I t’s late June on the sun-soaked patio of Sting’s favorite suite in his favorite West Hollywood hotel. The rock and film star is insisting that the soft pop life isn’t for him, but he sure looks content.
Sting, 33, has a charming, slightly self-deprecating and conspiratorial way of telling stories that makes everything he says seem like a revelation. The theme this morning is normalcy--or as normal as it gets for someone who is one of the hottest pop personalities in the world.
Sting’s new album, “The Dream of the Blue Turtles,” is in the Top 5. His much-awaited American solo tour begins Tuesday at San Diego State University’s Open Air Theatre before moving Thursday to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles for five shows. He also co-stars with Jennifer Beals in “The Bride,” which opens Friday, and has a key supporting role in a Meryl Streep film due late next month.
With all this activity and that devilishly handsome face, Sting has the media enthralled. He has been on the cover of more than a dozen magazines in the last two months, ranging from Musician to GQ.
Still, he argues that none of this has gone to his head. Sting says he knows that fame is a trap and he must constantly challenge himself artistically (i.e., recording his first solo album with jazz musicians) and physically. He runs at least an hour every day and rides motorcycles at break-neck speeds.
“I demand the right to walk on the street and behave the way everyone else behaves,” he maintains. “I don’t have bodyguards or armored cars or sunglasses even. At home, I go around to the pub or the betting shop or to the store to buy cat food.”
Maybe so, but there are forces at work to make sure that Sting enjoys that degree of normalcy. The hotel manager waits anxiously in the lobby for the reporter and photographer to come down from Sting’s room. “Please,” she says, “don’t mention the name of the hotel (in your article).”
Is she joking? Every hotel wants publicity. But the manager’s not smiling.
“Lots of celebrities stay here and there’s no problem, but Sting mentioned the hotel in a couple of interviews and we ended up with his fans all over the place. We don’t want to go through that again.”
What this about behaving the way everyone else behaves? Is Sting really isolated? Doesn’t he know that his hotel lobby is sometimes crawling with his fans?
Two weeks later, we test Sting’s normalcy boast in London. He’s on a movie sound stage, making a video for his new British single, “Love Is the Seventh Wave.” He had agreed to continue the interview here, where the usual thing would be to talk in his dressing room or on the set. But I suggest during the lunch break that we take a walk down the street. I wanted to see how he’d react: A lot of pop stars feel uneasy in public. They speak proudly about being a regular guy, but they slip in through back entrances. Without hestitation, Sting replies, “Sure, let’s go.”
Sting spots a small park where several dozen people are sitting on the grass eating lunch. He suggests we join them, but first he wants to walk over to the nearby betting shop. He owns a horse that’s running in the fourth race at York. Sting makes a small bet (about $75) and puts the ticket in his pocket.
On the street, Sting carries the aura of a man in complete control. There’s an air of culture about him, but also a wry, mischievous streak.
He’s oblivious to the stares from passers-by--and the magazine rack where his face is staring at us from three covers. He’s even got guidelines on how to act in public. Waiting to cross the street, Sting is approached by young man for an autograph. He signs it and moves on.
(“The secret to getting along in public is in how you behave,” Sting advises. “If you run down the street with your collar up and three bodyguards alongside, people are going to obviously chase you. If you walk down the street normally, though, people will just say hello and maybe ask for an autograph. The trick is to keep moving, even if you sign it. That’s easier than saying no.”)
That control is one of the qualities often cited by people who’ve observed him since his rise to stardom six years ago with the Police.
“It’s like he gets up in the morning and programs himself,” says one associate in London. “That doesn’t mean he isn’t fun to be around, but he’s very determined and you get the feeling he has always been that way. He’s got incredible energy and drive.
“He may look as if he were born to be a star, but he had to struggle every inch of the way. In some ways, he has been running so long that the idea of stopping doesn’t even occur to him. The one thing he hates is wasting time.”
