The following article by Gerri Hershey appeared in a November 2000 issue of Rolling Stone magazine...
Sting: New Day Rising - Forty-nine years old and back in the Top Ten, Sting tells his tale of avoiding adult-contemporary.
Over the years the beatings [by teachers] continued... By the time I had my last bottom-bashing in the fourth year, my arse was as hard as a fifty-shilling piss-pot. I had merely asked Father Boyle if the Devil had a dick." - James Berryman, from 'A Sting in the Tale', the only authorised biography of Sting (Mirage Publishers, U.K., 2000)
These revelatory days, when everybody's scuffling to burrow deep 'Behind the Music', wealthy rock stars can shop the best and most exotic journalistic bazaars for official biographers and ghost-writers. Cher, for instance, used astrological charts to help select a well-known novelist (with whom she later parted ways). Sean Combs recently allotted four minutes to interview a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for an "inspirational" bio, but found that journalist unequal to capturing the true Tao of Puffy.
As one of the world's richest rock stars (Forbes has listed him in a blue-chip league with the Beatles, the Stones and the suavely IPO'd David Bowie), Sting could have scrolled the best-seller lists for his personal Boswell. But in keeping with his proud history of enlightened perversity - which includes walking away from the Police at the height of the band's fame, in 1984 - Sting chose a Nowhere Man. James Berryman is a failed British bookie and self-confessed screw-up who knew the star as Gordon Matthew Sumner back at St. Cuthbert's Catholic Grammar School and had the dubious honour of puking up "brownie" (local brown ale) beside him in the back streets of their native Newcastle, England. In his zits-and-all schoolboy memoir - call it a Harry Potter noir - Berryman makes it clear that he does not like Sting's music; he mocks the star's posh lifestyle and rain-forest activism. The crude accompanying drawings of Sting and Berryman as lads make them look startlingly like Beavis and Butt-head.
Even stranger, Sting authorised the book at a time when he didn't need to hire someone to beat him up in print. 'A Sting in the Tale' was written during a period when music-industry seers declared Sting, then forty-five, to be in a serious slump. His 1996 album, 'Mercury Falling', was gasping for airtime - virtually exiled from the Top Forty - and selling a mere, un-Sting-like million copies in the U.S. With the sale of his long-time label, A&M, to Polygram, then to Universal, Sting was feeling "like a chattel, being bought and sold without any say." At a time like this, he hardly needed a biographer who attacked even his now-forty-nine-year-old hairline. "I do not look forward to the sight of Sting looking like a boiled egg," writes Berryman, "but in all honesty, he is on his way to just that."
So, what were you thinking?
Sting laughs at my incredulity, then inhales deeply from a steaming mug of something he calls "man tea." ("You can't have any, it's brewed only for men. It keeps things... flowing.") The sounds of Central Park, sirens and tinkling ice cream bells, drift into his Manhattan living room. He has just arisen, at two in the afternoon - the previous evening, he played the last show of a sold-out U.S. tour in Pennsylvania, in support of his multi-platinum, Grammy-winning album 'Brand New Day'. He sports a spiky case of bed head and is blonder than he's been for a while. He is also - as ever - punctual as a stationmaster, despite having flown home after the show. The voice is soft and road-scuffed.
"It made me cry," he says of Berryman's book. It was so funny, he means. In fact, if you can get through it (much of the natter, in deep Newcastle argot, is about Berryman), the weird little volume is a defining rock document, written from the cranky point of view of the guy who didn't get the money for nothing and the chicks for free. Sting explains its genesis: "Jim Berryman was my very close friend. St. Cuthbert's was a hellhole in more ways than one, and he kept me laughing for seven years. We'd drifted apart about university time. He left school and became a bookie. I'd hear stories about him: He was in debt, in trouble, shady stuff. We met again, got drinking one night..." And soon, the tubby tout - who was in fact a very bad bookie - was putting the touch on his old chum. "He gets in trouble, I lend him money," Sting says. "This goes on - he's like this bottomless pit of need. I was tired of giving him money outright - I just might as well burn it."
