353 Sting on TED

How I started writing songs again

This TED talk largely is sung; it's Sting's story of how he lost his mojo writing songs - that were mostly about himself - and found it again writing songs about others.

TED: "Sting’s early life was dominated by a shipyard - and he dreamed of nothing more than escaping the industrial drudgery. But after a nasty bout of writer’s block that stretched on for years, Sting found himself channeling the stories of the shipyard workers he knew in his youth for song material."


In a lyrical, confessional talk, Sting treats us to songs from his upcoming musical, 

and to an encore of “Message in a Bottle” (be sure to watch the video to the end.)

Here is a snippet I like especially:

(Writing ...) "was always a Faustian pact anyway. You're rewarded for revealing your inner-most thoughts, your private emotions on the page for the entertainment of others, for the analysis, the scrutiny of others, and perhaps you've given enough of your privacy away."

Once you watch and listen, you may well be in awe of this artist's eloquence.

You may even - like Robert Hebert, an American musician - feel overwhelmed;

but don't despair, rather be inspired ...

I gave a standing ovation, from my chair at my desk 
Inspired by genius, yet sadly depressed 
I stood there in awe, his magnificent purity 
Then wallowed in mire, of my own insecurity


Should I smash my guitar, and apologize to him 
for presenting myself, as a true musician 
Should I even presume, to compare my vocation 
with the likes of this giant, who's stride spans for nations

Or heed his advice, as from father to son 
and accept his encouragement, chin up, carry on 
carry his flag and wave it with pride 
as if I believed, I had nothing to hide

Enough of this blather, I'll get on with my day 
I'm good at my craft, I have something so say 
Though not at his level, certainly not with is skill 
I'll tend my own crops, my own gardens I'll till.

Following is the transcript of Sting's TED talk ... in case you (like me) don't want to miss a thing (click here to open TED in another window; watch, listen & read at the same time):

♪ It's all there in gospels ♪

0:18♪A Magdalene girl comes to pay her respects ♪

0:22♪ But her mind is awhirl ♪

0:23♪ When she finds the tomb empty ♪

0:26♪ Straw had been rolled ♪

0:28♪ Not a sign of a corpse ♪

0:30♪ In the dark and the cold ♪

0:32♪ When she reaches the door ♪

0:34♪ Sees an unholy sight ♪

0:36♪ There's a solitary figure and a halo of light ♪

0:40♪ He just carries on floating past Calvary Hill ♪

0:44♪ In an Almighty hurry ♪

0:45♪ Aye, but she might catch him still ♪

0:48♪ Tell me where are you gone, Lord ♪

0:50♪ And why in such haste? ♪

0:52♪ Oh don't hinder me, woman ♪ ♪ I've no time to waste ♪

0:56♪ For they're launching a boat on the morrow at noon ♪

1:00♪ And I have to be there before daybreak ♪

1:04♪ Oh I cannot be missing ♪

1:06♪ The lads'll expect me ♪

1:08♪ Why else would the Good Lord Himself resurrect me? ♪

1:12♪ For nothing'll stop me. I have to prevail ♪

1:15♪ Through the teeth of this tempest ♪

1:18♪ In the mouth of a gale ♪

1:20♪ May the angels protect me ♪

1:22♪ If all else should fail ♪

1:24♪ And the last ship sails ♪

1:27♪ Oh the roar of the chains ♪

1:31♪ And the cracking of timbers ♪

1:32♪ The noise at the end of the world in your ears ♪

1:36♪ As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea ♪


1:41♪ And the last ship sails ♪

1:47So I was born and raised in the shadow of a shipyard in a little town on the northeast coast of England. Some of my earliest memories are of giant ships blocking the end of my street, as well as the sun, for a lot of the year. Every morning as a child, I'd watch thousands of men walk down that hill to work in the shipyard. I'd watch those same men walking back home every night. It has to be said, the shipyard was not the most pleasant place to live next door to, or indeed work in. The shipyard was noisy, dangerous, highly toxic, with an appalling health and safety record.


Despite that, the men and women who worked on those ships were extraordinarily proud of the work they did, and justifiably so. Some of the largest vessels ever constructed on planet Earth were built right at the end of my street.

