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

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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."

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