Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner

(To return to Sting's response, click here.)

Village Voice, Nov. 1987

ON STING'S DOUBLE record, ...Nothing Like the Sun, one confronts once more the spectacle of the rock-star-as-conscience-of-the-free-world. As music, it is perfumed gunk; Sting's Police-era gift for cynically insinuating hooks ain't what it used to be, either. This stuff doesn't swing, doesn't rock, doesn't groove. It just circles round and round, cosmopolitan and unobtrusive, a seamless construct of secondhand ethnicity and firsthand condescension. Besides the white hole of Sting's croon, the defining voice here belongs to Branford Marsali's soprano sax: insistently cloying, attenuated, the sound of one who is wrapped around his finger. In essence, this is Steely Dan with all the delusions of Donald Fagen used to sneer at reinstated.

What's remarkable is the level, the density, of misinterpretation Sting achieves here. He will suffer no facet of the human condition to go unreified: feelings, politics, hope, all are traduced into commodities. What remains is surrender to the way things are, to the pervasive realities of the marketplace—acceptance, submission, packaged as compassionate dissent. In the guise of moderation and conscientiousness, Sting lets it be known "human rights" are good things. Everyone should have them. They are as desirable as a high-end compact disc player on which to hear ...Nothing Like the Sun, for instance. Yet they're really no different—another product, a little something to help consumers sleep easier at night, as nebulous and soothing as one of Marsalis's solos.

Hasil Adkins, the unheralded legend of "I Need Your Head," "Reagan Blues," and countless more, sounds like a forty mewl-team cross between the Eraserhead baby and a Clinch Mountain Jerry Lee Lewis. On his no-budget LP The Wild Man, the Haze mostly sings as if every pant and shudder could be his last will and testament. Tearing his cat clothes off before the great abyss, he will not be deterred from his endtime mating rites. If The Wild Man offers nothing as stupefyingly weird as "D.P.A. on the Moon" or "She Said" or "We Got a Date," it still sends sense scattering before it the way a Plymouth empties a sidewalk of pedestrians. Haze delivers his customary new dance, "Chicken Flop," on which he helpfully instructs: "Flip flop flop." He unleashes a shiftless instrumental rhapsody called "Do the Scalp," punctuated by the screams of mutant masseuses yet unborn, as he bloodies his fingers on the frets. Haze climbs into his "Big Red Satellite" (a car—I think) and imitates the sirens or pursuing state troopers at the top of his lungs. Constantly, there is the search for a flailing, rutting beat that will not only approximate fucking but also subsume it: "Wild Wild Friday Night" is a song of such expansive filth as to cover all in earshot with cum-dripping anarchy.

Courtesy of the perpetually fawning L.A. Times, let's apply some Sting-anointment to Mr. Adkins: "It's Time to Recognize His Joyful Musicality and Sophisticated Grace." Sticks in the craw; exposed as cant, the house of marked cards collapses on itself. It's no accident of birth that at fiftysomething Hasil Adkins has more life in him than Sting ever had or will. For inertia is at the heart of the former Mr. Gordon Sumner's charade—and appeal. In the liner notes to ...Nothing Like the Sun, he informs us history appears "to be nothing but a monotonous and sordid succession of robber baron scumbags devoid of any admirable human qualities." Yet the pristine monotony of the album has not a single moment that would give offense to your average captain-of-industry scumbag. Indeed, its sheen of expensive distance will fit right in with any moneyed scumbag decor. "History Will Teach Us Nothing," the bronzed white man tells us to that toe-tapping colonial beat. Sting's gilt-edged music is comfortable with this: it has dispensed with the need for anything beyond obedience to the social hierarchy rock finds itself absorbed by.

I could stand his Sketches of Spam cover of Hendrix's "Little Wing" and laugh off the Princely pseudo-phunk of "We'll Be Together Again." But when he turns the plight of Pinochet's victims into mood music or makes some ultradiscreet plea for tolerance (he sounds like he's talking about Martians instead of gays, though to him they might be interchangeable), that's when the gorge starts its trip to the top. That's it, Sting old man: impoverish life that much further, falsify it that extra mile. Plainly, Hasil Adkins and the prodigious noises he makes are anathema to this fuckhead idea of culture: the social significance of "Punchy Wunchy Wicky Wackey Woo" doesn't announce itself in the obsequious manner of "History Will Teach Us Nothing," but it springs from sources of euphoric craziness and freedom that are immeasurably deeper. Even when Adkins, who has mellowed a bit, serenades us with lovely country lament "She'll See Me Again," he could be a bourbon-rinsed apparition rising from Hank Williams's grave or Lou Reed's bad conscience, calling down spooky imitations of an Otherness that knows no name. Let it rock.

Not that I mean to imply here that Sting is useless. He's contemptible, but in exemplary ways. So bravo, Sting, bravo. Don't feel slighted, for as Haze reminds me, we got a date. Your head, my wall.