The following interview with Phil Sutcliffe appeared in the February 1991 issue of Q magazine...
Where the hell have you been?
It was the return of the prodigal son. A lapsed Geordie, Sting was suddenly confronted by the twin crises of a writers' block and the deaths of his parents. He began to panic - but found a solution by going home to Newcastle. "I had something to say, but I was scared to face it. It was time to reassess."
"I had a funny experience a couple of months ago when I took my eldest son, Joe, to see England versus Hungary," says Sting - he claims to be a born-again football hooligan these days, recording his new album in Italy to be close to the World Cup and singing 'Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler' all through the England-Germany semi-final. "At the end of the match this guy sitting behind me clapped me on the back. 'Fantastic he says (in Sting's finest cockney). 'Well done mate!'. So I say, 'thanks a lot, but, uh, why?' 'You're from the same town as Gazza, aincha?' 'Yes.' 'Well then!' 'Oh, I see. Ta very much, it was nothing really."'
Essentially, Sting is as much a lapsed Geordie as he is a lapsed Catholic, but one day there had to be some mileage for him in coming from Newcastle - even if it materialised in the form of glory reflected from his, domestically, rather more famous townsman. He has never been a local hero in the North-east. Certainly, he has the average superstar's proportion of fans there, but the Geordie passion afforded to sporting idols like Paul Gascoigne, Brendan Foster and Steve Cram or, indeed, to musicians of far more transient fame beyond Tyneside such as Lindisfarne, has never been his.
The thing is Sting went away to find success. Then, when the Police broke through in 1979, he bad mouthed Newcastle. Many took umbrage. "And rightly so," says Sting, sitting with the press and promotion team for his new album, 'The Soul Cages', on an Intercity 125 heading through the early December snow towards his hometown. "In the first flush of having a journalist's microphone in front of you, you're a bit like a kid in a toyshop. Try attitudes on for size, slag off everyone you know and see what happens. Whereas the truth is I'm fiercely proud of coming from Newcastle. All the same I still say it wasn't a great place to grow up. Basically, it's a love-hate relationship I have with Tyneside and because of that it's real. It's not something I take lightly."
The question he's most often asked on the streets of Newcastle after 'Can I have your autograph?' is 'Where's your Geordie accent gone?' His honest, if sardonic, response is part of what makes him hard to accept within the tenets of regional pride. "I realised very young that the guy reading the news wasn't speaking Geordie," he says. "Access to power and success had to mean changing the way I spoke."
As the train pulls into Newcastle a camera crew from Channel 4's 'The Word', misinformed about the location of the first-class carriages, scampers frantically from one end of the platform to the other to capture the moment of Sting's disembarkation. Dark as his sense of humour is, he refrains from kneeling pontifically to kiss the hallowed soil. Instead, he strolls along the platform arm-in-arm with his partner, Trudie Styler, insouciant as only two Equity members could be under the gaze of a TV crew and startled passengers. Near the main entrance the company pauses to admire a folk dance troupe performing a Morris to 'Ding Dong Merrily On High' and then, with perfect inevitability, 'The Blaydon Races'. However, it turns out that this is not by way of a civic reception for Sting, but a charity display for the Lord Mayor's Christmas Appeal.
Sting's last album, 'Nothing Like The Sun', was released in 1987, the year in which both his mother, at 55, and father, at 59, died of cancer. After that, at least half of Sting's writing brain seized up. "I didn't have a block on music," he says. "I play every day and I have a Synclavier which is great as an archive for any doodle. Pull things out, turn them upside down, and there you are. But when it came to words - nothing. Not a word for more than two years. That was really scary: This is what I do for a living and I can't do it any more?"
"By about March I was panicking a bit. Went walking in Central Park every day. Nothing. Took long baths. Nothing. Got drunk. Nothing. But then I started to think about what was happening to me. I'd done psychoanalysis back in '82-'83 when I was going through a lot of personal problems. What it taught me was that you can actually work on yourself. Instead of running like a rat on a wheel you step aside. I realised I couldn't write either because I didn't have anything to say - or, more likely, I did have something to say and I was scared to face it."
