A candid conversation with the red-hot British pop star and actor about rock ‘n’ roll, politics, sex, love, old partners and fresh starts.
“With the Live Aid concert, we saw how the media can be used for good. And we learned to bypass the political process. In fact, we learned to hold it in some contempt, since government has been unable to confront starvation.”
“I can’t say I’ve sinned because I failed to be monogamous. As the chemicals in a relationship become acclimated to one another, the chemical reaction between people lessens, and you have to shake it up to get it again.”
“In rock ‘n’ roll, the blueprint for disaster is clear. That book has already been written–Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, Jimi Hendrix. The blueprint for survival hasn’t yet been written. That’s the one I really want to write.”
When you’re a skinny English kid with a name like Gordon Sumner, living near the docks in Newcastle, a poor coal and shipbuilding town, it’s only natural to yearn for a little glamor, a little excitement. So, lugging your first guitar, your young wife and your new baby, you head off to London with a new name–they call you Sting, because you wear yellow-and-black pullovers–and form a rock-’n'-roll band. It’s been written before.
Not many years later, your band, The Police, is one of the hottest in the world. A song you write and sing–you call it Every Breath You Take–is the number-one song of 1983 after selling more than 1,000,000 copies. You try acting, too, and you land roles opposite the hottest (Jennifer Beals) and the best (Meryl Streep) actresses in the world. Enough glamor? Enough excitement?
Cut to: Paris’ Mogador Theater, where the last of the opening-night S.R.O. crowd has finally filtered out, more than an hour after Sting’s last encore, a sparse guitar-and-voice version of his hit Message in a Bottle. No one could have predicted the audience’s reaction to his solo Paris debut; he intentionally stacked the cards against himself. Not only would the crowd be hearing new songs by Sting, significantly sans Police, for the first time (performers usually rely on tried-and-true hits for successful live performances) but he would play to a predominantly French-speaking audience. To prepare, Sting had rehearsed some French phrases–“Merci beaucoup! Merci beaucoup!”–but those new songs, lyrically complex, were, of course, all in English.
After three songs, the verdict was already unanimous. As Sting led his band of all-black musicians, schooled in jazz, not rock, into a new song called If You Love Somebody Set Them Free, the lyrics might as well have been in Swahili for all the audience cared; they went berserk, rose from the plush theater seats and rocked.
After the opening-night performance, Sting finally emerges into the theater lobby to the celebratory party. All eyes and a dozen-odd lenses turn toward him. His smile is still cautious, though triumphant, and his stance is characteristically confident. He works the crowd like a politician–an incumbent politician. He shakes the hands of record-company execs, embraces his musicians, winks toward the interviewers who have been following him for weeks. Besides Playboy, whose reporters have tracked him from New York to Montreal to the rehearsal château outside Chartres and now to Paris, Newsweek is considering a cover. The French press has demanded access. And the British. And Rolling Stone. The photographers need exclusive shots. One, known as Mad Max, had Sting prancing about in the fountain outside the Pompidou Center. Another needs time in his hotel suite.
This massive attempt to cover Sting is only one layer of the pressure to capture every moment of his life. Michael Apted, the British film director (Coal Miner’s Daughter), has been commissioned to document Sting’s latest project, his solo musical foray, for a feature film. The film could be called Who’s Covering Whom, for the film maker’s half-dozen cameras are focused on the press, while the press is writing about the filming and everyone (press, French and English film crews, record-company personnel and execs, musicians, band crew, photographers, friends, family, fans) is focused on Sting. Although the first concert is over, it’s no time to relax–the cameras are rolling.
Oh, and by the way, it looks as if Trudie Styler, Sting’s pretty blonde girlfriend, wants some time with him, too. She makes her way to him through the crowd, holding her large belly with one hand, clutching her midwife’s arm with the other.
“The contractions are beginning,” she tells Sting. Her due date a week away, Trudie has gone into labor with Sting’s fourth child. Sting hugs her and smiles. There is a hint of glee. Or madness. As if he planned it all.
For most of the night, Apted’s huge crew is standing by. If Trudie’s contractions speed up, they are to head to the hospital, where cameras are already poised to film the birth.
The baby–a son, named Jake–is not born until two days later. Although Jake missed opening night, the timing is still good–he is born at 12:30 in the afternoon, several hours before the second show at the Mogador. Apted’s crew is on hand. Glamor. Excitement. Gordon Sumner finally has it.
In the town of Wallsend, where Sting was born in 1951, his father was a milkman, his mother a nurse. He was playing guitar at nine and in his first band at 17: a Dixieland jazz band in which he played double bass. While working as a teacher and moonlighting in clubs, he met Stewart Copeland, the drummer in a band called Curved Air and a son of Miles Copeland, the ex-CIA agent who wrote The Game of Nations and The Real Spy World.
When Sting left his home town for London, he, Copeland and, later, guitarist Andy Summers formed a band they called The Police. Sting’s song Roxanne, banned by the BBC (it’s about a prostitute), got them a manager, Miles Copeland (Stewart’s brother), and, with Miles’s help, a record deal. Four platinum albums and one gold single later, The Police, with their distinctive, reggae-influenced rock, have sold more than 40,000,000 records and were called by at least one enthusiastic critic “the most important music group to appear since The Beatles.” Hyperbole aside, since their first album was released in 1979, The Police have been one of the most consistently innovative and exciting bands to emerge from England–or anywhere–in the past decade.
At the peak of their success (Synchronicity, their most recent album, won three Grammys and remained on the charts for almost a year), Sting announced that he was leaving the band, at least temporarily, to make a solo album. He recruited top jazz musicians and recorded The Dream of the Blue Turtles, which shot up to number two three weeks after it was released. Sting also appeared in the British segment of last July’s world-wide Live Aid concert, performing his old hits before being joined by Phil Collins and Branford Marsalis for one of the event’s highlights: a Collins-Sting duet of Every Breath You Take. And the 24-city tour he began last August has been a sellout.
