In the latter half of the twentieth century, rock and roll slowly, gradually shifted from novelty youth music to enduring institution. The musicians involved in this scene had to learn the business the hard way during that time, developing their careers on the fly and making business mistakes in public as their commercial appeal waxed and waned. The smart ones learned to manage their own affairs once their glory days had faded and built their bands into legacies, creating a retirement plan when the business they supported wouldn’t offer them one.
Andy Powell is a good example of someone who followed this circuitous path and emerged successful. He is a founding member of Wishbone Ash and ultimately became its keeper of the flame after the other members had left, drafting in replacements and continuing the band working both as a touring and recording act. In 2015, he authored a memoir with assistance from Colin Powell entitled Eyes Wide Open. If you’re a Wishbone Ash fan, it offers an interesting insight into both his life and personal philosophy
Powell sticks to the core concept of the autobiography and focuses on his life story as a musician, starting with the moments that made music an obsession and a professional pursuit and leading into his audition for the band that would become Wishbone Ash in 1969. From there, he gives his perspective on the development, success and slow fade that Wishbone Ash experienced during their glory years as well the brief reunion period at the end of the ’80s and its gradual disintegration.
That part is roughly the first half of the book. Powell doesn’t go into great detail on recording sessions – though he devote time to key albums like Argus and New England – or bawdy tales of post-concert shenanigans. Instead, he takes a wry and introspective approach, offering the view from his vantage point on the band’s tempestuous chemistry, member and management changes and the hard lessons learned by a band that came close to the top of the business but never quite had that sort of breakthrough.
The second half of the book deals what happened after Powell found himself the last original member standing in Wishbone Ash at the beginning of the ’90s. Instead of surrendering his career, he figured out ways to rebuild it in a grassroots style. This section gives fascinating insight into what happens when a band becomes a legacy outfit with revolving membership, including how Powell learned to both manage and market his own professional affairs. He’s honest about the mistakes and disappointments he experienced along this path but also reveals the evolving music-driven philosophy that kept him continuing when the ideas of fame and fortune became a memory.
There’s also the matter of the big band name ownership lawsuit. In recent years, Powell found himself getting challenged by former bandmate Martin Turner, who formed his own band using the Wishbone Ash moniker. Powell had maintained the band the continuously during and after Turner’s departures and when negotiations between the two camps broke down, there was a legal battle in 2013. Powell ultimately prevailed and lays out his side of the story in these pages. He’s frank about his disappointments with Turner and the way the rest of the band sided with Turner but also offers a detailed chronicle of the complexities of how a band and its legacy are perceived in the legal system.
It’s also worth noting that the regular chronological chapters of the book are interspersed with sidebar chapters where Powell pursues a particular autobiographical theme. Sample subjects include experiences in hotels as a touring musician, the pleasures and perils of being friends with a fan of one’s band and the all-consuming passion of collecting guitars. The most interesting is a chapter devoted to Powell’s experiences in India, both colorful and harrowing, during a few tours in the first half of the 1980’s. These sidebar chapters add additional layers of texture to the overall narrative and are often the most fun reading in the book.
In short, Eyes Wide Open is a rewarding read for Wishbone Ash fans. It is a personal chronicle rather than a band chronicle but it still provides key insights into the twists and turns of their career, all delivered with disciplined prose and plenty of hard-won rock biz wisdom.