"I decided it was time to reassess - who I am, where I come from. I was 38, halfway house if you like. What I turned to was my earliest memory. The shipyard. There was always a huge ship towering above the houses at the end of Gerald Street in Wallsend where I grew up. As soon as I got that down (the first line of the album is "Billy was born within sight of the shipyard") the thing was written in two or three weeks. It poured out. Although it was painful, it wrote itself almost, free-associating. I only realised what it was about as I went along. The journey back to where I came from. The idea of death. Lines about this father thing kept coming up. Something was saying I had to deal with it."
"For instance, 'All This Time' (the first single, out in January) is a black comedy song. Two priests are at Billy's father's deathbed - he's been injured in a shipyard accident - and Billy doesn't want the ritual that's being served up, he wants to take his father and bury him at sea. There's something very funny about that. And the old man doesn't want their bungling either. The priests say things like, 'Blessed are the poor, their reward will be in Heaven', and the father says, That's crap, we want it now! I think my dad was like that. He did receive the Last Rites, but I think he died angry. And I was angry with him. I was angry at the whole fucking situation. And there wasn't time to sort it out."
A small flotilla of hired cars transports Sting and 'The Word' crew straight from the station to his birthplace. The weather is delivering the archetypal image of the North-East in excelsis: the sky steel grey, a gale shot-blasting rain and sleet horizontally up the Tyne valley. Sting emerges, incongruously tanned having spent the previous week in the Amazon jungle. He huddles down into his winterjacket, blond hair unkempt as a hayrick, and wanders off across the flat patch of grass which used to be Gerald Street. He peers down into the foundations of a Roman fort revealed when the houses were cleared, then up at the latest ship being built on the same Swan Hunter slipway that dominated the view from his childhood.
"Funny to think there were streets here," he says. "They seemed so permanent when I was a kid. And I had no idea about these Roman remains. In fact, there's a legend about a Roman legion that was based in Wallsend. They marched off westwards along Hadrian's Wall and just disappeared without trace. After a while the commander sent out more troops to investigate and what they discovered was that they'd been eaten by the tribes up in the hills." This provokes some merriment, but it transpires that this is a legend with a punchline. "You see, they just loved Italian food," says Sting.
They proceed down a muddy bank, through a mucky tunnel under a defunct railway line - "Is this where you came to shag girls?" Ms Styler enquires; "If only." says Sting - to a pub called The Ship In The Hole, tomb-dark, festooned with framed monochrome prints of vessels built in the adjacent yard. The manager and a few desultory drinkers prove entirely unruffled by the advent of this bedraggled little media caravan. Last week, apparently. it was Jimmy Nail, of 'Auf Wiedersehen Pet', filming a documentary about Newcastle. They know just the spot for a TV interview, secure from the elements, and yet, visually, Tyneside to a tee. There's a picture window upstairs overlooking the slipway itself.
"What did you first play on?" says the young interviewer. "The linoleum," says Sting. "Oh, what kind of instrument is that?" she enquires, gleaming with interest. Otherwise he answers carefully and at length - even, as is his wont, having a crack at the one that goes. "How do you see the world in 20 years time?"
The director asks whether, by any chance, he'd agree to do some outdoor shots. While many another musician. invited to take a stroll in a deluge for the purposes of a few seconds of "atmospheric" footage probably bound for the cutting room floor, would respond rudely, Sting complies with a grin, dragging Trudie along too. When the director says, "Sorry, but could we just do that once more?", they turn right around and do it again. This conduct is not entirely in accord with the reputation he carries over from Police days when, dauntingly beautiful and prickly of manner, he could be as wilful as the next pop star. Maybe it's the "take 32" discipline of movie-acting, maybe it's yoga, but something's changed. Between shots, friendly security men wave them into the shelter of the shipyard gatehouse. "I saw your film the other night, that 'Dune'," says one of them. "Ah, the flying jockstrap," says Trudie. "Enjoyed it, I did." "Well, I hope you understood it," says Sting. "I certainly never did."
'Nothing Like The Sun' was dedicated "to my mum and all those who loved her". His father is one of the dedicatees of 'The Soul Cages'. In November, 1987. Sting was just about to go onstage in front of 200,000 people at the Maracana Stadium, Rio, when he was given the news of his death.
"I had to go on," he says. "I wanted to. It was a great gig, seething with Brazilian energy. the first show of that tour. It was a kind of wake. After that my reaction was very modern, I think. Okay, father died, it's sad, but I'm going to work, work, work through it. Work. So I did."
His own tour, followed by the 'Amnesty Human Rights Now!' global extravaganza with Springsteen, Gabriel, Chapman and N'Dour kept him occupied through to October the following year. Then he plunged into his Rainforest Foundation activities.
Towards the end of his own tour, Belgian photographer Jean-Pierre Dutilleux had taken him into the Amazon jungle to meet a tribe of Indians called the Kayapo - Sting became engrossed in their problems: saving their land, culture and health from the voracious incursions of miners, loggers and farmers, who were burning down the rainforest by the million acres and, incidentally, as had lately become understood, threatening life on earth via the Greenhouse Effect.
If he was looking for a consuming interest this one had infinite potential and variety. He and Trudie spent weeks at a time living in Kayapo villages, sleeping in their huts in the traditional hammocks suspended from the roof supports. They were moved, inspired, charmed. "When I first met them someone told them I was a singer, so I had to do a turn standing in the middle of this village in the jungle," Sting recalls, grinning as if still bemused by the unfathomable strangeness of it all. "My percussionist, Mino Cinelu, borrowed some pots and pans from one of the huts and played them after a fashion, while I sang 'Fragile' in bad Portuguese. They laughed! Then I started to laugh. They'd never seen a white man sing before. It was pretty funny..."
Feeling that the difficulties of the Kayapo, some 5-6,000 of Amazonia's quarter million Indians, were on a scale that might be helped by the sort of small project he could initiate, he set off on yet another world tour, this time fund and consciousness-raising with tribal chief Raoni. It was something of a honeymoon period for Sting as eco-activist. It seemed he only had to knock and the doors of the mighty - politicians and chat-show hosts, that is - would be flung open for the then long-haired star and his friend with the wooden plate in his lip. They met Presidents Sarnie of Brazil and Mitterand of France, the King of Spain and the Pope. They met Terry Wogan!
"The politicians are all in show business too," he says. "Photo opportunities, sound bytes. We used them, they used us. Travelling with Raoni was quite something, though. There seemed to be a danger of corrupting him with life in the West. But that was to underestimate the power and purity of the man. He'd be sitting in the car in a traffic jam and he'd start laughing his head off. He'd say, 'What do you want to live here for when you could be in the jungle?' What he did love was the ocean - and Mont Blanc. He'd never seen snow before. It was magical to experience that with him. "I probably got more out of the trip than he did. But now, well, he's just a guy I know. At first in the jungle all you see is differences, it seems out of this world. The more time you spend there the more similarities you see in the way people are."
He came out of it with a Kayoma nickname, the import of which is utterly obscure. He's "Potima" - "The Liver Of A Little Armadillo", apparently. Still, he's been called worse since. In April last year Sting's rainforest publicity honeymoon ended when he came under attack from Granada television's weighty 'World In Action' programme. Its main allegations were: that the Rainforest Foundation had not properly controlled and accounted for the money it collected; that it had failed to move Raoni's village to a promised new site, thus contributing to the deaths of 15 or more Kayoma from malaria; that Raoni himself had been left to fester in a slum on the outskirts of the capital, Brasilia.
