“Fucking horrible man,” Paul Weller, late of the Jam and the Style Council, once fulminated about him. “No edge, no attitude, no nothing.” Bob Geldof, ostensibly a friend, has labeled him a “Geordie twat.” Unkindness accrues easily to Gordon Matthew Sumner, the musician, actor, activist, and memoirist better known as Sting. Unfairly? Let’s say not wholly uninvited. Why, for instance, would someone who came of musical age in the punk era, alongside acts that aspired to take the piss out of absolutely everything, work so tirelessly to put the piss back in? “At this moment,” Sting mooned in his autobiography, Broken Music (2003), about a flower he espied on the Amazon floor, “I am led to an understanding that not only must such tiny, beautiful and delicate living things be charged with love, but also the inanimate stones that surround them, everything giving and receiving, reflecting and absorbing, resisting and yielding.” Sermons in stones, ghosts in machines, Lite FM in a burgundy turtleneck—it commands a kind of silent awe. And it raises anew the ancient riddle: How could a Geordie twat like Sting have fronted a band as great as the Police?
To those whose memories are faulty (or judgment weak) on this one, the Police were a great band. Great band. They were hard-working, fame-greedy, juvenile, reasonably beau-laid, and even, for a brief formative patch, obscure. Reggae plagiarism aside, what the Police did better than anyone was take their own precious prog-rock musicianship and rack it to the limits of the three-minute pop ditty. This takes more than cheek or talent; it takes craft, and the Police were extraordinary craftsmen. But don’t trust, verify: listen to “Man in a Suitcase,” “Roxanne”—a perfectly executed tango, no less!—”Canary in a Coalmine,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “Peanuts,” “Hole in My Life,” “Bed’s Too Big Without You,” “Regatta de Blanc” (tcha!).
Exquisitely cut little gems, one and all, and the creation, like all the best rock and roll, of multiple talents frequently at war. Before he joined the trio, Andy Summers (now an improbable 64 years old) had played guitar with everyone from Soft Machine to Neil Sedaka. Stewart Copeland, meanwhile, had started making his reputation as a visionary drummer behind the prog outfit Curved Air. Sting may have given the Police lyrics and melodies; but just as critically, Copeland, who founded the band and whose intricately manic polyrhythms define its sound, prevented Sting from impressing too much of his character on its music. Unyoked from Copeland, Sting was free to become what he is today: one-third spirit in the material world, two-thirds scented candle.
For the better part of 20 years as a solo artist, the King of Pain has been locked in a Mexican standoff with the rest of humanity. We refuse to believe that he is deep; he refuses to believe he is shallow. Nothing—no amount of sniggering on our part, no amount of Elizabethan luting on his—has broken this impasse. High-minded self-regard has been to Sting’s star image what groupie-defiling sex once was to Led Zeppelin’s. Maybe this is why Sting, still a ludicrously photogenic man, has never looked anything less than stupid on his dozen or so album covers. (With one exception. On the live disc All This Time he manages to not strike a Derek Zoolander, and actually looks likable and sexy.) As to his musical achievement as a solo performer, what can you say? Sting writes three kinds of songs: bluesy vamps, which quickly become dreary; sub-jazzy torch songs, to which he has trouble affixing catchy melodies; and relatively straightforward pop rock, at which he is preternaturally talented, but which elicits severe maudlin tendencies. (If I ever need reminding that I should “let my soul be my pilot” or that “love is a big fat river in flood,” I will turn to Sting in my hour of need.)
The sight of Sting with his old chums at the Grammys this past Sunday, tricked out in all his sleeveless retrosexual glory, belting out “Roxanne,” in that fakey Jamaican burr, made me want to reacquaint myself with the man. Sting’s is an unusual iteration of the hackneyed English rock and roll biography. He was the son of a modest dairyman in Newcastle upon Tyne who taught himself the rudiments of piano and guitar, sold a zillion records, and now lives like a feudal lord. But at two key moments in his life, what was supposed to happen didn’t happen. In the first, the person who might have been Lennon to his McCartney, a lifelong tormentor to rein in his worst habits of fatuous ingratiation, fell out of his life. Sting’s childhood best friend was a would-be hood named Tommy Thompson. When Sting succeeded academically and Thompson failed, the resulting tension in their friendship pulled them apart. It’s an oversimplification to claim that Thompson was Sting’s working-class conscience; nonetheless, Tommy was a council-estate lad, and Sting a bright scholarship boy. Sting was able to flow upwardly, and away from Thompson, in a way neither Lennon nor McCartney, born 10 years earlier, could ever have imagined. Years after losing track of him, at home from teachers college, Sting learns from his father that a go-nowhere Thompson has died drunk in his flat.
In the second, the new new thing in rock music, that comes along just as you come of age, failed to interest Sting. He hated glam rock and sat it out completely. This is where his biography exits the realm of rockumentary cliché entirely. By 26, John Lennon had recorded Sgt. Pepper’s, Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde, Bruce Springsteen Born To Run. By thetime he was 26, Sting had worked as a schoolteacher and played some music on the side, in a blissfully dorky big band and in a go-nowhere hometown rock outfit called Last Exit. The would-be rock god, in other words, had stalled out in the provinces. Before he became a star, Sting had lived a fully commenced, fully un-famous adulthood. In Broken Music, Sting describes a turning point in that adulthood. He has been offered a permanent job at his grammar school. “On the crest of the high ridge I turn back and I can see my life spread out like the valley below me: growing old like Mr. Sturbridge, a village teacher, gray-headed and stooped, with worn leather patches on the elbows of my jacket …” Broken Music is not exactly Goodbye to All That, but neither is it the towering monument to false humility one had every right to expect. Look, it says, I started life as a real human being; and to drive the point home, it cuts off at just the moment he joins the Police.
The Police were an unanticipated, and almost thoroughly cynical, shot at cashing in on the punk ethos. The last-ditch chutzpah of the project, its throwaway quality, especially to a young jazzman with literary pretensions, exerted a Lennon-like effect on Sting, as did the presence of the wholly irreverent rich kid Copeland. And for a brief period, Sting was rescued from his own worst impulses. When the Police broke up, he returned to his heartfelt origins, that of a dork who wants to play his own (albeit debased) version of American jazz; and that of a twerpie overachiever who, embarrassed by his humble lineage, never stops trying out for the lit magazine. Such a person may be clueless but is not obnoxious. Sting’s smugness is a mile wide but only an inch deep. (In contrast, I’ve always had the feeling Stewart Copeland, whom I otherwise worship, would rub suntan lotion in my hair.) For those of us inclined to dislike him, Sting’s odd little memoir presents us with the most insufferable fact of all. He’s apparently a decent and thoughtful human being.