It seems like every rock star from the sixties through the nineties has scrawled out an autobiography. These lurid accounts seem to endlessly explore the stereotypical amoral lifestyle one expects from devilish boys wielding four-string axes and sledgehammer drum sticks to mete out cruel and unusual rhythms.
Occasionally, an honest memoir from the rock and roll animals squeaks through and sets a course in uncharted waters; the landscape of the artist as a real man replete with gaping faults and tragic insecurities, putting the iconic star image in perspective. Bob Dylan’s amazing Chronicles is one such venture, and Andy Summers new book, One Train Later, is another.
For those too young to remember, Andy Summers was the lead guitarist for the seminal eighties British band The Police, who fused elements of punk, pop, reggae, and ska into an extraordinarily explosive sound, backing the introspective and philosophical lyrics written by superstar vocalist Sting. However, the Police are only a small part of Summers’ extremely detailed work.
One Train Later is really three memoirs in one. It’s a view of Summers and his constant development as a musician, his schizophrenic life as an itinerant guitarist cum musical sensation, and the struggles Summers encounters trying to live the fantasy-driven rock lifestyle while also trying to maintain mature relationships in his everyday life. It’s humorous, sad, and complex – a thorough examination of a conflicted man holding nothing back.
Summers opens with his childhood, a pleasant middle class existence in Bournemouth England, a port city on the English Channel. He learns elemental piano as a child, but a gift of an old guitar from a friendly uncle propels Summers towards a deep relationship with music, including the beginnings of American rock and soul and the intricacy of improvisational jazz.
Summers spends most of his free time learning finger patterns and accidentally discovering chords and notes making the new breed of rock musicians’ international heroes. He plays in various jazz orchestras in his teens and eventually hooks up with Zoot Money and the Big Roll Band, a blues outfit in the same mold as The Animals and Georgie Fame.
As sixties psychedelia hits London, the Big Roll transforms into Dantalian’s Chariot, and enjoys a brief career opening for Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine, among other luminaries of the period. Summers goes on to join the Soft Machine, and then the reformed Animals in the late sixties and tours the world with them.
Summers reveals the prerequisite drug and alcohol use of all of the bands he played with, the lavish lifestyle that props up his premature ego, and blurry sexual interludes with many women he now barely recalls. However, Summers is candid about the creeping impermanence of a musician’s life. Within five years, the Animals are finished. Summers finds himself broke in L.A. teaching guitar for minimum wage. It will be nearly ten years before Summers tastes international fame again.
Summers gives a surreal edge to it all, a hallucinogenic locomotion that lurches wildly between dream and nightmare. Before joining the Police he marries, becomes a father, and settles into an anonymous existence as a backup player for a number of touring acts that put an unrelenting yet silent strain upon his young family. The unresolved stress of being the absentee husband is compounded by the success of the Police. Eventually the twigs holding the brood together snaps synchronically with the impending demise of the band.
With a cynical irony, Summers finds himself no better off than he was in the early seventies in L.A. — monetarily richer but no wiser, without a stage to perform on, and no stabilizing family life to return to. However, age redeems Summers with circumspection. He regains his family, but the vital musical link he shares with Copeland and Sting disintegrates to dust.
One Train Later has the feel of a novel, but its gritty realism and the author’s realizations places the book far above the turgid melodramas proffered by lugubrious rockers interested only in creating fawning self-promotion.
Socrates once said that an unexamined life is not worth living. One Train Later is a testament to that principle. No one can argue that Summers’ train ride, with all of its peaks and valleys, isn’t a journey worth taking.