ONE TRAIN LATER
a memoir by Andy Summers
Andy Summers. Guitar player with The Police. Early years with Zoot Money & the Big Roll Band, and Eric Burdon & the New Animals, with others like Soft Machine, Neil Sedaka & Roberto Menescal between and after. Learned to play by slowing down records, coping the licks of American jazz greats and early UK rock n rollers. Consorted with a number of the key London guitarists of the sixties, including Clapton and Page... and was lusted after by Long John Baldry & Stevie Nicks. Took a music degree at UCLA Northridge in an early seventies hiatus between the Animals & The Police. Student of Beat literature, Zen, film noir, and Latin folk/classical guitar. Obsessive photographer who hates music vids. Influential stylist, perhaps the first to introduce chordal suspension (postponement of the arrival) into rock guitar. Married, kids, hangs mostly in L.A., records jazz refits & avant-garde electro collaborations, bossa nova, Villa-Lobos, and other masters of guitar composition.
"Though the spiritual side of life fills with music, the words of the Holy Bible fall on stony ground."
Amen, Brother. Still wired at 64, he now writes a memoir, One Train Later.
|| A freight load of gossip? No. A settling of old scores? No. A narcissist ramble? No. Hard focus, soft focus? A bit of both. The truth? A memoir is always a confession or a revision of history. "A few times and names of peripheral events and players from my youth have been changed... the essence of the memoir and the direct quotes within are true to my memory," says Andy Summers... and this would explain the exotic Euro names assigned to some of his early English girlfriends, who have a phantom fatale quality straight out of a 40's noir film.
Fair enough, as all of us live in fantasy between 3 and 30 anyway, and while you would normally skip over the 60 or so pages assigned to childhood in these sort of books, you might not this time as there are some great recollections & anecdotes to keep the action moving... and these sensitive portraits of family, friends, and the landscape of Dorset in southern England make this an engaging study of the outsider artist as a young man. It is, however, a prelude to the real story: portrait of a young drifter seeking informal Zen rehabilitation as the deep neurosis of pop culture stardom sets in. Interestingly, by the time he gets himself to Katmandu in the early eighties, he's already 10, 20 years too late... One Train Later, so to speak... and this detour costs him his marriage.
"With this decision, I exchange my marriage for 40 rolls of film," he says about going to Bali and on to the Himalayas at the end of a Police tour instead of returning to his wife who is holding down a tax-exile address for him in Ireland.
"The Taoists described the act of meditation as facing an unsculpted block of time, and the musician as he extemporizes creates a dream, a suspended state."
Still, he recounts a beautiful incident with the cleaning lady who listens as he plays some Charlie Parker improv on his acoustic in his hotel room. "She sits quietly on the floor and closes her eyes, listening intently. It is akin to playing to a deer in the forest, a tremulous moment when you might easily scare the creature away." Yes, that's it -- the Poet speaks. Forget the cremation vats smoldering on the other shore of the Bagmati River -- this is what it's like to be forever young & hip in Katmandu.
AS sets out all his influences, including the de rigueur immersion in the literature of the Beats [it's still going on, folks, as the new gen jazzer Jamie Cullum is under the Kerouac spell], avant film drama such as Last Year At Marienbad, Black Orpheus, Fellini this and that, luminous jazz composers and players such as Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Luis Bonfa, Antonio Carlos Jobim... early U.K. rock guitarists such as Ian Samwell ["Move It"], Joe Moretti ["Shakin All Over"], and Hank Marvin [The Shadows]. It's quite the education, largely by self-direction and accidental encounter, and of course it's an apprenticeship in the counter-revolutionary ethos of U.K. rock 'n' roll.
Counter? The revolution was in the U.S., those post-war roadhouse combos playing country & swing, that hillbilly blues fusion. The groove was white negro, and it came to the U.K. as The Voice of America, Radio Luxemburg, import 78s, and the zoot suit hipster. Shades? Of course. Instrument? Of course... and the guitar replaces the trumpet and the sax as the instrument of cool. As Andy Summers says, "The guitar, like the gun, sticks out from the body, phallic and hard."
"The fatal mix of frets and femme fatale"
|| Some readers will want to know about Sting, others will want to know about groupies... some will want to know about guitars, learn the secret of AS's modality, his musical architecture, how he did it. Well, he does give you a bit of all this.
Sting? Forget it. Andy's not going to slag his bandmates, although if dramatic conflict is your thing, you do get a frank detailing of some of the tensions among the players in the studio and while gigging on the road. AS is forever the realist about Sting, how his song-writing and "slavic" persona more or less guaranteed the man would go solo. And as the band's working entourage grew, who knows who was whispering in the singer's ear. As for The Police's breakup, there's an undeniable feeling of hurt in AS's thoughts on the subject, a feeling that the band didn't fulfill its potential... despite the enormous success.
Guitars. His first Gibson was stolen when he left it on a park bench, went in pursuit of a girlfriend who'd run off into the trees.[the guitar as woman: you might want to read his short story The Red Guitar... just scroll down] He sold his Les Paul to Eric Clapton, who used it to record the first Cream album, thereby setting the mould for the hot tube humbucker sound of heavy blues-rock guitar that's been the standard ever since. He bought his famous modified Telecaster for $200 from a needy student while giving lessons in a coach-house, bottom of Fatty Arbuckle's old L.A. estate, mid-seventies. And he reveals the secrets of his chordal & harmonic approach for those who need to know, although he's careful not to bog down the narrative with psycho babble tech talk. Even if you aren't a musician, the info is delivered in such a street hip manner you ending up thinking you are, and you're right there with him and The Police on stage at the CBGB Club ripping out Roxanne or hanging in the Green Room upstairs at the Whiskey in L.A. accepting joints from UFOs, groupies, hustlers and mind parasites. Oh yeah... as Mick says in his autobio digi docu Being Mick: "You would if you could."
