A tale of true love.
The pound was retailing at 250 rupees, London was in the throes of a tube strike and my herb dealer wasn't answering calls. I should've been in a bad mood. But I wasn't. How could I be? In 4 days I was to see The Police.
When I tell people who my favourite band is, I get a look. Especially from people who know their music. It's a polite look, because people who know their music are usually polite people. But it's a look that says I should know better. That Sting, Stewart and Andy may have had a few hits, but they were hardly the band to end all bands.
But I disagree. In over 20 years of obsessing over recorded sound, I have loved many bands. I have been generous and promiscuous with my love. Sometimes naive. But only one band hits me between the arteries, makes me giddy, and, for me, stands atop the highest mountain and sings the sweetest.
To find out why why, you'll have to take a journey through revolutionary Colombo, provincial New Zealand and finally, to Twickenham on a gloomy Saturday. It's a journey I had little choice in making, but it's one I'm glad I took.
* * *
In the late 80s, anarchists clad as marxists all but ruled Sri Lanka. They used guerilla tactics mixed with mafioso methods to grab a nation by the jaw and push it to its knees. It was a time of terror, chaos and burning bodies. But for 13 year old me, it was only one thing. A time of TV reruns.
It's not that I was ignorant and insensitive, even though I was both. But shit had been colliding with the fan for as long as I could remember. Bombs, riots and curfews had punctuated my childhood. But even I could sense that here something was different.
When our family watched the Killing Fields at the Liberty, my parents pulled me out of the theatre. I couldn't fathom why. The body count wasn't as high as Rambo or Missing in Action which they had let me watch and re-watch. When I queried my mother, clearly disturbed by this depiction of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, her answer perplexed me. "If this JVP thing keeps going, Sri Lanka will end up like this."
It perplexed me because I thought the JVP thing was kinda cool. No, really. Schools shut for months on end and Rupavahini, with not too many programming options, was re-running old award shows. Sure the JVP thing sounded bad. But no school and reruns on TV? Every cloud.
When you're a kid, old is the enemy of good. In 1988 I was wondering whether to stop calling a-ha my favourite band because their last hit was over a year old. Whatever was current was good. Whatever wasn't, wasn't.
Sting was far from current, but when I saw him opening the 1985 Grammies with a song called Russians, I was mesmerized. The song didn't have a catchy chorus like the collected works of Bros, nor did Sting have fancy dance steps like Rick Astley did. (Rick Astley actually couldn't dance, but in those days I was easily impressed.)
It was a man in his 30s standing before an orchestra and singing about "rhetorical speeches of the Soviets" and name-dropping Reagan, Kruschev and Oppenheimer. I thought pop songs were for telling your baby not to forget your number and such like. "I hope the Russians love their children too." What was that?
My family had just bought a VHS. And with the world grinding to a petrified, bullet-ridden halt around me, all I could do is press record, press rewind and then press play. I memorized the 1987 Oscars. (Best picture: The Last Emperor. Most ridiculous outfit: Cher.) I counted the amount of times Lionel Richie said "Outrageous" at the 1986 American Music Awards. (38) And then, in August of 1989, came the 1984 Brit awards.
It was a hum-drum affair with none of the glitz of its American counterparts. Lots of people I had never heard of like Sade, U2 and Frankie goes to Hollywood were nominated. I was considering pressing stop instead of record when they announced the lifetime achievement award. It began with a medley of 4 songs. And it changed my life.
A scruffy blonde man, who I thought I recognized, was squeaking in an obscenely high voice to a girl called Anne who apparently Rocks. The same man jumps around with 2 equally scruffy blonde men and yelps about sending an S.O.S to someone. The songs were as catchy as anything Nik Kershaw ever did, but they had other dimensions. There were beats like Aswad, and grooves like the best of Michael Jackson. And vocals like I'd never heard before. I didn't know what a beat or a groove was, but I did know where I'd seen this band before.
They were on a hardcover cassette in the window of the shop next to KVGs in Liberty Plaza. So here was me, the boy who made fun of people who liked ancient songs like Tarzan Boy, buying an album of a band formed when I was wetting beds and who had broken up shortly after I had stopped.
* * *
The press for The Police concert isn't kind. The DJ on Radio One claims that if he wanted to see dinosaurs hauling their menopausal carcasses across stadiums, he'd visit the Natural History Museum. I never call radio shows, but I did consider ringing up and giving the man a lecture on mixed metaphors.
