By Erik Hedegaard
In a rehearsal hall somewhere in Switzerland, Phil Collins is belting out some tunes in front of an 18-piece band, getting ready to go on a small tour to support a new album. He looks happy, snapping his fingers, bopping his head. It's all Motown -- upbeat stuff like "Dancing in the Street," "Going to a Go-Go" and "Heat Wave." He's not playing the drums, and not a song of his own passes his lips. There's no "In the Air Tonight," no "Sussudio," no "One More Night," nothing from his Genesis days -- none of the hits that turned him into one of the most loved and then most unfairly and inexplicably vilified men in rock 'n' roll.
Later on, halfway through lunch in a mixing room, he happily rolls a great big gherkin around his plate and begins sawing into it with a knife and fork. He's 60 and looks pretty much the way he's always looked: kind of small, kind of bald. He's wearing a green polo shirt, the collar popped.
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As a solo artist, he has sold 150 million records, which puts him right up there with the all-time greats. He's saying that his new album, Going Back, which features only classic-soul songs, is his "best album ever," that he couldn't resist making it because it's the music he grew up with, and that it may be his last album ever, too. Medically, he's got a few serious and life-altering problems: The hearing in his left ear is shot, and a dislocated vertebra in his neck has rendered him all but unable to pound on the drums that first made him famous. People.com reported March 5 that Collins is stepping down because of his health issues. But that isn't the reason.
Mainly, it's because he's had it with people thinking they know who Phil Collins is. And not in a good way. He has been called "the Antichrist," the sellout who took Peter Gabriel's Genesis, that paragon of prog-rock, and turned it into a lame-o pop act and went on to make all those supercheesy hits that really did define the 1980s.
So, he wants to move on. He could make another original album, but he knows that will bring a rehashing of all the old criticism. It's inescapable. Forget it. He'd rather spend his time in his basement, building up his collection of Alamo memorabilia, which, oddly enough, is his great consuming passion these days.
"I sometimes think, 'I'm going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story,'" he says. "Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom, and people will say, 'What happened to Phil?' And the answer will be, 'He got murdered, but, yeah, anyway, let's carry on.' That kind of thing."
He is already taking steps. When he started dating his girlfriend, Dana Tyler, a TV newscaster from New York, he said to her, "I'm tired of being Phil Collins. You can call me Philip." So that's who he is to her, Philip, anyone but Phil, and that's who he'd like to be to the rest of the world, too. Like he says, in his mind, the guy known as Phil Collins would be better off dead.
Who people think Phil Collins is derives mainly from how absolutely everywhere he was in the 1980s. It's almost impossible to overstate. He released four solo albums during the decade and had 13 hit singles. As Genesis' lead singer and songwriter after Peter Gabriel quit, he was largely responsible for that band's output too, which reached a high point in 1986, with Invisible Touch and its five hit singles.
Of all his songs, "In the Air Tonight" was particularly ubiquitous, propelled forward by Collins' towering drum entrance. It became the unofficial theme song for the '80s drugs-guns-and-glamour cop show "Miami Vice;" and was used to hawk Michelob beer; and was prominently featured in "Risky Business" 26 years before Mike Tyson air-drummed new life into the song in "The Hangover."
And then there was Collins himself. His face was plastered over all his albums, close up, looking placid and somewhat smugly self-serious. He tried his hand at acting (the 1988 movie "Buster," an episode of "Miami Vice"). He came to be known as Mr. Nice Guy. He did lots of charity work. (Later on, he went so far as to pay for well-known-substance-abuser David Crosby's liver transplant.)
But then a curious thing happened. The '80s ended and the '90s began in a whole different mood, with Nirvana and other punk-influenced bands establishing grunge as the dominant musical force. In many ways, grunge's threadbare, garage-rock sound was a direct reaction to the overblown, synth-heavy bombast of the previous decade -- and no one typified those excesses more than Collins.
In the summer of 1994, reports began circulating that Collins had informed his (second) wife that he wanted a divorce -- via fax. He denied it vehemently, and the fax itself was never produced, but no matter: Suddenly, it was open season on the guy. Oasis' Noel Gallagher started hammering on him any time he could, to uproarious effect. Among his choicest bons mots: "You don't have to be great to be successful. Look at Phil Collins."
