This article originally appeared in the July 1985 issue of SPIN.
60° West Longitude, 16°45′ North Latitude—“Captain sir, permission to break out the vodka and orange!” whoops the handsome blond helmsman as he hugs the ship’s sleek steel wheel, an impish gust suddenly sending some briny spray into his smirking face. “And the gods have spoken!” he asserts, wiping the bracing water away. “Aw, yes, this certainly beats the coal fields of Newcastle!”
We are approximately one hour out of Old Road Bay, two miles off the leeward coast of Montserrat, the proud prow of the 44-foot Queen of Scots sailing yacht slicing the teasing swells at about 8 knots, the rocky island of Redondo rising in the misty middle distance off our port side like a miniature Gibraltar. From this privileged early morning vantage point, sun-mottled Montserrat resembles a cozy merger of Hawaii and Ireland, with its serrated volcanic peaks plunging from their collars of fluffy clouds into dense jungle valleys and sloping, emerald glens.
In the spooky, incorporeal Caribbean, there are few things more dependable than the east-west tradewinds, and as they oust the remaining cloud cover from the path of the blazing sun, the impish pilot loses all sense of composure. Hastily relinquishing the wheel to wiry Captain Ken Armstrong, he lunges for the drinks being served. After downing two of them in as many gulps, he improvises an addled jig on the foredeck.
“I love the boys,” Sting sings, “I love the navy! I love my biscuits dipped in gravy!”
The eight passengers scattered amidships explode with laughter. Sting and the others take turns re-enacting snippets from the famous “Raging Queen” Saturday Night Live seafaring skit, as well as naughty revisions of H.M.S. Pinafore. A half-hour later—and its still well before noon—everyone is thoroughly buzzed on Finnish vodka, Monserratian ganja and their own shared bonhomie.
On board for the day’s sail around the 39-square-mile island are siren-voiced rock singer Sting, aka Gordon Sumner, the slim, bronze and strikingly fit eldest son of Ernest Sumner; Ernie himself, box-jawed, genial to a fault; actress Trudie Styler, the mother of one of Sting’s three children and pregnant with another (due in May); shy, spindle-limbed Joe, Sting’s nine-year-old boy; three guests and the captain’s female first mate.
It is several days after New Year’s, and Montserrat has barely recovered from its annual month-long festival, which traditionally culminates with a three-day revel that includes the Calypso Finals (King Reality aced out defending champion King Hero in the Road March) and the frenetic Last Lap Jump-Up, a dusk til dawn parade and street dance held in the rustic port capital of Plymouth (pop. 1,267). Sting and his tribe went largely unnoticed in the happy commotion and those who did recognize him were unfazed.
This day we are in quest of Montserrat’s semi-secret natural treasure—its only white sand beach. Because of the island’s volcanic origins, the precious few beaches on its western coast are composed of black and silver-grey sand. However, there is one crescent of pink and white coral sand at remote and relatively inaccessible Rendezvous Bay, located near the isle’s northern tip. As we press on in our mission Sting’s lively conversation ranges from West Indian politics and the legacy of Bob Marley to Coptic mysticism and Freemasonry, Sting recommending several books that touch on the murky underside of the secret fraternal organization—God’s Banker, The Brotherhood and Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
“They’re sometimes a bit difficult to obtain,” he admonishes, “perhaps because the Masons and the Catholic Church, whose loyal defenders are legion, aren’t particularly thrilled with their presence in bookstores. For myself, I’m always intent on discovering the story behind any story, the structure behind the facade. Separating the nonsense from the few new facts that might ring true is a constant process I just accept. New ideas replicated are sacraments—meaningful rituals that turn nonsense into relative order.”
“And new actions are the same way,” he says, momentarily shielding his piercing azure eyes from direct solar assault as he accepts another iced screwdriver. “Apart from my family, which means the world to me, I’ve nothing firm in my life; everything is flexible—increasingly so.” He glances down at the foamy water rushing past the bulkhead. “I feel I’m moving at the speed of light, relative to most people. And when you move that fast, reality distorts and things slow down, grow loose and flowing, and become somewhat mystical. That kind of velocity and mood feeds my vast curiosity, my craving to know and to experience and to test.”
At this stage in his remarkable passage, the 35-year-old Sting is demanding a dramatic new independence in which to realize his wide-ranging ambitions. The Police, the reggae-laced, buoyantly melodic power-rock triumvirate that emerged in 1977 from the cacophonous tumult of the British punk upheaval, has not recorded since completing their 1983 album, Synchronicity. After touring throughout the following year in support of the record, drummer-founder Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers went their separate ways for assorted solo projects, among them some film soundtracks (Rumblefish and 2010, respectively).
