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Imagine, if you will, Sting’s autobiography. Imagine page after page devoted to the rise and collapse of the Police, hours of now-repudiated tantric sex, and his ongoing balancing act between being a workaholic musician and a fiftysomething family man.
Unfortunately, one would be imagining an entirely different book from the one he’s actually written. Instead of an account spanning his life and career, Broken Music is both more limited and more audacious. The bulk of the former Gordon Sumner’s memoir is devoted to his family history, upbringing, and adolescence; in other words, it’s precisely the book one wouldn’t want from him. Yet despite such restrictions, ”Broken Music” is an engaging, lucidly written reminiscence that, like Sting’s post-Police career, both surprises and frustrates.
Given the smarts Sting has flashed in interviews, it’s not shocking that ”Broken Music” is intellectually vigorous; it’s certainly the first rock memoir to cite both P.G. Wodehouse and the ’70s prog band Gong. Written in the present tense, the book reads like a diary, albeit one revised to make the prose more elegant and thoughtful. Starting with his ancestry, Sting details how the British son of a ”remote” father and a ”beautiful, sad mother” growing up in dreary, working-class Newcastle found refuge in music and purposefully chose the bass guitar for its anonymity. In an intriguing move that distinguishes ”Broken Music” from standard celebrity tell-alls, he returns to memories of his parents throughout the book, as if continually attempting to understand them and the ways in which they shaped his own belief that ”thought and torment seem to be inextricably linked.”
Simultaneously, the book chronicles his day jobs (teacher, tax officer) and the ’70s big-band and jazz ensembles in which he played before he met Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. Here, Sting displays a deft touch (”sad scraps of soundproof paneling hang loosely from the walls,” he writes of one studio) and nicely captures the drudgery of performing in clubs and before bingo tournaments. Although a bit too detailed, these sections are useful reminders that Sting’s natural calling is the garnished, sometimes anemic pop he’s made on his own, rather than the Police’s reggae-punk. In a jolting admission of his own careerism, he reveals that when it came to starting the band, ”I sing tender love songs…but I also realize that there’s an opportunity in the chaos, and that I am perfectly able to morph, adapting what I do to suit the current climate….” At least he’s honest.
Sting also claims he’s ”not arrogant at all, just lazy,” but that point remains debatable. Shortly after he begins discussing the Police and their early chemistry, the book ends; the band’s breakthrough, success, and dissolution are dispatched in one paragraph. Instead, we learn about the first time he masturbated, the details of his first wedding ceremony, and other minutiae only an egotist could think we would want. (His publisher says there are currently no plans for a sequel.)
In the end, he laments skipping the funerals of both his parents and acknowledges that ”escape and the need to keep moving had by now become endemic in me.” One finishes ”Broken Music” glad Sting has begun to understand himself and his motivations but wishing his respectable memoir had kept moving a little further into the future.