He has struck out on his own, formed a new band, tried being a movie star. But through it all -- in a video age when rock stars change their image with each new album -- Sting hasn't given his slightly demonic, tortured-artist persona a holiday since he formed the Police eight years ago.
The dark green eyes and cooler-than-thou smirk stared all summer from magazine covers touting his appearances in "The Bride," a bomb of a film that fizzled this summer, and "Plenty," the critically acclaimed Meryl Streep vehicle that opened in Washington yesterday. The themes of isolation and turmoil still pervade almost all the songs he writes. "It's my destiny," he sings, "to be the king of pain."
"I do have my personal problems," he says, whispering hoarsely into the telephone from the Denver stop on a tour that brings him to Merriweather Post Pavilion tonight. "But I'm not a completely miserable person. It's just that I've made a career singing about it."
Until two years ago, the career Sting focused on was intertwined with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland, his bandmates in the Police. Born of the punk movement in 1977, the Police quickly grew from a musically adept power-pop trio with a fondness for reggae to one of the biggest rock bands of the '80s. In addition to winning seven Grammys and the respect of the critics, the Police sold more than 40 million records before taking an open-ended sabbatical in 1983 after the enormous success of "Synchronicity," the group's fifth LP.
Sting, 33, doesn't hesitate to describe himself as "pompous" and feels no need to hide his individualist nature -- he refers to the Police not as "we" but as "they," and when talking about the New Wave movement of the late '70s, says "the only real survivors have been me and Elvis Costello."
"The idea of a band forming and then staying together forever is nonsense," Sting says. "None of the members of the Police should be bonded together by a sense of panic. You know -- 'None of us are selling enough records on our own, so we better get back together.' "
Summers and Copeland have been busy with their own solo projects. ("It's not as if they're sitting around picking their fingernails waiting for me," Sting says.) But as the Police vocalist, chief songwriter and standout personality, Sting clearly had a head start when he set out to make a solo album. "The Dream of the Blue Turtles," a passionate collaboration with four jazz instrumentalists that was No. 2 again on the charts this week, has given him musical success on his own.
"Insidiously, I think I've managed to seduce the market out there. They would have been against it if I'd said, 'Here's a jazz record, swallow this.' But I didn't want to make a jazz record. I wanted the use the influence of jazz, and the result is commercially accessible," he says.
The jazz ensemble Sting recruited is a group of young musicians -- all are still in their twenties -- with impressive credentials: Branford Marsalis (brother of trumpeter Wynton), whom Miles Davis has called the greatest sax player since John Coltrane; Omar Hakim, who handles the stick work for the esteemed Weather Report; bassist Darryl Jones, who played with Davis' group; keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, a studio giant who played with Wynton Marsalis.
"In forming the group, I was interested to see what my standing was among young black jazz players," Sting says. "As it turned out, they really wanted to play with me because of the Police -- they dug the band. So it's not like they were some sort of highbrow musicians who wouldn't come down from the mountain of the gods to play."
With Sting at the mike, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles" could not have helped but sound like the Police at times. But while Sting points out, "I'm still the same writer on this album," his once-subtle lyrics have taken a straightforward turn. Whether he's addressing the subjects of British coal mining, nuclear waste, nuclear war or heroin addiction, Sting no longer leaves his viewpoint implied.
"Let's get this straight," he demands. "I don't write songs in order to change the world. That would be naive. I'm not a politician.
"However, I am allowed this forum to speak. Now if one person is affected by that, or a thousand people, or none at all, it doesn't affect how I write. A lot of people said this is a political album, and I don't buy that. There's been a strain of that in my work all along, but it's been imbedded in symbolism, if you like. This album is very clear."
Sting's current tour coincides with his headfirst dive into cinema, a medium he's dabbled in since 1978 with roles in minor movies like "Quadrophenia" and "Brimstone and Treacle." While his acting in last year's "Dune" garnered some enthusiastic reviews, the picture did badly and Sting's character -- which appeared for a little more than 10 minutes -- was overpublicized in prerelease ad campaigns. With "Plenty," which he speaks of glowingly, Sting is finally getting some good notices in a critically acclaimed film.
Even before the "Plenty" reviews, however, Sting was unsoured by the movie business. "As an actor in films," he says, "you have to realize that your responsibility to the final product is very small and your control is nil." Although Sting says he'd like to continue to act and try directing as well, he maintains his music comes first: "For me, acting in films is still kind of a working holiday."
But is Sting's current jazz-pop project another of his working holidays, or will the Police's two-year hiatus turn into a permanent retirement? If Sting's record company is to be believed, the Police are merely taking a breather. Manager Miles Copeland says from Police headquarters in London that he's "looking at summer '86" for a reunion.
Sting isn't making any predictions: "I don't think there's any reason why the Police shouldn't record again, but the only reason for doing it would be if we all felt that we could create something new and exciting and not just play the old formula, even though it would probably work. I think to go back and say 'we know how to write a Police album, it's a piece of cake, let's just market it,' I think that would be defeat for us."