But I do understand. It's that polite look I get from fellow musos. The view of The Police is clouded by the caricature that Sting has become.
To me, Sting is two people. He is Sting, the furiously talented bass-player/singer who recorded 5 flawless albums with The Police and 3 pretty damn fine solo records. But he is also Gordon Matthew Sumner, the milkman's son from Newcastle, who really, really, really wants to be cool like Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix. It's Gordon that lets Puff Daddy and Pato Banton piss all over his songs. It's Gordon that records 16th century lute music and asinine pop-jazz records. It's Gordon that gives The Police a bad name.
Who will turn up for the gig at Twickenham. Sting or Gordon?
I spend my time in London hanging with friends who comment on my expanding waistline. "You used to look like Jesus now you look like Buddha." I distract myself with Guinness and comedy clubs. I compare Colombo with London in my mind. One reminds you how small the world is, the other tells you it is vast. One is a melting pot of people and ideas; the other, a tiny kingdom with everyone trying to be king.
But the questions still nag. What if Gordon turns up and brings P Diddy and Sheryl Crow and his lute? What if the sound is as bad as it was at the Grammys? (2007, not 1985) What if the gig is an embarrassing suckfest? Things get better with age, don't they? Don't they?
* * *
My family moves from the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka to the pastures of New Zealand. From the wild east to the mild south. I'm 15 and even more of a brat and a drama queen than I am now.
They put me in a boarding school with overfed farmer boys. I am the only brown kid with funny hair and an accent. I spend 3 years dodging abuse and beatings. I can count the friends I have on 1 hand and still have enough fingers to hold a pair of chopsticks. So I spend my days and weekends in the Wanganui library and the Ridgeway Street 2nd hand tape shop. Reading, listening and sobbing.
I buy all 5 Police albums. All 4 Sting albums. I adore the white reggae of Regatta da Blanc, the all-encompassing glory of Synchronicity and even the danceable grooves of Zenyatta Mondatta. I'm convinced to this day that if Andy and Stewart had played on Sting's The Soul Cages it would be the finest record of the 90s.
I read about the band and their 5 years at the top. But something else happens. I read Nabakov's Lolita because Sting namechecks it in "Don't stand so close to me." I read Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky because it's the inspiration for Tea in the Sahara, the quiet track on side B of their world-conquering final album.
I listen to Led Zeppelin because Stewart mentions John Bonham in an interview. I acquaint myself with Pink Floyd via Andy's solo albums. I listen to Hendrix and The Beatles and Thelonius Monk because they are all mentioned in Sting's unauthorized biography.
In other words, in my 3 years at Wanganui Collegiate School, I am introduced to depression, solitude, literature and rock and roll. All the truly important stuff. And my soundtrack is 5 albums containing 15 Top 20 singles (5 No1s) played by 3 guys who had not spoken to each other since I saw the Killing Fields at the Liberty.
When everything about the world appears unfriendly and grim, you embrace what's good. Perhaps a little tighter than you should. And usually, it's a little difficult to let go.
* * *
I go to a photographic exhibition in Soho by Andy Summers detailing his travels with The Police. I have read Sting's Broken Music and have seen Stewart's handycam film Does Everyone Stare. I know their side of the biography. I do not know Andy's.
We're all familiar with Sting. Despite his tendency to lapse into Gordon, he is a musical renaissance man. Stewart is finally getting the kudos he deserves. He is now acknowledged as one of the 5 greatest drummers of all time. But Andy? I doubt he'd make anyone's top 50 list.
In between Rick Astley and Milli Vanilli I used to listen to hair metal. Leather-clad posers like Poison, Skid Row and Motley Crue would hawk their ballads to MTV and us youngsters would hold aloft invisible lighters.
It coloured my view of what a guitarist should be. My perception was of a man on a mountain top with haystacks of hair blowing in the wind shredding the fretboard at high speeds. Andy doesn't do that. He colours in the bits between Stewart's hi-hat fills and Stings melodic bass runs. His solos are quirky and short. He uses chorus, delay and flanger to create atmospheric parts. He does not use a guitar to show off the length of his penis.
I have jammed with a few guitarists, but played extensively with only 2. Both of them have names that start in "A" and end in "jit". When I played with Independent Square I was a passable songwriter and a pathetic guitarist. Ajit was a guitar hero who could shred, who could riff, who could stand on mountains and roar if he chose to. I was grateful to hide behind him.