For Sting’s part, he continued with his own meandering screen acting career, spending seven weeks in Mexico City filming what proved to be a brief, fragmentary appearance as the hateful Feyd-Rautha in the interminable Dune. His next two roles, as Baron von Frankenstein opposite Jennifer Beals in The Bride (out this summer) and as a black-marketeer/lover of a French Resistance sympathizer (Meryl Streep) in Plenty (due in the fall), are his first lead parts since Brimstone and Treacle. That comparatively obscure 1982 movie, for which Sting also wrote several skin-tingling songs, was his first starring role, and he was compellingly convincing as a demonic young drifter who insinuates himself into the household of a luckless London family.
Moreover, the fledgling actor and screenwriter is still hopeful that his own script adaptation of the first two books of Gormenghast, post-war British novelist Mervyn Peake’s allegorical fantasy trilogy, will shortly be produced in England as a teleplay. But with The Bride and Plenty in the can, his chief concern on this idyllic Caribbean afternoon is a project that promises to postpone any possible reformation of the Police until 1986 at the earliest: his first solo LP.
Rumors mount that his album sounds the death knell for one of the most sagacious groups of the last half-decade, but he discounts such talk. “The Police and my solitary projects are logically very separate,” he says. “We haven’t broken up, but we’ve become separated by our own plans for ourselves for the time being. It’s nothing more than that.”
After spending several months writing the songs for his solo flight, he brought some kith and kin down to this, his ideal workspace and playground for some dynamic respite. The Police recorded both Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity in Montserrat at the notoriously splendid AIR Studios hilltop villa complex, and this trip is Sting’s fifth to the mountain getaway. In between water sports, tennis and night-time carousing in the sleepy island’s few clubs, he’s been revising lyrics and getting the final arrangements in order for his new material, portions of which—“Children’s Crusade,” “Set Them Free,” “Consider Me Gone,” and “Bourbon Street”—date back to a writing spurt Sting had in the summer of 1984.
The boat is coming about and easing into the shoals of the deserted Rendezvous Bay as Sting saunters down into the stateroom below. He pops up again, a red baseball cap over his tousled, straw-colored thatch. Sprawling out on the aft deck, his squarish head propped against the mast, he begins detailing the inspiration for “Children’s Crusade,” a song for which he has cut an exploratory demo track at AIR’s 48-track digital board.
“On the surface, it’s a song about human folly and the ravages of war,” he says quietly. “Americans look back on the First World War as a kind of glorious adventure, a mechanized breakthrough in defending the world against bullies and tyranny. But in England, it’s drummed into all schoolchildren that it was an utter disaster, a grotesquely tragic waste of an entire generation of young men. Tens of thousands of them were continually sent over the top on the Western Front to be riddled and dismembered a few feet later by a hail of machine-gun bullets. The lemmings-styled charges were all for naught, gaining not one inch of ground. British World War I memorials contain endless, horrifying lists of the dead. That war became a symbol of the end of the invincibility of the British Empire and shattered the people’s faith in the wisdom of their generals and politicians.”
“The actual Children’s Crusade was a mythic army of kids sent to the Holy Land to convert the Saracens, but the truth is that it was a corrupt plot hatched by monks in the 11th Century. They rounded up street urchins on the pretense of recruiting them for some purpose—and then they shipped the helpless children to North Africa. Those that survived the journey in spite of starvation and shipwrecks were sold as white slaves. I tell you, history is, in part, a series of madmen deluding people into parting with their children for loathsome and tragic schemes.”
The intense mood lifts when Trudie gives the call for lunch, and she breaks out a mighty Tupperware bowl of her superbly gooey, al dente macaroni salad while Sting slips into the galley, re-emerging with a basket brimming with cold roast chicken he’d prepared the previous evening. As Sting and the witty Trudie josh each other about their “appalling domesticity,” Ernie Sumner chats about his brood of two boys and girls, who had a strict Roman Catholic upbringing in the north England city of Newcastle. Located on the Tyne River, it was once a thriving centre for coal mining, shipbuilding and heavy industry, but the port never recovered from a crippling recession it suffered in the ’30s.
“My wife Audrey and I, we raised them well enough, tried to give them a bit of good advice,” he says with pride. “We were never poor, but life in Newcastle was sometimes difficult. I delivered milk, and then I got to where I took over the dairy business myself. I’m retired now, and Gordon’s brother Philip, he runs the dairy, and also has a night-club in town.” Ernie’s face is abruptly creased with a crooked grin. “Hey now,” he calls to “Gordon,” indicating the boat with a sweeping gesture, “when you were a lad I told you to get yourself on a ship and see the world, didn’t I?”
