Andy Summers

The people of Argentina haven’t yet erected a statue in honour of Andy Summers, but it can only be a matter of time. The lad’s a folk hero to them; Eva Peron with an electric guitar and a broken nose. Indeed, he has just returned home after playing a string of concerts down there and still hasn’t quite got over the number of Argentinean men who came up wanting to touch him, kiss him on both cheeks and, curiously enough, stroke his jacket. Never women, just middle-aged men; with big moustaches.

Home for Lancashire-born Andy Summers is a spacious, orange- and-green coloured open-plan house in Santa Monica, California. He shares it with Kate, the woman he married (twice), their two young twins, Maurice and Anton, and their Chihuahua, Ren. It’s a two-minute walk from the beach and, though the sky is overcast on the morning of my visit, the breeze coming in off the Pacific is gentle and warm. Not that you’d know it from the way that Summers hunches his shoulders, turns up the collar on his black leather jacket and cups his hands around a steaming mug of Starbucks coffee as he sits out on his terrace.

Here, with a mock rueful shake of his head, he recalls the incident which made him a hero in Argentina. It was in 1981, just before the Falklands War. The Police, then the most commercially successful rock band in the world, were playing a concert in a theatre which looked more like a maximum security prison. Armed policemen were patrolling the aisles, tapping their batons into the palms of their hands and making sure that none of the fans in the audience got out of their seats. A young girl suddenly rushed toward the stage, only to be grabbed and beaten up by a hefty, moustachioed policeman. When Summers saw this, he crossed to the front of the stage and kicked the policeman square in the face. ‘I did this,’ he now says, standing up and miming playing a guitar while delivering a kick, ‘completely spontaneous and completely foolish. The crowd went wild. Rose as one. And Sting sidled over and said to me [he adopts a husky Sting voice]: ‘Er, I think they’re going to arrest you, Andy.’

Backstage, five plainclothes policemen came to see Summers. One grabbed him by the throat, pulled him off the ground and threw him against the lockers. The quivering Summers apologised, agreed to have his photograph taken for the local papers shaking hands with the injured policeman, and was released with a caution. His act of violence seems to have been wholly out of character  — to meet him, you can’t imagine a more equable, amiable fellow. But to the wildly romantic, oppressed youth of Argentina — mostly men who’re now middle-aged and wearing moustaches — Summers became an unlikely symbol of fortitude, rebellion and hope in the face of tyranny.

On the false idol front, it probably helps that Summers appears not to have aged a day since the mid-Eighties, when the Police broke up and the fickle spotlight of fame suddenly dimmed on him. At 55 (Heavens! And him a one-time punk, too!) he looks healthy and permatanned, with scarcely a wrinkle around his heavily lidded eyes. His mousy-coloured hair is no longer dyed blond, the trademark of his former band, but it’s still pretty spiky. Always looked young for his age, though, has Andy Summers.

He grew up in Bournemouth — where his late father ran a café  — and his first job after leaving school there was playing guitar during the intervals at the town’s jazz club. He was 17 but everyone thought he was 12. Perhaps it was something to do with his having inherited the genes that determine height from his mother. (She still lives in Bournemouth and has a phone call from her son most mornings — today she had been complaining about her brevity of stature and how, with each passing day, she seems to be shrinking ever more.) Then again, when the three members of the Police — Sting, Summers and the drummer Stewart Copeland — reformed briefly in 1992 for an impromptu version of ‘Message in a Bottle’ at Sting’s wedding, guests were astonished that the 50-year-old Summers still only looked about 30. Light-hearted speculation among guests about Summers having had a face-lift was inevitable — although, given Sting’s sensitivity at the time on the subject of plastic surgery, it’s doubtful whether anyone speculated in front of the host.

Perhaps guests expected Andy Summers to look more like the grey-faced but elegantly wasted Keith Richards.  After all, in the Sixties he did do his fair share of substance abuse  — when, that is, he wasn’t busy being a leading exponent of the creed of free love. This may come as a shock to those who equate their youth with the punk era, but snarling Andy Summers was in fact a hippie interloper who, in an earlier incarnation, was guilty of possessing shoulder-length hair and a purple cloak, experimenting with LSD after an encounter with the Animals, and jamming with Jimi Hendrix. Summers played lead; Hendrix, improbable though it may seem, played bass. ‘Can you believe it?’ Summers now says with another shake of his head. ‘Weird.’