Meanwhile, his two latest movies were released. When Sting was struggling in London, his wife, actress Frances Tomelty, helped him get his first movie role, a minor part in The Who’s Quadrophenia. It was the start of an acting career that included the lead in Brimstone and Treacle and smaller parts in Dune and several minor films. Today, he earns $1,000,000 a film and has made his own documentary of The Dream of the Blue Turtles Paris performances.
Playboy sent Victoria and David Sheff to speak with the busy man. Their report:
“Since Sting was booked in New York with costume fittings, newspaper interviews and meetings, we asked him where he wanted to begin our sessions. ‘Do you jog?’ he asked. The idea of trying to discuss his answers to our many questions while holding a tape recorder and jogging through Central Park–well, no thanks.
“So we hung around while he conducted his New York business, such as a meeting with his manager to decide on the new album-cover photo. ‘I want something interesting,’ Sting reported afterward. ‘Miles wants something that will, as he puts it, “make the girls go wet.”‘
“Which brings up the issue most women mentioned when we said we were interviewing Sting: sex. At a fitting in New York, Sting emerged from a dressing room in a gorgeous Giorgio Armani suit–gray silk with flashes of black–without a shirt. There was his famous chest. To set the record straight, the female half of this Interview team was not unimpressed. The male half said, ‘What’s the big deal?’
“Over the weeks, Sting’s playful side emerged, counterbalancing the over-all impression we had of him: that he is arrogant and always serious. He teased his assistant, Danny Quatrochi, about his resemblance to Julio Iglesias and quoted from This Is Spinal Tap as well as from Arthur Koestler. And he told us a story about his trouble with New Zealand customs. As a joke, a friend had given each of the Police members foil-wrapped Preparation H suppositories, and the customs agent was eying one he had found in Sting’s suitcase. ‘What do you do with this?’ he asked. Now, Sting has a thing about customs–he despises the concept of immigration controls, he says–so it was not without relishing the moment that he said, nonchalantly, ‘You stick it up your ass.’
“He was nearly thrown into prison on the spot but managed to talk his way out of that one, though fast talking is not the only way out for him. There were times when we were frustrated–make that furious–at being postponed and juggled along with the million other things in Sting’s outrageous schedule. But as we listened to the man’s music during rehearsal or performances, the frustration would recede.
“So what’s next for Sting after the fall tour and editing work on the film? He is going to take a break and go scuba diving in the Red Sea. He jokes, ‘I’m wondering if it’s going to part for me.’ We wouldn’t be surprised.”
Playboy: We’ve been sent to clear up a few important things. Is it true that you’ve had a sex-change operation?
Sting: Yes, it is. I can see this will be the sort of interview where the truth comes out. So, yes, I’ve become a man. I was once Miss October in Playboy.
Playboy: On a more recent note, you were also part of biggest rock concert in history–Live Aid. How did it feel?
Sting: Extraordinary. It sounds like a cliché, but it really was a wonderful day for rock ‘n’ roll. Even if no money got through, I think the symbol of good will and cooperation and togetherness was so important, it was useful in itself. Beyond that, however, we also raised so much money that I’m confident it will get through, which makes it that much more important. Everyone said it was our generation’s Woodstock, and it was, but I think it was more important than Woodstock.
Sting: Because it dealt with a wider range of things: We saw how the media can be used for good. We learned how much we can accomplish if we bypass the political process. In fact, we learned to hold the political process in some contempt, since governments have not been able to confront the issue of starvation. Yet here were people who got together, galvanized by [organizer] Bob Geldof, and did something. We’ve always heard that rock ‘n’ roll could change the world. That’s starting to mean something.
Playboy: Are you concerned about the money’s not getting to the African people?
Sting: Not really. This is the most publicly accountable charity in history because of the high profile of everyone involved. Everyone is watching what will happen. Any of us can ask where the money has gone and will be answered in detail. If one penny is missing, we know whom to hang.
Playboy: Do any special moments at Live Aid stand out for you?
Sting: Before this experience, when British musicians got together, there was a lot of prejudice and fear of one another–all of that dissolved. The English rock scene has always been pretty gladiatorial: You all hate one another. Unlike the U.S. part of the Live Aid concert, all of us in England shared the same backstage area, so I was standing there with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury and, of course, Phil Collins, with whom I did a set, and all of us were sharing the same piece of sheet music–so this was very special.
Playboy: Let’s get some quick impressions of your peers in the music business, since the experience is fresh in your mind. What do yo think of Bowie?
Sting: An original. Most modern bands are facsimiles of David Bowie. A lot of singers are imitators of David Bowie. I have great respect for him.
Playboy: Mick Jagger?
Sting: I like Mick. But knowing him, I find it hard to judge his work. My prejudices evaporate. And rock ‘n’ roll is too hard a life for me to come down hard on people.
Playboy: Peter Townshend of The Who?
Sting: Peter Townshend shows us it’s all right to grow up. There is dignity after rock ‘n’ roll.
Sting: Prince is a great musician, but I worry about his losing his sense of humor, about the deification syndrome in rock ‘n’ roll. I hate to see people trapping themselves in their own ivory towers. He’s said he’ll never tour again; to me, that’s death.
Playboy: Michael Jackson?
Sting: One of the rewards of success is freedom, the ability to do whatever you like. To lose your freedom instead–which is what seems to have happened to Michael–is tragic. I don’t know the guy, but to lead such a rarefied life seems tragic.
Playboy: How about—-
Sting: Perry Como?
Playboy: We were going to mention one more name–Paul McCartney.
Sting: I worry about McCartney, too. I think he isn’t sure what to do anymore. There is fear of growing up in rock ‘n’ roll, of progressing, of experimenting, of incorporating what one has learned. McCartney is a genius in many ways, but I think he should push himself to do work that’s more serious. His Beatles work was as important as Lennon’s was–more important, in some cases–and he is one of the people in the world who could take more risks. If you have already accomplished a certain amount, you want to move ahead and break new ground. Another thing about McCartney: I thought his choice of song for the Live Aid concert was a bit odd. He did Let It Be–but the whole point of the concert was to do something, to change things, to not let it be.