Sting nods, blushing, and chuckles as he recalls aloud applying for a seaman’s card when he was 17. He had landed a job with the Ronnie Pierson Trio, a shipboard dance band contracted to Princess Cruises, playing bass with the group on the summer circuit in the Mediterranean.
After lunch, there is a brief siesta, the boat swaying in time to a radio tuned to the calypso of Radio Antilles. The steel pan and percolating trumpets suddenly segue into the sinewy tick-tock of “Every Breath You Take.”
“Goodness,” Trudie quips, “that sounds like Daddy working!”
With that, the radio is switched off and we pile into the rubber Zodiac motor raft tethered to the end of the boat for the short trip to the beach. The broad ribbon of sand is as soft as it is ultra-fine, and the sheer, orange clay cliffs looming over it rise at least 30 feet to a plateau of gnarled scrub forest. Sting remarks that the stark beauty of the spots extreme isolation would be appropriate for a cinema remake of Robinson Crusoe. When he returns to the theme of “Children’s Crusade,” says:
“I remember how, around 1980, I got catatonically depressed about the future, about the future for my young son in a world cursed with the shadow of what seemed ceaseless wars and imminent nuclear catastrophe. That shadow is still there, but now I feel better perhaps because I’m on the offensive in terms of sounding an alarm in my music or at least daring to consider the implications out loud, hoping people are listening. ‘Children’s Crusade’ is an appeal to reason.”
Joe runs up to snugly whisper something in his dad’s ear, a recurring tableau during the course of the sail. Sting cocks his head, takes in the confidence and then pulls the skinny boy close to kiss him on the cheek.
“Joseph is a bundle of secrets,” he says, cupping his hands over the boy’s ears. “He doesn’t speak to anyone but his dear old dad when he’s out in public, and even then he does it under his breath. I don’t want him to hear this but I will reveal nothing of his words. Not even upon pain of torture most grievous!” His son begins to giggle, which Sting encourages with a whirl of rib tickling, and then Joe breaks free of his grasp and spins toward Trudie. She sits some 50 yards away, gazing out at the glistening water, lost in her thoughts. On the boat she’d chatted about her love of acting, her work with the Royal Shakespearean Company and the play she’d happily completed just in time to concentrate on her pregnancy.
“You know,” says Sting, his tone placid, “I sometimes think of all the turns I’ve taken. I was the Northumberland champion in the 100- and 200-meter sprints when I was in private school, which meant that I was ranked No. 3 in England in my age group. But having reached that point; I gave up. I decided there was no gain in being part of the pyramid. I was to be the best at something else.”
“All my life; the process of forgetting myself and clearing my mind has gone against every conditioning I went through as a boy. l was conditioned to plan, to plot, to scheme, to worry: That was the only route out of the working-class world I was raised in, a Catholic boy in a Protestant universe where the class structure blocks your dreams rather than assists them. If you’re not wealthy or part of the aristocracy, rock ‘n’ roll is one possible way out of the suffocating British system.”
“I just finished reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I wept at the end of the book because it had a heart and an eloquent genius to it that seemed beyond human ingenuity. It was about how close dreams and long-term realities can be. As it charts the strivings of a family over a century, predictions and visions come true, for better or worse, but you see them taking shape from the start.”
“It takes enormous courage and belief to meet your destiny in life; you can see it so closely, and yet you still have to struggle toward it. Once you’re aware of its existence, it’s more a hard-fought objective than a preordained fact. That’s why many people miss their calling, their destiny, or allow themselves to get beaten down on the road to finding it. Strange how things can be magical on the one hand, and heartbreaking on the other. We all begin with such enormous promise!”
“I was invited to witness a psychic metal-bending experiment in September 1981, supervised by a professor in the physics department at London University. I saw the young people being tested bend thick strips of metal and then bend them back again over the course of an hour or so. And the people conducting the research were scientists, not mystics. At the time, witnessing those experiments was more exciting for me than rock’n’roll.”
During a previous interview in Manhattan in 1984, Sting had made it clear that he was transfixed by the possible metaphysical import of those experiments and was quite immersed in inquiries into the occult. This afternoon, romping and reflecting on this secluded beach, he seems a far more sober presence. What’s changed, or changed him?
“I have three children, and another on the way from a woman dear to me,” he says. “That kind of thing pulls you down from the clouds, I suppose. You know, all those kids in those experiments are losing their psychic powers as they conform to society’s notions of normality, getting jobs, girlfriends, mortgages. I think that says something about society’s innate power to discourage specialities. I want to prevent that from happening to those I care about and want to see flourish.”
