The following article by Barbara Ellen appeared in the May 1996 issue of VOX
He might be lord of the manner and king of the rainforest, but Sting still has an unerring knack of getting right up people's noses, as demonstrated by his recent tabloid-enraging comments on Ecstasy. VOX seeks a rare audience with Mr Sumner, who spouts forth on the Police, birth control, the lottery and of course, E...
At first sight, Sting's mansion, set in 800 acres of Wiltshire real estate, is like being plunged head-first into a spread from 'Country Life' magazine. To say it's big is an understatement; it's like an Elizabethan version of Wembley stadium, only with more staff and better toilet facilities.
Sting has yet to appear, so I am introduced instead to new-born Son of Sting, who jack-knifes violently and throws up on me. When Sting is told of this, he's unapologetic to say the least - If anything, his manner implies that it's my fault of smelling of 'journalist'.
There was a time when Sting enjoyed the media game, but now, after almost two decades of slaggings (the music press) and outright lies (the tabloids), he has become somewhat disenchanted. "I wish I'd never done any interviews," he says, as we make our way over to his new conservatory. "It's a bargain with the Devil. Best not to say anything... You just end up with more trouble than you started with."
Whose fault is that?
"Mine probably. I tend to be very candid, and perhaps that's not very intelligent. Maybe it's better to be more veiled with your responses. But that's the thing with people from Newcastle. We tend to speak our minds, say what we think."
Today, Sting's talking because he has a new album out. Called Mercury Falling, it is, by turn, smooth and fluid, restless and strange. As the man himself succinctly puts it: "It sounds like me."
"We're all whores," he says breezily. "We all have our prices... but, at 44. I can't be dishonest. My music has to reflect who I am at this stage in my life." However honest 'Mercury Falling' is, it goes without saying that Sting's chances of discussing 'just the music' are as remote as they were when he was promoting the philosophically minded 'Soul Cages' or even 'Reggatta De Blanc'; Sting's music might sell records, but it's his gob that sells papers.
Depending on what you read, Sting is: that tasty bloke with the cheekbones who used to be in the Police: that smug git with the cheekbones who used to be in the Police; a soul-baring, Jung-at-heart lyricist, unafraid to flash his library card; the sanctimonious saviour of rainforests who hangs out with Amazonian chieftains for, to put it in tabloid-speak: 'Sting and his mate with the CD in his lip'): an actor so wooden his nickname in the film industry is Pinocchio: that dozy pillock who initially didn't notice when his accountant absconded with six million big ones ("I wasn't the first rock star to be ripped off - and I won't be the last"): or, quite simply. Public Enemy Number One.
That last title was awarded after Sting aired his view in a Swedish publication that substances like Ecstasy should be decriminalised and their content regulated. In the feature, Sting highlighted an issue which is dangerously under-publicised in the casual Ecstasy-taking community: while it's true that if you don't drink enough water you can dehydrate and die, if you drink too much you can just as easily 'drown'. These and other comments were seized on by the tabloids as a direct challenge to Leah Betts' grief-stricken family, who, since her death, have been committed anti-drug campaigners.
It didn't help that his own personal drug experimentation has been well documented: there was his cocaine odyssey with the Police ("I was a mess, a terrible mess"); those dabblings with the terrifying-sounding, hallucinogenic Dead Man's Root (which reportedly takes subjects through the 'death experience', introducing them to God along the way); and his brief dalliance with Ecstasy itself, the effects of which Sting described in the aforementioned Swedish interview as "interesting".
To the Betts family the case seemed cut and dried: here was another rich, irresponsible druggie shooting his mouth off for column inches. Ironically, Sting, a father of six, views himself first and foremost as a parent, and a scared one at that. Moreover, he suspects that the Betts have been used to further the phoney puritanism of the tabloids.
"There was talk of banning my records because of my views," he says. "In a democratic society, that's really quite shocking. Where's the forum for debate in Britain now? There's a level of hysteria in this country that is drummed up by the tabloids which is dangerous and needs to be looked at. It smacks of MaCarthyism and worse. Nazism may be just around the comer."
Granted, but how far would you take this whole legalisation argument ? Should we be able to buy smack along with our daily pinta?
"No," he sighs. "Obviously, you can't have that. But saying 'No, don't take drugs just isn't realistic. Any psychologist will tell you that. The situation we're in at present as regards criminality and drugs doesn't really protect anybody. In fact, it aggravates the problem because it leads to misinformation. No one's actually told kids what to do when they take something like Ecstasy. There's all this stuff about dehydration and kids think: 'Oh, I've got to drink loads of water.'"