Sting’s looks, seductive singing voice and sophisticated demeanor do give the appearance of someone who was handed success. But Gordon Matthew Sumner was no fortunate son. His father was a milkman in Newcastle, one of the most troubled towns in England. Everything about his neighborhood suggested dead-end. He was on the dole 10 years ago in London.
Sting realized at a young age that he wanted more and he worked to get it. To paraphrase his Grammy-winning song, he has plotted every move he’s made.
“My (working class) parents had never expected anything from life because they were conditioned to live in the same area, in the same class and have the same job as their parents,” Sting says, sitting on a sofa in the West Hollywood hotel.
“We lived--literally--in the shadow of the shipyards and all the workmen would come by every morning; thousands and thousands of them. I’d watch them go home at five o’clock at night. I’d think, ‘Well, I suppose that’s what I’ll do.’ But I realized I didn’t want to do that.”
Sting saw education as a way out. He was a good pupil and became an avid reader. It was, he recalls, the first sign of his obsessiveness. “I read ‘Treasure Island’ when I was 6. I don’t know how much I understood of it, but I plowed through it,” he recalls. “I eventually realized knowledge was the key to escaping. My dad thought I’d follow in his footsteps, and they wondered why I spent so much time sitting about reading. They weren’t used to books, and they used to ask why I always kept a book after I finished it.”
(Sting still feels strongly about reading. He is featured in a public-service magazine ad urging young people to read.)
“I don’t want to paint my parents as morons; they were wonderful people. They were much younger than I am now. My mother was 17 when she had me. My father wasn’t much older, about 20. They were just kids. So how would they know?”
Sting appears as comfortable in front of the camera in the London sound stage as back in his West Hollywood suite. The video features a dozen kids dancing around an elementary-school classroom. Sting plays the teacher, sitting on the desk and strumming a guitar as he lip-syncs the song.
One reason he is comfortable is that the role is natural. Sting’s a former teacher and the father of four children (sons 8 and two months, and daughters, 3 and 1 1/2). Two were with his former wife, two with his current girlfriend, actress Trudie Styler.
Sting’s eyes brighten as he talks about his Newcastle childhood--as if looking back on an adventure.
“I went back to my hometown about 18 months ago and they had knocked my old house down . . . and that was kind of sad,” he says. “At the same time, I could never have adjusted to life there. I think I would have gone crazy. I’m too obsessive and too manic.”
Sting’s first goal was to stay in school as long as he could. He attended Catholic schools, spent an unsuccessful term in college, then worked at odd jobs (including bus conductor and government clerk) before going back to school to become a teacher. By this time he was into music, both rock and jazz. He was in and out of several jazz-oriented outfits.
By the mid-'70s, however, Sting was restless. He left teaching and went to London to pursue a musical career.
“It was a frightening time because I had a wife and a child, and we had no money, but the alternative was more frightening . . . staying in the school and becoming a deputy headmaster after 10 years.”
While trying to establish himself as a musician, Sting took modeling jobs. “I can convince a camera that I am handsome, though I don’t think I am,” he says. Sting then got an offer from director Franc Roddam to play the role of Ace, the handsome Mod, in the film version of the Who’s “Quadrophenia.”
The small role resulted in rave reviews and a screen credibility that few in rock have been able to achieve. But he was more concerned at the time with the fee he got for the acting job. In those pre-Police days, $1,000 was a godsend.
Still, music remained Sting’s primary interest. Recruited by drummer Stewart Copeland, Sting joined the Police as lead singer and bassist. With veteran guitarist Andy Summers, the group recorded the reggae-tinged “Roxanne,” a Sting composition that was a hit single both here and in England.
Though identified with rock’s new wave movement, the Police’s emphasis on clean, accessible musical textures made it closer in spirit to mainstream groups like the Cars than punkish outfits like the Clash.
Copeland and Summers were able musicians, but Sting clearly was the Police’s most arresting feature: an intense, charismatic performer whose occasional jazzlike improvisations on stage brought nuances to the songs without breaking the tight-knit structure of the music.