He looks down the beach at Joe, who’s constructing a sand castle with Trudie. “I would die for that little guy,” he says after a long silence, “but I would much rather live for him.”
It’s just after sunset when we complete our circumnavigation of Montserrat and put in again at Old Road Bluff. Behind us, heat lightning is flashing through the roiled blue and purple clouds above Antigua, visible 27 miles to the north-east. Everyone is smarting with healthy sunburns and professing a grateful weariness from the sail, vowing to head off for extended naps—except Sting. After returning to his rented villa across from the Vue Point Hotel (whose seaside cluster of impeccable cottages comprises one of only two worthy public lodgings on the island), he heads down the road to the AIR Studios complex to add guest vocals to “Money for Nothing,” a track on Dire Straits’ new Brothers in Arms LP.
Later that evening, everyone, including Sting and most of Dire Straits and its support staff, congregates at the Village Place, a secluded rum-bar-cum-eatery located in the hills above the tiny village of Salem. Beneath a sagging network of Christmas lights, the band members and assorted villagers are sipping Carib Lager while engrossed in one of several games of backgammon taking place on the patio or placing small bets on the solemn billiards match between two dreadlocked locals in the adjacent shed.
But the real action is at the long bar in the low-ceilinged main shack, where dread barkeep Danny Allen is cooking up batches of Mix-Up (a blend of Irish sea moss, brandy and Guinness stout said to be an aphrodisiac) and the viciously potent Volcano (four kinds of rum, grenadine, pineapple juice, orange juice and Montserrat lime juice). Jimmy Buffett has said that he named his 1979 Volcano album for Montserrat’s active lava boiler, Galway’s Soufrière, but the young bloods at the bar wink and assure you that it was named for the libation that Buffett and James Taylor downed endlessly on the premises and in the now-closed Agouti in Plymouth. Whatever the case, there is general agreement that it was Elton John who made the joint the nocturnal watering hole of choice for AIR denizens when he adopted it during the making of Too Low for Zero.
Midnight comes and goes, the place grows noisier and more raucous. The Knopfler brothers arrive and wade into the genial fray. Steel Pulse pulsates from crisp basso speakers hung overhead while the racially mixed clientele joke, jawbone and flirt with each other, occasionally glancing over at the James Bond movie on the TV over the ancient refrigerator. But for slave rebellions like the legendary one staged on St. Patrick’s Day, 1768, and the equally famed Fox Riot of 1889 in the neighboring village of Frith (wherein an angry mob held off police attempting to arrest the Fox family for illegal distillation of rum) the fun-loving citizenry of the island is surprisingly devoid of the racial friction that afflicts so much of the West Indies. When the sound system erupts with “Hot, Hot, Hot,” a recent single by local soca star Arrow that was a huge hit in England, the crowd cheers in unison.
“I’ve got a theory about the Caribbean recording studios and why people come here,” says Sting the next afternoon, barefoot in chic swim trunks and souvenir polo shirt, as he takes a poolside table at the Vue Point Hotel for a late lunch. “Wanna hear it?”
A coquettish teenage waitress arrives, encouraging him to try local delicacies like goatwater stew, spicy rice and peas (as kidney beans are known in the Indies) and mountain chicken (frog’s legs). He opts instead for a club sandwich on rye toast and Lime Smash, the native soda pop, and offers his hypothesis.
“No European or American rock group comes to the Caribbean to record their first record,” he begins, “because the costs are prohibitive and it’d be pretty silly, since it’s really urban music that we all make. When you initially start touring, and you achieve any kind of popular grassroots response, you’ve primarily toured cities, industrial and depressive areas, in horrible clubs and halls with awful dressing rooms.”
“Then you record the first album, which for the Police, of course, was the Outlandos d’Amour thing in 1978, and you do it in a cruddy, funky studio with egg cartons on the walls. You make your second album in more or less the same place on a shoestring budget (Reggatta de Blanc was cut in London’s humble 16-track Surrey Sound Studios for a scant $6,000), after touring again on the same dreary trail. We kept costs down on our early American tour by loading our own equipment into vans and station wagons, because it usually takes two albums before you see any money.
“And then the bucks started coming in ” he says with a wide grin as his food is set before him. “And we began to think about a state-of-the-technology studio in some smart locale. Then, more bucks came in, and we said,” (here his dusky voice cracks in a gleeful yelp) “Hey, why don’t we go and record in the Caribbean!!”