He thought about alternative funding. Berryman's begging letters "were hilarious. I always have to give him the money. I said, 'You're a funny writer. Why not write the story of our life, those years at school?' People have made money on biographies never having met me. They just read the clippings. And they've made a fortune selling these crap books."
Yes, despite his reputation as a lofty and sometimes ponderous lyricist given to quoting Arthur Koestler, Sting does jokes. And how sweet a prank, this grubby little "sod off" to the print hounds snapping at his heels for so long. But surely, despite this literary giggle, the industry aspersions being cast on Sting's twenty-year career must have been making even this blissfully committed yogi a tad cranky. What was the star's reaction to being "acquired" by Interscope, part of the new Universal mega-company?
Jimmy Iovine, head of that label, says Sting's transatlantic dismay was so loud and clear that he grabbed his passport: "I went to Paris to reassure him. It was a jarring thing, a complicated thing - the smartest people couldn't understand this merger. So I talked to him about my experience as a record producer. I think I understand records that are not necessarily pigeonholed. I gave him my word we'd be as aggressive as we could on the next record. We had a great talk. He's very smart, a very equipped guy."
Sting decided to stay at Interscope, but he realised that the next record would be a litmus test of sorts. He wasn't sure he fit the label or a changing market, and he was sensing "a gradual dwindling of interest" in things Stingian. "I came to the realisation that I was no longer considered to be a Top Forty maker," he says. "I was considered adult contemporary, or whatever. I felt that with 'Mercury Falling'. It was a nice record. I think it came out the same week as radio decided it was all alternative. And Sting's not alternative."
He is laughing again in this posh house of mirth, a sprawling pied-a-terre he bought from Billy Joel (Sting also has an estate in England and a home in Tuscany). His friends and fellow yoga devotees Paul Simon and Madonna have homes nearby. His gentleman's style of touring features private-jet commutes that let him sleep in his own bed nearly every night when he's barnstorming the States. In this vast apartment, the former King of Pain and Existential Agita has fashioned a place that seems to whisper "sanctuary."
Even the lower-floor office, fully staffed - daily portal to hairdressers, masseurs, messengers and moguls - thrums softly. Up the spiral stairs is the home of a man of wealth and taste - mission furniture, Arts and Crafts pottery, vibrant Hindu wall hangings. But it is very lived in; here is Sting's wife, actress-producer Trudie Styler, padding around in a white terry robe. In the vestibule, one must step around the training wheels of a tiny purple bike. It belongs to four-year-old Giacomo, the youngest of Sting's four children with Trudie. He has two more children from his first marriage; the oldest is twenty-three. For Sting's entire career, there have been toddlers giggling in the stairwells. And this reformed road dog says he wouldn't - couldn't - have it any other way: "Home for me is not the bricks and mortar, really. It's a firm relationship, and I've definitely had that for the last eighteen years [with Trudie]. That's kept me sane, even though I'm really barking mad... about work."
This muggy September day, the buzz downstairs is a bit more insistent than usual, owing to tomorrow night's free concert in Central Park, sponsored by discount electronics dealer Best Buy, which gave away 25,000 tickets. This December pledge season, PBS is relying on a Sting concert special to maintain the gold standard set by the Three Tenors... and Yanni.
A makeup artist has been summoned; later this afternoon, we are headed for the Letterman show. Dave wants Sting to sing the hit - his single 'Desert Rose' - the one even preteens were able to credit to that guy Sting on VH1's 'Rock of Ages'. Later today, when we pull up to the Letterman stage door, Sting will be genuinely startled at the hubbub created by forty or so fans and paparazzi tipping the hastily placed barricades. From the front seat, he will wonder aloud: "Is that for me?" After the show, they will chase his car down the street.
Thus, in the wake of his alleged slump, the artist is enjoying his last laugh. It is a gentle one, and not at all bitter. "I'm most happy at the moment because we have a single in the Top Twenty, an album in the Top Ten or Twenty, and it's been achieved not by obeying any formula - a Britney Spears, 'N Sync," he says. "In fact, it's the opposite. I've made a record that's nothing like anything that's out there. To come out of left field is thrilling to me."
