Andy Summers is pretty much a legend. When Paste got to chat with him in New York City one afternoon, we were pretty stoked.
The Police guitarist has a documentary out this month based on his 2007 memoir, One Train Later. The film, Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police, focuses not only on his days with the band, but also on his early years, first romance and budding love for the guitar. The feature, produced by Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) and Norman Golightly (World Trade Center), is directed by Andy Grieve (American Mystic) and translates the book eloquently into the film medium.
We travel with Summers from his days in the U.K. with The Animals, to L.A. where he first met his wife, Kate, and back again into Europe, where he became entrenched in the punk scene. Images and videos of The Police coming to be, melded with Summers’ vulnerable stories about balancing family with the rock world, give us an intimate look at his journey.
Paste sat down with Summers to talk in depth about the creation of the film and some moments that were particularly difficult to revisit. He gives us some inside looks into early tours with The Police, opening up about the mania, the girls and the bitter sacrifices. Through it all, though, it’s clear Summers found a passion for photography and preserving his path through images. He even gives us insight into his photography video compilation that will screen at L.A.’s Laemmle Royal before Can’t Stand Losing You, one that may just turn into a feature film of its own.
Paste: How did the idea to make a documentary with Andy Grieve come about? Did he approach you?
Andy Summers: I had just seen this film by Brett Morgen called The Kid Stays in the Picture. I thought, this is a really cool film and really only stills, very little film in there. I met this girl at Sundance Film Festival. She said, “Here’s his email. Why don’t you write to him?” So I did. He said, “I’m very interested, let’s meet.” He came out to L.A. eventually and we met up and really hit it off. That’s sort of how it started. Norman Golightly was Nicolas Cage’s producer who asked to meet me to see if I wanted to write some music for a Nicolas Cage film. I had these two youngish-guys and I put them together and off they went. We went out literally one afternoon in Hollywood and after the second meeting we sold the film. It was incredible.
Paste: Revisiting your book as you transferred it to the film medium, were there any reservations you had or things you didn’t want to revisit?
Summers: Not particularly. I did learn some lessons. What you realize is that you cannot photograph every page of the book. It has to have a different kind of pace altogether. A long page full of prose cannot definitely be on the screen in the same way. It just doesn’t work. You have to translate from book to screenplay, big difference. Of course, I’m very precious about the book. It took me long enough to write it! I’m very attached to it.
Paste: You had to kill some darlings!
Summers: Ugh! Oh my god, pain. I’d want to read what I’d written. It doesn’t always translate to film. You have to get out of the written prose, say the same thing but in a very conversational way. I probably did the voiceover about three times trying to strike the tone.
Paste: What I like about the film is that, unlike some bio docs, there’s a clear story. It really seems like your relationship with Kate is the backbone. Was that the intention?
Summers: Semi-intentional. There’s a subplot to this film, which is, this is the pain you go through; if you want that prize, you’re going to have to lose this one. That was the price I had to pay at that particular time. I lost my dear wife along the way in the rock ’n’ roll life and it was very difficult for me. It was bitter because we had a little girl. The only good part is that we got back together.
Paste: I really personally related to that, choosing career over family and vice versa. For someone who’s, say, a rock star now, can you have a happy marriage and be a superstar?
Summers: That’s a difficult one. It really does take a toll. People start separating up. Even within the band itself, the more famous we got the more difficult it became to keep the original camaraderie and that innocence where we’re standing back to back fighting the world together. As we all became huge, it’s like oil and water.
Summers: It’s sort of cliché, but it’s like the pressure of fame and everybody’s stroking your ego all the time. Becoming more self-important. It happens to people. Power corrupts. It really does. Some people shouldn’t become famous. It doesn’t suit everyone. I look back on that period … it’s insane thinking back about it.
Paste: But then you look at your photographs. I love the ending one of the woman with the balloons tied to her legs. What great art came of it!
Summers: That was a help to me, to do photography all the way through. It sort of gave me this autonomy and moved me out of the rock star nonstop thing. Instead of getting completely ripped on cocaine or champagne, any pain you like…
Summers: Yeah, or both! I could go and do photography and document it. That was a way of keeping your feet on the ground.
Paste: And in the film, I love the parallels between the modern footage and older footage. There’s one thing that ties them together—your love for guitar. How did it help you survive?
Summers: I like to point that out in the book because the guitar is the absolute central factor. At 12, I was absolutely besotted with the guitar. I was fortunate that I was given the guitar at 12 and never thought about doing anything else. It’s been with me all my life, being a guitar player.
Paste: What’s the first song you learned? “Hot Cross Buns”?
Summers: [Laughing] “Hot Cross Buns”! Something like that.
Paste: That’s what I remember playing. Well, what was the first song where you really used it to emote?
Summers: That’s a really good question. What I would do in those days is copy. It was probably something like “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures, an American guitar surf band. I was really proud that I could figure that one out.
Paste: In the film you talk about having to play to please the crowd and still wanting freedom. Is there a song you do with The Police that does parallel that freedom you had as a kid?
Summers: It’s a double thing. You create all these hits if you’re lucky, thank god, but what comes with it is the cage. People pay a lot of money to come see you.
Paste: You better deliver!