“There are a variety of choices open to you: You can go to Nassau, to Barbados, to Jamaica, or come here. And it’s a way of saying you’ve made it; it’s a reward. You are ensconced in a tropical paradise, allowed to feel your new wealth and its attendant power. Following my awful separation from my wife [actress Frances Tomelty] in the early ’80s, I went to Jamaica to escape, and I stayed at Golden Eye, the old lan Fleming house in Oracabessa that Chris Blackwell of Island owns. While I was there, I sat at Fleming’s old wooden desk overlooking the ocean, the one at which he wrote all his James Bond books, and I wrote ‘Every Breath You Take,’ ‘King Of Pain,’ ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger,’ all these neat songs. And that was also the first time tried I sensimilla. I brought those songs to Montserrat and we cut Synchronicity.”
“I’m not much of a tourist; I’ve seen most of the world anyway, so I don’t want to go out and find more new places. I bring my family here because I know what I can expect without any worries. I know I’m gonna be able to learn to windsurf, water-ski, all the middle-class stuff I never got the chance to do when I was a kid. For the time being, this kind of environment is also good for me creatively, but I think it would be a mistake for the Police to do another album in this kind of setting. I think it’s best,” he concludes, biting into his savory double-decker sandwich, “that we eventually get back to the squalor of our roots. Me, I’m also planting new ones.”
Approximately one week later, a tanned and high-spirited Sting is roaming the wintry streets of New York City, searching for the right combination of musicians to help him bring his own work-in-progress to fruition. Booking time at the SIR rehearsal studios on Manhattan’s West Side, he screens a host of the city’s best axemen, and he is open and unabashed (“I couldn’t have done it otherwise”) in acknowledging the debt he owes to Vic Garbarini, former executive editor of Musician magazine, who played a key role in lining up the nation’s top jazz-based instrumentalists.
“Sting knew I was in close touch with this network of players,” says Garbarini, “and as far back as last October, when I was staying with Sting in his house in England, he had said to me, ‘Maybe I should just give you a checkbook and let you hire me a band.’ I thought he was kidding until he called me in December of ’84 and said, ‘Do you want a job? I want to work with highly skilled jazz musicians to ensure the quality of the project, and the rest will take care of itself.'”
“I said to him, ‘But you don’t want the older jazzmen who grew up playing bebop. What you want are the young ones who were raised on jazz, fusion and funk and are closet rock fans.’ In other words, a more assimilated crew but still with a contemporary edge. I suggested he sign up Branford [Marsalis] sight unseen, because I knew Branford and his sax has got that Wayne Shorter/Coltrane sensibility but also his own very contemporary funk-influenced sound. Sting agreed.”
Next Garbarini drew up a laundry list of the cream-of-the-session crop, as well as the best and brightest new innovators. “Overnight, I put together workshop-type auditions with the full spectrum, from the avant-garde end of James Blood Ulmer sidemen to the neo-classical guys. By the second day, we had most of the group.” Which was Marsalis, drummer Omar Hakim, late of Weather Report, and Miles Davis alumnus Darryl Jones on bass.
The latter two were pressed to set aside their own evolving career schedules to clear the decks for seven weeks of recording at Eddy Grant’s Blue Wave Studios in Barbados, followed by a solid year of global concert chores. Keyboardist Kenny Kirkland came aboard at the end of the week and vocalists Dollette McDonald and Janice Pendavis were added. Everybody scattered for a spell to wrap up any lingering commitments and then regrouped for a mere seven days of serious rehearsals before presenting a. trio of sneak-preview shows on February 25, 26 and 27 at the jammed Ritz club in lower Manhattan.
“I set it up that way to create tension, create a galvanising element,” Sting explains. “It’s no good saying, ‘Well, let’s do a rehearsal and then we’ll have a gig in August.’ That wouldn’t have been right for me; I would have been bored. Having that gig to work for in a very short time meant we really had to work hard. I wanted to discipline them as far as learning the songs, and then let them play their asses off.”
“Much black jazz music these days is played to white, middle-class audiences in a sort of conservatory environment. When you go to see Wynton Marsalis play, you might as well be going to hear chamber music. Many of them are not used to steamy, sweaty rock clubs where the stage is bouncing up and down and the kids are going berserk. So I looked ’round on the opening night at the Ritz and I was nervous, but they were all frightened.”
“And most of them had never even seen me perform live! During rehearsals I’d been very low-key and matter-of-fact so they weren’t prepared for the lunatic who arrived on Monday. The best music was played on Wednesday night, but most of the raw terror and joy was on Monday.”
