The Police: Friendly Ghosts in the Machine

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As rock reunions go, few have been more anticipated or gradually realized than this year’s Police tour. For twenty-odd years, a fair number of interviews with Sting and pretty much any interview with Stewart Copeland or Andy Summers eventually descended upon the question. The Police have three living (and frankly age-defying) members, plus a catalog of amazing songs that have seeped their way into the post-New Wave consciousness without spawning horri?c legions of carbon-copy imitators. Having initially quit not far from the zenith of their career, there has always been a sense that a Police reunion would have some meat and gravitas to it, a resolution of un?nished business and perhaps the promise of something more.

Seeing an early show at the Staples Center in L.A., there is an undeniable joy in seeing those three people onstage, doing their songs, together. And yet while there hasn’t been enough decay to make it seem as if they’re covering their own songs, there’s still some sense of emptiness in the gesture. Sting’s sugar-free jazz instincts have seemingly won the day, slowed the songs and eviscerated whatever last traces of punk existed in the band. Aside from raw, rusty moments where tempos get dropped and near trainwrecks are averted by a Copeland ?ll, there’s a waft and a languor to the whole affair that perhaps offers a slightly un?attering snapshot of what 1987 might’ve brought had the band stayed together. Simply put, the 1982 Police run rings around the 2007 Police, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either charitable, lying or not an attentive enough fan to really tell the difference. But does it really matter? The heart still skips a beat when “Every Breath You Take” starts up, and there’s a thrill to celebrating these songs that perhaps justi?es the price of admission. For someone too young to be a concertgoer when the band ?rst reigned, this is the closest and best that can be done—far better, certainly, than never seeing it at all. Right?

Rock reunions are a strange beast. The prevailing cynical logic, of course, is that they tend to be empty and exploitative money grabs, designed to prop up aging musicians’ spending habits or prime the pump for a glut of reissues. And certainly in some cases, the pro?t motive can’t be denied. At SXSW this year, Pete Townshend candidly admitted that early Who reunion gigs bore some ?nancial imperative for bassist John Entwistle, and the truth is that often the non-songwriting members of various rock-star ensembles have far less bank than the casual observer might suspect.

Still, some of the most vaunted reunions (The Eagles, for example) bring together individuals who probably don’t need the money. So why do they do it? And when they do it, why do we care?

The reunions that feature an older vintage of artist often have the feeling of an extended victory lap, as artists with greying hair and growing paunches give boomers the chance to ?ock to corporate boxes and break out the tattered T-shirts of yesteryear. For the fans, there’s either a nostalgia trip or the chance to a see a version (faded as it might be) of something they weren’t alive or old enough to experience the ?rst time around—or just a chance to hear a great set of songs from (at least some of) the original artists who wrote them.

For the artists, perhaps the instincts are more complex. One suspects that older rock bands often suffer from the Roger Clemens/Michael Jordan phenomenon in which retirement proves maddeningly boring and empty, and there’s a desire to jump back in. It may be that Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour never ends in part because life on the road has become his natural space, his way of constructing his days, months and years. And for a band like Kiss, where there’s a certain degree of egomania, yet another farewell tour offers a few more months of arenas full of screaming fans and frenzied limelight.

Further down into the personal psychology of it all, reunions are likely a recourse for bands who ?nd everything they do with the rest of their lives overshadowed or hounded by questions, remembrances and suggestions of that one af?liation that brought them to stardom. In this sense, the reunion is a form of exorcism. Certainly a monkey leapt off of Sting’s back this year. Moreover, perhaps on some level there’s a sense of obligation and a desire to honor the wishes of fans who (by way of letters, journalist’s questions and huge ?nancial offers) beg and plead for one last glimpse. There is, of course, a whole ?ock of artists who refuse to reunite unless there’s a record to be made and new art involved beyond a tour-souvenir live disc or video. When interviewed, The Jesus and Mary Chain, for instance, treat the eventual creation of new material as an essential part of their recent reformation, and fellow Coachella second-time-around debutantes Crowded House and Happy Mondays are offering new albums this year. The Stooges and the New York Dolls (well, at least two of them) have also spent the last year touring on (middling) new material. For these bands, the attempt to rekindle the creative process is an integral part of the act of reconnection, even if the results don’t always ?t the band’s brand standard.

Sadly, in the canon of reunion records there are few standouts. The indie ranks have generally more contenders, as Mission of Burma, American Music Club and Dinosaur Jr. have all cranked out high-quality reunion records. The passage of time favors those who wait one decade, rather than four, to get the band back together, and the reunion album often ?ts into the arc the band was on before the ?rst break (in many cases a state of free-fall).

For all its intrinsic ?aws, the rock reunion may be an index of the music world’s health. The depth of yearning for certain reunions is part of a process of sanctifying great music. As the barriers against reunions are gradually lowered by their increasing commonality, perhaps some great albums will be recaptured in the afterlife of, say, a Green on Red or even some day Soundgarden or Pavement. As rock moves from one generation to the next, perhaps the rules of time, entropy and the myth of beautiful ?ameouts need not always apply. If that means some older bands haunting the stage as shadows of their former selves, so be it. At least they’re friendly ghosts.