Turns Out the Anti-Capitalist Agitator We Needed is (Checks Notes)... Sting??

Sting performs at a press conference for his musical, 'The Last Ship,' coming to San Francisco in 2020. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Sting, the 17-time Grammy-winning rock star who jet-sets between his five residences around the globe, probably isn't the first person who comes to mind when one thinks of famous anti-capitalists.

But in an interview today at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, he lets me in on a little-known fact.

"Yeah, I'm a critic of capitalism. I think when you take out the value of community from the economic equation, you end up with something, in the long-term, that is untenable," he says. "I studied economics; it's based on community. You can't have it without community. Otherwise we're being run by an algorithm that has no feeling for human dignity."

So Sting the, uh... socialist?

"I won't give it a name," he says of his belief system. "I just think it's basic human decency to look after people more than looking after money."

Sting speaks from his working class roots in 'The Last Ship,' a play about a shipbuilding community in decline.
Sting speaks from his working class roots in 'The Last Ship,' a play about a shipbuilding community in decline. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Sting is in town to talk about his 2014 Broadway musical, The Last Ship, which will come to the Golden Gate Theatre—with Sting in the starring role—in February 2020. Set in the '80s in his hometown of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, England, the musical is a love story set to the backdrop of a shipbuilding community in decline.

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On the surface, its subject matter might seem niche. But The Last Ship's central theme, of market forces disenfranchising the working class, has a deep resonance with today's political moment. One could say it echoes the plight of Rust Belt steelworkers, Detroiters feeling the loss of the automotive industry and even low-income Bay Area residents pushed out by big tech.

"This is happening everywhere," he says. "We were just in Toronto where a GM plant was about to close because they could move it to Mexico and pay workers $2 an hour."

Sting then describes how he and the cast visited the plant workers, and performed an intimate, private show for them of songs from The Last Ship. "The workers recognized the story we were telling," he says. "And my actors were exposed to the reality of what they were portraying on stage. It was an electric moment, and it galvanized the whole thing. Then GM came back to the table to start renegotiating after that event, so we thought we were doing something useful."

Talking with Sting, it's clear that The Last Ship is his way of both reconnecting to and speaking from his working-class roots, using personal insight to illuminate broader issues of economic inequality. Sting's father and grandfather both worked in the Wallsend shipyards—where "the biggest ships on Earth were built at the end of my street," he says—and he was expected to follow their footsteps and take up the family trade.

But the young boy then known as Gordon Sumner had a different dream: to become a rock star who got paid "big piles of money." He especially wanted nothing to do with Wallsend and its ships. Fast-forward to now, over a dozen Platinum albums and hundreds of sold-out arenas later, and the Sting who sings of shipyards and labor organizing finally sees the value of those humble beginnings he once yearned to escape.

Sting's musical 'The Last Ship' has parallels to the plight of steel workers in the Rust Belt, as well as low-income Bay Area residents pushed out by big tech.
Sting's musical 'The Last Ship' has parallels to the plight of steel workers in the Rust Belt, as well as low-income Bay Area residents pushed out by big tech. (Gabe Meline)

Let's be real: Sting is widely seen as a self-serious, Bono-esque mega-star (critics often bring up his well-publicized interest in tantric sex and his passionate dabbling in the lute). But in person, he's welcoming and friendly, with a loud laugh and a gift for putting people at ease.

Someone in Sting's position could easily rest on his laurels, enjoy Malibu's beaches and Tuscany's vineyards, and count his millions without much need to take creative risk. But Sting continues to push his own limits, undaunted by critical reception, and his fans love him for it. His last album, 44/876, a pop-reggae collaboration with Shaggy, peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard charts, even though it received lukewarm press (Pitchfork called it "helplessly uncool"). And though The Last Ship also received mixed reviews from theater critics during its latest run in Canada, Sting's passion for the storyline was apparent as he performed songs on the Golden Gate stage Thursday from the perspective of a union organizer and a shipyard manager fighting for his workers.

So what does success mean to Sting at this stage in his career, when he's accomplished nearly everything a rock star can?

"For me, it's about surprise," he says. "I want people to be surprised by the choices I make, and this play is very surprising. People are kind of gobsmacked."

He adds, laughing, "I'm surprised that I can act! It was never an ambition of mine to be an actor. But I can see the value of my name in the marquee to bring people in, and I believe in this play enough to take that risk."

'The Last Ship' runs Feb. 20, 2020–March 22, 2020 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Details here.

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