With songs such as “Take Me Home,” Phil Collins has touched millions of fans over the years. Now, after touching bottom in his personal life, he’s telling his very personal story to our Jim Axelrod, For The Record:
If he doesn’t look exactly like you remember him, well, it’s been a while. Six years, in fact, since Phil Collins last played in public, when he kicked off this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament two months ago.
He’s 65 now, walking with a cane, and a little hard of hearing — not to mention the bad wrist that keeps him from playing the drums.
But Collins wants us all to know he is not fading away.
“I’ve been made aware the last few years that people have missed me,” he said. “I was checking into a hotel in Miami, and the bellman said something to me, and it really touched me: ‘When are you gonna come back, man? Because we really miss you!’”
But as much as he wants to look forward, the bulk of Collins’ energy lately has been spent looking back.
His new memoir, “Not Dead Yet,” is a candid chronicle of struggle … with marriage, drinking, and fame.
“So maybe this was an attempt to gain some clarity?” Axelrod asked. “You had lived the life, and now maybe you wanted to understand it a little.”
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, when you’ve been married three times and you’ve got five kids, you don’t live with ‘em, and you’ve been divorced three times, you start to wonder whether it’s you, you know? It can’t always be someone else’s fault!”
Born and raised in the outskirts of post-war London, his book charts his beginnings as a performer, playing the Artful Dodger in a West End production of “Oliver”; through his first run as a rock star with Genesis; to his turn as one of the biggest pop-icons of the 1980s and ‘90s.
But if you think selling 250 million records insulates you from regret, Collins is proof one has absolutely nothing to do with the other.
“I think in the ‘80s I became very annoying,” he said. “I know a lot of people love it. But I can see that I was omnipresent. And that can get up people’s noses.”
The high-point then seems to be one of his low-points, now that he’s had more than three decades to think about it: the summer of 1985, when he played Live-Aid in London in the morning, then took the Concorde to play another set in Philadelphia in the evening.
“I do think it added to my ‘showing off’ kind of thing, and the annoying guy that thinks he can act and thinks he can — not only does he play Live Aid once, he plays it twice!”
He couldn’t help himself. Once he hit it big, he pushed hard, with no regard for consequence.
He built a solo career. He became a sought-after producer. He even had his own big band.
But did the thought of slowing down ever cross his mind? “Not really!” Collins laughed.
Nothing could withstand that pace … certainly not any of his three marriages. These days, having reconciled with his third wife and living in Miami with their two teenaged sons, Collins seems to be finding liberation in the honest reckoning.
Take his Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning hit “Against All Odds”: he can’t even play it. “Apart from writing it, I’ve only ever played it twice,” he said.
“You mean you can’t play ‘Against All Odds’?” Axelrod asked.
“No. I could learn!”
But Collins has written this book to reckon with much bigger things than that.
In 2006, with his third marriage falling apart, living alone in a hotel while working on the Broadway version of “Tarzan,” Collins almost let the pain kill him — discovering pain relief in the mini bar. “Were you aware you were drinking that much?” Axelrod asked.
This man who’d given so much pleasure to so many people could not find any happiness himself. The workaholic became an alchoholic.
“Oh, I was at death’s door, you know? Well, that’s what the doctor said. I was in Lausanne, intensive care, in a hospital. My pancreas had sort of buggered up, and organs were shutting down. And the doctor said to Lindsay, who is my assistant, ‘Are Mr. Collins’ papers in order? Because we he might not make it.’”
Ask Collins an honest question, and you get an honest answer.
“You good? You clean?”
“Nah — you know, I mean, I was clean for three years. And now I feel like I can have a glass of wine,” he replied.
These days, Collins gets his real kicks in, of all places, San Antonio, Texas, remembering the Alamo.
Axelrod asked, “”Where did it come from, this love of the Alamo?”
“Well, I mean, I just saw that Davy Crockett, ‘King of the Wild Frontier,’ and the last couple of episodes show him at the Alamo.’”
The show that launched the coonskin-hat-craze 60 years ago hooked kids on both sides of the Atlantic. And Phil Collins grew up to become the largest private collector of Alamo artifacts — his collection valued at more than $10 million when he donated it to the state of Texas.
Phil Collins hands over Alamo collection to Texas
If this all seems like a bit of a headscratcher, it makes perfect sense when you consider that, for Collins, the story of the Alamo — like his own — is far more complicated than you might think.
“It wasn’t bad Mexicans and good Texans,” he said. “There was bravery on both sides of the war.”
“Seems to me like you’re really into setting the record straight,” Axelrod said.
“Yeah, I think it needs to be done.”
Setting the record straight is what Phil Collins needs to do wherever he is these days, like in the studio he’s set up at home in Miami, where he contemplates his comeback.
“So if I had to bet one side of the other that Phil Collins is going to actually make music again in here that we all hear? Or should I take the other side of that?” Axelrod asked.
“Oh, I think I would owe it to you to say I think it’s possible, yeah,” Collins replied.
Maybe it’ll be more solo work. Maybe he’ll team up with his son, Nick, who backed him up on drums at the U.S. Open. Or perhaps another reunion with Genesis.
Whatever form it takes, Collins will prove he’s “not dead yet. Seems like a good name for a book!” he laughed.