My grandfather had been a shipwright, and as a child, as there were few other jobs in the town, I would wonder with some anxiety whether that would be my destiny too. I was fairly determined that it wouldn't be. I had other dreams, not necessarily practical ones, but at the age of eight, I was bequeathed a guitar. It was a battered old thing with five rusty strings, and was out of tune, but quickly I learned to play it and realized that I'd found a friend for life, an accomplice, a co-conspirator in my plan to escape from this surreal industrial landscape.

3:37Well, they say if you dream something hard enough, it will come to pass. Either that, or I was extremely lucky, but this was my dream. I dreamt I would leave this town, and just like those ships, once they were launched, I'd never come back. I dreamt I'd become a writer of songs, that I would sing those songs to vast numbers of people all over the world, that I would be paid extravagant amounts of money, that I'd become famous, that I'd marry a beautiful woman, have children, raise a family, buy a big house in the country, keep dogs, grow wine, have rooms full of Grammy Awards, platinum discs, and what have you. So far, so good, right?

4:25And then one day, the songs stopped coming, and while you've suffered from periods of writer's block before, albeit briefly, this is something chronic. Day after day, you face a blank page, and nothing's coming. And those days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, and pretty soon those months have turned into years with very little to show for your efforts. No songs. So you start asking yourself questions. What have I done to offend the gods that they would abandon me so? Is the gift of songwriting taken away as easily as it seems to have been bestowed? Or perhaps there's a more ... a deeper psychological reason. It was always a Faustian pact anyway. You're rewarded for revealing your innermost thoughts, your private emotions on the page for the entertainment of others, for the analysis, the scrutiny of others, and perhaps you've given enough of your privacy away.

5:30And yet, if you look at your work, could it be argued that your best work wasn't about you at all, it was about somebody else? Did your best work occur when you sidestepped your own ego and you stopped telling your story, but told someone else's story, someone perhaps without a voice, where empathetically, you stood in his shoes for a while or saw the world through his eyes?

5:58Well they say, write what you know. If you can't write about yourself anymore, then who do you write about? So it's ironic that the landscape I'd worked so hard to escape from, and the community that I'd more or less abandoned and exiled myself from should be the very landscape, the very community I would have to return to to find my missing muse.

6:24And as soon as I did that, as soon as I decided to honor the community I came from and tell their story,that the songs started to come thick and fast. I've described it as a kind of projectile vomiting, a torrent of ideas, of characters, of voices, of verses, couplets, entire songs almost formed whole, materialized in front of me as if they'd been bottled up inside me for many, many years. One of the first things I wrote was just a list of names of people I'd known, and they become characters in a kind of three-dimensional drama, where they explain who they are, what they do, their hopes and their fears for the future.

7:14This is Jackie White. He's the foreman of the shipyard.

7:19My name is Jackie White, and I'm foreman of the yard, and you don't mess with Jackie on this quayside.I'm as hard as iron plate, woe betide you if you're late when we have to push a boat out on the spring tide. Now you can die and hope for heaven, but you need to work your shift, and I'd expect you all to back us to the hilt, for if St. Peter at his gate were to ask you why you're late, why, you tell him that you had to get a ship built. We build battleships and cruisers

7:47for Her Majesty the Queen, supertankers for Onassis, and all the classes in between, We built the greatest ship in tonnage what the world has ever seen

7:59♪ And the only life worth knowing is in the shipyard ♪

8:03♪ Steel in the stockyard, iron in the soul ♪

8:06♪ Would conjure up a ship ♪

8:07♪ Where there used to be a hull ♪

8:11♪ And we don't know what we'll do ♪

8:13♪ If this yard gets sold ♪

8:16♪ For the only life worth knowing is in the shipyard ♪


8:26So having decided to write about other people instead of myself, a further irony is that sometimes you reveal more about yourself than you'd ever intended. This song is called "Dead Man's Boots," which is an expression which describes how difficult it is to get a job; in other words, you'd only get a job in the shipyard if somebody else died. Or perhaps your father could finagle you an apprenticeship at the age of 15. But sometimes a father's love can be misconstrued as controlling, and conversely, the scope of his son's ambition can seem like some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. (Music)

