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

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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.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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