Decked out in baggy dark trousers and a bright yellow jacket over a white T-shirt, Sting bobbed and leapt around the stage, swinging his cream-colored Telecaster with a sure vengeance as he led the game ensemble through the anthemic “The Children’s Crusade,” “Bourbon Street,” a cinematic narrative about an immortal nightstalker inspired by novelist Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; and “Working the Black Seam,” a chillingly foreboding parable that used the recent protracted coal miners strike in England as a metaphor for willful self-destructiveness; in that case, the pig-headed miners pitted against Margaret Thatcher’s insensitive Tory resolve.
The immaculate harmonics of Andy Summers’ deft chordings and the reverberant, timbale-redolent grandeur of Stewart Copeland’s reggae-rock percussion had been replaced by an awesomely interwoven tapestry of reflex virtuosity. The delicacy of Marsalis’ affecting soprano and tenor sax solos offered an airy counterpoint to Jones’ bold, deep-diving bass lines and Hakim’s exultantly propulsive stick and cymbal flair. Kirkland’s keyboard parried and thrusted in a seductive mating dance with the women’s vivid, vivacious backup singing, and lent the songs intoxicating color.
When Sting did solo guitar-and-voice versions of “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle,” the full house sang along with gusto. And when the band roared through rearranged versions of “Shadows in the Rain,” “Driven to Tears,” and “I Burn for You” from the Brimstone and Treacle soundtrack, the crowd seemed jolted by the fresh contours and fury in Sting’s climbing vocals. Sting even inserted a couple of sassy Freddie King and Little Willie John blues standards for cocky good measure. With a deafening send-off from the faithful, the man and his shock troops were well along on the road to Barbados.
“Look at this place!” urges Eddy Grant, his thick drape of dreadlocks reaching halfway down his broad back, as he treks through the converted stable in which are installed a spectacular 48-track digital studio and a suite of business offices. Striding out into the bone-dry midday heat, the blazing sun making his nylon red and white tracksuit gleam fiercely, Grant moves past the bubbling fountain in the courtyard of his renovated plantation and onto the front porch of the main house. The long piazza, constructed, like the rest of the compound, of white marble, terra-cotta and bleached coral brick, overlooks a swimming pool and terraced gardens, delineated by an elegant balustrade. Beyond this is a vast plain densely planted with sugarcane, a deep green and impenetrable sea of ripening stalks.
“Who could believe,” he says evenly, his chest swelling, “that a boy named Edmond Montague Grant from Guyana, the son of a man who sold automobile parts, would one day possess Bayley’s plantation?! In the 1880s, it was the virtual kingdom of a lordly white landowner and slave master—one of the biggest in the history of Barbados.”
“In fact,” notes the 37-year-old singer/songwriter/producer, “this plantation was the site of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in the Caribbean.” He indicates the high ground on which we stand. “Right here is where the renegades set the fires that signalled the start of the rebellion.”
In the warm glow of midday, the vista seems calm enough, too breathstealing in its elemental beauty to inspire anything but awed appreciation. But when the hazy dusk settles in, it isn’t difficult to imagine the desperate drama unfolding on that Easter Sunday in April, 1816, when the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a slump in the sugar market and caused the brutal Bajan plantocracy to drive the slaves mercilessly to raise production.
Promptly at 8 PM. that Eastertide, when the slaves knew the governor would be off the island and most of the whites away in the capital city of Bridgetown, the plot was sprung. Bussa, the ranger (elite managerial slave) on the Bayley’s grounds, gave the word to ignite the cornstalk and trash piles that would act as signal flares. Bussa broke into the stables that now house Grant’s studio and made off with horses, arms and ammunition. Within hours, the insurrection spread to 70 of the largest estates and a season of depravity took hold.
By the time the militia put down the revolt, one white civilian, one black soldier and 50 slaves had perished in the fighting, with 70 more slaves being swiftly executed in the fields. After a cynical trial in Bridgetown, 132 surviving slaves were deported and 144 more put to death, their decapitated torsos hung from trees around the island, their heads placed on posts and railings around Bayley’s and surrounding farms.
But the grisly displays of the carnage did not diminish the thralldom’s hunger for freedom, and they won it in the 1830s. That in the month of April more than a century and a half later, the erstwhile Bayley’s plantation should host the creation of a musical event by the once and future star of one of the planet’s biggest rock bands is no less edifying to its current landlord.
“Sting called me on a Saturday afternoon, I believe, saying he wanted to see the place. He told me he’d considered and rejected other studios and wanted to fly down immediately. When he walked in, he said, ‘Yup. This is it. I’ll see you soon.’ And he did. We’ve struck up a great friendship.”