For the first time ever, he made a record backward, writing all the music, then letting it suggest lyrics. He waited for the words to come to him, taking daily walks in the English countryside. "Anything, dear?" Trudie would ask on his return. "No, not a thing," he'd report. He recorded the album with no firm deadline - "to please myself" - noodling with trusted friends, including long-time guitarist Dominic Miller, in a studio near his home outside Florence. The result is the most variegated example of Sting's musical hybridisation - a genre-mixing habit that began with the Police's reggae-infused punk. 'Brand New Day' is a solidly constructed Babel of Algerian rai singing, tough French rap, lofty jazz riffs and the easy glide of pedal steel guitar. Sting figured the record would have to swim hard indeed against the current tide of prefab rhythm tracks and adenoidal boy bands.
In fact, its success is not so odd or surprising. 'Desert Rose' is smooth enough to he a luxury-car ad, as it became for Jaguar; the high, ecstatic Arabic intro and fills by Algerian star Cheb Mami just added exotic torque to Sting's signature vertical hooks. Fill Her Up, the countrified passion play of a gas-station grunt, is as lapping and friendly as a well-fed coon hound - so much so that American banjo master Earl Scruggs is covering it. The title cut is buoyant enough to be a dot-corn millionaire's mantra: "Turn the clock to zero, honey / I'll sell the stock, we'll spend all the money." One would never accuse Sting of adjusting his rhythms to the fluctuations of the stock ticker. But in these times of high tide and green grass, a dose of tuneful optimism by a successful man has found its mark.
What's surprising, Iovine says, is that the record is so strong overseas - a rarity these days. "There was a time when America or England could pump out these artists that would sell everywhere - you put out Prince and boom, it goes everywhere. That's not the case anymore. There's much more domestic music now; the quality of recording has picked up elsewhere. We are not the world, musically - OK? But Sting has found a way to sell records in so many countries. That's such a difficult thing to do. The Arabic on that album, that's what makes Sting's thing that much more unique. He's one of the rare birds that can connect in every territory."
This might he seen as a vindication of Sting's habitual insistence on crafting his own brand of global music. All along, he has faced criticisms of varying severity, from cross-cultural dabbler to cold-eyed colonialist. Sting has always bought himself extra insurance against charges of dilettantisrn with impeccable bands featuring the likes of saxophonist Branford Marsalis, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and Dominic Miller. At perhaps the most turbulent point in Sting's life - in 1985, just after his divorce from actress Frances Tomelty and his break-up with the Police - I watched his early experiments in a Barbados recording studio. There, in an eerie stone structure built on what was once a slave-powered sugar plantation, he surrounded his spikily blond self with four African-American jazz musicians, two nannies for both sets of visiting offspring and a local cook who worked flying fish into every meal. It was not smooth; some nights found the star barking mad indeed, howling at the moon, roaring off into the dark on a moped or slumped in front of 'This Is Spinal Tap', a movie his nascent band - all of its members unfamiliar with the rock world - watched nearly thirty times. The resulting album, 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', Sting's first solo release, was a collaboration rather than a co-opting of styles. Some of those partnerships have far out-lasted critics' predictions. Marsalis is on 'Brand New Day'. Sadly, Sting was looking for Kenny Kirkland, a gentle genius so elusive they called him the Phantom, when Kirkland was found dead in his Queens home of a cocaine overdose.
This time out, Sting has patiently explained onstage and on talk shows that Cheb Mami is far more than a one-shot backup singer; he is such a star in North Africa and Europe that he has drawn delirious crowds of 150,000. But just before the albums release, Sting was concerned about getting Arabic vocals played on Top Forty. He says he worked extra hard to promote the thing. The Jaguar commercial helped, but there was lots of humbling legwork. He was back to wooing DJs. "I've been going to, a lot of radio stations. They say, 'Thank God for your record, we hate everything else that we play.' I say, 'Well, don't f***ing play it then. Play what you like. The world will he a better place."'
