Andy Summers and the Life of an Artist

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This is the second time in the past six months that we’ve featured an artist on the cover who has passed his 70th birthday. There was David Crosby in August, now Andy Summers kicking off 2018 here in our January NAMM Show issue. Both are guitarists, both writers, both avid readers. Each of them an artist, not simply a musician. Each of them supremely talented and driven. Each of them achieving a creative renaissance and exploding with musical—and artistic—output right now, with no signs of slowing down.

Believe me, in the current media climate, with its focus on a 24-hour (and now seemingly 3-hour) cycle and its yen for the all-important younger demographic, this is not normal. I keep thinking that I might get called up into the executive office someday soon and asked to explain. “It’s David Crosby! It’s Andy Summers!” That’s probably how I would start, though, thankfully, that would never happen. These men are Artists, capital A. They defy demographics.

When I was finishing up high school, I thought of Andy Summers as the cool guy in The Police, the one I thought most likely of the three to hang out with the cast from Monty Python. And when I saw them at Comiskey Park on the Synchronicity tour, halfway through college, it was stunning. Three instruments filling up a stadium. A huge sound, and it all seemed to begin with Summers’ guitar. It was mesmerizing, and it was musical.

Then I went off and lived life, joined Mix, and some 30-plus years later, I’m talking on the phone with Andy Summers about a cover story for Mix. I knew of his reputation as a player, but I readily admit that I didn’t know much more. And there’s a lot that went on in those years pre- and post-Police.

I learned that he has a studio, he tours, he makes new music at a pretty prolific rate and he’s continually evolved as a musician. So he certainly fits the Mix cover criteria. But it was his mentality as an Artist that drew me in, the connections that he makes between photography and music, the eye and the ear. That, and the fact that he is always reaching for something new, culturally, musically and artistically. His photo work has taken him around the world, to villages and cities in southeast Asia and throughout South America. He has three books of photography in print, many of the subjects gathered during his musical travels. A fourth book is forthcoming, focusing on images he gathered in recent travels through China.

A few of those photographs are included in this month’s excellent cover story written by New York-based music journalist—and friend of Summers—Bradley Bambarger. The cover photo itself, and all of the shots inside not by Andy, were shot by his son, Mo Summers. All of the output, musically and visually, comes out of a creative space in Venice Beach, Calif., where Summers works with his longtime guitar tech, engineer, photo editor, confidante and friend, Dennis Smith. As Smith says in the piece, “I am a quieter sort of person than Andy, but we’re both Englishmen in California who drink coffee instead of tea.”

What makes someone like Andy Summers keep pushing himself? Keep inventing? Keep looking for The New? His influences run far and wide, from the films of Fellini and Truffaut to the art of David Lynch to the simple human body in a frame on a gallery wall in a foreign city. That’s what artists do, Summers says. Making art is what keeps him alive.

In an age where athletes begin to focus on a single sport by age 4, and musicians have picked out “their instrument” by age 6, it’s refreshing to come across an Artist who seeks influences everywhere he looks—and then brings those influences into his or her music. That’s what Artists do. And Andy Summers is certainly living the Artist’s life.