"That poor girl probably took Ecstasy for a dare. It's her birthday, she panics, drinks seven pints of water and dies. It's terrible, but if kids are going to take drugs, and all our kids are exposed to drugs - my kids are exposed to drugs - then they should be given guidelines. Millions of Ecstasy tablets are taken every week and that isn't going to go away."
On a personal level, did it freak you out to upset Leah Betts' family?
Sting thinks for a short while, then chooses his words carefully. "Their daughter is dead - of course they're angry, of course they're upset. I sympathise greatly with them, but it's the current situation that killed their daughter and that's what I'd like to see changed, or at least talked about, shifted a bit. Leaving it as it is, burying your head in the sand and getting on your high horse about irresponsible rock stars isn't going to help at all."
Do you still think that it's "impossible to get into a spiritual state without drugs"?
"Did I say that ? No, that's not true. But I think if you're serious about the question of drugs, you have to ask: why do people take them in the first place ? What is it they're looking for ? And I think it's what we don't have in our society that they do have in so-called more primitive societies - a rite of passage into spiritual life. The church is defunct, and I think kids are trying to fill a vacuum. Even the phrase 'Get out of it'. Get out of what? The world, the material world. I think there's a real desire among young people to find something else."
Or they could just want a good time.
Yeah," he shrugs. "Have a good time, too, but there are lots of different levels to it."
In conversation, Sting is an uncommonly delicate creature - quite the opposite of the manipulative, opinionated, cheekbone-tossing motormouth you'd expect. Indeed at times, it seems like he'd rather stare at anything - a plant, a glass pane, his huge 'stranglers' hands - than look you straight in the eye. At first, I think he's a bit shifty, then it hits me... Sting is shy.
"I'm not a naturally extrovert person," he explains, "I'm actually the opposite - a lot of performers are. Performing, I suppose, is a therapy for people who are really shy. An opportunity to try and balance yourself out".
Nevertheless, during the course of the interview, Sting seems happy to answer pretty much all of my questions, so long as I remember to shout them. Shockingly, years of being a pop idol have taken their toll and Sting is fairly deaf, to the point where a Versace-designed ear-trumpet might soon be necessary.
At one point, I ask him what he'd be doing if he wasn't famous and he stares at me, bewildered, for a full ten seconds, eventually murmuring: "I'm not sure what you mean. I've never been a sailor."
Sometimes, even when Sting can hear the questions. he arbitrarily decides not to answer them anyway, preferring to introduce his own, loosely affiliated, topics. In this way, an innocuous 'filler' question about the trials of fatherhood leads to one becoming more enlightened than one has any right to be concerning Sting's private contraceptive practices.
"None of my children have been planned, to be honest with you... We (he and second wife Trudie Styler) don't use birth control. we use self-control and a bit of mathematics. We have faith in something called the Rhythm Method. It kind of works, but your companion needs to be better at maths than you are. We seem to miscalculate now and then".
Likewise, an enquiry concerning Sting's Geordie roots eventually produces this grand claim on behalf of our national game. "Men can kiss and be much more physically and openly affectionate than they ever could be. and that definitely comes from football - scoring a goal, you're allowed to make love to your fellow man, and that's a good thing".
After a while, the conversation turns, inevitably, to the Police, the end period, of which Sting unhesitantly nominates as the worst time of his life: "When I was most successful, when the Police were top of the tree, the Biggest Band In The World, I was so unhappy. Everything was collapsing around me - my first marriage, my friendship with the guys in the band, my mind...
"I actually wasn't that nice as a younger man. Now, I care more about the relationships I have with my family and friends than I do about anything else, and I really do think I didn't used to. It was a simple case of ambition. I used to consider that success and happiness were the same thing. Now I realise that not only are they not, sometimes they're the opposite."
So, ambition is a dirty word to you nowadays?
"No. I do think that people need to be ambitious at a certain point in their lives to get things done. But I personally don't need to be ambitious any more. I don't have this burning desire to play Hamlet, or win Grammies or sell more records than Michael Jackson. It's just not important any more."
Back in the late '70s, ex-schoolteacher Sting's already over-weening ambition was further exacerbated by the Police being widely shunned by the punk New Wave community. This was partly understandable the trio first dyed their hair blond to appear in a Wrigley's advertisement as 'a punk band', but, creatively, a tad unwarranted. With their fusion or reggae, hard pop and mad jazz, the first two Police albums, 'Outlandos d'Amour' and 'Reggatta de Blanc', stand up even now as exciting and forward-thinking records, yielding singles as diverse as 'Roxanne', 'So Lonely', 'The Bed's Too Big Without You', 'Walking On The Moon' and 'Message In A Bottle'. Then, of course, there was 'Every Breath You Take' - one of the most claustrophobic and original 'love' songs ever.
