Title: Calling Elvis: Conversations with Some of Music’s Greatest: A Personal History
Author: Shantanu Datta
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020
Links: Speaking Tiger
Englishman in India
The story goes that the first time Sting was in Bombay as the frontman of The Police, sometime in the early ’80s, he took on the cops. After a few men in uniform started to hassle a young crowd, trying to pin down those who were exhaling a particularly strong hue into the breezy night, Sting screamed into the microphone: ‘This is The Police telling the Bombay Police to f*** off.’
If the authenticity of that quote couldn’t be verified, blame it on the air that night. But any band that could fuse reggae, rock and standout bass riffs and come up with an album titled Zenyatta Mondatta was capable of anything.
Much later, in 1988, yoga and ‘causes’ got to him and he was in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman, singing Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up for Amnesty International. I was there, having scaled the 10-feet steel mesh wall to get on the ground from our seats in the stands (Rs 300) to be closer to the mammoth stage that had been erected. The JN stadium gig was one of twenty concerts held across the world over six weeks to raise awareness about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its 40th anniversary and the work of Amnesty. It was sponsored in part by Reebok Foundation and presented in India by The Times of India. And with a line-up such as that, who could resist a trip to Delhi.
Peter Gabriel sang Biko, his eulogy to anti-apartheid activist Steve who died in police custody, and Games Without Frontiers, a critique about belligerent nationalism, with stage lights on cranes that seemed to follow him obsessively. Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen played everything, from Dancing in the Dark, The River, I’m On Fire and of course Born in the USA, his set running into more than two hours and bringing the curtains down at 3 a.m. on what was the largest-ever conglomeration of rock stars on a single night in India.
‘It’s nice to be back in India,’ screamed Sting and over 50,000 of us screamed back. Springsteen joined him in his rendition of Every Breath You Take that he once described as a ‘cool, seductive song about the ill-effects of being possessed by someone you love.’ He opened his set with If You Love Somebody, the antithesis of Every Breath… celebrating the very essence of love, which is, as the song goes, Free, free, set them free. If you love somebody set them free.
This was among his earlier post-Police tunes that were played with a carefully chosen band of jazz musicians like Kenny Kirkland (keys), Branford Marsalis (sax), Darryl Jones (bass) and Omar Hakim (drums). Naturally, his music acquired an elevated sophistication. It took on various shades, becoming a wholesome experience that was all the more richer with his lyrics, encompassing everything from the deeply personal to the overtly political.
Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Sting in 1988. Nor did he have time for interviews when he was in Delhi later to perform at a music award show. Finally, I managed to hook up with him over email in 2006, when he was visiting India yet again. It was a short exchange in which Sting shared his thoughts on writing, friendship with Mark Knopfler and why George Michael was one of his favourite singers.
Finally, Desert Rose in India, live. How did that song happen?
I spent a lot of time in dance clubs in Paris during this recording. I heard this amazing hybrid sound and became very interested in it. When I met Cheb Mami, one of the most famous singers of Rai music, I decided that I would write an Arabesque song and try to get him to do a duet with me. That’s what happened. I’m happy it’s a huge hit.
How different is your last album Sacred Love?
I like to think there’s some kind of evolution taking place. My intention is to be a better musician than four years ago—a better arranger, songwriter and performer. Whether I succeed or not is up to the listener to decide.
In the film, Bring on the Night, you speak of a very humbling moment in your life when you heard a window cleaner singing Roxanne.
I enjoy hearing people humming my tunes unconsciously. I see them on the street, in a restaurant, in a factory, I see people singing my song. I find that comforting and sweet. A song I made up in the privacy of my home becomes so recognised. I love it.
Do you like George Michael’s version of Roxanne?
George is one of my favourite singers. I thought the song was ultimately successful, different from mine. I did my version of his Wake Me Up, but nobody liked it.
How did you team up with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler in Money for Nothing?
I have been Mark’s friend for a long time. We both come from Newcastle. I was on holiday on the island of Monserrat. He was recording Brothers in Arms. He asked me to come over to the studio and play a few notes. That was it.
Broken Music is your memoir. But, you hint of being afraid to write another one in your song Book of My Life.
Well, I approach the first part of my life in the book because I have introspected on it; I can recognise the landmarks. I can give it some narrative shape. I am really close to the subsequent twenty-five years of my life and I can’t really see the wood for the trees yet. I may be able to. At the moment, it is too confusing and I am a bit afraid.
How does literature influence your songwriting? Like Moon Over Bourbon Street was inspired by Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.
I read a lot. I think that has some influence on the level of literacy in my songs. I want them to mean something. I want the words to be beautiful. I want people to appreciate them.
In the Michael Apted-directed documentary, Bring on The Night, that follows Sting and his band rehearsing for a major public concert, he talks about how, sometimes, it is for the better when an overtly political song is rendered irrelevant over time. Like for instance, Russians, featured in his 1985 debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles:
In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria.
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.
Mister Krushchev said, ‘We will bury you.’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.
Yet, over three decades later, we’re back to living under a Cold War shadow with evidence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia meddling in the US elections that saw Donald Trump becoming President. Human rights is in deep focus back home with the world looking at India on two counts—its response on the humanitarian crisis involving over four lakh Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and the events in Kashmir.
Sting’s songs are, therefore, a throwback to history repeating itself. They are also about his life’s defining moments. In Don’t Stand So Close to Me, he cries out about his days as a school teacher, inspired by Nobokov’s Lolita, and then moves on to becoming a tea-sipping Englishman in New York only to remind us how Fragile we all are. In between he’s celebrating friendship in It’s Probably Me, an infectious slow burn with a star line-up of Eric Clapton, David Sandborn (sax) and Steve Gadd, that was featured in the film, Lethal Weapon 3. He is also telling the story of a gambler in Shape of My Heart, one who plays not to win but to find some sense in life’s game of chance. It’s the kind of stuff that may have been going through the head of that thirteen-year-old orphaned girl (played by a young Natalie Portman) as she is walking away from Leon (Jean Reno), her protector who is about to die, in that consummate Luc Besson film of the same name in which we hear the song play out while the end credits roll.
And every time he sings these songs in that high-pitched rock ’n roll voice of his, teasing one note and bending another, it seems Sting will never hit the high note he is trying to reach. But he always does.
About the book
Shantanu Datta’s career as a journalist placed him at the forefront of music reportage in India for much of the past three decades, and therefore gave him unprecedented access to the greatest performers from around the world who played in the South Asian subcontinent. This book compiles, for the first time, the detailed interviews he conducted with seminal artistes like Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), Ian Anderson and Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and many others including Dr L. Subramaniam, John McLaughlin, Sting, Jean-Luc Ponty, Carlos Santana and Amyt Datta. His candid, informed conversations with these enduring legends provide a rare glimpse into the minds of those trailblazers who influenced entire generations with their music. Datta’s own life too emerges in vignettes throughout the book, as he deftly weaves together his professional life with the personal through shared threads of melody and song.
Written with an exceptional depth of knowledge, Calling Elvis is an absolute treat for musicians and music-lovers everywhere.
About the Author
Shantanu Datta is a journalist, writing on politics, films, books and music since 1987. He started off as a trainee in The Telegraph in Calcutta and went on to head editions of The New Indian Express and The Indian Express in Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai, after a stint in IE, Delhi. He is now with The Telegraph Online, back in the city where it all began. This is his first book.
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