9:09♪ You see these work boots in my hands ♪

9:12♪ They'll probably fit you now, my son ♪

9:15♪ Take them, they're a gift from me ♪

9:17♪ Why don't you try them on? ♪

9:20♪ It would do your old man good to see ♪

9:23♪ You walking in these boots one day ♪

9:25♪ And take your place among the men ♪

9:28♪ Who work upon the slipway ♪

9:31♪ These dead man's boots, though they're old and curled ♪

9:34♪ When a fellow needs a job and a place in the world ♪

9:37♪ And it's time for a man to put down roots ♪

9:41♪ And walk to the river in his old man's boots ♪

9:49♪ He said, "I'm dying, son, and asking ♪

9:52♪ That you do one final thing for me ♪

9:55♪ You're barely but a sapling, and you think that you're a tree ♪

10:00♪ If you need a seed to prosper ♪

10:03♪ You must first put down some roots ♪

10:06♪ Just one foot then the other in ♪

10:08♪ These dead man's boots" ♪

10:11♪ These dead man's boots, though they're old and curled ♪

10:14♪ When a fellow needs a job and a place in the world ♪

10:17♪ And it's time for a man to put down roots ♪

10:22♪ And walk to the river in his old man's boots ♪

10:27♪ I said, "Why in the hell would I do that? ♪

10:30♪ Why would I agree?" ♪

10:32♪ When his hand was all that I'd received ♪

10:35♪ As far as I remember ♪

10:38♪ It's not as if he'd spoiled me with his kindness ♪

10:41♪ Up to then, you see ♪

10:43♪ I'd a plan of my own and I'd quit this place ♪

10:46♪ When I came of age September ♪

10:48♪ These dead man's boots know their way down the hill ♪

10:52♪ They could walk there themselves, and they probably will ♪

10:54♪ I've plenty of choices, I've plenty other routes ♪

10:59♪ And you'll never see me walking in these dead man's boots ♪

11:05♪ What was it made him think ♪

11:07♪ I'd be happy ending up like him ♪

11:10♪ When he'd hardly got two halfpennies left ♪

11:12♪ Or a broken pot to piss in? ♪

11:15♪ He wanted this same thing for me ♪

11:18♪ Was that his final wish? ♪

11:20♪ He said, "What the hell are you gonna do?" ♪

11:23♪ I said, "Anything but this!" ♪

11:26♪ These dead man's boots know their way down the hill ♪

11:29♪ They can walk there themselves and they probably will ♪

11:32♪ But they won't walk with me ‘cause I'm off the other way ♪

11:35♪ I've had it up to here, I'm gonna have my say ♪

11:37♪ When all you've got left is that cross on the wall ♪

11:40♪ I want nothing from you, I want nothing at all ♪

11:43♪ Not a pension, nor a pittance, when your whole life is through ♪

11:46♪ Get this through your head, I'm nothing like you ♪

11:49♪ I'm done with all the arguments, there'll be no more disputes ♪

11:54♪ And you'll die before you see me in your dead man's boots ♪


12:12Thank you.

12:13So whenever they'd launch a big ship, they would invite some dignitary up from London on the train to make a speech, break a bottle of champagne over the bows, launch it down the slipway into the river and out to sea. Occasionally on a really important ship, they'd get a member of the royal family to come,Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne or somebody. And you have to remember, it wasn't that long ago that the royal family in England were considered to have magical healing powers. Sick children were held up in crowds to try and touch the cloak of the king or the queen to cure them of some terrible disease. It wasn't like that in my day, but we still got very excited.

12:58So it's a launch day, it's a Saturday, and my mother has dressed me up in my Sunday best. I'm not very happy with her. All the kids are out in the street, and we have little Union Jacks to wave, and at the top of the hill, there's a motorcycle cortege appears. In the middle of the motorcycles, there's a big, black Rolls-Royce. Inside the Rolls-Royce is the Queen Mother. This is a big deal. So the procession is moving at a stately pace down my street, and as it approaches my house, I start to wave my flag vigorously, and there is the Queen Mother. I see her, and she seems to see me. She acknowledges me. She waves, and she smiles. And I wave my flag even more vigorously. We're having a moment, me and the Queen Mother.She's acknowledged me. And then she's gone.

13:50Well, I wasn't cured of anything. It was the opposite, actually. I was infected. I was infected with an idea. I don't belong in this street. I don't want to live in that house. I don't want to end up in that shipyard. I want to be in that car. (Laughter) I want a bigger life. I want a life beyond this town. I want a life that's out of the ordinary. It's my right. It's my right as much as hers. And so here I am at TED, I suppose to tell that story,and I think it's appropriate to say the obvious that there's a symbiotic and intrinsic link between storytelling and community, between community and art, between community and science and technology, between community and economics. It's my belief that abstract economic theory that denies the needs of community or denies the contribution that community makes to economy is shortsighted, cruel and untenable.