Summers had made the move from genteel Bournemouth to Swinging London with his musician friend Zoot Money and together, in 1964, they formed the modestly successful Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band and soon replaced Georgie Fame as the resident group at the Flamingo Club in Soho. Summers has vague memories of knife fights next to the stage and crowds composed mostly of prostitutes and drug-dealers. The band eventually split up and the two friends left to form the psychedelic rock group Dantalian’s Chariot. Summers’s only reliable memory of this period was that he broke his nose in a car crash while touring in Yorkshire. In 1968 he left to join Soft Machine, a Dadaist band notorious for playing one riff called ‘We did it again’, which they did again and again for 30 minutes until the audience went into a trance, or the band was booed off stage. Later that year he joined Eric Burdon of the Animals to form the New Animals. This lasted for nine months — on the most memorable day of which Eric Burdon seduced Summers’s girlfriend, a model, while Summers was out of it, man, on acid.  One legacy of this period is the flower-power vocabulary that Summers is wont to slip into. He still calls money ‘bread’. He still says things like ‘this scene’ and, ‘I was really getting into a moment’ and ‘It was, like, really really heavy.’ At least when he catches himself he has the decency to look embarrassed and add, ‘That sounds American, doesn’t it?’

We have now moved through the main reception area, decked with canvases of colourful abstracts painted by Summers, to his study, the walls of which are lined with books, the surfaces scattered with records and CDs. But there are no glass cabinets in the house displaying what would now surely be an historically edifying collection of Summers’s hippie trouserings and shirtings. ‘I did keep one coat which was like a wizard’s outfit,’ he reflects, a Dorset inflection still discernible in his voice. ‘Velvet and gold. But I don’t know where it is now.’ His voice trails off.  Then, recovering his thoughts on the theme: ‘I think, yeah, there was a more reckless spirit then.’

Like Sir Paul McCartney and George Harrison, Summers is pretty scathing about the Beatles tribute band Oasis — dismissing Noel Gallagher as ‘George Formby with an electric guitar’. But, a fading rock star’s prerogative, he is equally unimpressed by the Sixties counter-culture today’s bands aspire to. ‘Now if you are a young musician starting out, it’s all been done. Everyone knows which drug has which effect. Whereas when we started out it was genuine experimentation.  Those that survived all have children and they’re warning, “Don’t mix this with that.” You know, a lot wiser.’

Summers has kept diary jottings all his adult life, which he thinks would be fun to turn into a book one day. The entries for the New Wave period are interesting, he says, but the real colour is from the Sixties. If ever he writes the book, one of the more colourful chapters will concern his experiences with groupies. Summers admits to sleeping with dozens of them — and one, Jenny Fabian, even wrote a bestselling book, Groupie, in which she records some of his exploits. He laughs when I ask why he thinks women fell for him in such profusion. ‘Well, when you’re debonair and handsome it helps,’ he says, framing his face with his hands. He bumped into Fabian again after a Police concert near Dublin. She was breeding greyhounds for a living.

Chance encounters happen to Andy Summers quite a lot.  And it’s not surprising really given that, like Woody Allen’s human chameleon character, Zelig, he appears to have insinuated himself into almost every pop tableau. Indeed, hours of harmless amusement could be harvested from playing the game Six Degrees of Separation with Summers’s musical career. He’s connected to just about every rock star you can think of, even if, in some cases, it’s three or four stages removed. He would get to Ringo Starr in two stages: Ringo co-starred with David Essex in That’ll Be the Day. Summers played guitar in David Essex’s band briefly in the mid-Seventies. David Soul? Two stages again. In the early Seventies, Summers shared a flat in California with Paul Michael Glaser, Soul’s co-star in Starsky and Hutch. Dana? Too easy. He once appeared as the Eurovision Song Contest winner’s backing musician on a television programme.

Understandably, the Museum of Rock which Bill Gates is founding will have a special section devoted to Andy Summers. He is, after all, an influential guitarist, with a sophisticated signature style which other musicians say they find almost impossible to copy. And yet, until the Police, Summers had never really made his mark. ‘My peers had been Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck,’ he says with a shrug. ‘That was the period I came from and I thought I was as good as everyone else but, for some reason, it had never really happened for me. I hadn’t been in the right band at the right time. So at the start of the Seventies I came to the States and dropped out.’