“I have to hand it to him, because it was a great step for him, a tremendous show of bravery to redefine himself outside of the institution that is the Police. He squeezed his balls and decided to go for broke, which is the kind of gamble I understand. ‘Love is the Seventh Wave’ is a song I particularly like, because it showed what a good listener he can be to the musical life around him. There’s a belief in Barbados that the seventh wave is always the best and bluest wave for any swimmer, sailor, surfer. Hearing that song and the rest of the tracks in their various stages, I’m thinking he’s going to see the album at Number One.”
“I was eager to directly participate in some way, so I played conga on ‘Consider Me Gone’, and it was a treat. The man has courage, and a respectable game of tennis. Far as I am concerned, Sting is a regular Bajan now.”
“Eddy is a motivated person who has brought about a lot without wasted effort,” says Sting. “He’s a rather retiring and reclusive fellow and he only leaves the grounds to play squash with the Bajan champions at the Barbardos Squash Club. Even when he’s on the premises, he and his wife and family keep to themselves a great deal.”
He shrugs. “It’s funny, really, how at ease he is holing up in his hideaway, because we were just the opposite, all catching a powerfully strong dose of island fever at the six-week mark, because there’s only so much to do in Barbados when you’re not working. We must have watched a video cassette of Spinal Tap at least 15 times, until all of us had memorized every bloody line! Then we began to roll around on the ground, laughing hysterically at each other’s remarks—whether they were jokes or not.”
“Our demented state was further aggravated by the periodic power surges in the island’s power supply, which would play havoc with the precision of the digital settings for each of the tracks, all of which must be perfectly preserved on floppy discs so they can be realigned later in a different studio for the remixing. We were driven batty by the tendency of the vocals to drop off at odd intervals until we discovered the power surges were the cause.”
“There was genuine delight in the way we’ve all stretched ourselves in the studio, and I expect it to continue on the road. I want something more open-ended, flexible and dangerous than a Springsteen or Prince show, although I like both. I’m working with musicians who are light-years ahead of me as players, and all they lack in this case is a unifying conceptual sense, which I provide. I’ve had to become more proficient as a musician, and they’ve had to deal with strict songs that have their own integrity. This album was written before they came together, so it’d be interesting to see what an album for the band would sound like. I’d like to try it.”
“These guys are not sidemen, and when we start the tour we’re going to sweep away all who’ve gone before us, devastating them. No one can blow us off as musicians, performers or anything else. We’re gonna fucking wipe the table clean, and that’s an open challenge.”
At the end of the seventh week, it was time to put all such notions on the back burner and race to New York City to play the unmixed final tapes for the brass at A&M Records. Meeting with an enthusiastic response, Sting decided to linger in the city for a few days to unwind and collect his thoughts before taking the masters to Le Studio in the woods of Quebec for a final mixdown.
Having dinner at the de rigueur Cafe Luxembourg on West 70th Street, he devoured a lamb entree, knocked back a few rounds of vodka and grapefruit juice and ogled the waitresses—“There’s something about girls in black uniforms and black stockings that drives me absolutely cra-zy.” His immediate desires sated, he ordered cappuccino and finally disclosed the title of the album: The Dream of The Blue Turtles.
“Okay,” he smirks. “Let me explain. During the week of rehearsals for the Ritz shows, I had a dream that I was back home in Hampshire, looking out the window into this big walled-in garden I have out back with its very neat flower bed and foliage. Suddenly, out of a hole in the wall came these large, macho, aggressive and quite drunk blue turtles. They started doing backflips and other acrobatics, in the process utterly destroying my garden…”
He halts momentarily, noting the amazement on the face of his guests, and grins hugely, the thick smile-creases etched above the hollows of his deeply accentuated cheeks. In the past, Sting always seemed slightly forbidding up close, his high forehead, severe arching eyebrows and long puggish nose creating an initial impression of parlous arrogance that a cruelly-set mouth often confirmed.
With slight age lines in evidence on his smooth face he appears much humbler and appealingly seasoned, the formerly taut lips markedly relaxed, the defiant glare of bygone days no longer in evidence. Once, his image was that of a pompous scamp guarding a venal secret. Now he strikes one as a serious artist, grateful for a genuine glimpse at personal satisfaction.
“…You must give me a little space here,” he pleads self-mockingly, and resumes his recollection. “So anyway, I’m somehow enjoying this curious spectacle, and the dream is so strong I remembered it perfectly when I woke up, to the point where it became part of my juggernaut to complete this record. Having undergone Jungian analysis, I’ve gotten proficient at interpreting my own dreams, Carl Jung; having believed that there’re doors into the innermost parts of your psyche. For me, the turtles are symbols of the sub-conscious, living under the sea, full of unrealized potential, very Jungian in their meaning.”
