Sunday, October 15, 2023

Sting Notes on the Soundtrack to My Life

Sting singing with a guitar wearing an orange T-shirt
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see the legendary singer-songwriter Sting in concert. As always with those types of events, one feels star-struck to be simply in the same room or rather stadium with the person one considers one’s idol. There is something magical about the whole experience although for the musician you are nothing but one tiny blurry blot among many; he shall never know of your existence let alone your momentary presence that you share with thousands of others at the same time.

And yet, despite being a lonely face in a concert-going multitude, one’s own experience will be unique and vary to degrees. To witness this special event - special because unbeknownst to Sting, I have a long-standing history and close connection with his music that hearkens way back to my teen years - I took my family with me. It is noteworthy that the relationship that my son, his first major concert event, and my wife have with this singer is worlds apart. Where my son, unfamiliar with Sting’s music, could not shake off a sense of boredom, my wife may have been imbued with a relatively mild thrill at best; for me, it was extraordinary and utterly delightful.

I am not merely referring to the concert itself, which was, by all accounts and purposes, much better than I had expected. This person on stage was in his seventies and he was both physically and vocally in outstanding shape and form. In fact, he out-sang and outperformed his son who preceded him in a somewhat lackluster opening performance, especially in relation to his father; Sting had a continuous full set without showing or demonstrating exhaustion or any signs of fatigue. Moreover, he improvised and offered new twists, arrangements, and versions of some of his classic songs that were outstanding.

But apart from singing Sting’s praises here, and in my humble view, they are indeed well-deserved, I realized during the concert how this musician had not only influenced and even shaped me in many ways but that his music was essentially a soundtrack to my life. There are few musicians who play that role in my life, the others being (apart from composers of classical music) Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, both of whom I discovered somewhat later than him.

I must admit that Sting has had a stronger influence overall. As I was listening to his impressive medley of songs that evening - and thankfully, he included many of my own favorite ones – I was amazed how each and every tune brought back to me like a colored polaroid a snapshot of my emotional state of back then. It was like revisiting scenes from the past that played out again in front of my mind’s eye elicited by the sounds as well as lyrics (most of which I knew by heart) of a given song.

There were far too many to count but also some that had become underpinning themes to the soundtrack of my life. The most overarching one would be “Englishman in New York” with its poignant and inspiring lines of “be yourself no matter what they say”, a life-long mantra that has been playing in my subconscious and has given me the necessary emotional support and pillar throughout my life. Mind you, not that I always followed and heeded it, but it served as a constant reminder to try to do so as much as possible, which must have been the founding block for myself to think outside of the box despite fluctuations in my levels of confidence while also facing consequences and repercussions to some of those decisions and actions.

Then, there are those hauntingly beautiful love songs. Lines from “The Shape of my Heart” I secretly slipped to a crush in high school, while I personally sang – for better or for worse - “Mad About You” to a crowd that included another love interest of mine. The lyrics and the sentiment of this tune still resonate with me to this very day. In fact, I believe Soul Cages to be not only his best work but one of the best concept albums out there. It is also his darkest album to date as he was dealing with grief around the death of his father. Psychoanalytically, it is quite rich in texture because it starts off with a birth and ends with a death followed by an apocalypse and possible physical and spiritual rebirth. It is certainly spiritual and soulful but not necessarily religious.

Interestingly, Sting included various songs from that album on his concert set list, which pleased my ear and heart. He did not include, perhaps for obvious reasons, the song that made me a Sting fan in the first place. That would be “Russians”. The reason I decided to check out his songs was due to his connection with classical music. As a teenager, I would only listen to Brahms, Dvorak, Beethoven, Mahler, and many other great composers. But I had heard about this guy called Sting who used and incorporated themes from Prokofiev in one of his tunes. I was immediately intrigued, went to our local music library to take out a cassette, and went down this rabbit hole to come out again some decades later at this concert.

As you can see his music has been important and memorable to me. Although there are many others as well, they often pale in comparison. Strangely enough, maybe because of their general lack of lyrics, I do not have a similar vivid reaction to classical music. There are pieces that are tied to various moments of time but oddly enough, although they tend to bring out stronger and deeper emotions, they do less so in terms of memory and recollection.

It might be also related to the connection with time itself. Neither Beethoven nor Brahms would release a new album or symphony but artists like Sting would and could. In fact, the release of a new album was a high-priority event on my list in the era of CDs. In fact, in an introductory psychology course, we were once asked what it was that we were looking forward to doing. I answered to get my hands on the latest Sting album.

My instructor just smiled and insinuated that there might be more worthwhile things and activities to undertake and anticipate. At the time, and especially considering that my romantic prospects were near to nil, I did not think so and after class, I ran to the nearest music store to buy his latest album. As I was listening to the songs for the first time, I would compare them to his previous output. There were always some that would immediately stick out while others would make me wince and shake my head. “They Dance Alone” is to me one of the worst songs he has ever recorded while I still find it hard to accept his country song “I am so happy I can’t stop crying”, let alone him sporting an ill-advised mohawk on a truly awful music video.

Evidently, it has not always been all gold with his music, but no one can produce hits all the time. Then again, some of the so-called hits that made it big would elicit a mild reaction like “meh” on my part. To this day, I do not understand the craze around The Police as I think they lack sophistication and artistry both lyrically and musically compared to his solo work.

Whether I like those songs or not, one thing is for certain, he is a unique artist who is not afraid of taking risks, trying out new things, and thinking and singing outside of the box. It all started with The Dream of the Blue Turtles. That said, I think that his visual sense is rather impaired and tends to put him in a negative light; his videos are in fact some of the worst I have seen, and his album covers are either surprisingly unimaginative or just plain and simple, or both. Just look at the image of the tour and enough is said on the matter, whereas the rest is silence. His career as an actor has been interesting but not outstanding. What he lacks in visual style, he makes up for via auditory means and channels.

But as I was listening to his songs that evening, I was amazed at how much he got away with without us fully or consciously noticing it. There is a famous love song about a prostitute, another one about a stalker essentially, there is a song about a dog in love with his owner, half of which includes French rap (there is also a completely French song that sounds good but includes bogus lyrics), there is a song about a vampire in love, one on St. Augustine in hell, another one with St. Agnes on a burning train, and then, a modern version of Noah’s Ark! The list of creative endeavors and ideas goes on and on like the rain that falls like tears from the stars. And I had the wonderful opportunity to be in the more or less close vicinity of a star myself.