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Sting: All This Time; On The Road with B.B. King

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What becomes a musical legend most? To date, it hasn’t been CD-ROM. For all the glitzy discs dedicated to Dylan, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Bowie, et al., only Peter Gabriel’s Xplora 1 has seemed more than a quick-buck gizmo, and it’s already two years old. But just when I’d written off pop-music CD-ROMs as hopelessly stodgy, along come Sting: All This Time and On the Road with B.B. King to indicate that there may be life in the disc drive yet. Both Sting and King appear to have been deeply involved in the making of these CD-ROMs, and the results play as true extensions of their personalities.

In other words, Sting is just as pompously humble as the man himself. The warning bells start clanging as soon as you read the hilarious liner notes, which characterize the erstwhile Police-man as ”an enigmatic, multifaceted, Renaissance Man kind of guy.” Fire up this two-disc set and you’re deposited in a lovely, windswept, 360-degree panorama that works as a perfect reflection of Sting’s intellectual-Heathcliff shtick. By using a mouse to click into various medieval structures, you can access videos of songs from the artist’s four solo albums. There’s also a theater (excuse me, a theatre) displaying clips and commentary relating to his movie career, a library with passages from his favorite authors (Joyce, Jung, and…Anne Rice), sections devoted to Amnesty International and the Amazon rain forest, and many more goodies.

Admittedly, you’ll need strength to get through the endless sound and video clips in which the singer waxes portentous on subjects from fame (”The cliché of the pop idol is something I’ve tried to avoid”) to existentialism (”I think insanity is close behind if you’re nihilistic about everything”). But for all the pretensions, Sting works. The feverishly detailed artwork alone is worth the price, and several offhand grace notes — a Simpsons clip that parodies the singer, for instance — prove that, yes, the guy has a sense of humor. And the slide-show tour of his English hometown, Newcastle upon Tyne, has a simple charm that says more than any philosophical wheeze.

That is, Sting engaged even this nonfan who thinks it’s been downhill ever since ”Roxanne.” One catch: If this is the multimedia equivalent of a coffee-table book, you’ll need an awfully expensive coffee table to stack it on. Only a fast PC with Windows 95 will do the trick.

Conversely, On the Road With B.B. King plays just about anywhere — much like B.B. himself. Structured as a trip aboard King’s touring bus, Big Red, B.B. King takes you to various stops in the blues guitarist’s career: his beginnings in Indianola, Miss.; his early days as a performer and deejay in Memphis; a blues club filled with trophies and testimonials; and a vast, airy cyberpalace devoted to his legendary ax, Lucille.

What’s missing is King’s songs played in their entirety (Sting at least delivers several full music videos). You get snippets by the shovel load, sure, but I would have liked to have heard ”How Blue Can You Get” in all its surreal glory. But the disc makes up for the slight with the genial presence of King himself. On video or in voice-over, the guy’s all over this thing: welcoming you aboard his bus, strolling down Indianola’s main drag, telling of the first time he played for a white audience. He doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone — even his old boss in the cotton fields — and his graciousness is as undeniable as his chops. It’s ironic but fitting — the oldest style of American music has made a bodacious case for new technology. Sting: B+ B.B. King: A-