Playboy: You criticize McCartney for not doing more serious music, but you’ve been criticized for being too serious–even pretentious–in your latest album.
Sting: Yeah, there has been some of “How dare he write songs that mean anything? Who does he think he is?” That worries me. We’ve become too conditioned to think of pop music as standing for nothing. But the greater response in England has been that people are affected by the political messages in the songs. So far, the biggest response has been to Russians, where I sing, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.” The record company wanted it to be the second single from the album, but I didn’t want to bum people out during the summer. I thought I’d wait for fall for that. [Laughs]
Playboy: And yet, your image is also a good deal less serious than that. You haven’t missed many opportunities to sell your sex appeal, for instance.
Sting: I’m not that conscious of my image–I don’t think I am really responsible for it. I cannot control what is written about me or every picture of me that appears. To a certain extent, one tries to manipulate one’s image in the press, but things happen that you have no control over.
Playboy: Maybe, maybe not. Boy George says you claim you don’t want to be a sex symbol, yet you parade around without a shirt all the time. How do you plead?
Sting: I don’t like wearing shirts.
Playboy: And there’s that shot of you in Dune wearing a space diaper—-
Sting: Yeah, the flying underpants. At first, I refused. “I’m not fucking wearing that. It’s ridiculous.” “Come on, Sting, it will be phenomenal.” I finally said, “All right, I’m going to go for it. I’m going to come out in that thing and be as gay as you can possibly imagine.” So I did. I think I got away with it, actually. But I never chose that costume.
Playboy: You say you can’t control your image, but, again, you’ve used sexuality for all it’s worth, haven’t you?
Sting: We’re here to please. [Laughs] It has very little to do with my work, but if your image is not sexy enough, then people won’t listen. It’s part of the game.
Playboy: Getting back to your political lyrics–do you think people realize what they’re hearing with your stuff?
Sting: It’s something I do really well. I can disguise an idea inside a curtain that is innocuous. I like being number one on the charts, but I also like surprising people. For instance, Every Breath You Take–that is a truly insidious lyric dressed in a lovely song. Everybody was going around singing it like it was love. But it’s a song about control and ownership and surveillance. I’ve had people write to me, “You’ve written our song, Sting. You’ve really written a song for our relationship.” Fuck, no! That kind of double-edged thing is really what I am interested in doing–seducing people with a pleasant melody and then kicking them in the teeth. I like doing that.
Playboy: Does it work if they don’t know they are being kicked in the teeth?
Sting: For me, yeah. The irony is too much to bear, almost. If someone just wants to get high to the music or listen to it while they are jogging, well, fine.
Playboy: Yet you’ve written jogging music, too–De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. Fairly dumb lyrics, wouldn’t you say?
Sting: Some of my favorite rock-’n'-roll records are complete garbage. Little Richard songs; Do Wah Diddy Diddy; Da Doo Ron Ron. . . . There’s a whole genre of things that don’t make any sense, really, but I love them. What De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da tries to do is intellectualize them. I think the reason they work is that these songs are basic innocence. If you write a song with a political message, then you’re guilty of politics. You are guilty of trying to sway people and, therefore, you are guilty of propaganda, of trying to influence, pervert, subvert. That song was basically saying, “I have nothing to say to you, and the most innocent thing I can say to you is nonsense.” It was just a plea for innocence. Yet I went on to do songs that aren’t innocent at all and are meant to influence people.
Playboy: Such as Russians.
Sting: I feel strongly that it’s not the time for De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. Things are too serious.
Playboy: Is it a pop star’s place to sing about nuclear politics?
Sting: My justification is that I can be the victim of nuclear politics, so I’ve got as much right as anybody to say what I feel. People can disagree with me. Of course, I hope they become concerned about issues, but if they don’t, they don’t.
Playboy: On the other hand, you can also sound preachy. One reviewer of your current album asked, “Didn’t the Sixties end a few years back?”
Sting: Isn’t that attitude a little terrifying? Time is running out. I look at my little girl and think, What am I going to tell her in ten years’ time? That I did nothing–I just sort of sat back and let it happen? None of us can do that. We are going to have to have answers when kids ask, “What the fuck have you done? What did you do in the war?” I’d be bored doing anything else. I hate most of what constitutes rock music–which is basically middle-aged crap. So if this doesn’t sell because it’s political, it doesn’t sell. I think I’ve done a good piece of work. I think it will be a big hit, frankly. I’m not worried. My instinct tells me it’s going to be big, despite the political climate. Maybe because of it.
Playboy: Do you think you have to meet the expectations of that huge audience out there? Your group’s previous album, Synchronicity, was one of the top-selling albums in both 1983 and 1984.
Sting: Your accountants tell you, “Look, Sting, you’ve got this big captive audience; at least right now you have. You should really capitalize on the formula that got you that audience in the first place and make us all a lot of money so we can pay our mortgages off.” And I say, “Right. I’ve got this captive audience, so now is the time to do something that is going to test people and test me at the same time.”
Playboy: Except that your recent songs aren’t disguised. People aren’t going to go around humming, “I hope the Russians love their children, too” without hearing your message.
Sting: That’s OK with me. . . . Do the Russians love their children? I actually started making inquiries about it after I thought of the song. Most people think of Russians as these robotic, ugly creatures who live under the boot and wear gray all the time. Do they love their children? I didn’t know. So I wanted to find out. I met the head of Soviet studies at Columbia. A friend of mine designed a system that receives signals from Molniya, the Russian satellite, and he can get live Russian television. So we sat at Columbia University watching Russian television on a Sunday morning.
