There have been a lot of boys, and men, whose pictures I have torn out of magazines for my personal use. The first may have been Michael Jackson, of whom I was so publicly enamored that one Christmas, two different people gave me an MJ calendar — the same one. (This was in the Thriller period, when his skin was still brown and his nose still apparently functional.) The most recent was Robert Downey Jr., whose rehabbed visage is this very moment hanging on my bedroom wall. Possibly combining the best attributes of both of these examples — artistic brilliance, overwhelming charisma, unflappable self-confidence — is the artist formerly known as Sting. Well, I suppose he’s still known as Sting, but it seems strange to me that that bearded, New Agey staple of Adult Contemporary radio is the same guy whose 1988 concert at Madison Square Garden imbued me with such a feeling of well-being that I referred to it as “the Sting high.”
Not that I had ever really been high at that point in my young life, but I knew an out-of-body experience when I felt one. The friend who had accompanied me to the show was having the same reaction. Plus there were other classmates of ours who had had their minds blown at the same concert. What made this somewhat remarkable is the fact that the musician we were all so obsessed with was not only tolerated, but, in fact, enjoyed by people our parents’ age — or, in my case, by my actual parents. Instead of a bunch of MTV-ready pipsqueaks with an eyeliner problem, Sting was backed up by a band of adult jazz journeymen. The year before, I had been in the same space watching Simon Le Bon gyrate his way through “The Reflex” and “Notorious.” That had been fun, but, you know, kind of juvenile. When the former Police frontman took to the stage a year later and smoothed us out with “Fortress Around Your Heart,” “Englishman in New York,” and “Message in a Bottle” on solo acoustic guitar, I knew I had been exposed to a higher consciousness.
Those who are old enough to remember the heyday of the Police might now be saying to themselves, “Well, duh…everyone already knew Sting was a genius.” Or they might be thinking, “Are you kidding? That pussy Nothing Like the Sun album can’t hold a candle to Zenyatta Mondatta.” To this, I can only reply…cut me some slack. When the Police broke up, I was still in grade school. I didn’t have an older sibling to expose me to their greatness at its peak. Mostly I remember thinking that “Every Breath You Take” was creepy. And I was right — it is creepy. I give myself credit for picking up on that while the rest of the world was slow dancing to it at their proms and wedding receptions.
Sting’s solo work was the perfect soundtrack for my transition from being a precocious, overcultured youngster (y’know, “gifted and talented,” ballet and piano lessons, blah blah blah) to an elitist yet anti-authoritarian teen. Thanks to Sting, I learned about the evils of nuclear power (“We Work the Black Seam”), the crimes of Pinochet’s government (“They Dance Alone”), and Jimi Hendrix (his cover of “Little Wing”). With his frequent use of quotations from Shakespeare, events from history and languages from the Third World in his songs, he seemed like the intellectual standard against whom all men should be judged. Plus the whole being really hot part. For whatever reason, the long hair he sported in the Nothing Like the Sun videos transformed him in my eyes from merely handsome to totally scrumptious. I wanted to bite that mole on his chin.
Sting took a long break between albums just as my passion came into bloom, but I remained true blue (in spite of serious competition from Michael Hutchence and Robert Smith). Even his unfortunate choices in acting roles (Julia and Julia, anyone?) didn’t threaten my devotion. A friend of mine was equally as taken with Bono, so we began to collaborate on an original work of soft-core erotica: I would write the chapters detailing her torrid rock star fantasy affair, and she would write those depicting mine. (I remember trysts taking place in horse-drawn carriages and behind potted plants.)
Absence does make the heart grow fonder, doesn’t it?
When at last the new album, The Soul Cages, was released, I was confused. Though there were a few tracks that recaptured the swooning, literate romanticism I had come to expect from the man, on the whole I found the record, um, boring. I mean, I know your dad died and whatnot, but what’s in it for me, Gordon? The following album, Ten Summoner’s Tales, was no better. In fact, it was clearly worse, though fortysomethings around the world would beg to differ. Hey, I was in college now, lusting after sexually ambiguous actors and trying not to flunk (another) class; I certainly didn’t have time to worry about Sting’s midlife crisis, especially since it seemed he himself had given up — what in hell was that “All for Love” nonsense about? It was a strange process of realization — while I was growing up, Sting was growing old. Besides, he had cut his hair short again.
Yes, my imaginary ex has long since stopped raging against the man, possibly because he’s so blissed out on tantric sex. And his reunion with the Police in 2007 didn’t feel especially inspired (not that I saw it — major concert tours are out of my price range these days). I don’t begrudge the bloke his middle-aged equanimity, but I ain’t there yet — not even all these years later. Maybe in a decade or so, I will want to listen to “Fields of Gold” or “Desert Rose” while drinking a glass of Chardonnay on my patio, but for now, I will stick with “We’ll Be Together” or “Fragile” (not to mention “Roxanne”), a thermos full of vodka, and Central Park. Call me if Sting transfers all that hair currently on his face back to his head.