With five dollars in his pocket, he claims, he married an American singer, Robin Lane and, for three years, studied classical guitar at Northridge University in California. His marriage broke up and, in despond, he spent weeks at a time rarely bothering to get out of bed. He returned to England in 1973 and found work as guitarist for, yes, you haven’t guessed it, Neil Sedaka. In 1974, when Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones, Summers was tipped by the music press for the job — along with Ron Wood (who got it).  Finally, in 1977, fate gave Summers a soothing neck massage when he joined the Police.

‘Before I joined I went to see Sting and Stewart play and they were patently not a punk band,’ he says. ‘They sort of looked the part, but they weren’t coming off as authentic at all. But it didn’t matter because people gobbed on them anyway. I’ve probably got a picture of us backstage at the Marquee covered in spit.’ He leans back on his chair as he rummages around in the bookshelves behind him looking for the photograph. He can’t find it. For a year, he says, things were desperate. ‘We were putting up our own posters and spraying our own graffiti. So many times we ended up pushing the van because we ran out of petrol.’

Finally, one night in 1978, when the Police were supporting the comedy rock band Albertos y los Trios Paranoias at a concert in Bath, about a thousand punks turned up to see them. ‘The place erupted,’ Summers recalls. ‘Total mayhem. Girls throwing their knickers on stage. The poor Albertos were standing on the side of the stage with white faces muttering “Bastards!” That’s when we knew something was happening. I remember going home and telling Kate, ‘You wouldn’t believe it. A total riot.”’

Summers had married his second wife, Kate, an American psychology graduate, in 1973. They had their first baby, Layla, in 1978, were divorced in 1981, then remarried in 1985 and had the twins. Summers believed at the time that when you are on the road for a three-month stretch and women were throwing themselves at you, promiscuity was inevitable. Thus he had an unspoken agreement with his wife. ‘Pressures on marriage?’ Summers says. ‘Yeah, it was very difficult to hold all that together with Kate. We were never off the road. It had a happy ending though.  We remarried in LA. A fancy Buddhist wedding on our lawn. Sounds very Californian, doesn’t it?’ (Not the way he says it. ‘Boodist’. Then again, he’s not really a practising one.) ‘We just sort of knew this Boodist guy who did Boodist weddings,’ he adds.

A pergola of electric orange and red flowers runs from the front door of the house, alongside the lawn — where the family stand during LA earth-tremors — to the main reception area. Summers’s blond twins now walk up it with Jane, their nose-studded English nanny. They have been at a ‘sleepover’, and one of them, Anton Y, has somehow managed to rip his trousers from waistband to ankle. Summers’s children have a single initial instead of a middle name — Maurice X, Anton Y, and Layla Z — because he liked the idea of them being called XYZ, but couldn’t find names to fit.  Since the Police broke up, Summers has made eight solo albums, mostly mellow jazz and what music critics would call ‘ambient, textural rock’. One was titled XYZ, after his children’s middle initials.

With shy giggles and strong Californian accents, Beavis and Butthead, as their father now calls the twins, ask if they’re allowed to go on their bikes to get a pizza. When their father asks if they’ve ever been allowed to go on their own, they chorus, ‘Mommy lets us go. We’ve done it a million times.’ Summers calls their bluff and, after asking the nanny to prepare lunch for them, suggests we go to his favourite bar-and-grill on Venice Beach. It’s just around the corner from his studio — and he needs to pop in there afterwards to check on a leaky roof he’s having repaired. In his purring saloon car, a black Toyota Infiniti, Summers slips his sunglasses on and chuckles about how in his Police days he would travel everywhere by limo and the band even had its own plane. ‘In the end we were going around with 75 people on the tour — riggers, lighters, electricians — you become like the calm spot at the centre of the hurricane. There was a party every night after the gig. It was relentless. We decided we were either going to have to get fit or take more drugs to keep alive. We were on a downward cycle. Touring is killing.’

At the restaurant he bumps into a few of his friends, has a chat and orders steak and fries and a glass of red wine. He recalls further anecdotes from his touring days. At a Glasgow concert, police charged fans three times to prevent a riot. And Summers heard of one fan who tried to slash her wrists because she couldn’t get to meet the band. ‘Girls used to camp outside our houses,’ he says, adding with a philosophical grin, ‘actually, come to think of it, it was mostly Sting that got all that.’

