An interview with Sting, done at his house in London for Q magazine, May 1989.
Watch out, he’s off again…
“I start getting very dewy-eyed when I talk about the Indians, very idealistic. But that’s the way I feel. I think they hold clues as to who we are. I have a theory that we don’t really understand the world, we think we do, but we don’t. Like I don’t know where my shoes came from. I don’t know who made them or how they were made. I don’t know where most of the things in this house came from.
“On the other hand the Indians, because their technology is so simple and so at hand, they know where everything in their life came from, which tree it came from, which animal, and therefore they have a direct responsibility to that source. And if you’re responsible for the source of your technology or your existence then you look after it. In a way the Indians are much closer to really understanding the world.
“I think they’re happier than we are. They’d be a lot happier if we weren’t trying to destroy them…”
He chuckles ruefully. Ploughing his fingers backwards through the famous flaxen straggle, the former teacher turned philosopher pop star is this afternoon in thoughtful mood. Limbs arrayed in sloppily casual togs of tracksuit style, his feet encased in Reebok trainers and tucked beneath him, he’s perched aboard a sofa in his soberly brown, woody North London home.
Now and again he turns a meditative gaze to the misty hills of Hampstead Heath, which offer up a picturesque backdrop outside the French windows. But his mind is somewhere up the Amazon.
“The Indians,” he continues, in a softly refined speaking voice that carries only the faintest imprint of Geordie, “have been fucked up the arse since they were discovered. It’s exactly the same story as happened in North America, with the very people who were given the job of looking after them, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, being the very people to shaft them. Their land was sold to loggers, to mining companies, to farmers.”
Sting, it may be swiftly gathered, has found himself an issue, a Great Cause. He’s giving this interview specifically for that purpose. He hasn’t put a new record out in two years, and there won’t be another studio album this year and possibly not the next. Nor is there yet another movie in the works, to follow his appearance in Stormy Monday, one of the best-received of his several cinematic efforts. He’s not planning any shows, either, having just come off the marathon Amnesty jaunt and, straight before that, his own tour in support of his ’87 LP Nothing Like The Sun.
Instead he’s setting off across the world to promote the campaign for those Brazilian rainforests – the ones whose destruction is said to be buggering up the earth’s climatic patterns, as well as eradicating priceless wildlife and an area of great natural beauty – and protecting the region’s indigenous inhabitants the Amazon Indians. He’ll be filming TV appeals, organising telethons to raise funds, meeting heads of state, and giving top level press conferences.
Sting, in short, is off saving the world again.
Now, is this crusade a serious attempt at righting a very major wrong? Or is it just a bit or rich man’s dabbling, one half woolly idealism and one half mere conceit? The will inevitably be some insinuations of the latter. But the evidence so far is of sincere and sizable commitment on Sting’s part, coupled with something in the way of tangible results.
His involvement started when he was playing in Brazil. He was approached by a Belgian film-maker, Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, already a veteran activist in publicising the Indians’ unhappy plight. “I had a few days off and this guy JP pestered the life out of me to come to the jungle. I said, Man, I’m on tour, I’m tired, I wanna be on the beach, why the hell would I want to go to the jungle? He said, Look, you will thank me for the rest of your life about this trip.
“So I said, OK, how do we do it? He says, Well, we have to hire a little plane, we have to buy some fishing hooks, some machetes… I said, What for? He said, You have to take the Indians gifts, to strike up a relationship. How much will it cost? A couple of thousand dollars.”
The acquisition of Sting, a still-glamorous celebrity of global media standing, and one of post-Live Aid rock music’s most determined consciences-on-legs, proved a shrewd move on Dutilleux’s part. The two men, plus a film crew and the singer’s girlfriend Trudie Styler, packed themselves into two planes and flew into the jungle – passing above the devastated terrain where dense forest and luscious vegetation have been cleared to leave a desert of poor land where white settlers attempt to scratch out a living by agriculture.
They arrived among a tribe of Indians and met with a Kayapo chief, Raoni, who was Dutilleux’s contact. Duly daubed in native body paint, Sting was educated in the Indians’ predicament and pledged himself to put himself at the service of their campaign for survival (for, as the rainforests are cleared, so are their inhabitants destroyed).
