As a fitfully employed, freelance hack, there are few jobs I consider beneath me. I’ve peered anxiously over the boundary wall of Eric Clapton’s English estate to the approaching noise of guard dogs to see if Clapton might care to supply an impromptu quote or two in lieu of the formal interview his management had aggressively denied me. I’ve been informed by a source close to Roman Polanski that he considered me a ‘nosy fellow’ — enough, perhaps, to give pause to anyone who happens to recall the director using that same phrase to Jack Nicholson immediately prior to inserting his flick-knife in Nicholson’s left nostril in a scene from Chinatown. I won’t even bore you with the blood-red letters and late-night phone calls from partisans of the late Kurt Cobain, apparently dissatisfied with my biography of their hero, nor with the time the Pakistani parliament noisily debated a passage of a book I’d written on that nation’s sometime cricket star and current prime minister Imran Khan.
However, when in 1998 I agreed to write the life story of the artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner, aka Sting — who turns 70 on Saturday — I may have gone too far. All rock stars are, to some extent, self-obsessed, and the outcome can be lethal. The reader may have his or her own candidate when it comes to the most egregious of the many available examples of the public performer who finds virtue in sharing the obsessions and frustrations of their own life, perhaps forgetting the central truth that art should lift us out of the dreariness of the day-to-day, not rub our faces in it.
The first hint that the subject of my book might be of unusually robust ego, even by pop music standards, came when I wrote to Sting to request an interview. This is one of those tedious but inescapable rituals of the unauthorized biography, and in my experience one that rarely if ever elicits a reply. However, Sting surprised me. Only a day or two later, he sent me a fax which explained — at some length — how he saw himself as an ever-evolving artist who would continue to hone his craft for ‘many, many more years, if not decades’ to come, and thus that any possible consideration of writing a book about him was hopelessly premature. Fair enough, I thought, even if Sting somehow failed to mention that he might nonetheless come to publish his own memoir, entitled Broken Music, just over three years later. Perhaps he hadn’t yet formally signed the contract at the time he faxed me.
Rather to his credit, Sting himself apparently recognizes the strange phenomenon of the pop star who comes to be treated as a sage on everything from man’s proper relationship to his maker, to the best techniques for tantric sex, purely because of his ability to sing on key. He once gave an interview in which he admitted to finding it rum on first hitting it big with his band the Police to suddenly be asked to comment on matters such as nuclear power. Of course, just because he detected the modern tendency to confuse celebrity with profundity doesn’t mean he necessarily avoided it. Over the years we’ve been treated to Sting’s views on subjects running the gamut from saving the rainforest to the joys of yoga, as well as the many other pronouncements great and small to emerge from the networking events he and his wife Trudie Styler regularly hold in their 400-year-old Tuscan villa, while pointing out to the cameras their organic gardens and biodynamic vineyards.
In fact, few of the crises chronicled daily on CNN — whether on Afghanistan, or COVID, or global warming and racial strife in US cities — are entirely free of Sting’s empathy. But perhaps the thing that most gets up the nose of non-believers is the attempt to paint himself as some sort of eco-warrior when his carbon footprint must be about the size of New England. Just for the record, Sting and his wife own an 800-acre estate in the English countryside, a $65 million penthouse condo on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a beach pad in Malibu, as well as the Tuscany crib and a little getaway in London. I may have overlooked one or two others. Nor are his recurrent global tours exactly undertaken by yak-drawn cart, liberated from the convoys of buses and air-conditioned limos, private jets and trucks full of lighting and sound equipment characteristic of less woke performers. And ‘We can’t live here and be happy with less / Everything we see we want to possess,’ as Sting chides us in his 1985 hit ‘If You Love Somebody Set Them Free’? Well, good luck to him. He’s earned it. But when a billionaire shakes the collecting tin on behalf of those crooks, charlatans and top-of-the-range Mercedes owners governing much of Africa — as he and others have done at the Live 8 concert and subsequently — harangues us, once again, about our conspicuous consumption, and then chooses to travel the world on roughly the scale of the 82nd Airborne Division, he wouldn’t, perhaps, seem to be a man whose first priority is either self-effacement or consistency.
Paradoxically for someone famously awake at the wheel, Sting is apparently bored by business minutiae. Back in 1977 he and his fellow Policemen Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were introduced to a London accountant named Keith Moore. Moore told me, ‘I always judged clients, particularly those in the music business, on a “meeting tolerance” scale. My recollection of Sting is that his meeting tolerance level was near nil. He was easily bored and was quite content to leave the money side of things to Stewart and Andy.’ Some of this same lassitude would later come to taint Sting’s dealings with Moore, who in 1995 was jailed for six years for fraud. Quite a lot of the unflattering press articles you read about Sting began at this time, mentioning, for instance, that he then happened to control 108 bank accounts, or that he’d managed to lose some $9 million to Moore’s scam and not even notice it was missing for several years. There was also the fact that he wasn’t above playing private concerts for the likes of that well-known guardian of human rights the Prince of Brunei, or that the Stings’ cook once supposedly had to travel 100 miles to make Trudie Styler a bowl of soup.
Sure, Sting wrote some memorable pop songs back at about the time of the Jimmy Carter administration. Unlike many of his peers, he also made a seamless transition from group to solo success. ‘It’s a question of the right groove at the right time,’ he once said, which is trickier than it sounds. There’s a wonderful song he wrote as recently as the mid-1990s called ‘Nothing ’Bout Me’, in which he loosens up enough to crack jokes about the perils of celebrity, and being hounded by enquiring authors. That one particularly got my attention. It wasn’t Sting’s doing, I stress, but the book I eventually wrote about him proved to be the only one so far in a scribbling career not untouched by shadow for which I was slapped with a High Court writ for libel. Perhaps I’m jaundiced as a result. Other than his ear for a tune, I’d say the other principal ingredients in Sting’s path from his humble roots as a northern England milkman’s son to global superstardom are a certain obsessiveness, tenacity and a complete absence of self-doubt. Somehow I find I’m content to wish him a happy birthday this week and then move on.