Off-stage, the tension between Sting and Copeland became difficult to disguise. They regularly had fist fights, some of which Andy Summers would film on Copeland’s home movie camera. There was rivalry between all three band members, though, about things as petty as who should have the most prominent position in publicity photographs. That Summers and Copeland were receiving the same percentage of the royalties as Sting, who wrote all the songs, didn’t help matters. There were many reasons for the band to split, but it has entered pop folklore that it really happened because Summers, the peacemaker, could no longer keep the two huge, warring egos of Copeland and Sting apart.

The now clean-living, yoga-practising Sting says that, at the time, his personality was changed by the amount of cocaine he was taking. In his own words, he became depressed, paranoid and a complete bastard to be around. ‘Yeah,’ Summers says with a smile. ‘He always likes to paint that picture. I take it with a pinch of salt. He is who he is. Very talented, a brilliant musician, but, you know, he is Machiavellian. He calculates everything and is decisive, so I think he says and does what he needs to, to get to the next stage.’

When the Police disbanded, Sting threw himself into his solo career and environmental campaigning, Copeland wrote film scores and played polo, and Summers took up photography and painting. ‘I ended up back in London and it was like, “Now what?”’ he says. ‘It was a bit like walking off a cliff. Took me a while to take in the whole experience and process it, as Americans say. It was a couple of years before I could stand up and walk again.’

He and Sting still see each other every few months and, in recent years, each has guested on the other’s solo albums and turned up to perform the odd song at each other’s concerts. Copeland lives in LA, and he and Summers talk every week, especially since a rap reworking of ‘Every Breath You Take’ got to number one recently and the ‘Greatest Hits of Sting and the Police’ album came out in December. ‘The Police as a business goes on for ever,’ Summers says. ‘We quit while we were ahead. Then again I think there was still a lot of juice left in the band. I think what we should have done is gone out every three years and done gigs together but still had solo records. But that wasn’t to be. Trouble is, that’s all you’re ever known for. It’s hard to get beyond that — which is sort of what has happened to me,’ he laughs the mirthless laugh. ‘It’s a blessing and a curse.’

Summers’s new contemporary jazz album, ‘The Last Dance of Mr X’, is about to be released in Britain. It features his own compositions alongside a few covers including Charlie Mingus’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and Thelonius Monk’s ‘We See’. It’s pretty subtle stuff and it’s had good reviews in America — but when he played tracks from it on tour there recently he found audiences still wanted him to include Police songs. He expects the same will happen when he tours Europe this spring. ‘When I play a Police song, the crowd goes wild,’ he says. ‘It’s a gesture. But you don’t have to spend a whole night doing it.’ Sting finds he has to do the same at his concerts. Inevitably, then, there is speculation that the band will get back together. ‘This seems a particularly hot moment to re-form,’ Summers says with as nonchalant a shrug as he can muster. ‘It would be great fun. It would have to be. We couldn’t go out there and be at each other’s throats again. So who knows? For Sting I think it would be a very good career move because he has nothing to prove now as a solo performer. Everyone knows he can do it. I think it would be a good healing process all round — that sounds very American, doesn’t it?’

Myth or not, it’s easy to believe that Summers was the one to patch things up in the band. He has an easy laugh and an affable, unassuming manner. Later, at his studio, he picks up one of the 90 guitars stacked around the soundproofed walls, sits down on a long sofa beside me and, eyes closed, plays — quite beautifully — a couple of the more wistful compositions from his new album. It’s an acoustic guitar and, from this close, I can hear that as he plays he emits a tiny snuffling sound to himself, a sort of involuntary sighing noise that comes from the back of his throat. Perhaps it’s a veteran’s trick, but he seems to get so absorbed in his playing that, when he stops, he looks slightly disoriented.

We walk up to the roof terrace of the studio, and Summers shows me where he has had to have leaks sealed. Rainwater had run right through to the recording equipment, two floors down. In the fading afternoon light we stand in companionable silence surveying the palm trees along Venice Beach. Stars and Stripes flap from flagpoles on the surrounding rooftops. ‘That’s Dudley Moore’s restaurant down there,’ Summers says, in a distant sort of way, pointing at a faded looking building across the street below us. ‘It’s funny, you know,’ he adds. ‘I’ve been introduced to him three times but he never seems to remember me.’ We fall into silent reverie again, our thoughts lost in contemplation of this strangely melancholic observation.