In a sense, you get the feeling that AS is also living vicariously through this memoir, as if these things happened to someone else, an avatar called Andy Summers perhaps. It's a feeling of alienation, a sense of aloneness. Well of course he was stuck in an orphanage for a while as a child when his parents went broke and separated for while. That'll do it to you. No wonder he seeks "the real outsider music" -- jazz -- in his formative years. At times this alienation manifests as a dreamy interior voice as the crazy world of rock n roll goes astral and "drug dealers leap like genies from the wallpaper."
The influence of film -- so pervasive in writing and art these days -- is heavy throughout the book, from the similes to the narrative construction. One Train Later is written as a "frame narrative" the favorite scene method of film noir, which itself had refined the form often used by fiction writers in the novel & short story. Just look at Double Indemnity, and you'll see how AS framed the story of his life. A dying Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) narrates the folly of his criminal affair into a dictaphone in the "present" and the action develops as a series of flashbacks.
AS starts his story on August 18, 1983, the day he realizes that the Police are finished, will break up, even though tonight they will play Shea Stadium, the first band to do so since the Beatles. A career zenith, an emotional nadir. Throughout the book he returns to that day, describes his feelings as he passes the time waiting for the gig with the heightened perception of a condemned man waiting for the chair, at times anxious, at times fatalistic... even bored.
Clever? It works well here. In fact it's so good you wonder if he has a Billy Wilder ghost giving him some advice... but ah, how about genre synaesthesia? If you're the master of one form, you can pull off another, no problem. Since we're talking about how to use "time" in the telling of a story, it should be noted that AS, as a muso intellectual, knows a thing or two about the subject. He says, "The ability to play with time -- to play inside and outside of it -- is what you hear when you listen to really great players." Interesting... a truism. As a matter of fact Sting uses a similar frame technique in his recent memoir Broken Music (2005), using a dope trip in Rio as a hook-scene to hang the past around. Of course guitarists everywhere know Sting's editor set him up for that.
Yet withal "time" is often left vague in One Train Later i.e. Chapter 25, p.317. Perhaps it doesn't matter, as the montage is like memory, appearing by chance, without provocation or social logic. In fact, some of the best stuff is when AS goes into his interior voice, mimics the situation: "Hi, my name is Julie... can I show you around... I have have some very nice weed... do you like champagne?" Events blur, go plasmatic as "Hollywood becomes a skidmark across our speeding brains." Skidmark across our speeding brains. Good line? It's a great line. Even Sting would be stretched to match it.
"I am a rock-and-roll asshole, an emasciated millionaire prick, and fuck everything"
Yes... Andy does the Chateau Marmont, parties with Belushi... Jack, Michael, lots of the Hollywood elite. This period in his life is best summed up in this refreshing line: "I am a rock-and-roll asshole, an emasciated millionaire prick, and fuck everything." It's a long, long way from the day he -- the star-smitten schoolboy -- pursues a fleeing Hank Marvin (the Shadows) through the streets begging for an autograph.
"I like harmonic change, weirder scales, asymmetry, and I still dig Monk"
Jazz, the music of self-absorption; rock, the music of sexual aggression... hedonism, the Beats, Zen... it's a typical dialectic of his generation. It's an interesting journey, and many of us have followed the same path, been a counter-culture pilgrim in the long dawn. You hung out in Spain, did North Africa, walked up and down Telegraph Avenue, Haight Ashbury, Sunset Boulevard... flew to Rio, London, Berlin, Amsterdam... Bangkok, Goa, Istanbul, wherever. Maybe you traded your record player at the pawn shop for a guitar. Wherever, whenever.
This is a beautiful book. When you read on the Net or in your local newspaper about the sordid, demoralizing antics of a rock n roll clown like Gary Glitter, this memoir restores your faith, reminds you of the true value of music. It's spontaneous, like speaking... but as a life-style, it can be brutal. On Montserrat, while going through a painfully difficult recording session for the album Ghost in the Machine, AS gets verbally ripped by Sting... and the next morning gets a call from his wife back in Ireland demanding a divorce. Brutal. You're up, you're down, you're all over town. Etc. Etc. The press... loves ya when yer beautiful, but loves ya more when yer damn ugly. You want to be a rock n roll star? Or would you rather be an anonymous player in a bossa nova trio in Rio [if indeed it's possible to be anonymous in Rio].
Because this is the memoir of a guitarist, the title One Train Later has an immediate Delta blues association, as if AS is riding the second wave of the blues as a rock player. Factually, it relates to a chance meeting on the platform at Oxford Circus when both Summers and the Police drummer Stewart Copeland exit a train on the London Underground. In terms of destiny, it could be considered an example of "synchronicity"... which is the title of one of the band's biggest hits. You know what happened -- Andy joined the band, they went punk-jazz/reggae rock... rode the punk insurgency to power, and were then unmasked as the excellent musicians they in fact were.
"I make solos out of drones, playing one string against another, copying Vilayat Khan's sitar solos and Indian raga-style phrasing"
What's Andy Summers doing these days? Avant-garde recordings, collaborations with all sorts of people, including the bossa nova guitarist Roberto Menescal, classical guitarist Ben Verdery, Blondie... and Sting. Check him out, he has a site.
© LR 1/07
Chp 4: Andy sees Thelonious
Of related interest: Stewart Copeland's Everyone Stares
****Jan 27 '07 report on Vancouver's CKNW radio says The Police are together again, rehearsing in the North Shore Studios in North Vancouver
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