Andy had to contend with two egos clamouring for the limelight. His photos and accompanying captions reveal a modest man, happy to be part of this great band, but happier to be an observer, a man who adds texture and who does so for the betterment of the song and the band. A team player, not a glory seeker.
Andy is the oldest member of the Police, but also the nicest and the most sensible. I am the oldest member of Powercut Circus. The comparison ends there.
The reason Andy can do what he does without the song sounding empty is because he has a gifted bass player behind him. I realize that if I am to play with an Andy Summers, I would have to become semi-competent at what I do.
Asvajit is very much an Andy type guitar player. He keeps his solos short and adds the varnish, not the wood. He is the youngest member of the band, and perhaps, the nicest and the most sensible. If I am to make this partnership work, I will have to lift my game. I just pray I don't end up like Gordon.
* * *
Kurt Cobain has a lot to answer for. In 1991 he destroyed the hair bands and knocked dinosaurs like Dire Straits, Springsteen and Mike Jackson off the throne. He told us geeks that we didn't have to be as talented as Eddie Van Halen or as cool as David Lee Roth. We could just rock up to a mic in our dirty jeans, play a few chords and sing about our depression.
He is the reason I formed my first band, Alice Dali. And my third band Independent Square. He is the reason I grew my hair, smoked pot and never practiced. He is also the reason I stopped listening to The Police.
The early 90s were a great time to be in your early 20s. Our generation discovered grunge, gangster rap, electronica, Britpop and edgy cinema. Asvajit's generation discovered Limp Bizkit.
And in this climate of Tarantino, Public Enemy, Seinfeld, Chemical Brothers, Pavement, Jesus Lizard, Miramax and of course Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains et al, there was no room for Sting's old band.
CDs had long replaced cassettes, but I was a laggard. I am writing this in 2007 and am yet to even contemplate purchasing an ipod. I put my Police tapes in a box with my old Debbie Gibson and Richard Marx albums. Sting was starting to flirt with Puff Daddy and do duets with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart. While 1993's Ten Summoner's Tales was a serviceable pop album, 1996's Mercury Falling was a piece of shit.
I purchased Message in a Box, the 4 CD box set featuring everything The Police ever recorded, but it failed to excite me like Radiohead or Soundgarden or the Wu-Tang Clan.
The thing is this. Pop music is not the collected works of Shakespeare. Some of it may be called art, but it is designed to be disposable. And it is possible to wear out a song, an artist or an album by overexposure. A fact that commercial radio appears oblivious to.
By the mid 90s I had outgrown The Police. And while I was still into rock and roll, I wanted to listen to music cloaked in noise and offensive to the mainstream. Puff Daddy's version of Every Breath You Take was not the final nail in the coffin, it was the last bit of soil thrown on the grave.
* * *
I am with my friend, Ravin, perhaps the most generous person I know. He's the one who got me the tickets and lent me his spare room. We are in a bar in South London watching a band called The Undercover Police. The band is pretty awful, but it's nice to hear Spirits in the Material World live. The real Police hardly ever play it on tour.
England is playing cricket, rugby and football that day, but no one in Twickenham gives a toss. (a) Because The Police are coming to town. (b) Because England are shit at all three.
We down a couple of stouts, smoke up and enter the arena two hours early. The opening band is Fiction Plane. It is a 3-piece fronted by Joe Sumner, son of a certain Gordon M. Sumner.
It must be hard for the poor lad. But I don't pity him. If you want to get into music and your father is a famous front-man bass player, perhaps you should play heavy metal, trance or hip-hop. Jakob Dylan played radio-friendly rock with a band and enjoyed a few albums worth of success. Had he picked up an acoustic and written protest songs, he may not have been so lucky. Ziggy Marley may be a melody maker, but he will never eclipse father Bob.
Young Joe plays bass, sings and sports long blonde hair like his old man circa 1987. He has a nice voice and a few decent tunes, but I don't hear a Roxanne. I also don't like his belligerent banter or his jumping in the air at the end of every song. I predict depression, followed by drugs, followed by rehab, followed by an autobiography titled Invisible Son.
The crowd is full of body piercings, tattoos and orange hair. I lie. The crowd is middle-aged and white. What did I expect? The friggin' band is middle-aged and white! Despite my lifelong adulation, I have to admit that The Police were never cool in the same way The Doors, The Strokes or System of a Down are. There will be no moshpit or crowd surfing or drug dealers. Shame.