I’m no fan of the Soviet model. But you know what I saw? I actually saw people–real people. Children, women who weren’t ugly. Attractive people who had souls. I consider myself a liberal and well informed, but I was shocked. If I could be shocked by what I had seen on Russian television, I realized most people would be. It’s absurd, really. It’s like asking, “Do black people have souls? Do Chinamen have only one leg?”
I’m not a fan of governments of any sort. I think, Why give yourself a name just because it’s water that surrounds a piece of land? I am very unpatriotic. I hate borders; I hate customs. I hate the whole idea of immigration. It doesn’t seem right. We belong in the world. The idea of dying for your country is anathema to me, and I’d rather shoot my own children than have them do that. It all makes me very angry. I know a big part of my taxes last year went to buy missiles. Kids bought my records and I had to give a large portion of the money away to put missiles in the ground in England. That makes me feel really angry.
Playboy: Besides the political content of this album, the big media issue has been whether or not this solo project means the end of The Police. Why is it such a big issue?
Sting: I don’t know. It’s sentimentality, as far as I am concerned. People don’t like to see change. They have this idea that a band should always stay together, almost live together, and always be seen together.
Playboy: Didn’t you once compare The Police to The Who as a group that would continue to be vital by experimenting, by branching out into other projects–films and such–and by discovering and promoting others?
Sting: I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like a reasonable thing to have said. I think I was also quoted as having said that a band could last for five albums, and then it wouldn’t be valid anymore.
Playboy: The Police have had five albums. Have The Police stopped being valid?
Sting: I don’t know. I have to say that the album I’ve just done is my best work as a writer and as a singer. That it didn’t coincide with being a Police album is beside the point.
Playboy: A critic called The Police the most important band to come along since The Beatles. Do you buy that?
Sting: I don’t have to buy it; someone else said it. I don’t know. What does it mean? It sounds great, doesn’t it? [Mockingly] Yes, fine, I agree! I think it’s wonderful. Yes, we are the most important band to come along since The Beatles. More important.
Playboy: What did The Police have going for them?
Sting: The songs, of course, are the most important. But the band was unique in the way we worked together. We had a sort of sparse, easily identifiable sound. Stewart [Copeland] is one of the greatest drummers in the world. We had a lot going for us, an awful lot.
Playboy: Some people feel that the sum of the parts of a group like The Beatles or the Stones is greater than the individual parts. Do you think that applies to The Police?
Sting: Certainly it was an important chemistry. Friction can be creative. I think the reason The Beatles were such a wonderful group is that they had two songwriters of almost equal stature sparking each other off–amazing competition, and that is why they were such a phenomenon.
Playboy: And The Police?
Sting: We’ll see, won’t we? It’s not as if bands are made in heaven. I mean, it’s bullshit. We played some great stuff with that band, but we’re playing some great stuff with a completely different set of musicians, a different sound.
Playboy: Why did you decide to move on?
Sting: The Police played Shea Stadium. Where do you go next? You fall into the rut of doing the same things or you shake things up and try something new and start all over–and play a little theater in Paris. You go back to start again. You take new risks–sort of like Sisyphus.
Playboy: Why did you use jazz musicians for your new material?
Sting: Basically, I had never been in a rock band until 1975. I played in these jazz bands, and I love the spontaneous, fluid energy in jazz. Actually, it’s not so much the musicians’ jazz background as it is the fact that they are black and they have a black way of playing. The old cliché about black people’s being looser and fluid and graceful is true in music.
Playboy: How are the dynamics of this band different from those of The Police?
Sting: In many ways it’s easier, because everybody’s position in the group is well defined. There are no gray areas. I write the music, produce it and the band plays within the parameters that I set. That’s a more direct way of working than having a sort of carte blanche where everybody gets a chance to throw material in, which is fine if the material is good, but. . . .
Playboy: But with The Police, you wrote most of the songs, anyway.
Sting: I just turned up with all these great songs, and they tended to sweep everything else aside. Still, it was a band and we all had input and we all made decisions.
Playboy: Were your partners open and objective enough to allow you to become the chief songwriter?
Sting: They couldn’t stop it from happening. The songs were so good. There were struggles between me and the rest of the band in regard to material. The Police are three people contributing material. Although it was mainly my material used on the records, all of us wrote songs. The first part of doing a Police album involved deciding what songs we were going to use, which was always a painful, nerve-racking process, because 30 songs are brought to a session and only ten can be used on an album. It took a certain amount of diplomacy and cruelty, plus objectivity, to decide what the numbers would be.
Playboy: Didn’t everyone believe his songs were the best?
Sting: You have to ask the other members of the group. That’s what I thought about my own work. I mean, when everyone heard Message in a Bottle, there was no contest, really. You don’t argue with Message in a Bottle; you don’t argue with Walking on the Moon, Don’t Stand So Close to Me–they are hit songs, and they are hit songs as soon as you hear them, no matter who wrote them. But with a solo album, there is none of the emotional clutter. It’s mine, which also means I am the only one who can take flak for it if it is a failure. That’s part of the increased risk. With The Police, there were three of us. In a film, the actor can blame the director.
Playboy: Let’s talk about your film career. You’ll have three movies released this year.
Sting: Yes. The Bride came out in August, Plenty came out in September and the film of this album will be out in November.
Playboy: Not that we’d descend to gossip, but inquiring minds want to know–just how hot are things between you and your co-star in The Bride, Jennifer Beals?
Sting: I’m like her older brother.
Playboy: Yeah, sure. A newspaper column described “the incredible electricity between Sting and Beals. . . .”
Sting: Hey. [Shrugs] She gives me a lot of shit about being her older brother–and she’s such a brat. I love her dearly. She’s a great girl. We got on very well.
Playboy: Have you seen Flashdance?
Sting: It was OK.
Playboy: Are you pleased with The Bride?
Sting: It was a great script–a very clever idea. I get killed again, as usual, and don’t get the girl.
