My life as a consumer of popular music began on Christmas morning, 1983. I was in fifth grade. That year, my parents gave me a small boombox and three cassette tapes: Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, Touch by Eurythmics, and Synchronicity, the magnum opus by The Police.
It was a small but life-changing haul. I don’t know if my mom picked out those albums, or my dad, or the guy at the Scotty’s Records, or Santa Claus himself, but forty-plus years later, I still love them. These days, with Spotify and the other streaming services, kids can listen to pretty much anything whenever they desire. There are few limits. My oldest son—whose birthday is on Christmas—consumes an impossibly vast quantity of music, of all different genres, and plays new releases the moment they come out. I remember lying in bed at age eleven dreaming I could do something like that. The musical science fiction of my youth is his reality.
Back then, listening to curated music was expensive. Cassettes were investments. They cost seven ninety-nine, usually, at Scotty’s ($5.99 if they were high atop the Billboard chart). We didn’t listen expansively; we listened deeply. I brought that boombox into my room, and I played those three albums over and over and over again. I unfolded the cassette insert and pored over the lyrics. I got lost in the music.
The Police were a power trio. Stewart Copeland was the best drummer of that generation, mixing jazz elements into the reggae-infused, syncopated rock. Andy Summers possessed the talent, the disposition, and the chops to play what are difficult songs, physically, to get through. The barre chords on “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take” are wrist-destroying. The least talented player in the group was the bassist, Gordon Sumner; he was competent but nothing special. But he was a good-looking front man and a terrific lead singer. More importantly, he wrote most of the songs, including all the hits. This wasn’t small potatoes. The band has sold some 75 million records. The year I got Synchronicity for Christmas, Rolling Stone called The Police “the first British New Wave act to break through in America on a grand scale, and possibly the biggest band in the world.”
(Sidenote: They are only two-thirds British. Copeland is American. His father, Miles Copeland, Jr., was the CIA’s chief of station in London, which is where Stewart Copeland met his bandmates. I assume this is why the band took their rather unusual name.)
Sumner is better known by his stage name, Sting. He acquired that nickname, I read back in grade school, because he used to play out in a yellow-and-black striped sweater that made him look like a bumblebee. But I suspect it may also have been because Sumner was, famously, difficult to get along with. He was a perfectionist, tough and exacting, and brutal on his bandmates—like Michael Jordan excoriating Toni Kukoč for some tiny mistake. By the end of their run, you had Stewart Copeland and Sting fighting all the time and sometimes coming to blows, and Summers trying vainly to keep the peace—not a sustainable model. The band managed to stick together long enough to produce five studio albums, all of them excellent from beginning to end; The Police have very few clunkers.
Sting was, briefly, a schoolteacher. His lyrics tend to be allusive. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” for example, is his take on Lolita. Many of the songs on Synchronicity were inspired by Arthur Koestler’s The Roots of Coincidence (which I didn’t know until this morning; I thought it was Jung). One of the tracks, “Tea in the Sahara,” tells a story Sting came across in The Sheltering Sky, the (unsettling) novel by Paul Bowles. One of the verses in “Wrapped Around Your Finger” begins, somewhat pretentiously, “Mephistopheles is not your name / But I know what you’re up to just the same.” His solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, features a song called “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” basically a summation of Interview with the Vampire, which I immediately sought out and read. (There are blurbs, and then there are famous musicians writing a song about your book.)
Some critics find Sting’s lyrics a bit pompous; perhaps, but to this eleven-year-old, they alerted me to what was out there artistically. They hipped me to cool literature. They helped build up my vocabulary. I remember puzzling over this line in the perennially-underrated “Synchronicity II:” “The secretaries pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red light street / But all he ever thinks to do is watch.” Tarts? Like, breakfast pastries? Red light? Does that mean stop? It took me years to finally figure out what he was talking about. And that was fun for me! Even as the front man for the world’s biggest rock band, Sting never really stopped being a schoolteacher.
Too, Sting never stopped learning, never stopped evolving. His solo records, which are softer and more Adult Contemporary, are so different from the early Police albums that The Onion once wrote a satirical op-ed about it. Me, I like that Sting tries new things. I like that he has different reinventions of old songs. I admire him for not resting on his laurels. It keeps things fresh.
My favorite of Sting’s solo albums is The Soul Cages, which he wrote to process the death of his father. It’s not a relentless concept album like Tommy or The Wall—some of the songs wander off topic—but there is a thru-line to the thing, a story about the son saving the soul of “the old man” from eternal damnation. The first song, “Island of Souls,” with its uneasy rhythm that simulates the rocking of a boat, tells of the father’s death. The climax of the journey occurs in the penultimate song, the title track, where “Billy” plays a drinking game with the Devil to liberate his father’s soul from its underwater cage.
Unlike most of his work, in which Sting hides behind his literary allusions, The Soul Cages is clearly deeply personal. To me, this is what makes it so good. He’s a cynical guy, but he’s reaching deep here, trying to find something inside himself to get through the difficult time. (He suffered a bout of writer’s block after his father died in 1987).