Maximo Park are up next. The singer has charisma and informs the crowd that if anyone is wondering about the cricket, the rugby or the football, that England won all three. The stadium is uninterested. Maybe because aside from the 2-0 Euro qualification triumph over Israel, the series win over a malnourished India and the thrashing of a US rugby team were insignificant achievements.
I'm unable to form an opinion of the band, because while the sound reaches my ears, it fails to touch my insides. It's a known fact that support bands get the worst of the sound. Many suspect that it happens in Colombo on a regular basis.
I hope it does not rain. I hope no one notices when I spark up. I hope the sound fills the arena. Above all, I hope this gig will vindicate and not trivialise the depths of my obsession.
* * *
Fast forward to September 2005. I'm returning to Sri Lanka after 3 years in Europe. I have gotten over Kurt Cobain and a few of my hangups. I have travelled, held down a job, had a few girlfriends, been in a band, tried writing a novel, had shit thrown at me and stopped blaming my parents. In other words, I was a regular, garden variety 30 year old.
My family had sold up in New Zealand and my brother had returned from his travels in China. We were once again a happy family, living together in Colpetty for the first time since... well, JVP 1989.
I have learned to play the bass over the last few years, though my idol is no longer Gordon Sumner a.k.a. Sting but Micheal Balzary a.k.a Flea. My old friend Dhinesh, former drummer in Independent Square, is also returning to Lanka after a hiatus and we are thinking of hooking up for a jam.
The house is full of boxes. Stuff from New Zealand, stuff from Sri Lanka. Stuff from other lifetimes. I spend my first month eating Ammi's home cooking and tearing cardboard. I find old love letters, photographs of old hairstyles (before I settled on the hippie look I was bald, bleached, spiked, permed and mulletted) and I find VHS tapes with green fungus growing on them. One of them is titled Brit Awards 1984, the other Grammy Awards 1985. Even if I had a VCR player, which I don't, I doubt any of them would be playable.
Me and Dhinesh begin jamming. I am trying to get over Independent Square and am attempting to emulate the bands I saw in England like Bloc Party, The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand and Cake. Groove-based melodic rock as opposed to angsty distortion drenched grunge. The jams are interesting. We have a nice little drum and bass track titled Craig David's arsehole (Which would later become Red Spit) and a straight rock song called One Man Army. (A reserve in our current set)
At home I keep opening boxes and find a box within a box. It contains 4 CDs and over 60 tracks recorded between 1978 and 1983, when I was busy wetting beds. And it blows my mind.
To hear Message in a Box, 15 years after I put it away, is a revelation. And this time I can deconstruct it as a musician. The sparse grooves, the offbeat basslines, the interplay of hi-hat and foot, the soaring vocals, the elegant songs.
I suddenly realize what kind of band I would like to form. A guitarist with a silken touch. A singer with a voice that can cut through glass. I talk to Dhinesh and we immediately set about finding them.
* * *
When the broken chords of Message in a Bottle fill the 65,000 seater, I am running. After 27 minutes of queuing and carrying 3 beers to our seats just 20 metres from the stage (Thank you, Ravin) I succeed in spilling them all. I queue for another 20 minutes, but this time I am anxious. 2 yummy mummies from Essex inquire how I keep my hair shiny. While hair is a topic I easily warm to, especially when it concerns my own, my mind is elsewhere. Do I watch The Police minus beer or do I risk missing their grand entrance?
I am 3 from the front. But the lights dim and the crowd roars. Fuck the beer. I say goodbye to the Essex ladies and sprint. And I see Ravin at the entrance and, in the distance, Andy Summers playing a C# minor.
We get to our seats and I watch a huge screen colour itself in primary red, yellow and blue, the colours of the Synchronicity album. It's breathtaking and I wish for drugs. But I don't need them. Two classrooms away from me, Stewart, Sting and Andy are playing Message in a Bottle. The guitar growls like something out of the grunge era, the drums sidestep the fluid bass and when Sting (yes, Sting, not Gordon) announces that he is sending out an S.O.S., 65000 voices join him.
* * *
There are many musicians that I like. I like The Smiths, Stevie Wonder and Sade. Meaning I own some of their albums and I enjoy them. I really like the Faith No More, Frank Zappa and Floyd. Which means I own most of their albums and love most of their songs, but not all.
There are only 5 bands of whom I own and love everything they have ever recorded. They are, in no particular order, The Beatles, Cake, System of a Down and Radiohead. I don't think I need to name the fifth.
