TUNE DOCTOR! A Fake Rick Koster Songwriting Tale #4 -- Sting
It was several years ago, but not so far in the past that we didn't have one of those machines that tells you who's on the line when your phone rings – and it was ringing. Again.
My wife Eileen looked at the caller ID and snorted. "It's that Sting person again. Why don't you just answer it and get it over with?"
I sighed. "You know what will happen. He's so insecure. Something's bothering him — something that would be trivial to you or me — but, for Sting, he'll get ridiculously tense and have another anxiety attack … Have I told you what he does when he has an anxiety attack?"
Eileen mopped her brow with a linen handkerchief. It was brutally humid that August and we couldn't afford air conditioning. We'd taken to stealing ice sculptures from the catering company down the block. It was summer — high wedding season — and they always had a few ice sculptures in their walk-in freezer. For some reason, they always left the back door unlocked and, when no one was around, we'd creep in and help ourselves to whatever sculpture was sitting there and race home with it and plop it on the living room floor, with a fan blowing frigid air over us.
That particular day, I remember it was a life-size carving of a top-hatted groom holding a trailing-gowned bride in his arms, like Frankenstein carrying the child in that iconic Boris Karloff scene. But the sculpture was almost melted and we were sweating again. The living room carpet was soaked and sodden with melted ice.
Anyway, Eileen said, "Yeah, I remember. Sting's anxiety attacks. He stabs himself on top of his foot with an arrow he bought that once belonged to the great Cheyenne Indian chief Dull Knife."
It was true. Sting would just go ape-nuts with nervous energy and a shrink had suggested he counter the anxiety with a repeated symbolic gesture. Well, sir, Sting had bought the arrow with a royalty check from the time he sold the rights for "Bring On the Night" to that fast food taco company, and the idea behind the campaign was that Attractive Funsters everywhere can't wait for sundown so they can cruise up and down boulevards and then buy bags of tacos. "Bring On the Night" was the perfect anthem for such a thing and it pleased Sting to think of carefree kiddos eating Mexican food as they grooved to one of his songs.
So, yes, Sting was nervous to beat the band and I could only imagine that his bloody foot by now looked as though Keegan Bradley had stomped on it with an antiquated set of golf spikes. I sighed and picked up the phone. "Okay, Stingle" — which was what I called him — "what's the prob?"
Two hours later, I met Sting at the recording studio he'd built on the other side of town in what used to be the only still-standing schoolhouse where Nathan Hale had once taught.
The air-conditioning was on full-blast — thank God! — and Sting was sitting on a couch made of Polar Bear fur. His "anxiety foot" was neatly bandaged though spots of blood had seeped through. There was no sign of the arrow that had belonged to Dull Knife.
Sting was holding an unplugged Fender Telecaster in his lap and a clump of grapes in his left hand. He was also wearing one of those laurel wreath-crowns I associate with Caesar, and his lavender t-shirt had a pointillation image of the French poet Baudelaire.
Two small Pekingnese dogs were making barking motions with their jaws and throats, but no sound was coming out and I remembered Sting had found the noise of their yips to be headache-inducing, so he'd had their voice boxes removed. It was an odd and faintly disconcerting thing to see.
Sting smiled hugely when I came in. "Thanks for coming by," he said in an apologetic tone. "Would you like a rare albino elk? I just bought a herd of them."
I waved him off. Where would we put an albino elk?
I just said, "How can I help?"
He sighed and smashed a grape against his forehead. It looked ridiculous, the grape-goop trailing over his imperial cheekbone. But I, too, had crushed various fruits (though never grapes or, for that matter, peaches) against my skull in the past, so who was I to judge?
Sting said, "I just keep worrying that Stewart and Andy won't be okay."
Sting had just disbanded The Police and was concerned about his old bandmates.
"They'll be fine," I said. "But how can I help?"
Sting idly played a few tricky jazz chords on his guitar. The dogs "barked" silently. "Okay. Well, I'm going to form a band to tour behind my first solo album, and I'm gonna get the best musicians in the world. Really bad-ass dudes."
I hadn't expected this, but it was a gutsy, cool idea. I asked, "Who are you thinking about?"
Sting paused, milking the expectation. "A little quartet called … Bachman Turner Overdrive!" He laughed triumphantly.
"Uh, Stingle," I said, "I think that's monumentally stupid."
He looked sad and deflated and I felt bad. He swallowed and stuffed a grape into his right eye. "Well, if not BTO, then … who?"
I walked in a circle around the expensive studio concole and instruments, nearly tripping over one of the mute dogs. "And that's another thing!" I cried. I pointed at the poor animals. "Sting does not have Pekingnese dogs! Give those to your Tantric wife and she can lug them around. You get some Russian Wolfhounds or Scottish Deerhounds. Better yet, start a new breed by mating a Russian Wolfhound with a Scottish Deerhound. Market them as Sting Hounds."
Sting nodded eagerly, jotting notes on a legal pad.
I went on. "No, I say we jettison the Bachman Turner people and instead …" I thought for a moment and snapped my fingers … "and instead, hire some young, hip jazz dudes. I'm suggesting Darryl Jones, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and — "
Sting was so excited he bounded off the couch, paying no attention to his wounded foot, clearly delighted with direction I'd chosen. "And how about, ah, that Thelonious Monk guy!"
I sighed tiredly. "No, Stingle. Monk is regrettably dead. I was thinking of one of the Marsalis brothers."
Sting chewed his lower lip, petulant that Monk was gone and not even he — Der Stingle — could get around that problem. He picked up his pad and wrote. "Okay," he said, dictating to himself. "'Hire Marsalis brother.' Got it."
"Are we done here?" I asked gently. I didn't want to seem to dismissive because of his fragile nature.
"Well, there is one more thing …"
I grinned good-naturedly. "What is it, my brother?"
Sting repositioned himself on the couch and picked up the guitar. "This is a new song I'm thinking about for my first solo record." He grinned shyly. "Would you take a listen?"
"Dude! You're Sting! Of course I'll listen!"
With that, staring at the floor of the studio while he plucked Sting-ian chords like F#m9 and B7/4. I have to admit, I was hearing effortless greatness — at least until he reached the skyscraping beauty of the chorus and sang, "And if I build this fortress / Around that skin tag you have hanging off your jaw / Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire …"
"Wait! WAIT!" I cried.
Sting looked up, crestfallen and perhaps a little shocked. "What, Rickster?" he said. Even the dogs stopped their silent barky-motions and looked at me expectantly.
"You can't have a song this gorgeous and majestic and hook the whole thing on the image of a fortress built around someone's facial skin tag. Are you nuts?"
Sting looked around the studio, as though the answer was spray-painted on the soundproofed walls wherein Nathan Hale had once taught math and spelling. He shrugged. "Then … what?"
I leaned in towards him and winked and patted him on his frail shoulder. "Heart, buddy. Build the fortress around ... her HEART!"
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