An Englishman In New York Part 2
Watching Sting play live on that vast ship in Brooklyn harbour I get to thinking, who are these people?
People able to harness the dream gene that bucks like a rodeo stallion under all of us until we break our backs from one throw too many and can’t get back in the saddle anymore.
People who never get thrown, who keep riding baby, baby please…
People like the man singing just a few feet away from me. Sting tamed his bucking bronco over thirty-five years ago and rode off into the wild blue yonder in search of sunshine and flowers and great ivory towers where all dreams begin and end.
His days of Tyne and roses are the subject of The Last Ship, the ex-Policeman’s brand new Broadway musical for which he wrote all the music.
Initially, he didn’t appear in the show – it was left to his old mucker Jimmy Nail to keep the Geordie flag flying in the acting department. But the show opened to mixed reviews, although the music was universally praised, and in an effort to boost flagging ticket sales, Jimmy is bidding auf wiedersehen pet to make way for Sting who replaces him on 9 December for a month. Luckily, Sting is one of that rare breed, a pop star who can actually act. Whether he can turn around the show’s fortunes remains to be seen.
The Last Ship was also the title of Sting’s 2013 album, his first record in a decade to feature new songs because of a crippling writer’s block. He eventually found inspiration in his north-east roots and the lives of the people who worked in the shipyards that dominated Tyneside.
This matinee performance showcasing songs from the album/musical coincided with the tenth anniversary of one of the loveliest, juiciest cruise ships on the planet, the Queen Mary 2. It was a match made in heaven.
The ship would depart from Brooklyn that afternoon for a transatlantic cruise to Southampton, unfortunately not with me on board. I’m flying back.
I sit front row centre in the magnificent Royal Court Theatre in between two gorgeous girls, one from the Mail On Sunday and one from the Cunard press office. I’m smiling. Who wouldn’t?
Plumes of dry ice cover the stage and drift out into the tiny audience.
I’m in the zone.
And then Sting walks on – y’know, one of those people, rodeo champ written through him like a stick of Whitley Bay rock – and he sits on a stool in front of a four-piece band and a female backing singer. He’s wearing a red bandanna around his neck that makes him look like a lithe farmer. But he’s still looking good. Damn good
He picks up his guitar and starts to sing:
'I don’t drink coffee I drink tea my dear…’
I almost scream like a teenage girl. And I ain’t even a fucking fan!
pic: James Morgan
This Englishman in New York can still wrap an audience around his finger. He wears it well, does Sting. And the band are what we ol’ musos call Kellogg's Bran Flakes – tasty, very, very tasty.
The rest of the forty minute set consists of songs from The Last Ship; sombre, sentimental slivers of memories brought to life by bittersweet melodies. From the painful poetry of August Winds to the grit of Dead Man’s Boots and The Last Ship – the latter sung in a heavy Geordie accent – this was Sting at his finest for, ooh, at least ten years. And beyond…
The Last Ship is Sting in the raw. This is his life and, using his song-writing skills, he's damn well going to tell you about it. A bit like Lennon’s first album with less balls, more fiction and oodles of Broadway adaptability. He’s 63 now and the world’s getting a little darker. Maybe he’s shining a light on his childhood to try and make some sense of his fantasy, buck-free adulthood.
His voice is untouched by time as is his arrogance, the gene genie of any self-respecting megastar. But it’s a cool, unassuming arrogance full of wit and earnestness, a pre-requisite for great song-writing, indeed, any kind of great writing. Because it’s not really arrogance – it’s belief.
The first time I interviewed Sting, again on the phone, Regatta de Blanc had just been released. He was full of it, still bucking back then and holding on tight. But he knew how to milk the press, say the right things, grab the headlines. It was calculated and lovable and dynamite with a laser beam.
Like – ‘I get a lot of women chasing after me. But that doesn’t make me any vainer because, as far as vanity goes, I’ve already reached saturation point. I am completely arrogant.’
Like – ‘I don’t want to get into a situation where nobody takes you seriously because you’re too good-looking.’
Like – ‘We brought reggae to America in the same way that the Stones brought them rhythm and blues. We don’t think we’ve ripped anybody off, we’ve just helped to make it more commercial.’
And there’s not a trace of that shredded white reggae in the whole set. The band walk off to a standing ovation. The audience has been swelled by Filipino cabin stewards, Indian chefs, Lithuanian waiters and Brazilian bar staff. They all demand more.