On their return, Sting and Dutilleux and Styler set up a campaign organisation, The Rainforest Foundation. In association with Raoni (who’ll accompany Sting on his world travels) one of their first objectives will be carving out a national park, somewhat bigger than Italy in size, to incorporate existing Indian reservations and protect at least a portion of the endangered territory. In June they plan a ceremonial walk around this park, marking out its boundaries.
He also had a meeting with the country’s head of state, Jose Sarney: “How I managed this I don’t know. But I arrived on the Saturday and on the Sunday morning I was walking into the Palace gates, in my fatigues, to meet the President of Brazil.”
The talk, apparently, was “very cordial”. Brazilians don’t take altogether kindly to outside pressure. With an international debt of 100 billion dollars, some Brazilians are asking why they should be expected to start making economic sacrifices on behalf of the world’s eco-system. (Burning the forests gives off excessive carbon dioxide – the “Greenhouse Effect” – which is then made worse because there are no longer the trees to re-absorb it.)
The answer, thinks Sting, lies in part with foreign banks relaxing the debt: “People go to the jungle through desperation, they’re poor whites from the coast looking for subsistence land. That’s what I came away with, not with a sense that these Brazilians are destroying the forest, but that our banks are. Even the most important bank manager in the world has to breathe the air.”
Magazines around the world have carried the first fruits of Sting’s PR scheme: you might have seen the photos of him with Raoni, a gentleman distinguished by the presence of a three-inch circular plate inside his lip: “Very fierce. The Sun got hold of a picture and said Sting Gets Some Lip, that kind of jingoistic schoolboy humour… It looks very painful, they start with a tiny piece of wood and every year it gets bigger. It’s basically to scare people. You see, these Indians have been so untouched because they lived behind a waterfall and anyone who came up to the waterfall was chopped to bits…”
The nastiness is far from finished. A union leader, Chico Mendes, was assassinated last December, allegedly for opposing the landowners: “It’s on a couple of levels. There’s the poor whites who want to scrape a living, they see someone who’s trying to stop that, so there’s a violent interface. But there’s also the multinationals who go in there and pay off the Bureau of Indian Affairs to look the other way while they lay waste huge areas of land. There’s the electric company who want to flood the forest to make electric power.
“I don’t know who killed Chico Mendes, he was just at the front line of this thing, as Raoni is – he’s in danger of being killed. It’s a very dangerous place.”
Q: That prompts the question, of course, about you as a figurehead of this campaign. Might your own life be in danger?
Well… I don’t really like to think about it. I don’t know. It has crossed my mind. We made some enemies when we there: there were stories in the right-wing press about me and the Indians that were very negative. So, yeah, there’s a reaction. But I believe what we’re doing is right. I’ve put my name down and I’m involved now, and I can’t get out of it. I don’t want to get out
Q: There seems to be a fashion in these things. One year we’re all worried about heroin, the next it’s AIDS, before that it was Ethiopia. And now it’s the rainforests – but next year they might be off the agenda again.
I’ve got a feeling this is such a fundamental problem to all of us. Heroin is something where you can say, Well I’m not taking heroin and nobody in my family is, so I can push that away. The Ethiopian famine, you can say, It doesn’t affect me. But the rainforest problem affects us all. We haven’t had a winter. I think people’s awareness and desire to help will increase. It is flavour of the month, but it’ll be the flavour of next month too, and the month after. It’s gonna get worse.
Q: You’re committed to this project for months to come. But what about the day job?
Haven’t done the day job for a while. In the past when I’ve been involved with issues they’ve usually been a source of inspiration for the work, they’ve fed it. This is too direct in a way. I’m not inspired to write a song. I’m not inspired to speak of it in terms of metaphor or poetic couplets. It’s so urgent with me, it’s direct action, it’s prose. I haven’t had time to think about music for a while. It pisses me off, actually, but I think everyone who has the opportunity to do two things, to do the day job and also try somehow to make this place liveable, I think we all have to try.
Q: Have you written anything since the last album?
No, not a note. Nothing that’s in any way commercially viable. I’m in a funny position at the moment. I don’t feel like playing the game.
Q: There’s the precedent of Bob Geldof. In a sense he’s never quite come down to earth since Live Aid, he hasn’t quite managed to re-insert himself inside the everyday business of being a rock star again. Do you anticipate anything like that?