Sting denounces the programme for misrepresentation on all the key points. "Their criticism was naive, patrician and racist," he says. The money, he argues, has all been properly looked after by Stoy Hayward, the major league accountants who handled Live Aid. "We still have about $1.2 million in the coffers because we didn't want to rush into it. (Sting has put at least ¬£150,000 of his own money into the Foundation.) The Indians don't need a bag of flour, they need an administrative infrastructure to protect them and ensure that they can choose how and where they want to live - to give them political power, in other words. That's what our board is doing now in Brazil. They are anthropologists. doctors, lawyers, fantastic people, the best.
"The malaria story was all wrong too. We think they used the figure for deaths over the last 10 years. Anyway, they didn't seem to realise that you can't move a village in the midst of an out- break or you just take the disease with you. You have to get the medication in and treat it first. As to the story about Raoni, that was rubbish. When they filmed him in Brasilia he was staying for a few days in a government hostel the Indians have been using for years. "Last week I saw him for the first time in nine months - he's in the new village now with some of his people. He gave me a big hug and said he was glad everything was happening the way we'd hoped. So fuck 'em! We're doing the right thing."
From August, 1989, the next "project" in his obsessive work regimen was to play MacHeath in Brecht and Weill's 'The Threepenny Opera' in America, his return to stage acting after a prolonged lay-off since appearing as one of the Three Kings in his infant school's Nativity play. "It was the first time I'd had a proper job for years," he says. "Walk to work, clock on, do it and walk home again. Sleep in the same bed every night for weeks on end. You work in a very close-knit family, it's scary and you support one another through the trials and tribulations. I actually learnt how to get laughs onstage. Deliberately, I mean. I found that manufacturing a laugh is much more satisfying than eliciting applause for a song. It's instant. It's unconscious. It's not a ritual, it's because you've surprised them. I loved that."
Since he had a hand in setting up the production, it may seem odd that Sting was elected Equity union "deputy" (shop steward) for the cast, but he proved his worth by leading a lightning strike when legendarily irascible British director John Dexter tried to sack one of the actors. "I called everyone out at once," he says. "We said, 'sorry, you can't do that'. And he didn't. We settled. It was over very quickly. But, in fact, I loved John Dexter. He was critical, acid, funny. He reminded me of my dad." (Dexter has since died and shares 'The Soul Cages', dedication with Ernie Sumner.)
However, when the show got to Broadway it was killed by the New York Times critic, Frank Rich, although the city's other daily paper, The Daily News, gave it an enthusiastic review - which, from a lowbrow tabloid, sadly had little influence on the theatre-going public. "Still, because of my name, the Times didn't kill it dead." says Sting. "We did 150 shows in all and we lasted from early November to New Year's Eve in New York. Even then we could have gone on. I voted to go on. I thought we could have got through the January slump and then we'd have been running yet. I actually miss 'The Threepenny Opera' still.
And that wasn't all. He promoted his Newcastle-based gangster movie 'Stormy Monday'; co-financed a London production of Ibsen's 'An Enemy Of The People', an eyebrow-raising association with Jeffrey Archer, the owner of the theatre concerned; recorded for the Special Olympics charity album, a Ridley Scott movie and a television documentary about Quentin Crisp; played the lead acting role in a recording of Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale' for his own Pangaea label with lan McKellen, Vanessa Redgrave and the London Sinfonietta; kept Pangaea ticking along with other albums, one of which by Farid Haque, actually made it to Number 5 in the American jazz charts. But it doesn't go away," says Sting. "It bites."
"Ooooo! It's Sting!" The Saturday night mix and match maids and matrons of the Newcastle Architects Association's annual Christmas dinner-dance at the Gosforth Park Hotel pick up the hems of their evening dresses and run full-tilt away from their men and towards the astonishing object of their exaltation. He arrests them with a brisk "One, two, three, four" and straight into an urgent, if inelegant, 'Every Breath You Take'.