Having long ago denounced what he sees as a rigid rock scene, Sting has no trouble with his designation as pop star, albeit an "intellectual" one. "I've never been against that kind of populist approach of taking an esoteric idea and making it pop - to access esoteric ideas. I've no shame about that."
After all, no one called the Fugees on rhyming sushi with Bertolucci. Or singing reenergized Roberta Flack in camouflage gear. Good Info Age pop must scroll between William Faulkner and WrestleMania; pop product must also multi-task as a video, a dance remix, a jeans ad. And in these disposable times, the only thing durable - and bankable - is a copyright. As a writer, Sting has a strong, deep catalogue. This is why, in 1997, when some of the industry was writing him off, EMI was sending him a fifteen-year publishing contract. They're bullish on how many more hip-hop artists might sample Sting the way Puffy sampled 'Every Breath You Take' for 'I'll Be Missing You', as well as how many wed- ding singers will warble 'Fields of Gold' over steaming prime rib.
Disney hired Sting to write songs for its upcoming animated feature 'The Emperor's New Groove'. It was a gruelling five-year process, owing to artistic squabbles in the Mouse House; Disney asked Trudie Styler to make a documentary on the whole thing - including her husband's struggles. It is called 'The Sweat Box'; having just screened it for a Disney exec, Trudie reports, "He says I'm beginning to make them very nervous."
Just the other day, the family's first documentary, 'Bring on the Night', about life on the 'Blue Turtles' tour, was on TV. Their son Jake was watching it, absorbed in footage of his own birth in Paris, hours after a show. But would you expect Sting to paste up an orthodox family album?
"I am extremely happy," he says. "That's really my only ambition, to re- main happy."
What, then, is the compulsion to fling himself around the world - he is headed to Africa and the Middle East next - when he could easily relax as a country squire at his estate in Wiltshire, England?
"I'm not sure it's a compulsion," he says, "more than there's a compulsion to breathe. It's what I do. I couldn't stand a day without music, without playing. I love what I do; people seem to like it. It's just intuitive - it's not about achieving anything. I mean, I have enough Grammys, enough money, enough of the glittering prizes. I make the music to amuse myself. To please myself, my musicians, my family. Then I try it on this huge infrastructure, the company, radio. Which works, too. But initially it's to please me."
And if 'Brand New Day' had pleased no one else?
"If that record had died at birth, I'm not sure how happy I would feel. You'd just get lost in the corporate mix."
Having drained his man tea, he smiles, quite like a schoolboy on show-and-tell day, and pulls out a photo of a Navy F-18 jet from a pile on the coffee table. He rotates the photo so the sleek-winged steel tube points straight up.
"I just did this..."
Strapped in, having passed his ejection-seat and parachute training, Sting, with his pilot, shot 40,000 feet in about 25 seconds. They were hurled straight up with a force that flattened his familiar, craggy features like pie dough. They rolled, dived, "did just about everything this plane is capable of."
Sting has anticipated my unspoken question.
"I didn't throw up."
Being Sting, he concedes, allows for plenty of these little situations in which to test and extend himself. In fact, when we first met in Barbados, he announced that he had nearly drowned himself on a scuba expedition; in the years since, he has tromped the jungles, braved killer mountains and gotten tons of tittery press for his comments on the joys of marathon tantric sex. Now that was a joke, that seven-hours-a-night business. He and Bob Geldof got drunk and silly and forgot a journalist was at the table. Still, given the shape he's in owing to two hours of yoga each day, Sting could probably bench-press Sisqo.
"I feel at the height of my powers," he says. "Everybody I know is - has never been better. Contemporaries of mine, the Don Henleys, Peter Gabriels, Bruce Springsteens... we're writing about a time in life which is intensely interesting. We're actually facing mortality, which for a human being is the most important thing you can imagine. It's more important than dancing or your girlfriend or the clothes you're getting or the car you've got. It's actually way up there.... The issues we're addressing now are important, whether it's a novelist or a painter or a choreographer. You get to forty, forty-five, and you're at the peak of your powers."
