Andy Summers leans back and pauses when picking the words to describe how he feels about the documentary that covers his career as the guitarist with the Police. “People seem to like it,” he says carefully. “I don’t know if I should like it or not, because it just has an ego trip.”
Ego, of course, provides much of the drama in Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, a film Summers narrates with excerpts from his 2007 memoir, One Train Later. The revealing movie, directed by film editor Andy Grieve, traces Summers’ impossibly interesting life from being born into a “Gypsy caravan” during World War II to his original world-dominating stint in the Police and its subsequent reunion last decade. Throughout the feature, Summers candidly pulls back the curtain on the inner turmoil the band felt while careening toward Number one.
Now that Summers has begun promoting the movie, which originally came out in 2012 but is getting theatrical screenings in the U.S. now ahead of a DVD release, the the 72-year-old guitarist, who is wearing a puffy black-and-blue shirt as he leans back in a Manhattan skyscraper’s conference room, says his whole year is booked. He’s working on a film score, another book and a new album. “I haven’t got the time for much,” he says. But luckily, he has a moment to explain some of Can’t Stand Losing You’s revelations.
How did it feel to see your life flash literally before your eyes?
Your career began with you playing some of the same gigs as Jimi Hendrix. What was that like?
It was like a nightmare, actually. I was playing with this psychedelic, acid-rock band called Dantalian’s Chariot at a small London club called the Speakeasy, when Jimi Hendrix had arrived and was already burning the world completely. He sat with two girls at a little table as close as you are to me now, and I’m playing this whole show in front of Jimi Hendrix. Could you imagine? It was, like, give me a break, man. Can you move back a bit? You’re sitting right in front of me, in front of the guitarist. He’s very sweet. I played with him later. I had a little session with him in L.A. one time; he played bass, and I played lead.
Jimi Hendrix accompanied you on bass? How did that happen?
We were all in the same scene, the same managers, and a year later we got the word one night that Jimi was going to be playing at TTG Studios, a studio in Hollywood. Jimi was leaning against the studio window with his hat with a feather on it and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and his Strat at absolute roaring volume, just wailing. It was incredible, like, surrealistic.
Once he stopped playing, he came into me and we talked a little bit. He was very soft and shy, actually, and then I walked out of the studio and Mitch [Mitchell, Hendrix’s drummer] was there, and there was a guitar but for some reason, there was a right-handed guitar. Of course, he played the other way. So I pick up the guitar and I’m starting to jam with Mitchell, and Jimi came out and picked up the bass and started playing along with us, and we played for about 10 minutes. Like, fuck, it’s Jimi Hendrix playing bass with me. It was a great moment, and after we did about 10 minutes, he said, “Hey, man. Do you mind if I played the guitar for a little bit?” It was a bit intimidating, because everybody in the world worshipped him. All the guitarists did at that point. Anyway, that was the last time I saw him.
In the doc, you say you didn’t like punk. Is that because your background was more from running the same circles as Hendrix and playing with the New Animals?
Well, I had been around playing music with different aspirations for a long time. I started out just being a complete jazz freak. I wanted to be able to play bebop on the guitar. The thing about the punk scene was that there wasn’t any musical aspiration, other than to really be there and be complaining about something.
London at that time, ’78 or ’79, unless you were punk, you weren’t gonna be working. It almost destroyed show business in England at that point, the whole punk scene, which only lasted about three years. The Police started off as punk band, or a fake punk band really, because we weren’t really. So, when we started rehearsing regularly together and playing, who we were really started to come out. It was a unique sound, and we didn’t really want to sound like any of the punk bands.
“We were the fastest band in the world.”
How did you stumble on that sound?
It happened over time. We started out with three or four songs that Stewart [Copeland, drums] had written. We did a show at Rebecca’s in Birmingham, and it was 12 minutes and we were done. It was so fast. We were the fastest band in the world. It was all ridiculous, but as we got into rehearsing and trying to really be a band, and the musicality came out, and we started to react after one another and build this sound.
We found each other’s musicality. Sting finally brought in the reggae bass line, and I started using an Echoplex [guitar pedal]. My vocabulary was a lot wider than someone’s in a punk band, so we started to make our thing. The real capper of that was in this real early, formative stage, we came to the U.S., played at CBGBs, did our little three-week tour of the East Coast. We had about six songs. We couldn’t even get through the allotted time, the hour and a half, so we really stretched them out into these very long jams, and it really is what put our style together. That was the crucible. When we got back to England, we were shit-hot. We’d play “Roxanne” twice and make these really long jams in the middle, but it was actually great for us, because that’s where we really found our feet together.
You’ve said that “Message in a Bottle” is one of your favorite riffs. Why is that?