Summers: You better deliver those songs! You’ve got to play the hits. That was certainly true on the last tour. We couldn’t really get experimental. But, being a resourceful guitar player or musician, within the parameters of those songs I would be able to find different nuances every night. Yes, it’s still going to be the same verse and chorus and basically the harmonies as a set, but you have so many ways you can play them on the guitar. I wouldn’t play them exactly the same every night. If you’re out touring every night you just find more and more stuff within them. It doesn’t get boring, actually.
Paste: You say something in the film that struck me. When you played Pinkpop Fest and you say, “We’d finally broken through,” it’s a phrase that many artists say, but what does that actually mean? How did it feel?
Summers: The thing about the Pinkpop festival in Holland, it’s huge, it’s 100,000 people. The guy who was making all the announcements was a very known English DJ, practically was the music voice of England, John Peel, very important. For him to go, “Okay, these guys are good,” was like the blessing from the Pope. Finally we got it because he hadn’t acknowledged us before that point. We killed it on the Pinkpop festival and he made a nice little speech about us. To us, it felt like, at that stage, that we were on the way.
Paste: What’s interesting, though, is that there isn’t a lot about your interaction with fans in the film. Are there moments you can recall that were maybe the same as John Peel saying “You’re good” that you got from your fans? Or were they really not a part of it for you?
Summers: It was just such a mob scene all the time. We were definitely a band the girls liked.
Paste: All blonde!
Summers: Yeah! We were definitely a hit with the girls. We came back from our first little poverty-stricken U.S. East Coast tour and we got back and we thought well that’s it, we’re finished now and we got this gig with this band called The Albertos. They really were big on the college circuit. They said they’ll pay 50 pounds a night. [We thought] Oh god, alright, we can stay together for another three weeks. We got back in the van and dutifully drove down to a city called Bath.
Paste: My favorite city in the world.
Summers: Beautiful! That’s where I always wanted to live.
Paste: Same. Not London, Bath!
Summers: Fantastic! We show up at the campus, oh god, these guys are really popular, must be about a thousand people. We’re just the support act. We dutifully trot out on the stage. The place is filled with punks. Everyone’s got safety pins, ripped, spiked hair and leather jackets. The minute we started, the place erupted into absolute chaos from beginning to end. We shredded it and the girls were sobbing and throwing themselves on the stage. It was insane! We come off stage and The Albertos were standing there, white faces, oh god, what have we done? Every night we played, it was like that. That was when we knew, we’re going the whole way. We just took off. That was the beginning of it.
Paste: This whole “Police mania” you refer to, it’s not like you’re playing a folk show where people can meet you after at the stage door and say, “This song really changed my life and spoke to me.” But did you have any of those moments?
Summers: You do. There’s so much of it. Before we played the shows, we’d do the meet-and-greet. People would be lining up to come and just be bathed in our presence, in a way very tiresome because we’re trying to preserve our energy. It got to the point if you stayed around after the show it would be another scene. The limo would be literally waiting backstage; we’d come off stage in our soaking wet clothes, straight into the car and out. Then you get to the hotel and people would be waiting. You come down for breakfast, they’d be waiting. It got sort of nuts.
Paste: In the film you talk about this time in L.A. before you met Kate. There’s something about that time that feels very similar to when The Police began to break up in the ’80s. Can you talk about how the loneliness of being unsuccessful can be the same as the loneliness of being successful?
Summers: That’s interesting. That was a very strange period for me. I was in L.A. and I was really on my own. Something made me stay there and I didn’t go back to England. I did have friends but I think it was more a feeling of being lost. Realizing I had a bit more going personally than the situation I was in. It’s destiny, isn’t it? I was there for maybe five-and-a-half years, went to college, did all that, and just thought I can’t do this anymore, there’s nothing here for me. Except I met Kate and she came back with me, and within a couple years I was with The Police. It was a strange path but not one I really terribly regret. I knew at that point in L.A., this is not right. It’s like the lost years for me.
Paste: There’s a quote outside the Rubin Museum I walked by the other day that said something like, to find your head you have to first lose it.
Summers: I think this happens to a lot of people, actually. You lose it and then you suddenly come back. I had to go back from L.A. to the U.K. and it’s like I suddenly woke up. I had absolute determination to get through and I did. The odd thing was I was making a lot of headway in London as a guitarist and getting my head up above the crowd and then the punk scene happened. After all that training and ability, I took a left turn and joined a so-called punk band with absolutely no future whatsoever, not liked particularly, no record deal. That was based purely on instincts.
Paste: Fast-forward and you decide to do this photography during your Police tour. Did you ever think about doing a film with them?
Summers: That’s funny you should mention this, because it’s sort of happening in a very cute little special way. You know in L.A., the Laemmle cinemas, they show art house films. Right at this very moment, we’re going to open this film at the Laemmle Royal. They make art house films so they’ll have an artist display his art in the foyer—in my case, photography—and they make a little minute-and-a-half film. I’ve got one done! I’m absolutely tickled pink. I’m working with these two brothers I did a video with last year. It turned up on my computer last night. I think I’ve got the best one Laemmle is going to have yet. It’s very cool. I talked with these two brothers about, we can probably make a whole film out of this, so this was a little taster of what we might do.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.