Much has been written about The Beatles and I don't need to add to it. I will just say this. They recorded 6 phenomenal albums (counting Magical Mystery Tour and discounting Let it be) and over 30 hit singles. But they rarely included the singles on the album. They would release wonderful songs like Hey Jude or Strawberry Fields, say, and then follow them up with albums like Sergeant Peppers or Abbey Road that excluded the singles.
These albums minus singles set the blueprint for what we know as music. Remember that the next time the tabloids are dissing Sir Paul and comparing him to Madonna and Sir Elton. There is no comparison.
When my grandchildren are asking me why Seeya 's generation melted the polar ice-caps, Radiohead will be looked upon as The Beatles of our time. And remember what I said about pop music being disposable and having little shelf life? Forget Kid A and Amnesiac. I can listen to The Bends, an album that even Nickleback fans could get into, for the 2398th time, and still hear something I've never heard before.
I have many close friends who are metallers and I have 3 gripes with heavy metal music. Lyrics. Lyrics. Lyrics. Why do intelligent people who make complex, affecting music still have to write about "chasms of darkness and rotting carcasses of fury?" Why do they write as if they are penning gothic novels in the 1850s?
SOAD write about US foreign policy, pepperoni pizza, prison reform and nonsense. And they mix meditarrenean music with thrash metal. I saw them live twice and both times they blew the roof off.
Finally, Cake, are a band with sharp lyrics and sharper grooves. I wondered if John McCready, their leader, resented the fact that lesser bands have enjoyed more success. But when I saw them at the Astoria I realized three things. (a) He is a genius (b) He doesn't give a shit (c) He doesn't need to.
If you got an objective critic to rank these bands according to greatness, The Police would be fighting for 3rd place behind Radiohead and The Beatles. They may lose for not being as original as SOAD or as cerebral as Cake.
So why does none of this shit matter? Why is there absolutely no contest for me? Why do they still stand on the highest mount and sing the sweetest? I'll tell you after the gig.
* * *
They played every one of their hits bar Spirits. From Don't Stand to Can't Stand. From Every Breath to Every Little Thing. They lengthened jams like Voices inside my Head, simplified punk riffs like Truth Hits Everybody and even did a verse from Ray Charles' Hit the road, Jack.
Stewart was in top form. He pulled out an arsenal of percussion weaponry, which included a 3 foot gong for Wrapped around your Finger. Andy Summers erupted into an uncharacteristic solo during So Lonely (my 3rd favourite Police song behind Bed's Too Big and Darkness) and bathed the stadium in warm sound. It was crisp, tight, triumphant and uplifting.
Sting was perhaps the weakest link. He couldn't hit the high notes and didn't even attempt to. His banter was tired and only mildly amusing. But it's a small complaint. They played for two and half hours, encored with Every Breath you Take (sans Diddy) and pushed old songs into new realms. The evening was perfect.
Was it the best gig I've ever seen? Nope. Rammstein at Brixton, SOAD at Reading and Placebo at Hammersmith surprised and dazzled me more.
But does it matter? They were The Police. They had rescued me from Rick Astley. Rescued me from teenage despair. And led me to discover a sound of my own.
The least I could do, was drag my sorry ass half way across the world, and spend more than I could afford, to stand amidst the devotees and say Thank you.
* * *
They say men never get over their first love. Incorrect. Her name was R______ G______. We got back together a year after she broke my heart. And while I hope she is happy and well, I hardly ever think of her.
But who says your first love has to be female and cute? Can it not be 3 scruffy men, 20 years your senior? Must it involve romance? Can it not involve a Sony Walkman and 5 well-worn cassettes?
I have loved a few women in my time, but none have lasted beyond 29 months. I have loved the Police since I was 13 and despite that grunge-influenced hiccup in the 90s, this love shows no sign of abating.
I am no expert on the subject, but I believe true love is about forgiving a myriad of sins. If my girlfriend recorded with Pato Banton and released albums of lute music, I'm not sure I'd speak to her again. True love is about sticking with your partner, even if something better comes along. Sorry Kurt. Sorry Marshall. Sorry Thom. I am already spoken for.
So the next time I meet you, I will tell you about the life-affirming event that was The Police concert, and you will give me that polite look. And it won't matter. Because The Police are the closest I have to true love. And true love is worth travelling across worlds for. True love is certainly worth staying up all night and writing 12 pages for.
New York City