I have a game plan, if you like. In August I’m going to New York to do a Brecht play on Broadway, The Threepenny Opera, and I’ve signed up for a year. One, it’ll keep me out of the jungle! Two, it’ll keep me in one place for a year, so hopefully being stuck there will get me grounded and I’ll be able to be creative again.
At the moment I can’t think of anything to do, I can’t think of anything to say that’s particularly useful. I haven’t really got a direction. It’s frightening and at the same time it’s quite relaxing. I’ll just wait. I’ve got enough money in the bank to keep me going for quite a while, so I’m not worried about that.
I’m not panicking about my creative life. I think things will calm down and I’ll get back to it, but at the moment I’m so blinkered about this thing.
Q: Do you know the term “compassion fatigue”?
Yeah. I’ve got it. I’ve got it about musical events for causes, they drive me nuts. Like everybody in the business I get calls every day about some worthy cause, let’s have a concert for it. I’m bored with the idea. The causes are perfectly respectable but the idea of doing a rock concert for it, I’m bored with it, the public’s bored with it. The idea has reached its peak, which is why I’ve got no interest in singing about this problem. I want to have direct access to the people who make decisions.
Q: How was it on the Amnesty tour by the end?
The Amnesty tour was a great success for all of us, for Amnesty and the artists. It was great fun for me, for Bruce, Peter, Tracy, Youssou. It was the best tour of my life.
Q: How did the egos rub up against each other?
Well, the way this thing was written up in the press, even before it happened, was interesting. The Star and The Sun were inventing stories about me and Bruce having rows: Who’s The Boss? Sting storms out of Amnesty Show because he’s not topping the bill, and all this crap. There was never a cross word between me and Bruce. If anything we got on infuriatingly well! [Laughs] The chemistry was great, everyone had a good time. So the press were kind of annoyed that nothing was going on so they made stories up, this bullshit about me fighting with Bruce. It never happened.
So there was no ego problem. If anything, we all felt a little less special, a little less lonely. Because, and here we go crying in our beer, but the sob story about being celebrated is that you feel a bit isolated. But to share your life with people who are going through the same thing is very comforting.
Q: Would you have been so mature about it a few years ago, when you were reputedly a rather competitive sort of bloke.
Oh I’m still competitive. One of the great things about the tour was the competition every night. Everybody watched everybody else’s show, and we all tried to blow each other off the stage. The rivalry was very positive, we really played our balls off, but it was a nice atmosphere. The whole thing about pop music and being bitchy about other artists is that you very rarely meet, which was one of the positive things about Band Aid. You’d talk about Boy George and slag him off and he’d slag you off, then suddenly you’re meeting these people and having a cup of tea and a talk and you think, He’s the same as I am.
Q: Is there anyone you envy?
I respect some people more than I used to. When we first started it was fuck everybody else, but when people have lasted 10 years you start seeing similarities rather than differences. I appreciate people like Costello, I think he’s consistent, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce more than I ever used to.
Q: But Costello’s reputation, for instance, has rested purely on his abilities as an artist, a songwriter, without the distraction of being a pin-up and a bit of a pop star, as in your case. So he’s taken entirely seriously.
Yeah, I’m not sure that’s my problem, it’s more the media’s. David Lee Roth said about Elvis that critics like Elvis Costello because he looks like a music critic, ha ha, which I always thought was pretty suss.
I quite like the way I look. There are problems with having been a pop star, a pin-up, people aren’t prepared to take you that seriously at first. It’s a struggle, you have to prove yourself, and I still feel I’m struggling, I still have a battle to fight. But that’s good. A career without any resistance would be a pretty bland affair. And I want to carry on signing for the rest of my life and I’m not gonna be a pin-up. I’m not a pin-up now, I’m 36. At the same time I don’t feel I’ve made any concessions, I don’t wear a corset or a wig, or squeeze myself into satin trousers. I’m very upfront about what I am, I’m a father of four kids, I’m an adult, well-educated.
Q: Well, if not physical vanity, do you think you might have become susceptible to intellectual vanity, over the years?
Q: The photos of you that came with Nothing Like The Sun have you holding your hand to your brow, like a man who’s ostentatiously “thinking”.
