No offense, “American Idol” and “The Voice,” but Sting is glad you weren’t around when he was coming up.
“I don’t regret having a hard beginning to my career,” said the man who has become a music icon over the past 3 ½ decades. He doesn’t regret all the travel, staying in “very cheap motels and carrying equipment, not getting paid much.”
“I think it builds a kind of backbone for an artist — where you can take the ups and downs of success and failure a little better than if you’re suddenly rocketed into superstardom by one television show at the age of 18.”
Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner — better known as Sting — returns to PBS’ “Great Performances” on Friday, Feb. 21, to preview the forthcoming musical play “The Last Ship,” for which he has written the music and lyrics. It’s set in his hometown of Wallsend, England, and dramatizes what happened there as the ship-building industry died.
“It’s about community,” Sting said. “It’s about the importance of work. About the dignity of work. How sometimes abstract economic theories do not favor community, and yet without community there is no economics.”
This is not a full performance of “The Last Ship,” which is slated to premiere in Chicago in June before moving to Broadway in the fall. The PBS presentation, recorded at the Public Theatre in New York back in October, features Sting, a 14-piece band and actor and singer Jimmy Nail, who will appear in the upcoming stage production.
It’s an enthralling performance. And it’s an emotional experience for Sting. During the performance, a huge image of the place where he grew up — complete with a massive ship under construction — is projected behind him. And if he happened to turn around and catch a glimpse of it, “I wouldn’t be able to sing because my throat would seize up. The whole thing is very personal to me.”
It’s a memory that, even at 63, he hasn’t been able to put behind him.
“That landscape of my childhood is still the landscape of my dreams. I still find myself back there a lot of the time, trying to sort out, understand what actually happened to me as a child,” Sting said. “It wasn’t a particularly pleasant childhood, and yet I’m drawn back there to try and find answers.”
And work through them via “The Last Ship,” which isn’t exactly an autobiography but is something close to that.
“I was terrified of ending up in the shipyard,” Sting said. “It was a very dangerous place to work. But I sought another route in life. I became a musician.”
And, no, he didn’t achieve overnight success.
“I dug ditches for a while,” Sting said. “I worked as a milkman with my father. I worked for the government at one point in an office, which I didn’t like [and] I wasn’t very good at. Then I became a schoolteacher.”
He didn’t achieve any success with his music “until I was 27. So I’d already kind of become an adult, you know. I was a father, husband. I had a mortgage. I paid tax, and I voted. So I feel I was a grown-up when all of this madness started, which made me able to cope with it slightly better than I would have done at the age of 18.”
Knowing where he came from makes it easy to believe Sting when he says, “My dream, my ambition was fairly limited. I wanted to make a living as a musician. I wanted to put food on the table, put a roof over the heads of my children through making music.
“All of the rest of it was kind of cream on the top. Fame was never sought. I didn’t necessarily want to be famous, although it was part of the deal, and I’ve learned to deal with it.”
“The Last Ship” airs tonight at 8 on PBS/Ch. 7.