He mock-flexes, laughs - "We are!"
lovine agrees. "A guy that talented is always just a record away. Whether it he Bruce, Sting, Bob Dylan - at any moment, they could knock one out of the park. Sting deserves to do whatever the hell he wants to do. You take the ups, the downs, but when you're in business with someone like him, your score card is going to win in the end."
Middle age can breach the Hot 100 - just ask Carlos Santana, Madonna, Eric Clapton and B.B. King, artists over forty who have enjoyed some of the biggest hit albums of their careers this year. Look at the sold-out numbers for the Springsteen-E-Street Band tour. This, says Sting, is a dirty little secret that the record-marketing men are trying to keep quiet: "There is a misconception about this youth market. We are the largest generation, larger than the current younger one. It's realty up to us to say, 'Listen! We have something to say!"'
Hearing himself, he cringes, slightly horrified. Do we detect a touch of pedantry in the one-time schoolteacher?
"I don't want to sound like a fuddy-duddy. I just think this whole thing is artificially inflated by the corporate structures that are saying youth, youth, youth. Because they're scared."
Or perhaps they're underestimating the taste of that youth market?
"I was listening to Thelonious Monk when I was seventeen," Sting says. "I think the marketing men underestimate the kids. Always have."
He doesn't figure that the kids will have trouble keeping pace with his twenty-year journey, even if it's away from anger and toward a certain age-coordination. If a twenty-eight-year-old Sting could forbid his prostitute lover Roxanne to put on her red light in 1979, in 2000 lie can sing more equivocally about a transsexual hooker in the bleak-but-accepting 'Tomorrow We'll See'. The pretty he-she is aware of the risks, and makes no apologies. The words might just as well describe a mature artist's experience in the corporate record trade:
You ask what future do I see / I say it's really up to me / I don't need forgiving / I'm just making a listing.
Oh, how Sting still works for it. Here he is, muscling across the stage in another sleeveless shirt, playing a growling bass line, bowing, smiling as tiny Cheb Mami bends backward and looses a high, molten stream of Arabic into the night sky. A rippling Sargasso Sea of arms waves out on Central Park's East Meadow. They always dance during 'Desert Rose', portfolio managers whirling like palace eunuchs, teens in tube tops baring pierced-navel abs, turning the auditoriums, arenas and amusement-park venues into mad, makeshift souks. They scream almost as loudly for drummer Manu Katche when he drops his French rap into 'Perfect Love...Gone Wrong'. Despite the showbiz touches - the faux-flame harem torches, the backlit teardrops - the sheer musicianship delivers some galvanizing edge. In the wings, Sting's long-time manager, Miles Copeland, assesses the lowing head count with the satisfied smile of a cattle baron.
And look, there's Commerce and Art well married, stage left. Revlon billionaire Ronald Perelman, in a gray suit, is standing stock-still as his wife, actress Ellen Barkin, enwraps him. She is in jeans, sexy heels, a tight red top, and she cannot stay still beneath the reggae throb of 'Roxanne'. Such are the intimate friends of a mature corporate success. While the rest of the honoured guests - Goldie Hawn, Sheryl Crow, John McEnroe and Patty Smyth - boogie behind a discreet scrim, the Perelmans have been escorted right onstage by Trudie, who is wearing the sleepy Giacomo like a towheaded stole.
After two encores, suits and $1,200 distressed designer jeans are commingling in the glowing VIP tent. Still in stage clothes - which are virtually indistinguishable from his everyday kicks - Sting moves easily between the A-list embraces, knocking back a tot of good chardonnay, holding his glass out for more. So many parties. He still gets dressed for them all, but he and Trudie rarely linger. Once you've gotten past all those grand entrances, the wise pop star is hip to the value of a well-timed exit. Sting tells a story on himself worthy of the fiendish James Berryman.
"Bruce [Springsteen] and me and Patty [Scialfa] and Trudie went out one night - it was to some charity function, and it had a disco. We were all out there dancing, and this chick came up and said, 'Oh, you're so cute, you dance just like my parents.' At which point we went, 'We're outta here."'
They exited, laughing, into the night, agreeing on one thing: To hell with the demographics. Life is good.
© Rolling Stone