Saturday, March 08, 2008

Book Review: One Train Later: A Memoir by Andy Summers

If guitarist Andy Summers was overshadowed in the Police by Stewart Copeland and Sting, it was only because he had the relatively smallest of the three raging egos in the band. His side of the story comes to light in his autobiography One Train Later. The title refers to a chance encounter with drummer Stewart Copeland when an early Police line-up was at the breaking point. Summers had joined a going concern and quickly recognized that he, Copeland and Sting had unique and highly developed skills and were being held back by novice guitarist Henri Padovani. Summers had discussed the situation with Sting but was hesitant to approach Copeland with his "him or me" ultimatum. The two ran into each other on the subway, hashed it out and sealed their fate.

This is just one of the colorful stories from Summers life. I knew he was older than his Police-mates and had achieved middling success prior to the Police, but I was unaware of just how much he had accomplished. Handed his first guitar in his teens, he fell in love with the instrument and worked constantly to improve and expand his technique. He moved to London from Bournemouth and hit the ground running. He lined up his first paid gig within days of his arrival and worked continuously for years, eventually relocating to Los Angeles. He describes the grueling pace, the influence of hallucinogens and the artistic striving for something bigger. He seems unfazed by his ease in finding work, with is own bands or joining existing ones, until it comes to an abrupt halt in the mid '70s. He spends the fallow period woodshedding, working on his craft and scraping by on a meager existence teaching guitar. He marries his second wife and brings her back to England with barely a penny to his name.

He makes a go of it as a touring guitar for hire, which provides a steady income and steady intake of alcohol but little artistic satisfaction. He eventually finds his way to the Police, where he finds his niche in the perfect confluence of factors. The band embraces the spirit and energy of punk but rejects punk's disdain for virtuosity; they struggle to find a pathway between the two extremes, retaining credibility in the punk world while carving a new sound. They tour relentlessly to all corners of the world, earning their fame one tiny audience, one dingy nightclub at a time, succumbing to the wear-and-tear of life on the road, the excesses presented them as their sales ratchet up and the rifts within the band caused by intertwined ego and artistic drive. He takes so much of the blame for his failed marriage that at times it feels that his motivation for writing the book was an extended apology to his wife. Ian Copeland's book had a more colorful description of getting their gear out of customs in Egypt, but Summers otherwise provides plenty of choice anecdotes about touring in exotic locales. His writing is so vivid, especially in the calmer moments of his life when there was less going on worth describing, that I wondered if he had a ghost writer. But I can't imagine anyone who takes such pride in his craft doing so.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Concert Review: The Hives, The Donnas, The Riviera, Chicago, February 29

Howlin' Pelle Almqvist is not lacking for ego. His repeated calls for applause and adoration would quickly wear thin if the band he fronts didn't actually deliver the goods. But the Hives were non-stop juggernaut of garage rock at the Riviera on Friday night, sometimes soul-inflected, but always smoking. Almqvist and guitarist Nicholaus Arson were the flashy showman, but the whole band was supremely tight. And at least Almqvist invocations for devotion were delivered with a wink, most obviously when informing the audience that they were the best crowd they have ever played to.

As for openers the Donnas, I wasn't that crazy about Van Halen 25 years ago, so an all-female, less debauched version holds little appeal today.