The record dropped in 1991, my senior year of high school. The hit single, “All This Time,” played constantly in my room, in my car, in the band room at the school. The happy, upbeat melody and arrangement belie what is a somber song about his father’s funeral—and, more broadly, how we cope with death. (This has been on my mind for obvious reasons.)
The chorus is simple:
And all this time,
The river flowed,
To the sea.
This is an idea he returns to, a grounding concept, that there are unknowable things larger than all of us, constants that do not change, or change so slowly they appear never to change. There is also the hint of the Eastern idea that paradise to the raindrop is entering the lake.
As the song unfolds, he is detachedly watching two priests “fussing and flapping in priestly black like a murder of crows.” They have come to his house to pray for the dying old man, and to bring the family solace. But the son does not find comfort in their words. He would rather just scatter his father’s ashes at sea than deal with their Papist song and dance:
“Blessed are the poor,
For they shall inherit the earth.
One is better to be poor
Than a fat man in the eye of a needle.”
As these words were spoken,
I swear I hear the old man laughing.
What good is a used up world,
And how could it be worth having?
And all this time,
The river flowed,
To the sea.
All this time,
The river flowed.
Father, if Jesus exists,
Then how come He never lived here?
Priests tend to work in solitary fashion, but here, there are a pair of holy men: one young, one old. Two priests presided over my father’s funeral as well, one middle-aged and one very old, the latter an old friend of my dad’s. There are many problems with the Catholic Church—misogyny, homophobia, stinginess, abortion misinformation, and the massive child sex abuse scandals, to name a few—but they know how to do death. That has been the source of their power since ancient times. Priests bring gravitas to a funeral. Two priests, double the gravitas. Even so, at my father’s funeral, when the younger priest veered into the recruitment phase of the Mass, where he stopped talking about the departed and leaned into the Jesus stuff, I found myself, like Sting in the song, thinking that my father would have laughed. That would be in character. My father once had to leave church because he had a laughing fit—and this was when he was probably 40, not when he was a kid.
What winds up comforting Sting is the immutable reality that we all die, that death is part of the cycle of nature. No matter how celebrated or famous or rich, we all turn to dust and are eventually lost—even as the river keeps flowing. As I put it in Empress, even the gods are forgotten. He hits at this idea in the last verse:
Teachers told us
The Romans built this place.
They built a wall and a temple
In the edge-of-the-empire garrison town.
They lived and they died.
They prayed to their gods,
But the stone gods did not make a sound.
And their empire crumbled,
Till all that was left
Were the stones the workmen found.
Sting recognizes that, if all the gods of all the societies that ever existed are neglected, forgotten, impotent, the odds are that Jesus is no different. The last line of “All This Time” is a wholesale rejection of formal religion—which, again, this is an upbeat pop song that peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100:
And all this time,
The river flowed,
In the falling light of a northern sun.
If I had my way,
I’d take a boat from the river.
Men go crazy in congregations.
They only get better one by one.
I got a lot more out of the Catholic rites that Sting did. But ultimately, that’s what the Church—what any church—is for: to help us mortals commune with the Divine. We seek solace. We seek meaning. We seek purpose. A good priest is a guide, a Sherpa to help us up that metaphysical mountain. The rest of it, the incense and the vaulted ceiling and the stained class and the crosses, is window dressing, and nothing more.
Catholics bury the dead in the ground. That’s how we’ve always done it in my family. But my father was cremated. His remains were placed in a columbarium built into a vault at the cemetery. What I didn’t realize is that there would be leftovers.
We went to visit my mother yesterday, and I picked up the small wooden box that contained my portion of what remains of Dad. Not having any experience with ashes and urns, I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that hit me when I picked up that box. I could never scatter these ashes at sea, as Sting wanted to do. I find that I want it nearby.
“Men go crazy in congregations,” Sting sings. That word, congregations—in addition to having my name (and my father’s name) smack-dab in the middle of it—implies a religious gathering, but it also just means people getting together. And people do congregate, when someone dies. The day my father died, family and friends descended on the house, making a protective ring around my mother. It is a lovely thing, the way that happens. But ultimately, those rings of protection must dissolve. How does Frost put it? “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
Ultimately, we must process grief alone, in our own solitary way. We must contend with it head on, as Billy had to confront the Devil. As Sting rightly concludes, we only get better one by one. But, as the happy melody propelling the song along also makes clear, we will get better—sure as the river flows, endlessly, to the sea.
Our guest on The Five 8 was Kimberly Kay Hoang, author of Spiderweb Capitalism.
We also had our first “After Hours” for our channel members. If you’re a member, you can watch it here.
Excellent, and for a reread. Peace..
Breathless again from your essay/Eulogy...as you contemplate life and Death....thank you for helping us do the same Gently...My father was a man of science..hard science,a ME..dealt with disease and death everyday (autopsies)He didn't believe in organized Religion,yet saved thousands, possibly millions of lives(worked on polio vaccine) Your parents raised an outstanding behaviorist chronicler of OUR times . Infinite thanks 🌌🌌🌌🌌☮️🍾🥂🗼