‘Strange Things Happen’ by Stewart Copeland


The rock singer Sting may be a man of furtive cool, mystical tantric talents and exotic, globe-spanning tastes, but it was his affable drummer who could always boast the more intriguing back story.

Sting, né Gordon Sumner, was the son of an English milkman and a hairdresser. Stewart Copeland -- supplier of the fussy yet propulsive rhythm that was a hallmark of the Police -- was born in Alexandria, Va., in 1952, the son of Miles Copeland Jr., a Middle Eastern operative for the CIA, and archaeologist Lorraine Adie, who worked for British intelligence during World War II.

The drummer-to-be grew up in Cairo and Beirut. His father was instrumental in the 1953 overthrow of reformist Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh -- to leftists, a cardinal sin of 20th century American foreign policy. He was also a champion of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Palestinian cause, journalist, adventurer and World War II-era trumpeter and arranger with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.


So when the son injected himself into the British punk scene of the late 1970s, did it constitute a fiery rejection of his father’s Cold War machinations? Was his attraction to the music of the Third World a way to work out inner guilt?

It’s hard to say, after reading “Strange Things Happen,” Copeland’s breezy memoir of life in and out of the limelight; the drummer is apparently not an inner-demons kind of guy. The original punks were always suspicious of the Police, accusing them of fake edginess. It’s a charge Copeland cheerily does little to refute. In one droll chapter, he relishes the sight of Rage Against the Machine, the Che Guevara-worshiping stadium rock band of the 1990s, chilling at the Palazzo Versace Hotel in Brisbane, Australia.

“Ha-ha!,” he writes. “I remember when I used to be professionally angry.”

These days, Copeland is professionally happy. He lives in Los Angeles, composes orchestral works and plays a lot of polo. His recent reunion tour with Sting and Police guitarist Andy Summers grossed more than $247 million. If he suffered any kind of crisis, it was in the late 1980s when he realized his clothes -- “an exotic collection of leather pants, hostile shirts and pointy shoes” -- don’t really match the man. He is a “mellow” father of four now, and “the thrill has gone from frightening the natives.”

Copeland spends much of his book dwelling on this post-Police life. At best, he offers a glimpse of a creative soul that is charmed and untroubled -- a rocker’s analogue to Brendan Gill’s lighthearted memoir of life at the New Yorker.

But while Copeland is self-deprecating enough to recount his good fortune without smugness, he grievously overestimates the irony inherent in his story. The English manor house (or, better yet, tax exile) is as much a rock cliché as shouting “Freebird” -- and when Copeland turns up among the polo set, he is, tellingly, surprised that his fellow millionaires don’t bat an eye.

Another aggravation is the fashionably non-chronological blueprint of this memoir. The strategy worked well for Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” but here it seems like an excuse to sidestep most of the history of the Police. Copeland prefers to dwell on his work with lesser musical lights, his film scores and yet more polo. A chapter on his time in Africa for the 1985 film “The Rhythmatist” falls surprisingly flat.


Perhaps because it is so fresh in his memory, Copeland does delve deep into the Police toward the end of the book, with a detailed recounting of their recent reunion tour that reveals a hint of the true troubled relationship that has most defined and driven him.

Copeland knows that he embodies a sort of micro-targeted mega-fame common to Southern California. Behind the drum risers, he’s a Golden God, but otherwise, he’s just another guy holding up the line at the Coffee Bean.

Sting, however, is in Golden God mode 24/7, and the trappings of that life seem to amuse Copeland to no end. The constant hubbub and pretension around the singer is “Sting world”; the meditating man at the center of it “doesn’t do farewells, he just vaporizes.”

Copeland holds Sting’s musicianship and vision in high esteem, but he also deflates the mystique by constantly referring to him as “Stingo.” Some of the best writing in the book describes what it’s like to be locked in a band with a fellow headstrong musician, arguing over the intangible details that make good music great.

That was the rocky Bromance at the heart of the Police. After the success of the reunion, Copeland muses about a full re-formation, but thinks better of it.

“If you love somebody, set them free,” he writes. “That’s what Sting said the minute he was free from the Police the first time around, years ago. I think it’s pretty good advice for right now, too.”