Andy Summers is a literate man. His memoir, One Train Later, released this month by St. Martin’s Press, is filled with anecdotes on discovering everything from Japanese Koan poems to the existential works of Kierkegaard. The 64-year-old's understanding of these moral and philosophical concepts acted as a through line for much of his life, and played heavily upon his learning guitar, attempting to merge the fluidity of language into the extraordinary riffs and solos Summers played as an itinerant artist for sixties groups Eric Burdon and the Animals, the avant-guard Soft Machine, and eventually as the lead guitarist of eighties icons The Police.
One Train Later is a brutally honest, self-effacing journey into the belly of the beast of music celebrity, and a lyrical portrait of a man caught between the worlds of a grounded family life and the insanity of living up to the rock and roll image. We spoke yesterday by phone.
“You must strike a balance between who you are and the image you’re projecting in order to survive,” said Summers. “I was fortunate, because the success of the Police occurred when I was older, had already experienced a lot, so I tended not to take all the crap that comes with it so seriously. I mostly paid close attention to my relationship with the guitar and the music. That’s what kept me moving through, constantly practicing and improving.”
Summers also credits his bandmates Stewart Copeland and Sting for keeping the group dynamic positive and forward-looking.
“Look, we had artistic differences and yes, there was some tension between us, especially at the end. But that’s natural – it's a marriage, and what also comes with that marriage is tremendous support. I can’t tell you how many times each of us were close to hanging it up, wanting to just stop the bullshit and move on with our lives. Whenever I was in that frame of mind, both Stewart and Sting were there – no ego, no bloated sense of themselves. We were mates first, and that’s what really propelled the success of the band. We all understood each other’s fragility and were sensitive to each other's needs.”
Summers was surprised to learn that a recent critique of One Train Later in Kirkus Reviews has him referring to Sting as “self-involved and high-handed” and Copeland as “motor-mouthed and overbearing.”
"There’s no truth to that. The press wants to believe there’s a great deal of animosity between us, but that’s crap. We’re still friendly today. Copeland lives up the street from me here in L.A., and Sting and I email frequently. We’re closer now that we’ve had a few years to settle petty differences.”
One Train Later emphasizes the randomness of the band's meteoric rise within an industry known for chewing up artists. The title refers to a chance encounter Summers had with Copeland, both of them exiting the London Tube simultaneously. Summers had met with Sting just hours before, discussing the possibility of him replacing original guitarist Henri Padovani. The encounter with Copeland in the London train station led to Summer's new role as guitarist in the band.
“I wish I could put my finger on why we we’re so successful. I think everyone wants to understand that secret. I think because the reggae/ska sound was relatively new to the States, and had not been worked into the pop/punk hybrid coming out of the UK, people were just completely turned on by it. We loved the freedom of working in a number of forms, and creating a signature sound that took years for others to duplicate.”
There is an underlying theme of loneliness in One Train Later. Summers recounts a period in his youth when his brother and he were placed in an orphanage when his parents temporarily separated. Years later, Summers finds himself nearly broke in L.A., teaching guitar for minimum wage after a number of years of touring with The Animals, and it surfaces again during the peak years of the Police.
“I think I was suffering a depression through the first part of my life. I love performing and my family dearly, but I can’t say those were my happiest years. Perhaps it's a result of the initial incident of feeling abandoned in my youth, but I think it ran deeper than that. I can tell you that I’ve always been a bit of an escapist, taking refuge in literature and art. I think that’s why the relationship between the guitar and me is so meaningful. The one constant in my life has always been music.”