27 February 2007

One Train Later - Andy Summers

As literary genres go, the celebrity memoir is by and large a garbage dump. The books are either ghostwritten or, worse, written half-heartedly by someone best known for something other than writing books. For example, Bob Newhart's memoir I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This, published last year, more than anything else transmits the author's reluctance to write a book about himself (but may he do standup forever). For most would be celebrity authors, that's an instinct to honor.

Not so with Andy Summers, who turns out to be a gifted writer. Rather than being a rehearsal of regrets or grudges, his memoir One Train Later is an engaging tale of one man's love of music and his attempts to make a life out of playing it. Whether it's all true, I'm not qualified to say. It is definitely of a piece.

The Police, in fact, don't even enter the picture until halfway through. That's appropriate since Summers already had a decade of professional playing under his belt when he met a drummer named Stewart Copeland and bassist calling himself Sting in 1976.

He had been a jazz obsessed teen in the south of England (Page 33: Although I still like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Kind of Blue and "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" make "We're All Going on a Summer Holiday" seem like a piece of fluff.) before heading to London, arriving just a few years ahead of the hippie psychedelic era. He dropped the acid, wore the crazy pants, hung with Clapton and Hendrix and was briefly a member of Eric Burden's New Animals.

That gig got him to southern California where he spent the later end of the 60s, even dropping out of the band life to get a degree in music. In the 1973 he moved back to England with his new wife, a few years before the punk scene exploded.
At first the whole thing, with its gobbing, violence, and nihilism, seems faintly repellent to me. Coming from another era and still foolishly embracing bourgeois values like wanting to be able to play your fucking instrument, I think it's the latest model of rage and fury that signifies nothing, looseness mistaken for a political concept. But this new movement hasn't come out of a vacuum. The peace and love of the previous generation didn't accomplish any real change: corruption and capitalist propaganda continue and a lot of the kids feel it. What is there to do but get numb and stay numb or rage and spit against the machine?
Recently one of the clever chimps who writes for the lifestyle section of the Kansas City Star referred to The Police as "Sting's old band." From this distance it may look that way. What the book makes clear (and what a listen to the Police's best work confirms) is that they were at their peak working as a trio, a very powerful trio at that.

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