I’ve never thought about that. The whole idea of me being a pretentious wanker is kind of extant, but what am I gonna do? Pretend I’m stoopid? If that’s the alternative, forget it. I’d rather be a pretentious wanker. I like the photograph, I chose it, and if that looks pretentious to some people that’s their problem not mine.
One of the things about my life that the media is responsible for is the received knowledge about me.
That’s nothing to do with me. I have a clipping service, they send me all the crap that’s printed about me, in The Sun and The Star, so I go through them and I read about this person. There was one last week: Sting Leaves Trudie Holding The Baby, about how I’d been spending so much time with Bruce Springsteen that Trudie had delivered an ultimatum, that unless I spent more time at home with the kids she was leaving.
There was another story about me going into a restaurant wearing a balaclava as a disguise, and some “fans”, quote, began taking the piss out of me, saying I looked like Benny out of Crossroads. I then threw the hat on the floor and said, Let’s get out of here, darling! Then there was a fight and I was thrown out. “Snooty Sting”.
Both of these stories are total fabrications, there’s no kernel of truth in them. People say they don’t believe the press, but they do, and it builds up, and people get a received impression of you. And reading this I have to say, I’m a complete arsehole. A total wanker. A precious little fuck. I hate myself. These stories aren’t true. But I know if I go to the pub a lot of people have read this and they’re thinking, He must be a complete bastard. [Laughs] Oh well.
I’m not perfect, but then again I’m not this wanker who’s in the newspapers.
Q: How does your sense of humour express itself, then? The received impression, if you like, is that you’re a bit pompous.
Yeah, I do get pompous when I get on to serious issues, but I think that’s a function of being a Geordie. We are a bit serious. But my sense of humour… I’m trying to think of a joke now!
Q: Well, there were stories of pranks to and fro between you and Rod Stewart.
Again it’s the received knowledge about me. We had a plane in America, Rod had used it the night before for his gig, we took it over the next day. So I sit down at the table and there, very intricately carved, is, Where’s your fucking sense of humour, you miserable git ‘String’? I see this and get the stewardess. What’s this? She says, I know, I’m sorry, I was going to explain, Rod Stewart did it yesterday. I said, A 50-year-old man sat here for half an hour and wrote me this message? I don’t believe it!
I didn’t really mind. I just thought it was extraordinary a grown man would do this! So I thought, I’ve got to do something here. We had three days off in Los Angeles, so I found out Rod was away playing in Reno one night, and flying back to his Bel Air estate after the gig. So I went to his house, found there’s only one gate to his estate, and it opens sideways, electrically. So I bought a big industrial chain, went up about 11.30 at night, and fastened the gate to the fence. There was no way you could open it up without arc-welding equipment. Ha ha! The security guards came, the dogs were barking, but they couldn’t get out! So I buzz off. Then Rod comes back from his gig and can’t get into his house for three hours, cos he has to get someone with an industrial cutter to open his lovely gate.
He knew exactly who’d done it, and there’s a call to my agent the next day, I’m getting the police! I’m getting the FBI! Where’s his sense of humour? Ha ha! I sent a big bunch of flowers to him and Kelly the next day.
But he was just operating on this idea that I’m some humourless fucker… Maybe I am!
Q: But if not humourless or pompous or pretentious, are you perhaps didactic?
(Feigns a yob-like confusion at the word “didactic”.)
Q: Once a teacher, always a teacher, you know. Is there a part of you that thinks your place is always up at the front, telling us what’s what?
I think so. There are good teachers and bad, as you know. I was good at teaching stuff I enjoy, music, soccer, wasn’t very good at teaching maths. But I suppose, yeah, I am a bit of a teacher. But there are entertaining teachers. Nobody’s gonna fill Shea Stadium if they’re boring teachers. I can play Wembley Pool five or six nights, I can’t be that boring, that didactic. My first function is to teach. No! That’s wrong! I mean my first function is entertain, to make a fool of myself. And I do it.
Q: Do you understand the concern of those who say rock is too sensible, that social responsibility is all very well, but it’s against the spirit that made rock exciting in the first place?
I think there’s room in rock’n’roll for almost every shade, from irresponsibility to responsibility. It’s big enough. I just have to be true to myself. I can’t go out and say, Woarggh! You’re all bastards! It’s not me. I can’t do it with any authority.