I wonder if he’ll do an encore. I don’t expect one of course. But imagine if he did. Just imagine if he played that song I first heard with Dina all those years ago. That slice of pop perfection. Wow! Now that would be a memory I could take to my grave before becoming a ghost in the machine.
pic: Kevin Mazur
‘Every breath you take
Every move you make'
The magic in the matinee has gone up ten notches. I never thought I’d ever see that song performed live, and within touching distance. I almost scream again. This version is a lot more soulful (euphemism for older?) and I devour every note, every breath. It can’t get any better than this.
And it doesn’t. The second encore is, yikes, Message In A Bottle, Police’s first No. 1 single back in 1979 and the opening track on that self-same Regatta de Blanc album. What goes around comes around, in this case the dreaded shredded beat.
But music disinters memories. The song managed to set me adrift on a memory bliss and I remembered a Japanese girl with a cough and a lump in her breast. Yeah, odd. But then again, 1979 was an odd year, especially if you hung out with The Stranglers.
I guess ‘Bottle’ is a classic. But give me The Last Ship anytime…
After each song he spoke of his life. His words were revealing and fascinating and funny and sad and I only wish you could’ve been there.
Well, surprise, surprise, have I got a treat for you.
Here are those very same words, courtesy of Pitman’s Shorthand College. But with a twist.
Sting did a Welcome To The Working Week for Flexipop! but never a Testament Of Youth. I’ve cobbled together the tales he told in the spaces in between.
So, without further ado, welcome to…
STING’S TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (the FLEXIPOP! mix)
The street where Sting grew up. Pic: Pete Loud
I was born and raised in the shadow of a shipyard in a little town called Wallsend on Tyneside. Some of my earliest memories are of giant ships blocking out the end of my street and, indeed, blocking out the sun for much of the year. Every morning I’d watch thousands of men walk down the hill to the yards and watch them walk back home every night.
My grandfather worked in the shipyards – there wasn’t much else in the way of work so I thought, with some trepidation, that I might end up in the shipyard although I had every intention not to. The shipyards were dangerous and noisy and highly toxic and had one of the worst health and safety records in Western Europe at the time.
There was a saying in our town – Dead Man’s Boots. It meant you could only get a decent job if someone died.
In my little town you never saw a celebrity except on launch days when a member of the Royal family would be invited. It wasn’t that long ago in England when members of the Royal family were considered to have magical healing powers. Sick children were held up in crowds to try and touch the garment of the King or the Queen to cure them.
One launch day I was standing in the front of my house holding my Union Jack waiting for the Queen to come and launch a ship. I must’ve been ten years-old. A motorcade appeared at the top of a hill and in the middle was a big, black Rolls Royce moving in a stately pace
As the car passes my front door there’s the Queen and she smiles, at me. And I wave my flag and she waves back and she keeps her eyes on me. We’re having a moment. The Queen of England has somehow recognised me.
I wasn’t cured of anything, just the opposite. I was infected with an idea that I didn’t really belong in this street, I didn’t want to live in that house, I didn’t want to end up in that shipyard. I wanted to be in that car. I wanted to be something in that big wide world.
I had a difficult relationship with my dad. He’d been an engineer and he wanted me to do a technical job, to do something he understood, but I had some vague idea that I wanted to study the classics – Latin and Greek and history – and he thought that was all completely useless, and he may be right. ? He wanted me to get a decent job. A father’s love can be misconstrued as control and the dreams of his son can seem like some pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
When an uncle of mine emigrated to Canada he couldn’t take his guitar with him so he gave it to me. It was a five string, rusty, battered old thing. But I learnt how to play it and it became a friend for life, a co-accomplice in my plot to escape from this surreal industrial landscape I’d been brought up in.
I left home when I was 15 and never went back. Strangely, I ended up on a cruise ship singing with the resident band. The ship’s purser fired me because my voice was apparently upsetting the lady passengers.
Make of that what you will.
I had a dream that I’d be a writer of songs, that I’d sing those songs all over the world, that I’d be paid extravagant amounts of money, that I’d become famous, that I’d marry a beautiful woman, that I’d have children and a big house in the country and grow wine and keep dogs.
Well, so far so good. I did achieve my dream. I was very fortunate.
In the last eight years I’d been thinking about that community I was brought up in and feeling the debt to them that I owe – the need to honour the people I lived with and the ships they built. They were enormously proud of those ships and with good reason.
Some of the largest ships ever built on planet earth were built at the end of my street. Famous Cunard ships like the Mauretania that held the blue ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and the Carpathia, the first ship to be on the scene of the Titanic to pick up the survivors.
The Titanic, I hasten to add, was built in Belfast and, as they say there, ‘she was fine when she left the yard.’
© Barry Cain 2014
Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives