The following interview with Chris Salewicz appeared in the October 1987 issue of Time Out magazine...
Sting reasseses his roots...
A decade after the Police pioneered pop punk, Sting's latest solo album explores Jung's theories of sexuality and is dedicated to the memory of his mum. Back now in Newcastle, Sting reassesses his roots.
"I went out with my brother two nights ago and drank beer for the first time in years. I had seven pints. I felt appalling the next day. So I rang my brother up to tell him. Know what he said? He said, 'Nancy boy!'"
Sting was sitting in the back of a Mercedes travelling down from his hotel to the edge of the river Tyne that cuts through the centre of Newcastle up on the bleak north-east coast of England, just below the Scottish border. In a rundown, dockside area by the river has been built the set for 'Stormy Monday', the film in which he is starring with Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones. This story of gangsters and corrupt local government officials (loosely based on the Poulson affair) is the reason he has returned to the town in which he grew up: it is the first significant length of time he has spent there since he joined the Police over ten years ago.
Ironically, his agent had called him from Hollywood asking if he'd ever heard of Newcastle. After reading the script Sting was enthusiastic about taking the part. "It's as though the film was designed for me," he told me that afternoon in his second floor suite at the Gosforth Park Hotel ("This isn't Newcastle, it's Beverly Hills!") on the southern edge of the city. "The character I play in the film is someone who, as in all the parts I play," and he gives a wry grin, "is not necessarily good or bad. He's a decent man who owns a jazz club and loves music, which shows he has a heart. But at the same time he's interested in money and power.
It's allowed me to come back to Newcastle and it's been a great time to assess my life. I've seen people and places I haven't seen for years. But I shouldn't be here. I should be remixing my album in New York." There are some things in life however, that are more important than second solo albums. What has made it necessary for Sting to return to the place of his birth was the death in the summer of his mother following a two-year battle against cancer. This bereavement has caused him to reflect on the immense success and wealth he has enjoyed, both as a member of the Police and as a solo act. "I don't regret being materially successful or being rich," he says, "but it's much more in perspective now. After all you can't take it with you. "But I have to say that in many ways my success freed my mother who was always very ambitious for me. She was a wonderful, brave, humorous human being; because she was so full of radiation, she wanted to volunteer to go to Chernobyl to help clean up. 'I'll go,' she would say. 'They can't poison me any more than this.' It's good that I've come back to Newcastle now. There's something very right about it."
Perhaps even more than Liverpool, Newcastle is a city of fierce regional identity. Its close ties with Scandinavia go even further back than the days of the Vikings. In his natural habitat, one sees Sting in a new light: suddenly his features appear extraordinarily Scandinavian. The son of a milkman, Sting went out of his way to eliminate all traces of his Geordie accent, but in the ten days he has been back home the unmistakable lilt has returned.
"My accent," he says, flicking absent-mindedly through the pages of the copy of 'Spycatcher' on his lap "is a consequence of having watched newscasters on TV and seeing where the real power in this country is. I think you do it as a strategy. My accent placed me exactly where I came from, in a terraced house on the dockside. And it wasn't to my advantage to let people know that at the time."
It was his academic ability that gave Sting his chance to escape from Newcastle. At the age of 11 he became a student at the city's large, all-male, Roman Catholic grammar school and it was there that he first became aware of another world. "I started to visit kids from around here," he waves an arm in the direction of the hotel-room's windows, "and see their houses. So I made a decision: if that world was attractive to me, I wanted to be able to have it. I think it's always ruled my life - not materialism necessarily but the ability to make choices. Up until then I had no choices: you either worked down the pit, or you worked in the shipyard, or you were on the dole. So education, doing well at school, being an athlete, changing my accent, were all ways of giving me that option to leave Newcastle if I wanted to."
In the mid-1960s Newcastle did present an option of its own: it was a thriving centre of mod culture, dominated by one of Britain's legendary clubs, The Club A-Gogo. Here Sting frequently saw a group called The Gas Board fronted by a singer with a similar humble background to his own and who was a student of fine arts at the university. The singer was Bryan Ferry. "They were terrific, a really good band," he recalls. "Ferry was very similar to how he is now."
But it was Jimi Hendrix who proved to be by far the most profound influence. "He was like a Venusian," Sting explains animatedly. "Like someone from another planet. All that hair. And there were hardly any black people in Newcastle - I think he actually was the first black person I'd ever seen It was absolutely electric, almost too awesome to deal with. You felt like you were on the edge of a precipice. 'Hey Joe' had come out only the week before. That was what decided me to become a musician, although I'd probably decided in some vague way already. But seeing a live gig like that was so much more effective than listening to records. I'd been into The Beatles before, but this was the beginning of rock music as opposed to rock 'n' roll. It was heavy. Not like Bon Jovi."