The backing musicians cast quick unquiet glances at one another - as well they might, never having played the song before and certainly not when the star sat in briefly at that afternoon's rehearsal - but Gerry Richardson, Sting's old keyboard associate in Last Exit, his pre-Police jazz-rock outfit, pounds away with his usual fortitude and resourcefulness.
In fact, the maids and matrons prove not to be over-concerned with musical refinements. They form a queue in front of Sting, calling their husbands over to take their picture "with" him. "Every move you make/I'II be watching you," Sting hollers in the general direction of the tune, then "Bridge!" and, a little desperately perhaps, "Stay in F sharp!", to which Gerry seems to respond with his fondly remembered "Which fuckin' sharp do you think this is then?" look. But they thrash on gamely, take it down for Sting to insist "I want a big cheer for this band behind me, the Little Mo Blues Band, come on!", and whip up such a lather down the home straight that, as Sting bows and makes a brisk exit through a side door, the announcement that "We're bringin' the disco back" may well he recorded as the most forlorn moment of the architect's year.
Sting had rung his friend and hard-times flat mate earlier in the day and found that, strangely, Gerry's latest hand was playing at the hotel where he was staying. Then, when he finally got to the Gosforth Park from the shipyard shoot, there was Gerry unloading his piano from the back of his car. Sting went over and helped him hump it, ironic as it may have seemed to both of them. "Something's going on," says Sting, with the air of someone who doesn't quite feel he's got his hand on the tiller. "I was in a weird mood down by Swan Hunter's. Now having Gerry play here tonight - it's a circle closing. You can't contrive things like that."
There's more to come. No sooner has he gone back to the hotel restaurant to rejoin his brother Phil, sister Angela, their spouses and a couple of other local friends, than in walks Last Exit's drummer Ronnie Pearson hotfoot, he says, from backing the hopefuls in a go-as-you-please talent competition at Byker Bottom social club. "Anyway, it's been nice knowing you. Sting," he says. "What do you mean?" "I got interviewed for 'The Word' today - and I said something about 'pomposity'" he confesses. "But I did qualify it!" Sting laughs and reassures him that, whatever he said, it can't matter in the context of what they went through together. At this, they fall gratefully into reminiscence about the time when Ronnie fixed up Last Exit with a job on a P&O cruise liner. "The ship's purser came up and told me that I wasn't to sing because I was upsetting the lady passengers," says Sting. "We had to play for the crew socials as well and that was weird. You crept through the engine room to their quarters. You looked around and at first glance you thought there were women there. Then you noticed that the ones with slit skirts and full make-up had whiskers and tattoos as well. And they were eyeing up the cute little bass player..." "It wasn't you they were eyeing up. it was me!" Ronnie declaims. "Ah well. You see, If you hadn't moved to London you could have had a drum shop like me. But no, you had to go off and be famous."
"I think I regret not being there when my father died." says Sting. "I didn't cry. I didn't mourn. Unless you mourn you're made to suffer. So this record is an attempt at mourning. Or at least meditating. "My parents were very smart. In another era they could have gone to university, done well. But when I'd see things on television as a kid like people flying, skiing, the good life, I'd ask them about it and they'd say, 'Oh, that's what posh people do.' We were the wrong class. Not that there's anything wrong with being working-class. There's something wrong with being poor though. I've been poor once and I never want to be poor again.
"I was given the means to escape though - by education, having some sort of talent and also the desire to leave - and that sets up all kinds of pressure and turmoil within a family, knowing that someone wants to break out. Separations occur. The process started for me when I passed the 11-plus, travelled into town to the posh grammar school, wore a uniform, left my friends behind. Then I left Newcastle, the rest of my family stayed - until my sister, Anita, came to London a couple of years ago.
"I think my father's illness was a product of his environment. That his life was eroded to the point of meaninglessness. It was hard work, the milk round. Both Philip and I helped him from when we were eight on. Go down the dairy at 4am. Load the vans, those freezing cold metal crates and bottles. Then up to High Farm Estate, trying to remember the orders, you know, that was a skill, pint of ordinary, pint of sterilised, carton of cream. Picking up the empties was my speciality, I had big hands and I could carry ten at a time. We ran from house to house, dad too, just to get it done in five or six hours and be back for breakfast."
