three really close friends, whom I do confide in and do trust. Apart from that, no, why should I? I think I am lucky to have three. Some people have nobody to confide in. In a sense, I confide publicly, in my work. I get onstage and sing about being lonely. That is as public as you can get. For me it is a great psychological gift, to be able to get onstage and tell fifty thousand people that I feel lonely.”
It’s probably onstage that Sting uses his insecurities most effectively. In fact, much of the appeal of the Police is the combination of the band’s pitilessly stripped-down instrumental sound and Sting’s voice— sometimes a bittersweet plaint, sometimes a sharp, untidy wail. This is modem sex appeal—not vigor, but tension. If anybody wants to observe Sting’s lonely restlessness, it’s there in the stage mannerisms he exhibits in his trancelike state. He often jumps up and down, rubs his head, shakes his hair, and alternately glares and smiles at the audience. He even sucks his thumb. What he uses to his best advantage is his fear: “It’s like skiing down a really fast slope. The steeper it is, the more exciting. The closer to the edge you get onstage, the better it is. I like the audience to take part in that. There are certain points in the set when I do nothing. There is a hole . . . and the audience fills it up. You look as if you are going to fall over. You look as if you’ve forgotten the words. You look as if you are terrified. The audience comes around you. It’s really quite a wonderful experience. Scary.”
Of course, you need help to be able to relinquish yourself as fully to the dangerous thrills, of performance as a fast, steep slope. But he’s rejected drugs, the classic rock-star option. “Though I can see why others do it,” he says. Instead, of all things, he reads. “When I think of Sting, I see him with his face in a book,” says a friend who has come along on Police tours. All of his spare time is spent reading. For the Police’s last album, Sting studied Arthur Koestler; Ghost in the Machine is titled after a Koestler work. Now, with Synchronicity, he’s moved on to Jung.
As I talk to Sting, I’m thinking about the dark prince. Koestler? Jung? How seriously can you take the man in all his grimness? His cherished flexibility is at best difficult to trust. Yet even while one wonders at the polished ambivalence of his charm, it’s difficult not to like him. He disarms one’s wariness by being forthright about his inconsistencies: “I always contradict myself,” he’s told me. “My defense is, at least it shows I’m thinking.”
Sting often reminds you that he’s thinking. But if he doesn’t seem pretentious, perhaps it’s because he expresses his theories so ingenuously, even when he is applying Jungian thought to the subject of rock ’n’ roll. “Music,” he is telling me, “is a very simple tonal code which taps into the collective unconscious. Why does a certain series of notes do this? People behave in an extraordinary way en masse. And you can use that for positive or negative purposes. To see people physically, unconsciously respond to an unconscious stimulus is very exciting.
“I often feel like performing is some sort of shamanism,” he continues, his voice temporarily lifted from its monotone. “Performing is frenzied. Sexual. It frees people for a while. I induce that by going into a trance, really, which is why I like to be almost unconscious. I don’t want to meet someone’s eye in the audience, because that brings you back to consciousness. And I like to be out, to appear like a man on the edge, like a man who has pushed himself too far ... that is when the audience really gets sucked in. If I sing a really high note, my body gets over-oxygenated, and the whole hall goes back and forth. I get close to fainting. And I do that every night: when I sing ‘Roxanne,’ there’s a very high note which I sing for a long time. I must look as if I am going to fall over. That is really exciting to me, that dangerous feeling that you could fall.”
Not long after this conversation, I rent a videotape of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, a film of an Amnesty International benefit concert in which Sting participated. He appears in a solo performance, just him and the guitar. This must be how the songs sound while he’s composing them. He stands alone and starts to sing “Roxanne.” It’s one of his most powerful songs, with its mournful melody and cryptic lyrics. “Roxanne, you don’t have to turn on the red light.” Dressed in baggy pants, a loose T-shirt, and an army fatigue jacket, he looks small and very still onstage by himself. Usually Sting describes himself as an introvert in life who becomes an extrovert onstage, but this performance has the quality of solitary brooding, of inward tension.
Now, toward the end of the song, is the note. It’s not held as long as in the more exuberant Police concerts, but unmistakably Sting seems to turn ever deeper into himself. Luckily, it’s a close-up. There it is: “Roxaaaaaaanne.” Stop the machine. Rewind. Start again, a couple of bars or so before the end. In slow motion, you can watch Sting winding up toward his note. When he starts the note, use the “pause” button and freeze each frame. Watch: a tendon in Sting’s neck starts to appear, his eyes close, a vein throbs in his temple. He reaches the end of his note. In the frozen frame you see ... what? If you’re looking for the real man, and this is it, what does this naked moment reveal? The tension of his stance, the constriction of his features, the tightly closed eyes, the open mouth are the image of pain. Or is it thrill? Is it grief, or ecstasy? Maybe it’s only a great performance where what you see is what you want to see. What Sting wants you to see. Even when he claims he’s not protecting himself. After all, it’s only a note. Push “play.” The song ends. Sting opens his eyes. The audience applauds.
(c) Esquire by Marcelle Clements