Playboy: There are few actresses of the stature of Meryl Streep, with whom you acted in Plenty. Were you intimidated at the prospect?
Sting: Well, I think she’s the best. I particularly liked Silkwood and Sophie’s Choice. She is great fun to be around, not heavy or ponderous. She’s very easy to get along with. Very lighthearted. She’s too good an actress to let you know what she is, really. She’s not one of the Method actresses–different off camera from what she is on camera. She’s very easygoing, and when the cameras roll, she’s right on the ball. You really have to pull your socks up to stay in the same game with her.
Playboy: Do you think you’ve gotten such parts because you are a pop star?
Sting: My first parts had nothing to do with it. I can walk into a room and convince people I can do it. I think I have a certain presence or something. I got seven jobs in a row. I didn’t fail once. I just walked into the room and was given the job, and there were rooms full of male models and actors waiting outside who had already been seen and hadn’t gotten the job. This was before The Police, before I was famous. I had made two movies before The Police had a hit record: I did Quadrophenia and a film called Radio On.
Playboy: But since then, you have gotten major roles that actors with a great deal of experience haven’t gotten–an offer of a lead role on Broadway, a film opposite Streep. Are you saying your pop-star status wasn’t responsible?
Sting: I just think you have to be intelligent about it. There are certain things you need to be highly qualified to do and it would be foolish to try–I’m not sure I’m ready for a lead role on Broadway. It’s flattering to be asked to do these things, but you have to keep a perspective, and I’m not stupid.
Playboy: Do you feel any suspicion that these parts are coming to you because of your marquee value, and that you may not be up to them?
Sting: I’m sure it crosses the minds of the people who offer me the roles, but it’s up to me to prove to them and to the general public that I can do my job. I choose parts I feel I can handle but also ones that are a challenge. I can only read scripts and choose the right people to work with.
Playboy: Was Dune a good script?
Playboy: Then why did you do it?
Sting: I really wanted to work with David Lynch. I was a big fan of The Elephant Man and Eraserhead. I had great doubts about Dune from the first time I read the script, though. But I thought that if anyone could pull it off, Lynch was the one. Visually, he did a great job. It was wonderful. As a narrative, though, I found it confusing. But that’s the problem with trying to translate a massive, complicated book into one or two hours.
Playboy: What was it like on the set?
Sting: It was like being on Dune, like being on another fucking planet. It was in Mexico, for starters, which is another planet. Some of it was pleasant, some of it was very unpleasant–hard physical work. I didn’t feel I was creatively involved. I felt I was a coat hanger for a nice costume.
Playboy: What moral did you draw from that?
Sting: That I should trust my instincts. However, it was very good for me in some ways. I certainly got a higher profile than I would ever have expected. I don’t think it’s done me any harm, ultimately.
Playboy: How did you get into films?
Sting: It was when we had no money and my wife was an actress and had an agent for whom she occasionally worked–for the odd play or odd television appearance. At the time, I looked fairly extraordinary. I had this shock of blond hair that stuck up and had green bits on the side of it. The agent sent me for an ad and I got the job. And I did about seven of these things–doughnut ads, loads of ads–and they paid quite well, couple of hundred quid for a day’s work. Then she sent me for a movie, which was Quadrophenia.
Playboy: What were you doing at the time?
Sting: It was after college; I was hanging around for a while until I got a phone call from this nun who had taught my sister. She was looking for a qualified teacher who was unemployed–and I was both. I was recruited to teach nine-year-olds. I taught for two years.
Playboy: How about your own education?
Sting: I had a strange education, really. I never felt like I belonged in my school. I was always a bit of an outcast, except that I was a champion athlete–a 100- and 200-meters champion–and that gave me a certain amount of cachet in school. I was on scholarship and was educated with kids from rich, middle-class backgrounds. That really gave me a taste for upward mobility–toward money. I mean, I was with kids who had no holes in their trousers! The other big lesson was that I learned to change my accent; in England, your accent identifies you very strongly with a class, and I did not want to be held back.
Playboy: You were born in Wallsend, near Newcastle. What was it like?
Sting: I lived very close to the shipyard. Ships used to loom over my house–great, massive supertankers three stories high that would blot out the sun completely by the time they were built. Every time a ship was launched, I would go to the dock and watch the ritual–the bottle of champagne and ribbons. It’s a very moving ritual, going away. It was a symbol for my life, really–going away, leaving.
Playboy: What did your parents do? Were you close?
Sting: My father is a milkman; my mother is a nurse. It wasn’t really a close family, but I’m not ungrateful for anything that happened to me, really, because I like who I am.
Playboy: Loneliness is a theme in your songs, from So Lonely to Message in a Bottle to O My God.
Sting: Yeah, though a song like Message in a Bottle is more than just a plea for attention. It’s a metaphor. The guy on an island sends a message out to say that he’s alone, and he gets all these messages back saying, “Well, we‘re alone!” So we’re all in the same boat or on the same sort of island. But as for me, yes, sometimes I feel lonely–completely and utterly alone–and sometimes I feel very happy and close to the people around me. I don’t think it’s a unique situation. I think if anyone has two or three really good friends, he’s really lucky. It’s a normal number of good friends. I have just about that many.
Playboy: But apparently you remember your childhood without fondness.
Sting: I was unhappy–very much aware that I didn’t belong at home or in my town or in the school. I wouldn’t be a kid again. It was a pretty aggressive environment to be brought up in. It gave me an edge, learning how to fight and handle myself.
Playboy: What musical influences were there?
Sting: There was jazz. I listened to Count Basie; Miles Davis, whom I’ve since met; Weather Report; Thelonious Monk; Charlie Mingus. By the time I got out of college and was teaching, I knew I could play and write songs. I knew I was talented. I just had to wait for the opportunity. Teaching was great in that it allowed me my free time. I finished early during the day and I had a lot of holidays, so I would play around town in various bands.