"He had a couple of older kids working with him too and I always felt they were his favourites. I was just the son. I had to fight for acceptance. He was of his generation. You didn't show your feelings, you didn't even hug your children. I saw that and grew up thinking it was the proper way to behave, but I've forced myself to go the other way with my kids and my friends. I hug them all now. I didn't used to show affection for my mother, but luckily, before she died. I did learn how to do that. It's such a simple idea. Touching people."
'Not that I was aware of what was going on at the time of course, but I'm sure my ambition was fired by the desire to get noticed by my father - the 11-plus, the county junior hundred yards championship. I went home with that trophy. You know, 'Look what I won'. He said, 'Yeah'?, and looked out the window. "I wanted to achieve something to make him say, I'm proud of you. And he never did. Except on his deathbed or very near it, I was sitting with him and I looked at his hands - he had great thick fingers just like these - and I said, 'You know you've got the same hands as me'. And he said, 'Yes, but you put yours to better use than I did'. That was the only time he actually... Sting tails off and stares hard at his hands.
Late on the Sunday morning, the Sting caravan - 'The Word' now replaced by the 'Rapido' crew - repairs to Dunes bar on the seafront at Whitley Bay, proprietor Phil Sumner. Family and friends foregather again. Phil produces an acoustic guitar and Sting immediately identifies it as his first, the one he learnt to play on. "I remember it hanging up on the wall of the shop, price 16 guineas," he says. "I thought. I'll never be able to pay for that. But I did, over six months. "You didn't," interrupts Phil, "Dad paid it off for you." "Shut up," says Sting, laughing as the wind hisses out of this little bit of myth-making.
Phil bears quite a resemblance to his brother. At the Gosforth Park Hotel he'd been mistaken for him and badgered for his autograph. It's happened to him ever since Sting became famous. "I can handle it now," he says. "For years I couldn't, mind. I couldn't find my own identity. I was just Sting's brother. But now I've set up my own business it's okay. I'm proud of him, he's proud of me. Still. when I heard the new album was coming up I did think, Hell, they'll be after me again. I could do without that side of it. It's not my job."
Their sister. Angela, is much better pleased by the new album. "I've heard some of it," she says, "and it really says what we all feel about our dad, me and Phil and Anita, but we can't say it like Sting can, you know, express it, we probably can't even say it to one another, but he can find words for it and I'm really pleased because it feels as though part of me is in what he's written."
The 'Rapido' crew have placed Sting in another picture window, this time looking out at an expanse of grey and choppy North Sea, itself, one of the linking images of 'The Soul Cages'. "My dad always regretted not going to sea." he says. "That's what he wanted me to do. But then I'm sure everything I've done he would have been perfectly capable of doing, except that he'd made certain decisions in his life, to stay put, stay with his marriage, do the milk round every day - until the kids grew up, it was. When we did, he and my mother drifted apart. He made those decisions and he wasn't rewarded for his tenacity, not even with peace of mind.
"I'm not sure I want to go through singing this album night after night on tour. But I have to of course, and it serves a purpose. Even though death isn't much of a party subject it's valuable to me to think about it. "I was getting round to being able to tell my father what I felt about him. It's only when you have children yourself and you look in the mirror and you start to see your parents in your own physical features you come round to the fact that, Yeah, I can understand that person, I can love them despite all the mistakes we made. I was coming round to that - and then it was too late. So I don't think it's any wonder that I'm obsessed by it. "But I feel better about it now. I feel my father in some way has been mourned. That he appreciates all the effort." Sting's laughing at himself as his non-religious intellect bucks against his words.
"I mean, I don't believe in any afterlife. But I get a feeling of something. Even if it's only in my own head. Something has fallen into place. "It's all done bar the shouting now. And here I am, shouting."
© Q magazine