People aren’t “concerned”, really. Praise is a very bland commodity. It’s much more saleable to say somebody’s an idiot, or too didactic. If I was a critic I’d do the same. You can’t just say, This guy’s brilliant. You’d be out of work. I understand that. I don’t mind people taking the piss, so long as it’s funny. I think most critics are fair.
Q: In one interview you said your long hair was “an expression of the feminine side of your nature” or something. Now…
I was taking the piss when I said that! No, I’m actually protesting the Vietnam war… I’ve decided I’m going to cut my hair when we do this park, and when I start the Threepenny Opera. It’s as stupid and trivial as that.
Q: Didn’t you have some serious point in mind, though?
Yes. I’m going to get a bit po-faced and didactic here, but what I think I’ve learned about maturity for a man is that one route is to become Rambo or Chuck Norris, and the other is to become more feminine, to accept that part of your psychological make-up is from your mother. It doesn’t mean you’re a cissy, or a homosexual. A mature man doesn’t buy jungle fatigues and a sub-machine gun and walk into a town and blow people away. A mature man is somebody who can look after the kids, cook a meal for the kids. So I’m not frightened of saying I’m more feminine than I used to be. I feel gentler. I was a very macho sort of guy 10 years ago. I’m different now.
Q: Presumably this would be reflected in your relationships with women.
Well I have a great relationship with a woman now. It’s a more mature relationship than I’ve had before; it’s lasted the longest, and long may it continue, despite The Star. So yeah, I think my attitude to women is better, even if it’s not perfect.
Q: Some might think, it’s all right for him to talk about being mature and un-macho, when you’ve had years of enjoying the privileges of pop stardom. In the same way that some middle-aged characters lecture the young about sex and drugs, when they’ve had the 1970s.
I wouldn’t like to lecture the young about sex or drugs. It was a lot safer in the ’60s or ’70s to indulge in sex or drugs – I wish I’d done more of it – but now it’s not so safe. Cocaine used to be very expensive to do, but now there’s crack, which is like bubblegum. I’ve seen people on it, and in a very middle-aged way that scares the shit out of me. I think the young might feel jealous of better times, but nobody can turn the clock back. My eldest son is 12, on the brink of becoming a young man, and I don’t envy him.
Q: Where do you find the energy for all this touring and so on?
You have to stay fit, there’s no other way of doing all those shows. You have to be disciplined about going to bed. I’m pretty disciplined. As I say, my function is to entertain. It used to be entertaining in the ’60s to sort of fall on stage with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and a line of coke. Unfortunately I was a schoolteacher in that period! But now you’re out there competing with Prince and Michael Jackson and Terence Trent D’Arby – these people are athletes. And Bruce has unbelievable energy. So you have to be in training.
Q: Do you still enjoy a comfortable relationship with the somewhat aggressively capitalist Miles Copeland? Nowadays you seem a more oddly mis-matched couple than ever.
We are oddly mis-matched, but we find each other stimulating. He’s not a stupid man by any means, very intelligent, and if I don’t agree with his views I have to appreciate that he has very good reasons for holding them. Basically I’m his friend. I don’t agree with some of his business practices, with his politics, but he’s still my friend. I don’t know if I need so much managing any more, my career just goes on. He’s not fighting for TV time for me, if anything he’s fighting to stop me being on the TV.
Q: Isn’t this having your cake and eating it? You can play the unworldly idealist, while there’s a hard businessman out there to push for your interests.
Come on, rock’n’roll is a business, it’s capitalism with a capital C. And it’s capitalism from the smallest beginnings: any band who has to hire a PA or a studio, they have to make money. No band can be outside the capitalist system. If you’re gonna survive in that business you have to have people who are gonna deal with that shit every day, and who do it well. And Miles is a good businessman. If you’re gonna fight in the bullring you need somebody to do it for you.
Yeah, I can be other worldly. I have this nice house and I can play the piano and listen to Mozart and there’s these people doing the dirty work. But it’s the same for anybody: it’s about money. I try to steer clear of it because it’s not particularly helpful to the creative process. If I was thinking about money, I’d be in the studio now trying to write a Kylie Minogue song.
Miles is thinking about the money and I’m thinking about the rainforest…