Then I got married and decided I’d gone as far as I could in my town. The only thing to do was really to go to London, seek my fortune there. It was a cliché and I did it. I was married, with a kid, no money, no prospects, nowhere to live, and just went to London and hoped for the best. I seemed to be right about my dreams.
Playboy: What was happening in London’s music scene?
Sting: That was the year of punk, which was a kind of galvanizing phenomenon for everybody. The rock industry had been dominated previously by dinosaur groups, faceless corporate rock. You couldn’t get in. Then The Sex Pistols kicked the doors down. They paved the way for The Police.
Playboy: How did The Police get together?
Sting: I had met Stewart Copeland earlier in 1976. He had turned up at a club in Newcastle. He was with a band called Curved Air, and he spotted me and got my number from someone and phoned me up. We had vague plans about forming a group, a New Wave group, but that was pretty much a sort of fairy tale –it wasn’t the reason I went to London at all. I thought, If nothing happens, I’ll find this Stewart guy and see what happens. So in London, I was signing on the dole every Wednesday and looking for somewhere to live a lot of the time. We were staying in a friend’s living room, with a dog and a baby. We tried few squats. Stewart was in squat at the time. [Laughs] Pretty seedy. So Stewart and I were just messing around in this flat with guitars. We formed The Police with another guitar player and later switched to Andy [Summers].
Playboy: So you formed The Police and began acting in commercials on the side?
Playboy: We don’t mean to bore you.
Sting: It’s all this history. I’m interested in what I’m doing now. I feel the music is the power that’s happening. Everything else feels like. . . . Do I have to?
Sting: [Sighs] OK. So with my wife’s occasional actress jobs, we managed to keep our heads above water in the 18 months of obscurity I spent in London. Miles Copeland, Stewart’s brother, was managing some bands. We played some other songs for him and he wasn’t that impressed, but when he heard Roxanne, he decided to act as our manager. He immediately went to the record company and said, “Release this single. You don’t have to give us any money; just promote it and see what happens.” So we started off on the right footing, really–not owing anybody anything. That gave us complete creative control over whatever we did. It gave us a good royalty rate. We had a hit record, which was perfect.
Playboy: Your signature song, a staple of your concerts, is Roxanne. Do you tire of it?
Sting: I’ll always play Roxanne.
Playboy: Because you have to–your audience expects it?
Sting: No, because I love it. It was our first hit record and it is a song that doesn’t seem to wear thin. It is right out of left field, and it was then. It didn’t belong to any sort of fashionable period. I think it is a song that is almost a standard–”a standard,” he modestly said. Some songs will come and go with the vagaries of fashion. But Roxanne, I think, will stay.
Playboy: How did you come to write it?
Sting: Roxane is the lady Cyrano de Bergerac falls in love with. Cyrano is a play I’ve always loved, and I’ve always loved the name Roxanne. I wrote that song in Paris. It was the first time I had been there, and we were staying in a very shabby hotel and there were hookers on the street. I had never seen that before–in England, they don’t have hookers on the street. So I was deeply moved and affected by these women who looked so beautiful–at a distance. When you get close up, they’re not quite as beautiful–some of them are men, in fact. But I was inspired to write a song about prostitute, wondering how I would feel if one of those girls were my girlfriend.
Playboy: What about the music? Roxanne was hailed as the first reggae-influenced pop song.
Sting: It was certainly influenced by reggae, but what made it unique was the very minimal construction. Very stark, which allowed my voice to sing out–to stick out on radio like a sore thumb. It was a time of high-gloss, dense production . . . . You know, it’s hard talking about this old stuff. There’s been so much written about it, I find it hard to go over it again. I’m bored with telling it. Talking about The Police is bizarre for me, now that I’m doing something else.
Playboy: Bear with us; this one’s for the record, and there are a few people out there who don’t know the story. The rise of The Police was relatively quick, wasn’t it?
Sting: This idea of a quick rise is wrong. It wasn’t quick. We made our moves carefully and quietly, then we made the next one and the next one, and eventually we got there. When we got there, it was like we had always been a big group, because we had always behaved as if we were special. We’d never support another act. We’d always headline, no matter what the venue was. We were offered lots of tours of America with bigger bands, as their support act, but we would never accept them. That gave us a reputation for arrogance but also for being a serious, big group in our own right. Eventually, we played bigger gigs than any of those groups could ever hope to play. It boils down to careful pacing. We believed in ourselves, but it was a nightmare. There was no security, no knowing, no pension at the end of it. We worked our balls off. There’s no other band on earth that’s toured as much as us.
Playboy: When did it dawn on you how big you had gotten?
Sting: It just seemed to happen with a kind of logic and progression; if you look at it from the outside, yes, our rise was meteoric and phenomenal. But I remember every day and every night. It was bloody hard work. It wasn’t for money as much as for something in the back of our heads that promised some vague, inexplicable glory. I don’t know whether I’d go through with it again. I don’t know whether I’d put myself through those times even if I knew success would come of it–or maybe I would. I mean, we played for three people at first.
Sting: Literally three people. There were a couple of instances where the audience was embarrassingly small, and to sort of take away the pomp and ceremony, I actually got off stage and introduced myself to the members of the audience and them to one another: “This is Charlie, Brenda. Why don’t you all sit at one table?” So they’d all sit at one table and we’d perform for them. We were just billed as this band from England. We had no record out in America or anything. We couldn’t get gigs in England, so we’d just come over to see America and see what happened. We put a show on every night. And we were great. We killed the three people in the audience.
Playboy: How did you end up after your first U.S. tour?
Sting: After 12 weeks of touring, I brought my wife back ten American dollars. I said “That’s it.”
Playboy: What happened next?
Sting: During the U.S. tour, The Police had a hit, so we went back to England as conquering heroes. Weird. Also, Quadrophenia came out the same time in England. It was suddenly like this explosion. I was famous overnight. I went from nowhere to being really big.