Managed shrewdly by Miles Copeland, whose rock empire now includes I.R.S. Records, the Police advanced rapidly. The band was willing to endure promotional gimmicks (their bleached hair became a highly visible trademark) and constant touring to get ahead. Their music, too, became increasingly ambitious.
Though the trio doesn’t enjoy the consistent critical respect of U2 or Elvis Costello, the group’s members have snared seven Grammy awards. They include one for best song of 1983: Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.”
But as the Police’s fortunes increased, word around the industry was that Sting was bored. His increased film activity and decision to make a solo album led to speculation that he was leaving the band.
Sting says the future of the Police is open. About his sabbatical, he says: “I didn’t feel disloyal. I really don’t subscribe to this sentimental idea that the band should be together forever. . . . I’m not tied contractually or emotionally to those two guys. I love them dearly and I have respect for them, but there is no reason why I can’t make music with other people.”
The statement is indicative of Sting’s strong will. He speaks with equal frankness about his personal life. He has frequently spoken in interviews about not believing about permanent relationships.
“That’s true,” he says, when the topic was raised. “This whole idea of permanence and forever is an illusion. It’s easier to live with the belief that your relationship is only temporary than it is to get caught up in trying to devote yourself to stupid promises.”
Sting sees “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” the generous, warm-spirited first single from the album, as the other side of “Every Breath You Take,” his best known tune.
“I’m not sure I actually can live with the sentiments (in the new song),” he says. “It’s an ideal . . . the antithesis of ‘Every Breath You Take.’ It’s funny--that song was generally regarded as very romantic and seductive, but I saw it as actually very evil . . . that whole idea of possession and control and surveillance.”
The more you see of Sting, the more fascinating and complex he becomes. It’s easy to see why he comes across quite differently in print. In some articles, he’s warm, humorous, thoughtful. In others, he’s icy and calculating.
About his Police-mate, drummer Stewart Copeland has said: “He gives you what he wants to give. Everything about him you can see is part of his art form, and he really gets uptight if you try to get behind it.”
In a profile on Sting for the British pop journal the Face, writer Dave Hill pointed to contradictions and unexpected lapses of taste. According to Hill, Sting followed a declaration that he was repelled by the misogyny of “Purple Rain” with a sexist remark about an associate’s girlfriend.
Continued Hill: “Yes, being two things at once is Sting’s forte; turning out nasty, just when you thought he was nice.”
Someone who works with Sting in America said he notices that Sting does present different sides of himself to the public.
“He’s very intelligent and he knows a lot about psychology, so I’m sure he brings those into play at times,” the associate said. “He’s definitely not one of those artists who decides ‘this is my image’ and sticks with it in every interview.”
Sting does seem to self-monitor himself during interviews. When he seems to be getting too serious, he’ll break the mood quickly with a disarming, self-deprecating remark. In our L.A. interview, when he was asked about his attempt to lift himself out of Newcastle, he must have sensed that his tone was a bit too self-satisfied.
Asked how he picked up this early ambition, he laughed: “I think it was a vitamin deficiency.”
What about all this complexity? Are there two sides to him? Does he play with the media?
Sting was at ease with the subject. “A lot of the way the stories turn out depends on the interviewer,” he responds. “You’ll give some interviewers more because you relate to them better.”
Then, he paused and smiled. “But a lot of the whole media stuff is really a game, isn’t it.”
Does he ever recognize a story as being exactly him.
“None of them are me,” he continues. “If you take the broad spectrum of the whole thing, then, yes . . . you get a composite. But if someone sits down with you for three hours, he gets a bit, but not the whole thing. So, there’s no one piece that sums it up.
“There are times when I don’t know what I’d write about myself. It all depends on the mood I’m in. Sometimes I take myself very seriously. A lot of other times I send myself up. I’m not terribly consistent as a personality. . . . But that’s what you call ‘human,’ isn’t it?”
Sting does acknowledge problem moments, especially around the breakup of his marriage in 1982. Song titles like “King of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” were no accident on the Police’s “Synchronicity” album.
Sting also has had to deal with the heady distractions of success--and the hardest thing is keeping touch with yourself, Sting suggests.
“The higher up the ladder you get, the more deifying it is,” he says. “You appear at the US festival and there is a quarter of a million people out there and it makes you think you’re God. You raise your hand and they raise their hand. You sing a line and they sing a line.
“It’s very important to maintain a sense of irony, I think, and objectivity and realize you are only part of a ritual. The fact that you are in the center of it is as much an accident as anything else. That’s why it is important not to get isolated.”
Ironically, one of the criticisms of Sting’s new album is that he comes across as a philosopher king, dealing with issues ranging from world politics to poverty.
“The thing is, you can’t equate success with invulnerability. That’s nonsense. People ask, ‘Why do you write songs about these issues . . . you are rich, you have children, you have a nice house, you are successful. . . .’
“The answer is, none of that immunizes me from the world. I don’t live in a cocoon. I live in reality. I probably see it clearer than the people who are worried about paying the mortgage or worried about being promoted at work.”
Many Police fans were also surprised that Stint would turn to jazz--rather than rock--musicians to help him on the LP.
“I never intended to make a jazz record,” he replied. “I just wanted to work with jazz players. Some people just couldn’t understand the difference. They began to write off the album as ‘Sting’s little jazz project.’ It was as if they were just humoring me. But I had no intention of being indulgent and making a jazz album. I am a pop singer and it’s something I’m proud of.”
Sting’s aware now of the danger of trying to maintain credibility in two highly visible and competitive fields. So, he has been taking his film efforts slowly. In “Dune,” his character--though highly publicized--was on the screen less than 10 minutes. He has tried to avoid stereotyping. Half of the many scripts he receives calls for “this two-dimensional blonde hero, which bores the crap out of me.”
In “The Bride,” Sting plays a new kind of controlled, arrogant Dr. Frankenstein. He creates a woman, grooms her in true Pygmalion fashion and goes to pieces when he can no longer control her.
In “Plenty,” the film with Streep, he plays a handsome but carefree bohemian who is never in control. “She’s this woman who is a bit ahead of her time who goes through life destroying men, and I’m one of him.”
With both films opening at the same time as his tour, he worries about the danger of over-exposure. That’s why he’ll probably keep a low profile during 1986--bad news for Police fans hoping for a “reunion” tour next year.
Given his discipline and control, Sting has a surprisingly reckless side. He enjoys the physical danger of riding motorcycles at high speed and even swimming in dangerous waters.
“I just think it shows you are alive,” he explains. “Success in Western society can lead to you being wrapped up in cotton wool . . . safe, secure, comfortable, fat and soft. It’s important to constantly challenge yourself--physically, mentally and spiritually--or else you do become a piece of dead weight.
“I assume everything I do is the last. I assumed this was the last record I’d make so that I could put everything I had into it. I even assume every meal is the last so I eat like a wild animal.”
But he feels it was time for another lighter moment.
With a wink, he adds, “Why, I even assumed this was the last interview I’ll do.”
But the joke is short-lived.
He returns to the point of motorcycles and danger.
“It helps you keep in touch with reality,” he says. “You can’t live forever any more than success can last forever. You’ve got to appreciate it and feel it. Besides, riding success is infinitely more dangerous than riding motorcycles. Look at all the people who have cracked up through fame.
“I’m fortunate I think my ego isn’t so much supported from the outside as it is from inner confidence and inner satisfaction about doing good work. If I’ve written a song that I think is good, that fills me up for a while. I don’t particularly become inflated by seening a big poster of me or by a massive publicity campaign about me in a film or amazing reviews for the album. That’s nice, it’s titillating. But that’s all. It’s not part of my obsession.”
Sting knows when time is up for the interview in the London park. Looking at his watch, he jumps to his feet. Returning to the video session? “No,” he says. “The race (with his horse in it) is going to be on TV.” He dashes across the street and into his dressing room. But racing is apparently one of the few things beyond Sting’s control. His horse finishes out of the money.