At the time, Sting attributed the Police's lack of credibility to their being slightly older than the majority of New Wave artists ("We were too young for Woodstock, now we're too old for punk"), but this doesn't explain why, even now. when bands from roughly the same period, both good (The Jam) and bad (The Stranglers) are being lionised as influential', the Police are pretty much ignored.
Purely in terms of credibility, when Sting looks at what's happened to Paul Weller over the last few years, does he get jealous? Does he ever think: That Jam(my) bastard. why him and not me?'
"Yeah." he laughs. "When's it my turn?... No, Paul Weller stuck to his guns and there he is, back again. It's great. good luck to him. I'm not jealous. I'm happy with things as they are, actually... I've never been the darling of the critics, but that's been a good thing. It makes you tougher to be marginalised."
The brute truth is, it's not just the critics who deem Sting to be a mite de trop. While remaining phenomenally commercially popular, he is viewed with suspicion by the majority of the public. Falling somewhere between Thinking Man and Nutty Professor with his rainforest missions and debates on the after-life, it may just be that Sting's enquiring mind asks too many questions to make him a loveable public figure. After all, Matthew from Dodgy he ain't.
For his part, Sting seems happy enough with the situation. Or perhaps it's just that he has weightier things on his mind, like which of his recent European visitors (journalists, naturally) walked off with his Versace cups and saucers. First, his very public fleecing by his accountant and now this. Belatedly, some might say 'At last!', the gods seem to have it in for Sting. One way or another, he's going to have to pay heavy karmic back-tax. What is Sting's worldview? Are we in a predominantly good or bad place?
"Good and bad," he says, "I really believe in the possibility of evil. This morning I was reading about mass graves in Bosnia. How could human beings bury people alive? And, given those circumstances, could I do it? If I'm prepared to believe in the potential of evil in the human race, I have to believe in my own potential. The situation in Bosnia is so scary it's not even that far away - these are Europeans, for f***'s sake! It's incredible. Just because a guy wears a fez, or worships God in a different way, you have to kill him? They're totally missing the point of religion. "I'm becoming more religious as I get older - not that I ever want to belong to any religious cult," he laughs. "I already belong to the Catholic church and that's quite enough cults for me".
Regarding your involvement with Amnesty and the rainforests, is altruism a luxury only the rich can afford?
"I suppose, in my position, I have the time and leisure to worry about these big issues. If you're struggling to pay the mortgage, you're going to have to wait to win the lottery before you can deal with this stuff."
Like a lot of celebrities, Sting disapproves of the lottery. Is this because he can't stand the idea of ordinary people becoming instantly as rich as he is?
"No, it's just not part of human nature to accept being given something for nothing". You'd be surprised. Sting looks stern. "What I'm not surprised by are the disasters that occur when people do win. The whole nation putting their faith in the lottery turns it into a religion, a really tacky religion. Everyone in the house did it that week it was £40m - even Trudie. And I said, like, imagine the trouble we'd be in if we won. I was praying she wouldn't get any numbers. and she didn't. I mean, I won the lottery in a way, but it took a few years and I worked for it. I think people need to work for what they get, karmically."
Aren't entertainers grossly overpaid?
"Yeah, but I didn't set up the economics of this situation. And, like I said, we work for it. I work bloody hard." Nurses work hard. "Yeah, nurses work hard, too, and they are underpaid. And teachers. I'm aware of all that and how unfair it is, but I still don't think many people could do my job physically, or any way, really."
He sighs. "It's like some famous actress said: 'I do my job for nothing and I get paid for being famous.' When you're famous, you need a certain amount of cash to protect yourself."
The interview is drawing to a close. Soon it will be time for Sting to go back to the house to have his photographs taken in the jumper that, although it probably cost £2,000. looks like it's been stolen off the back of a local angler. There, Sting will vainly attempt to coerce me into a game of chess (has he got Snakes And ladders?), offer coffee (this time in cheap cups) and shake hands goodbye with such violence I am unable to hold a pen for days. My last view of Sting is of him running up the Sunset Boulevard staircase after one of his daughters, jovially crying: "Give me a hug, give me a hug!" while Daughter Of Sting completely and utterly ignores him.
Before all this happens, I get in just a couple more questions for the road. Sting, tell me about Dead Man's Root, it sounds absolutely appalling...
"Noooo." he says adamantly. "I don't want to talk about that. I'll be in too much trouble." Who with ? Sting flinches visibly: "Everybody!"
OK, then, read my Tarot. I heard you can do that. At these words, the pop idol groans like a beast in mortal agony: "Then I'll be in even more trouble. It'll be STING: THE f***ING DRUG CULTIST NECROMANCER!"
Then he starts, as if suddenly seized by a terrible new thought: "You do realise," he says quietly, getting up to leave, "that I'll never get a knighthood now."
© VOX magazine