Yeah, because most bands would do a huge sound with distortion, the sound of anger. We went to, I don’t know, the sound of irony, playing smaller chords and using the echo.
In the doc, you said that Sting gave you a lot of resistance to your instrumental “Behind My Camel.” Why did tensions run high?
The focus on us was so intense with [1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta] that there should have been 12 songs on that record. There’s 10 songs and two instrumentals, and we got quite a lot of flak for that. I was into film music and weirder stuff, and Sting didn’t want to play on that. I don’t blame him really, but Stewart was up for playing on it. Sting took the tape and hid it in the garden of the studio, sort of as a joke. But we found it, and of course it won a Grammy for best instrumental. All’s well, ends well.
You say in the film that Sting wouldn’t share songwriting credits with you. How did you work through that at that time?
We don’t usually make it public, but in terms of the songwriting and royalties, there is a reciprocal arrangement. Because clearly, the way the three of us play those tracks together is the sound of the Police, as much as the songs. The sound of the Police is the guitar, the brilliant drumming and the vocals and bass play. It’s very unique. You can’t take any of those elements out; it just wouldn’t be the Police.
“Roxanne” began as a bossa nova and you turned it into a reggae song.
Right, which could only have happened with the three of us, otherwise it would have remained a bossa nova probably.
“Everyone develops their egos – all of us.”
Your fourth record, Ghost in the Machine, was even more turbulent to make than Zenyatta Mondatta, judging from the doc.
Yeah it was a real strain because the band had become more than a band; it was a worldwide phenomenon. We were like the Beatles at that point. It was incredibly intense. It was a lot of fun, but it was a surrealistic blur where we were “on” 24/7. But of course it starts to strain the relationships. Everyone develops their egos, all of us, and the oil starts separating out from the water. So the camaraderie that we had on the first two albums was pulled apart a bit. By the time we got to the fifth album, it was getting really hard to strip away all the crap and just be three guys. We’ve got to play really well and write really to deliver this album [Synchronicity].
You also separated from your wife around Ghost in the Machine and you document your groupie exploits in the film. How does it feel to relive that onscreen?
Well it was definitely the rock & roll life, and I paid for it. I had just split up with my wife for four-and-a-half years, which was terrible for me because I was doing what your imagination might imagine. I wasn’t happy about that, because I did get back together with my wife, Kate, and we’ve been together ever since. Throughout that whole period, I never found anyone like her. We got back together and immediately had two more kids. She was who I was supposed to be with.
But then you can imagine the position we were in. We were, like, the three most desirable men in the world at one point [Laughs]. What’s a guy going to do? Sorry. I won’t say any more about it, but you know what I’m saying.
Ultimately, the band was able to regroup and make Synchronicity.
Well, we did. And we knew it was going to sell millions but there was definitely a pressure there. But I’d like to say, because a lot of the media writes about us as three guys who just hate each other’s guts, it’s just not true. We always stick up for one another. We do stand together when we need to, always have. I have great affection for these guys. None of us will ever have this experience with anyone else like that.
While we’re on the subject of Synchronicity, that record featured a particularly intriguing tune with Middle Eastern melodies and neurotic vocals that you wrote called “Mother.” What’s the deal with that song?
It was ludicrous. We were so popular. We should only had huge, mainstream hits. Well, I got this insane, psycho blues on there, but it was the song that everybody picked up on because it was so off the wall. I’m sure all guys go this way with their mum: My mother absolutely doted on me and was always calling me and wanted to know her son in this band, and that song just came out one day. “Is that my mother on the phone? And every girl turned to my mother in the end.”
Did she like it?
She loved it. And I thought, “Oh, my God.” I was working up the apologies to my mother. I thought she was going to be all upset and in tears. She wasn’t, she loved the bloody song.
Still, the film shows the tensions you had when you reunited. What’s the trick to dealing with that? Surrender?
I think “surrender” is a very good word, actually. I love that word. In my case, I get back into my hotel room and just sit there and think about it. “What’s at stake here?” There’s going to be shit. There’s going to be turbulence. You have to get a mantra going that you’re going to get through this. That was certainly true at the reunion tour at the beginning. That feeling of, “Oh God, not this again.” Once it got going, we were OK.
How does it feel now when you look back at that tour? Do you feel “done” with the Police?
Yeah, it’s a funny one. What’s the point in shutting the door? If you ever come back, you’ve got to go, “Oh well, we didn’t mean that.” You’ve got to go through all that bullshit. Just leave the door open. Who knows where life is going to go? This is the first time in history, where the biggest concert draws are all over 50. I don’t say, “The door is shut.” We’re all in touch. I saw Sting on Saturday, and I got an e-mail from Sting this morning so the thread continues.