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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Englishman in New York/Sting

Last Thursday night, Sting opened the annual benefit concert for the Rainforest Fund, held at New York's Carnegie Hall, with Englishman In New York, a song from his 1987 album . . . Nothing Like the Sun. In the liner notes to the album, Sting explained:

I wrote "Englishman in New York" for a friend of mine who moved from London to New York in his early seventies to a small rented apartment in the Bowery at a time in his life when most people have settled down forever.  He once told me over dinner that he looked forward to receiving his naturalization papers so that he could commit a crime and not be deported. "What kind of crime?" I asked anxiously.  "Oh, something glamorous, non-violent, with a dash of style," he replied. "Crime is so rarely glamorous these days."

Conspicuously, Sting neglected to identify his friend by name, but later acknowledged that the Englishman in question was author, lecturer and raconteur Quentin Crisp.  Crisp's 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant--and the subsequent BBC television adaptation starring John Hurt--brought Crisp to prominence with its unflinching account of his early experiences as a male prostitute, his openly gay lifestyle, and his outrageous exhibitionism.  Celebrated for his wit, Crisp became one of the most desirable dining companions of his day.  He went on to write several more books and toured in a one-man show.  He also started acting in television and films, and met Sting on the set of the 1985 film The Bride (in which Sting played Dr. Frankenstein).  When it was first released, many assumed "Englishman in New York," was about Sting himself, but as he explained to Rolling Stone in 1988: "The song is about someone else.  It's about Quentin Crisp. I think he is one of the most courageous men I've ever met, and one of the wittiest.  He was flamboyantly gay at a time when it was physically dangerous to be gay. . . . It was my song to appreciate his singularity.  But it's about me too."  He also told Rock Express:  "I didn't just want to be writing about myself as an alien. I wanted to write about Quentin, someone I admire. So it's not really about being gay. It's about being yourself, never conforming. That's what the song is really about."  Crisp appears in the music video for the song, which was shot on location in New York.  Sting also played a musical prank in the recording:  "One of my favourite little jokes is from an 'Englishman In New York', where at one point we're playing 'God Save The Queen' in a minor key," he told Guitar Magazine.  "It really tickles me but nobody else hears it!" [For a roundup of Sting's comments about Quentin Crisp and the song, see Crisperanto.org.]  A 2009 follow-up TV movie about the latter part of Crisp's life--with John Hurt again playing the author--was called An Englishman in New York after Sting's song.

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