15:15The fact is, whether you're a rock star or whether you're a welder in a shipyard, or a tribesman in the upper Amazon, or the queen of England, at the end of the day, we're all in the same boat.

15:35♪ Aye, the footmen are frantic in their indignation ♪

15:39♪ You see the queen's took a taxi herself to the station ♪

15:43♪ Where the porters, surprised by her lack of royal baggage ♪

15:47♪ Bustle her and three corgis to the rear of the carriage ♪

15:50♪ For the train it is crammed with all Europe's nobility ♪

15:54♪ And there's none of them famous for their compatibility ♪

15:58♪ There's a fight over seats ♪

16:00♪ "I beg pardon, Your Grace ♪

16:02♪ But you'll find that one's mine, so get back in your place!" ♪

16:07♪ "Aye, but where are they going?" ♪

16:09♪ All the porters debate ♪

16:11♪ "Why they're going to Newcastle and they daren't be late ♪

16:15♪ For they're launching a boat on the Tyne at high tide ♪

16:19♪ And they've come from all over, from far and from wide" ♪

16:22♪ There's the old Dalai Lama ♪

16:25♪ And the pontiff of Rome ♪

16:27♪ Every palace in Europe, and there's nay bugger home ♪

16:30♪ There's the Duchess of Cornwall and the loyal Prince of Wales ♪

16:34♪ Looking crushed and uncomfortable in his top hat and tails ♪

16:38♪ Well, they haven't got tickets ♪

16:40♪ Come now, it's just a detail ♪

16:42♪ There was no time to purchase and one simply has to prevail ♪

16:46♪ For we'll get to the shipyards or we'll end up in jail! ♪

16:50♪ When the last ship sails ♪

16:54♪ Oh the roar of the chains ♪

16:57♪ And the cracking of timbers ♪

16:59♪ The noise at the end of the world in your ears ♪

17:03♪ As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea ♪

17:07♪ And the last ship sails ♪

17:10♪ And whatever you'd promised ♪

17:13♪ Whatever you've done ♪

17:15♪ And whatever the station in life you've become ♪

17:19♪ In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son ♪

17:23♪ And no matter the weave of this life that you've spun ♪

17:27♪ On the Earth or in Heaven or under the Sun ♪

17:31♪ When the last ship sails ♪

17:34♪ Oh the roar of the chains ♪

17:38♪ And the cracking of timbers ♪

17:39♪ The noise at the end of the world in your ears ♪

17:43♪ As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea ♪

17:48♪ And the last ship sails ♪

17:57Thanks very much for listening to my song. Thank you. (Applause)

18:30Thank you.

18:36Okay, you have to join in if you know it. (Music) (Applause)

18:46♪ Just a castaway ♪

18:49♪ An island lost at sea, oh ♪

18:53♪ Another lonely day ♪

18:55♪ With no one here but me, oh ♪

18:59♪ More loneliness than any man could bear ♪

19:05♪ Rescue me before I fall into despair ♪

♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪

♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪

♪ Message in a bottle ♪

19:40♪ A year has passed since I wrote my note ♪

19:46♪ I should have known this right from the start ♪

19:52♪ Only hope can keep me together ♪

19:59♪ Love can mend your life ♪

20:01♪ but love can break your heart ♪

20:05♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪

♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪

20:20♪ Message in a bottle ♪


♪ Walked out this morning ♪

20:49♪ I don't believe what I saw ♪

20:52♪ A hundred billion bottles ♪

20:55♪ Washed up on the shore ♪

20:58♪ Seems I'm not alone in being alone ♪

21:04♪ A hundred billion castaways ♪

21:07♪ Looking for a home ♪

21:10♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪

♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪

21:26♪ Message in a bottle ♪


So I'm going to ask you to sing after me, okay, the next part. It's very easy. Sing in unison. Here we go.

22:00♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪ Come on now.

22:04Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:07Sting: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:10Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:13Sting: ♪ I'm sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:16Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:19Sting: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:22Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪

22:25Sting: ♪ Sending out ♪

22:38♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
♪ Yoooooooo ♪

23:01Thank you, TED. Goodnight.