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Pity Andy Summers in the same way you would pity Apollo 11astronaut Mike Collins. Both men have accomplished something great without ever fully forming in our public consciousness. Although Summers' guitar work defined the Police, selling 50 million records along the way, he is often best remembered as the voice on the band's two most disturbed songs: a randy Lancashire lad on Outlandos d'Amour's "Sally" and a shrieking milquetoast on Synchronicity's "Mother." On this latter song, his vocals still startle even 20 years later, hinting at a presence both darker and goofier than his frequently feuding rhythm section.
Summers is a decade older than his ex-Policemates. Sting was not yet a teenager when Andy started playing live jazz and R&B with Zoot Money's Big Roll Band in 1964. In early 1967, Zoot abruptly disbanded the suit-clad B.R.B. and drafted Andy for the fiercely psychedelic Dantalian's Chariot, who were signed and dropped by EMI all before the Summer of Love. In the band's wake, Summers found work in Eric Burdon's New Animals and spent half of the 1970s as a session man with such luminaries as Neil Sedaka and Joan Armatrading.
Which made the man 34 when he finally met Sting and Stewart Copeland. The news that Summers had a healthy, emotionally satisfying career long before the Police is like discovering that one's parents were once married to different people; one wants him to have had no past, and to read that he has had no future since the Police disbanded. It is a selfish desire, but then again, Summers' stubborn insistence on continuing with his life feels equally selfish.
The Police, to use a phrase recently coined by NBC, were Insanely Great. So insanely, awesomely, overpoweringly great that it is easy to overlook the paradox of their greatness. This is the rule known as Someone Who Has Been In One Of The Best Bands Ever Has The Right To Make Terrible Music For The Rest Of His Life. No one in human history has exploited this loophole as ruthlessly as Sting. Although Summers has resisted such temptation admirably, it's hard to imagine that such a lure ever relents. The best he can do is surround himself with talent (Herbie Hancock, Ginger Baker, Deborah Harry and Q-Tip, among others) and keep swimming against the pull of standards that has snared Bette Midler and Rod Stewart and Queen Latifah over the years.
Even 15 solo albums in, he still seems to be finding his way. With the exception of a brief reunion with Sting, his songs are not shameful. Nor do they soar. Much of Summers' music is rooted in jazz—breezy lounge and Caucasian prog—with a dangerous tilt toward New Age jamminess and the dulcet tones of Windham Hill. As a vocalist, Summers has earned mixed reviews, although he stays mum during the majority of his compositions. Much of his solo work has a genial, ambling feel to it, as if he were just surveying the passing landscape, in no hurry to reach a destination.
Same goes for his extracurricular interests. In 1992, he briefly served as bandleader aboard the doomed Dennis Miller Show. Unlike Stewart Copeland, his film scores have been sporadic and skewed toward lumpy comedies (Weekend at Bernie's, Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Acting cameos have been restricted to a handful of forgotten TV shows. His biggest splash in the past decade came as a bit of rapped-over fretwork in a P. Diddy video. His entire post-arena-rock career seems marked by a determined lack of flash, the humble doings of a happy elder rocker in a T-shirt and suit jacket.
This has its advantages. Summers will not be lecturing the audience about excessive stage diving this Friday night. You will not be metal-detectored because no one will be tempted to bust a cap in your ass. You will not need to scout out the exits before the pyrotechnics are ignited. You will not leave drenched in beer, sweat or fake blood.
Summers' war is a quieter affair. It is the labor of a master craftsman to lathe the perfect chair, the pastry chef's long struggle to forge a flawless crème brûlée. What parts of this toil have been made public are there for our enjoyment. The truth behind this enjoyment is messy, and something Summers might not be comfortable with. The man was in the Police; he has a free pass to do anything he wants. He could take the stage at the Coach House this Friday and recite fart jokes for two hours. We would still love him with all our hearts.
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