The late Swiss psychologist, the man who theorized about the existence of a collective unconsciousness, and who coined the word “synchronicity” to describe the mystical roots of coincidence, did not regard dreams as random rehashes of the day’s events and experiences. Jung wrote that dreams are psychic opportunities, “opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness… Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it ever so childish, grotesque or immoral.”
“I have dreams where I create the most unbelievable music, music like Mozart, that I don’t consciously have the knowledge to write,” says Sting: “It’s there, I’m writing it, and it’s real. So with the album I wanted to destroy a lot of preconceptions and expectations, and do something unsettlingly different. These blue turtles, these musicians, were gonna help me.” He chuckles contentedly. “And they did.”
And what of The Police? Few rock acts are so celebrated for their flamboyant infighting and contention. Almost since the group’s establishment by American Stewart Copeland, the balance of power appeared tipped in the favor of the ultra-charismatic lead singer. Copeland would rail that Sting was not going to “push me around.”
Sting would lament that “our egos always get in the way because of our intense differences as people and because we’re growing away from each other—me the fastest.” Andy Summers, ever the diplomat, would chalk up the three-way tug-of-war to “creative sparks misfiring.” I remind Sting that in 1984 he confided that, “The things that make us good together in the first place are still there but they’re more difficult to sustain.” How long will the brittle alliance be sustained before it’s disbanded?
“No one really knows,” says Sting, with a quizzical expression. “And, in truth, no one is really concerned. We’re all extremely busy. Stewart is immersed in a successful musical life that includes a solo album this summer. Andy’s working on a solo record starting next month. We’re pleasantly preoccupied, which is a good sign, rather than a bad one.”
After dinner, Sting is in the mood for some musical diversion, so we head down to the Lone Star Cafe, a Greenwich Village ginmill renowned for its robust chili, terrible sightlines, fine sound system and often-impeccable choice of bookings. Dr. John is holding forth this evening, with bassist Hiram Bullock and guitarist Will Lee of the David Letterman band sitting in, and Sting is so taken with Mac Rebbenack’s incomparable gumbo of New Orleans rhumba-boogie and second-line finesse that we linger for two sets. Everyone is nicely snookered on Lone Star beer and more vodka when Sting begins bopping around the balcony, exclaiming, “Shit, this place is just like the music pubs I knew back in Newcastle!”
The select group of band members, record industry confidants and friends are nearly as edgy as Sting on the evening of April 29. He has chosen this moment to unveil the completed record, introducing it in a private listening session in the conference room at A&M Records’ Madison Avenue offices. A sumptuous spread of fruits, cheeses, assorted pates and other gourmet delicacies is laid out, and the Möet Chandon flows freely as the reel-to-reel deck on the room’s costly sound system is carefully threaded with the precious master tape. The forward button is struck with a flourish, but the deck doesn’t work.
A fitful grumble is heard from the back of the room. It’s Sting. He hasn’t slept in nearly 36 hours. The sun sinks into the depths of the skyline and Sting paces, cracking diffident jokes, as a solution is sought. The pacing continues.
Most of those present have already heard the rough mixes, marveling at the shimmering magnetism of the multi-tracked vocal harmonies on the first single, “Set Them Free.” Murmured debates commence around the room; the majority seem to agree that the album is the equal of, if not superior to, any of the Police’s LPs, but can’t agree which song is the record’s masterpiece.
Perhaps the effervescent, Barbados-composed “Love is the 7th Wave,” with its chiming calypso brio and agile one-drop reggae drumming? Maybe “Fortress Around Your Heart,” with its ebb-and-flow undertow and rising surges of thundersome rocking? Or “Russians,” the moving hymn of parental anguish in a world that can no longer recognize itself in the labyrinth of its military machinations, Sting intoning; with a bell-like clarity of intent, “Believe me when I say to you/I hope the Russians love their children too.”
The debate remains unresolved as a backup cassette of The Dream of the Blue Turtles is located, slipped into the cartridge and rewound. There is a low, rumbling hiss as the tape begins to roll… and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in The U.S.A.” marches briskly out of the monitors.
Stranded in the centre of the conference room, Sting turns on his heel and strolls out to the bar in the hallway. He orders himself a brimming glass of champagne.
A quick sip. Then he lifts his Möet Chandon to no one in particular and grimaces in feigned despair. “I guess I’m gonna have to find a totally, totally new sound for this solo thing,” he announces. “I go all the way to the Caribbean with a group of the world’s best jazz musicians, work my ass off, and I still wind up sounding a little too fuckin’ much like the Boss!”