Phil Collins' Last Stand: Why the Troubled Pop Star Wants to Call It Quits

The hearing in his left ear is shot, and a dislocated vertebra has made drumming almost impossible. But those aren't the reasons

Photograph by Mattia Zoppellaro
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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 & roll.

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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 59 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. 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. But those aren't the reasons why.

This article appeared in the November 25, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

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."

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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.

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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 Eighties 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 Eighties ended and the Nineties 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 "People hate fucking cunts like Phil Collins, and if they don't, they fucking should." 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 & 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.

He is down there now, picking up relics and explaining what they are and their significance. He moves softly in the room, which is spotless in the manner of a well-funded museum. Aligned in glass cases, mounted on the walls, secreted away in drawers and stacked in corners are muskets and rifles, Sam Houston's Bowie knife ("Just look at that!"), a signed copy of Davy Crockett's autobiography, a Davy Crockett military-service receipt, a howitzer, pistols, gunpowder pouches, a whole mess of horseshoes, Jim Bowie's visa allowing him to reside in Mexico, swords, musket balls, animal teeth, human teeth, maps, cannonballs, brass powder flasks, a painting of Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, a poster of John Wayne as Davy Crockett, a receipt for a saddle bought by John W. Smith, a courier who happened to be out on a run on the day of the fall of the Alamo and went on to become the first mayor of San Antonio.

Collins' delight in all this seems total. "Just look at that overcoat pocket pistol! Just feel that! This is the Bowie knife I was talking about! And this was supposed to be Bowie's boot knife! Look at that! Want a horseshoe? Here, take a horseshoe!" He goes on, "The Alamo thing has been all-consuming. I mean, I don't come down here and gloat at it all. I come down and look at it all in amazement." As it happens, Collins is liked by Alamo buffs and has been invited to speak at a meeting of Alamo descendants. "They said, 'We're such big fans!' And it's like, 'Wow, they know I exist! I can't believe this is happening! I'm just a fucking pop star!'" He goes on, "You know how in some cultures they say if you take a picture of someone, you take a little bit of their soul? I often think that down here, at night or during the day, something might go on."

One thing that's clearly going on is that the person speaking like this, with such bubbly enthusiasm, seems to be less Phil, probably, and more Philip, or maybe even somebody else entirely. At another Alamo gathering, he says, a clairvoyant approached him and said, "You were here before. You were John W. Smith, the courier." Phil might have scoffed, but Philip thinks it's possible. That receipt he has of Smith's — it was the first scrap of Alamo history Collins ever bought. "That little bit of paper," he says. "That's incredible."

And then there are the photographs. He's got them stored on a laptop upstairs. He has a ton of them, taken by him and some of his Alamo buddies. They're odd. They've got unworldly things in them. "Do you want to see them?" he says. And then adds with mock fright in his voice, "It's some absolutely chilling stuff." But then he goes upstairs, pets his Jack Russell terrier, Travis (named after William Barret Travis, the Alamo commander), and sits at a laptop, where he pulls up picture after picture of the modern-day Alamo and related battle sites, various angles and times, and in the majority of them, soft little glowing balls, whitish in color and semitransparent, sometimes a few, sometimes a great many, seem to be hovering in the air.

"They're orbs," Collins says solemnly. "I'm not sure what the scientific term is, but it's paranormal energy. See this one? Now this one is at Goliad, where, after the Alamo, 400 guys were executed. You've got to be careful. You can talk yourself into this stuff. See how many there are here? I get chills just talking about it. All of those orbs! They're all over the place! If you believe this, then you have to rethink everything you've been taught. That's what freaks me out."

Finally, he goes back to talking about what the clairvoyant had told him: "I don't want to sound like a weirdo. I'm not Shirley MacLaine. But I'm prepared to believe. You've seen the pictures. You can't deny them, so therefore it is a possibility that I was here in another life." And he says lots more about this, too, all of which proves he's not the bland dude everyone thinks he is. He's got a lot of multidimensional fringe in him, and once he gets going on the Alamo, he seems thrilled to be talking about anything and anyone but himself.

Born in a London suburb, Collins first saw TV's Davy Crockett, as played by the late great Fess Parker, when he was five and was so smitten by the show's vision of battlefield heroics and self-sacrifice that he soon proudly sported his own coonskin cap. He took up drums the same year; became a professional child actor at age 14; was in a West End production of Oliver!; was a screaming-teenager extra in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night; disappointed his dad, a London civil servant, by dropping out of acting to become a musician; played in a few small bands; answered a newspaper ad for a drummer in 1970; joined Genesis; was 19 years old; got married; had a son, adopted a daughter; became Genesis' frontman in 1976; turned it from an arty prog-rock band into a pop-song machine; was too busy to see wife or kids; was left by wife who had started affair with family's interior decorator; released pain and suffering into first solo album; didn't think much of the pivotal drum bit in "In the Air Tonight," even after his friend Eric Clapton listened to a demo version and said, "What the hell, man? What the fuck is that?" while pinned to the wall, blown away by the sound; got married again, had another kid; got divorced again; began transformation into alleged Antichrist; had his music satirized in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, in both the book and the movie (Collins' take: "It was funny. I'd watch it again"); got married again, had kids again, got divorced again; has been kept relevant by vocal admiration from the R&B and rapper crowd: Ice-T, Akon, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Lil' Kim, despite growing I Hate Phil Collins sentiment ("His stuff seemed deep to me, like it makes you look into your own self," says Ice-T. "Noel Gallagher should shut the fuck up and calm the fuck down"); and probably will never play the drums in public again.

Due to that neck injury, his hands can no longer hold the 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 Sixties 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 Eighties (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.

From The Archives Issue 1118: November 25, 2010
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