Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Dream of the Blue Turtles" in Chapman's Class

As a student at Johnston High School in the mid-80s, I, like many other students, aspired to be in Mr. Chapman’s physics class. Mr. Chapman was a younger, “cooler” teacher whose inspiring intellect was offset by a casual, but serious, demeanor. He was an avid fan of the Police, counting Ghost in the Machine as one of his all-time favorites. By the time I had reached my junior year in 1987, however, the Police had broken up and Sting’s first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, had been on the shelves for some time. I remember being involved in several distracting discussions in Mr. Chapman’s class about the literary innuendos embedded in Sting’s lyrics and the virtuosic interactions of the band he had assembled for the album.

That, of course, was a while ago, and revisiting The Dream of the Blue Turtles yesterday was somewhat of a bittersweet experience. Although Sting jumped the shark in the mid-90s, in the mid-80s he was at the height of his creativity and popularity, and his work was impassioned, believable, and relevant. Today, however, some of the songs from Dream of the Blue Turtles are noticeably dated. Russians, in particular, is circumscribed by a cold war ideology that simply does not exist anymore. Having lived through that particular flavor of propagandized paranoia, however, the song does ring naively with the confused echoes of the era.

There are some moments on Dream of the Blue Turtles, though, that I think transcend the time in which the album was released. During his time with the Police, Sting had professed a longstanding admiration for jazz, and to explore this interest, the band he assembled for Dream of the Blue Turtles was purposefully comprised of accomplished jazz musicians. Magic regularly occurred when Sting gave them space to cut loose. For example, when Branford Marsalis takes the reins on soprano sax during the solo section of Children’s Crusade, it is a sublime and intense moment that elevates the entire track.

Although Sting was clearly playing with politics at the time, he also had some more philosophically inspired work. At the time that it came out, Fortress Around Your Heart presented itself as a haunting song with thoughtful, intellectual lyrics, and it strongly appealed to the person I was in high school. I still connect with the song today, but I wonder if the part of me that is still sitting in Mr. Chapman’s class pondering its lyric nuance on the back of a physics notebook is reaching back from the past to move my present-day self. I think it’s hard to say, but my present-day self got a kick out of trying to catch the egocentric Sting blinking in this video – how many times can you count?

It is difficult not to listen to Dream of the Blue Turtles without a small bit of cognitive dissonance. Although he was striving for a jazz-rock aesthetic in this particular album, Sting would later turn towards a clear penchant for adult contemporary soft rock, and the seeds for that eventual change in his approach were unfortunately sown here. Still, for those of us that were there, it was a meaningful and timely album. So much so that the memories I have surrounding The Dream of the Blue Turtles include the many people playing with its meaning in Mr. Chapman’s class. Again, I think that this sense of community that mediated music can cultivate has become less pervasive as the privatized nature of earbuds and playlists encourage us to isolate.


  1. Interesting comment about "Russians." It's dated in the same manner as other Cold War relics of entertainment with intent. I recently watched The Day After and had a similar experience... In the modern world, that film posits a scenario that seems laughably absurd; in 1983 it paralyzed a nation with terror and had a pronounced impact on policymakers including Reagan.

    This may be the historian in me coming out, but I think it's a compelling exercise to stay mindful of holistic context in evaluating media arts, just as you have done here. Perhaps it is worth nothing that for most of this year's crop of college graduates, the Berlin Wall did not exist in their lifetime.

  2. oops--meant "worth noting," not "worth nothing"... damn you auto-correct [shaking fist]

  3. Mr. Chapman's class was a hoot. I wonder if he is a bitter, older teacher now.

  4. He was brilliant to involve Brandford Marsalis in his work. But then again, I'm biased.