Here we run into a double-edged problem of our times: that of the pop star who is clearly no longer in his twenties and, more crucially, that so much of today's music is nothing more than a phenomenon of astute marketing. "I'm 36 in a couple of weeks," Sting reflects. "And certainly the way I present myself now is very different to how I did five years ago. Rock 'n' roll music, in a generic way, has a kind of warrior vibe. It's about things like haircuts, and it's very sexual and macho. But as I become older, I find all that a little less comfortable than formerly. I feel like I actually want to be 36 and a little more sedate. But does that mean I'm disqualified from making rock 'n' roll music ? I think there is a place for middle-aged singers and musicians. Certainly, though, I'm no longer writing anthems for a generation - in fact, I'm writing about my own personal concerns. My generation got off on being alienated within the context of a stable society. But now society itself is alienated. So the problem now is how to be stable in yourself within an alienated society. In fact, I think that 15-25-year-olds are much more evolved and less full of guilt than we were. But I don't think today's music is reflecting this yet."
If the Police belonged to Sting's youth, then his first solo album, 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', was a statement of personal maturity; in the light of glasnost, a song titled Russians indicates an artistic prescience. But, equally significantly, the musicians playing on the LP and on the subsequent tour were all black jazz artists. It was almost as though Sting had set himself up.
"I was a successful white pop star with a certain amount of respect as a songwriter; but not much credibility as a musician," he explains. "These musicians, who were all ten years younger than me and middle-class blacks at that, did things so naturally and so easily. I found the way they played and learned to be incredibly stimulating. It opened me up a bit. In the Police I had to control everything. It was a very uptight little band - which gave it an energy at first, though that soon became counter-productive. Here I m not sure what my position is. Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice? I really had to assess what I was."
And so Sting has made another solo album. The musicians who feature on it include Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, who played on 'Blue Turtles', as well as Andy Summers, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Ruben Blades and jazz master Gil Evans. 'Nothing Like The Sun', as the double album is titled, was Sting's first digital recording and, from what he says. the last. "I'll never use it again. It's a terribly scientific and methodical approach, and unless you fight against it, as I had to, it can take all the spark out of a record. I'm very much a hands-on guy, but from time to time even I had to leave this project." The record took four months to make as opposed to the maximum of two months that Sting has previously spent on any one record.
It was towards the end of those four months that his mother died. "I look back on this album," he says softly, "and I realise that the record is about my mother although I didn't see it at the time. It's about mothers and daughters, mistresses and wives, sisters... Every song has one of these themes. It surprised me. I didn't realise it was there. It's all about women. Some of the women are men, mind you. I wrote a song about Quentin Crisp called 'Englishman In New York'. Quentin's a friend of mine and someone I admire greatly because I think he's one of the most courageous people I've ever met. He has lived his life in an individual way in a society that is vicious and malevolent. But he is a hero in a feminine way. So that's a song about the feminine qualities than can exist in man without being negative.
"There's also a song about Chile called They Dance Alone. This was something that I saw when I went to Chile with the Police. The mothers and wives of "the disappeared" do this amazing thing; they pin photographs of their loved ones to their clothes and go out in groups and do this folk dance with invisible partners in front of the police station. It's this incredible gesture of grief and protest. But it's a feminine way of combating oppression. The masculine way is to burn cars or to throw rocks. Yet this feminine way is so much more powerful because what can the police do? These women are simply dancing. What I'm trying to say on the record is that the female ultimately is superior to the male. That's what will bring Pinochet down - the mother's sense of injustice."
But is this not also about Sting realising the feminine side within himself?
"Oh, absolutely. I think that a mark of maturity within a man is to accept that a part of yourself is woman - you come from a woman. Qualities that you get from your mother are sensitivity, creativity and a sense of giving. Whereas what you get from your father are a sense of challenge, the fighter, the need to win. To become a whole person you need to accept both. It's why the hermaphrodite is such an important symbol in art, in pop music even - the David Bowie or Boy George image is bisexual in a psychological as well as a physical way. It's almost an ideal that we strive for, someone who is neither man nor woman. I'm not saying that we should all become homosexual. I just think it's an unconscious ideal we all share, of what Jung called individuation, whereby we become one thing not two separate entities.
"I think men rule the world. And that's why it's such a f****** mess."
© Time Out magazine