by Skip Daly
There is an old writing adage that there are only two plots in the world: “a man takes a journey” and “a stranger comes to town.” Stewart Copeland’s new autobiography, “Strange Things Happen”, falls solidly in the first category.
Unlike many autobiographers, Mr. Copeland avoids providing a full accounting of his life thus far, instead choosing to focus on what he sees as the true adventures. The construction is a tad disjointed at times, as Copeland shares stories from his musical life, his travels through Africa, his polo tournaments (which include opposition from the Prince of Wales), and more. The stories themselves, however, are compelling and Copeland delivers them with a healthy serving of wit.
While his adventures with polo, pygmies, and growing up in Beirut as the son of a covert CIA agent serve to humanize Mr. Copeland, it is of course the music-related tales that truly draw the reader in. Tales from the Police’s 1977-1984 glory days are notably absent, probably due to that story having been previously told – first in Andy Summers’ excellent autobiography One Train Later and then later by Copeland himself in the film Everyone Stares. I also lamented the exclusion of any recollections from the “Animal Logic” projects.
However, Mr. Copeland provides insight into much of his other musical work – composing film soundtracks, operas, collaborating with Trey Anastasia and Les Claypool as part of Oysterhead and, most fascinating of all – a behind-the-scenes account of the 2007-2008 Police reunion tour.
And it is here that the book truly comes alive. It is not simply a matter of the Police being the most famous aspect of Copeland’s career, but rather that this aspect of his life seems to be where all the tensions – and the biggest interpersonal challenges – lie. I’m reminded of the saying frequently placed over the ‘uncharted’ areas on ancient maps: “Here be dragons”.
The story of the Police reunion tour is truly a “journey within a journey”, and the reader is brought along for the ride as Copeland, Summers, and Sting attempt to find, if not stability, at least fragile alliance. As it turns out, this final section of the book has a cathartic feeling to it, with things rising to a head before the players find a path forward – largely due to Copeland really laying it on the line to Sting.
After feeling continually “beaten up” by Sting’s meticulous attention to musical detail, in a dramatic impromptu speech, Copeland confronts Sting a few months into the tour and basically reiterates that he sees the tour as a finite thing and intends to make the most of it: “I’m going home – via Nirvana”. To paraphrase: “you can spend the entire tour angry and frustrated with me if you want, but this is how I play in this band…so deal with it. Our reunion is finite – we might as well enjoy it.”
As recounted by Copeland, the entire feel of the tour changed after that, and the band truly came together. As fascinating as the behind-the-scenes Police insights are, Copeland’s offers subtle ruminations on the topic of “fame” that are equally fascinating. The stories he tells often highlight the varying degrees of fame. With his own fame closely attached to a particular context, he is thereby able to nimbly waltz between a feeling of “man on the street” attainability one moment, and private jet-flying rock star millionaire the next.
In a poignant exposition from his post-Police years, he ponders the great (and age-old) “who am I?” question with a brilliantly written tour through his wardrobe. The answer would appear to be a lot more complex than one would expect for a rock ‘n’ roll drummer hailing from one of the biggest bands ever to tour the planet: drummer…polo player…film maker…composer…and – as depicted in the final photo in the book (captioned “who I really am”) – family man.