Playboy: Big or not, rapid change seems crucial in your life. For instance, either your feelings about love have changed or you’re schizophrenic: Last year it was “Every breath you take, every move you make . . . I’ll be watching you.” Now it’s “If you love somebody set them free.”
Sting: That’s actually the reason I wrote If You Love Somebody Set Them Free, as an antidote to that. It virtually contradicts everything in Every Breath You Take. I think love has something to do with allowing a person you claim to love to enter a larger arena than the one you create for them. We fall into the trap of finding someone we think we love and then locking it up, or being locked up ourselves by that. And I think we have to be bigger than that. I think our souls have to be larger. Of course, I’m as jealous and small-minded as anybody else. [Laughs] On the other hand, I can’t really change my life to accommodate people who are jealous. I don’t see why I should.
Playboy: Unless you found a person for whom you wanted to change.
Sting: I am what I am.
Playboy: Do you believe in monogamy?
Sting: It’s becoming fashionable again that you have only one person to relate to. I’m not sure it’s terribly good for you. It’s just so rare to find someone who can be all things to you; that’s a lot of pressure. I think this stoicism about one man, one woman may be heroic to some people, but I have no regrets about any of the women I’ve had relationships with. Whether or not the relationships failed miserably, I learned a lot from the situations and gave a lot and can’t regret it. I can’t say I’ve sinned because I failed to be monogamous. It’s a matter of chemicals in a relationship–as the chemicals become acclimated to one another, the chemical reaction between people lessens. There’s a less-violent coming together. It’s as if you become addicted to orgasm, addicted to a violent, strong sensation, and when it ceases to be powerful, you must shake your situation up to get it again.
Playboy: It sounds as if you’re advocating intense short-term relationships. When things pass the new, exciting stage, do you move on?
Sting: No, I just don’t think you should have any hard-and-fast rules about it. I think you should know what you’re getting into. I can’t fly a flag for monogamy or whatever the opposite is; it depends on the person and on the situation.
Playboy: You don’t accept marriage as a symbol of commitment or as providing a family for children?
Sting: Well, I have four children who are being well looked after–they have their shoes on and a nanny and food. I’m not much of a family man, really. I’m just not that into it. I love kids, I adore them, but I don’t want to live my life for them.
Playboy: Don’t you feel responsible to them beyond their care and feeding?
Sting: I don’t want to say to them, “I gave the best years of my life for you.” Oh, God. I think they’ll respect me more if I do what I want to do and do it as best I can and make sure they are looked after and have enough attention.
Playboy: Is it hard for you to maintain a relationship with a woman because of the pop-star lifestyle?
Sting: You have to choose your ladyfriends very carefully–women who do not care about your being a pop star, for starters, or your being rich.
Playboy: Are there times when all the pop-star stuff gets to be too much?
Sting: There are times when you don’t want to do it, yeah. But generally, it is quite a pleasant, confirming experience. We spend much of our childhood and adolescence craving attention. I have attention now. I’ve had my nightmare time, too, but it’s part of the game, I suppose. I survived it–barely.
Playboy: Are you talking about the break-up of your marriage?
Sting: It was a nightmare, a horrific, endless nightmare, and I couldn’t see any way out but to get out–I went to Jamaica. I wasn’t talking to the press, but they made interviews up. They harassed me at home and they harassed my wife and my mistress and they harassed my children. They had photographers out behind the house one day–fuck knows what for. They were just idiots.
At least the golden-boy image got well tarnished, which is freedom for me. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. That was a creation and invention of the press, too–suddenly this blond kid from Newcastle who’s a schoolteacher becomes successful. He never smokes, he’s very athletic, he’s married, with a kid, and he and his wife seem to be in love. Golden boy. And I’m up there saying, “I didn’t ask for this.” But when the whole bubble burst–my affair with Trudie [Styler]–it was an excuse for the press to hang me from the neck. So I became the Devil for a few months–always a philandering, drug-taking Devil, totally evil. I just had to sit through all that bullshit. But now I’m glad of it, glad I’ve been through that mill, frankly. Luckily, my son was just a little too young to be bothered with it. I’ll never forgive the press, and I know the people directly responsible for it. Anyway, anyone who reads that stuff and believes it is a moron. None of my friends who read it believe it. It’s written by morons.
Playboy: What brought you out of that period?
Sting: Well, I had placed a lot of faith in my marriage. Once that went, there was a vacuum; and if I hadn’t filled it with something, I think I would have gone the way of all flesh.
Playboy: What did you fill it with?
Sting: A more spiritual way of dealing with the world. I went into Jungian analysis and I read books. It is an awareness of something larger than the sort of mechanical universe we live in. It took crisis to open me up to the possibility.
Playboy: Jung and that branch of psychology have obviously affected you a great deal. You named a Police album after Jungian authority Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine, which is headier stuff than you find in most rock ‘n’ roll.
Sting: Koestler was a great popularizer of very difficult scientific ideas. He introduced me to Jung’s ideas. I would never have read Jung if I hadn’t read Koestler. He has been criticized for being a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, but, God, we need people like that, because the scientific community and the lay community have never been so far apart. We have people making executive decisions at a government level who don’t even know the second law of thermodynamics. Who does? So, anyway, those explorations were personal revelations to me, and they also have given me so much more to draw on.
Playboy: How have these revelations affected your life?
Sting: The most significant effect was the realization that I can use the demons inside me to create. I don’t have to suffer and be miserable to create. I thought I did. I thought the only way to operate was by creating conflict, tension, putting pressure on myself and other people. But now I think differently. I think there is a way of inspiring yourself from inside in a positive way. It’s a very negative thing to have to live through crisis in order to write and perform. It’s self-destructive and a bit of a cliché. Once you get inside it, there’s no way out except madness, and I really don’t want to become mad. I’m very much afraid of being mad–that’s my one fear.
Playboy: Are you a candidate?