And so it's gone, especially on the Internet, where I Hate Phil Collins sites have flourished. He gets criticized for everything. For his hair, for his height, for his pants (pleated khakis), for his shirts (tucks them in), for being "a shameless, smirking show hog."
"I don't understand it," he says, looking pained. "I've become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it's the radio that plays them all the time. I mean, the Antichrist? But it's too late. The die is cast as to what I am."
So now he lives in a small Swiss town near Lake Geneva -- not in any kind of self-imposed exile, he says, but because his third wife (now his third ex-wife) lived there, and that's where they are raising their two young boys, ages five and seven. His neighborhood is quiet, his chalet-type house is modest, and he can often be seen ferrying his kids to school in his Range Rover. He's got a pair of old wooden skis mounted over the inside entrance to his place, and the pictures on the walls are all of family and friends. He keeps the rock 'n' roll stuff -- the Grammys and various awards -- in his basement home studio, not too far from the vast expanse of his beloved Alamo collection, which he thinks is one of the largest in the world.
Due to that neck injury, his hands can no longer hold thed drum sticks. Worse, to him, he can't help his youngest kids build toys. He can't write his name with a pen. He has trouble wiping himself. It sounds terrible, and it is, but since it only affects his ability to grip objects, you'd never know it to look at him. There's nothing frail about him, and a recent surgery may even improve his condition. But as for drumming, he says, "I was going to stop anyway. I had stopped. I don't miss it."
Some of his inner circle, however, aren't so sure about that. "Oh, yeah, of course he misses it," one of them recently said, "but it really wouldn't be like Phil to let on."
Collins really is Mr. Nice Guy, and his recollections of his younger years as a rock star reflect that. He was never a big drinker, never a big dope smoker, has never taken LSD. The closest he came to destroying a hotel room was with his jazz-fusion side band Brand X, when some of the guys Super-Glued the phone handset to the receiver. "I didn't do it, but I felt terrible about it. The maid was going to get blamed. I always felt sorry for the maids." OK, but has he ever slept with a groupie? "No." Ever had a three-way? "Nope, I was never offered that piece of cake," he says. "It is an ambition of mine, though. I've got a few ambitions left, and that might be one of them." He smiles. "I wouldn't mind."
But there does seem to be some serious darkness in him as well. He has spent time imagining battle scenes at the Alamo. "At one point, the Mexicans were killing each other. It was dark, and you killed anything that moved. And then when they attacked the last line of defense, it was hand-to-hand fighting and they went around decapitating all the bodies and making sure they were dead. 'What must that have been like?' I think. And you have things like that coming over your head all the time." He bites his nails. "I'm fascinated by what people will do to each other," he goes on. "Actually, I'm sort of interested in the gory details of life."
The next day at the rehearsal hall, Collins is taking a break and sawing into another gherkin and saying, "When I say, 'I'm going to write myself out of the script,' I'm serious. When I say I'm stopping and I don't care about all this, I'm serious. I mean, I will write songs, and I will have fun making demos, but I may well not make another record. My deal with Atlantic is over with this Motown record. It's sobering and quite liberating. Anyway, I've had enough of being me. Not to the point—"
He pauses, and then he goes on, "I have had suicidal thoughts. I wouldn't blow my head off. I'd overdose or do something that didn't hurt. But I wouldn't do that to the children. A comedian who committed suicide in the '60s left a note saying, 'Too many things went wrong too often.' I often think about that."
His manner when he says these things is straightforward. He betrays no emotion. The second-biggest pop star of the '80s (after Michael Jackson) just sits there, seeming like he maybe wished he could blink it all away.
"Everything has added up to a load that I'm getting tired of carrying," he continues. "It's gotten so complicated. It's the three failed marriages, and having kids that grew up without me, and it's the personal criticism, of being Mr. Nice Guy, or of divorcing my wife by fax, all that stuff, the journalism, some of which I find insulting. I wouldn't say that I have suicidal tendencies over my career or bad press. They're just another chink in the wall. It's cumulative. You can say, 'Grow up, man, everybody gets criticism.' I know that. And I've philosophically adjusted to it. But does that make it any more pleasurable? No." And that's the trouble with wishing you were somebody else. As much as you may want it, you know it'll never happen, at least not in this lifetime.
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