Sting: For madness? Um, I have been. As an artist, you are sort of forced to look into that side of yourself by the nature of what you do, and if you look too closely, you tend to be drawn into it–the dark side of yourself, really, the shadow, in Jungian terms. You have to be able to control the shadow and get to know it and not be overwhelmed by it. Your shadow is very creative. It’s when you are most in touch with your feelings and emotions, your essence.
Playboy: Would you go so far as to sabotage a relationship to stir things up?
Sting: I think I’ve been in great danger of doing that, both in my personal relationships and in my relationships with the people I make music with. I seem to thrive on friction, or I have in the past, and I have deliberately set out to cause friction. I am sure there are other more gentle and, I hope, more profound ways of doing it.
Playboy: Such as?
Sting: There’s no one thing. I’ve grown. I consider myself an adult now. I write and perform as an adult–not as a petulant schoolboy, though I can still lapse into that sort of mind-set. I’ve also started to use my dream life much more than I ever did. I thought I never dreamed. People would say, “What did you dream last night?” I’d tell them I never had a dream in my life. It was only when I went through a serious crisis that I ended up in Jungian analysis, that I was aware of this other creative world that was inside. Now I can use that for inspiration. And it’s just as horrific and just as shocking as anything you can imagine.
Playboy: For example?
Sting: I was in my back garden. it’s a small, narrow garden, with walls and ivy all around it, and there are flower beds, beautifully cut lawns and little zigzag pathways and plants, roses–really rather nice. In the dream, in one of the walls, this big hole appeared, and out of it crawled these four enormous, prehistoric blue turtles with these wonderful scaly necks and fantastic heads. They were kind of drunk on their own virility, very athletic and macho, and they were showing off in my back garden, doing back flips, jumping on tables and smashing glasses. And in the process of this athletic, drunken display, they completely destroyed my beautiful garden. In the dream, I wasn’t pissed at this. I was even enjoying the fact that the garden was being wrecked. I was sort of into it. It was such a wonderful spectacle.
Well, it was this dream that made me realize that I had to do this record–I had to stir things up. The garden was my safe life in The Police. The turtles were Kenny, Omar, Branford and Darryl, the musicians I am working with now. That’s why the album is The Dream of the Blue Turtles. The fact that the turtles destroyed the garden was to me a confirmation that I was on the right track–what I was doing was the right thing for me. And I wrote this wacky piece of music to go with it, this sort of ersatz jazz. It makes sense after you’ve heard the dream.
Playboy: How has this self-discovery affected your personal life?
Sting: I am far more secure. I don’t have to torture the people around me. I don’t have a close-knit coterie of friends, I have about three very close friends who know me very well; but apart from that, there is a huge variety of people I know and I have friendly relations with. I think it is wrong and very unwise to limit your sociability to what you feel safe with, or people you pay. I have friends who are as esteemed and powerful in their own worlds as I am in mine, and I enjoy their company more than anything else.
Playboy: Are you always this serious?
Sting: Me? Serious? I’m a complete maniac. I really do have my moments of madness, though few people are privy to them. It takes one of the people close to me to bring me out of myself. I’ve been known to roll on the floor for half an hour–it comes out in the studio sometimes, like in the song. The Dream of the Blue Turtles, which started with me rolling around for 20 minutes–completely and utterly mad, cackling, for no apparent reason. It’s a side I show to only a few friends.
Playboy: We ask not just because of this Interview but because a lot of your songs are very serious and melancholy.
Sting: I think I have a voice that lends itself better to melancholy than it does to “Let’s have a party” songs, though I can do those. Still, I think you can get the wrong impression about me from my work and think I’m always a bit down. I’m not that way at all. I’m fun-loving. I like messing around, but it has never stopped me from switching over. I really don’t know whether I would choose the Van Gogh or the Paul McCartney school of art. Is there anything in between? [Laughs]
All in all, I’ve emerged, I think, in pretty good shape. I didn’t take the other ways out–drugs, which are always there as a crutch, always around you, especially in rock ‘n’ roll. The rock ‘n’ roll cliché: “Hope I die before I get old. Live now, die young, have a beautiful corpse.” I’ve been through all that. I almost did leave a beautiful corpse.
Playboy: Was that period–the breakup of your marriage, your drug use–tied up with success?
Sting: Yeah, you have all that worldly power and those riches, and your inner self just collapses under the weight of it all. “What’s the point of this?” you ask yourself. “Why in the hell am I using all this energy and ultimately achieving unhappiness?” Very serious crisis. Why should I be rewarded with all this money and attention and everything that goes with it? It’s weird for me, though I work bloody hard for my money. The attention is hard to take. Suddenly, you have a hit record and a huge following, and if you are a responsible person and you are asked responsible questions, you have to attempt to be coherent about them. If you ask me about nuclear power, I’m supposed to have a reasonable answer. I don’t know if I’m qualified to have a reasonable answer on every issue, yet I can’t just say, “No, no, I don’t know anything about it.” I have to say what I believe.
Before I was famous, I could vanish; it was quite easy. Now it is much more difficult. It can be a nightmare. I can vanish, because I have money. Even so, I sometimes wake up at night in a cold sweat. I’m objective about who I am, what I am, what I’ve done, but sometimes you look at yourself and say, “I’m this; I’ve done this and people know me as this.” Fame means the image is virtually forever. “Didn’t you used to be so-and-so? Didn’t you used to be that?” People will never treat me as someone with no past. I think that in rock ‘n’ roll, the blueprint for disaster is a clear one. That book has already been written–Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, Jimi Hendrix. The blueprint for survival hasn’t yet been written, in my opinion, and that’s a much more original route. I’d like to write it. That’s the one I really want to write.
Playboy: Will you write it?
Sting: Yes, and it will be just like my songs. The issues may be very serious and ponderous, it may sometimes seem desperate and pointless, but they’re about the glimmer of hope–the light at the end of the tunnel. Which we hope isn’t a train. [Laughs]