Q&A: Phil Collins on His Alamo Obsession, Retirement

'I don’t want to be a shadow of what I was'

phil collins
Tommy Hultgren © 2012
Phil Collins
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When Phil Collins launched his First Final Farewell tour nine years ago, the name seemed to be a joke – but Collins wasn't kidding. He hasn't released an album of new music in a decade, and he's only emerged for a brief Genesis reunion tour in 2007 and a small handful of shows in 2010 to support his Motown covers LP, Going Back

The covers disc fulfilled his obligations to Atlantic Records, and Collins has no intention of ever making another album or launching another tour. He hasn't stayed completely inactive, though. During the past 10 years, Collins has focused his attention on an unlikely subject: the Alamo. He's amassed a huge collection of artifacts related to the Texas Revoluton battle of 1836, and he recently authored the book The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector's Journey. "I've actually gotten better reviews for this book than I have for any of my music," Collins tells Rolling Stone.

"I'm very proud of myself for writing it and getting all the history accurate."

Tell me your first memories of being interested in The Alamo as a child.
When I was five or six, Fess Parker and Walt Disney's King of the World Frontier was serialized in England. The last episode where Davy Crockett goes down swinging at the Alamo kind of captured my generation. Most of the men of my generation, if they know anything about the Alamo or Texas history, seem to have been turned on by the same thing. And that's not just in America. That's across Europe.

Did you spend much time studying the history when you were younger? I started drumming around the same time I came across this part of American history. But there seemed to be a way forward playing drums. There didn't seem to be a way forward being fascinated by a piece of history.

It was only much, much later when I discovered these documents and later still when I started to collect these artifacts. It was always there with me, but I couldn't do much but like the story. I've bought pretty much every book ever written about the Alamo, and I talk to my friends that I've made over the past 15, 20 years. It's just a constant learning and fascinating thing for me.

How did you first start to collect the artifacts? At one point in the 1980's, I was in Washington and I found a shop called the Gallery of History. They had a Crockett letter in there, which I came across by accident. It was too expensive for my pocket. I've outspent that many times over since, but at the time I was like, "Wow, I didn't know that existed, but it's too expensive." But my third wife gave me a Christmas present that was a receipt for a saddle by one of the Alamo couriers. Once I had something to hang on the wall, then I started to look for other things to hang on the wall. 

What's your single favorite item in your collection? That varies from day to day. I've got one of four known Davy Crocket rifles. It's fantastic just to know it's one of the rifles that he actually used. His cousin had it. I just got sent a piece of unidentified bronze with the letter "J" on it.  That could be one of the Italians, Mexican-Italians, that was fighting there. This is all very interesting to to those that are interested. It's like transporting to people that aren't.

How often do you go down to Texas? As often as I can. I was there just a couple of weeks ago for a few book signing events. But I go there at least a couple of times a year, to see my pals and just to sort of walk around. It feels very friendly down there.

Do you deal with people down there that are only faintly aware of your music? I think most people are aware of it, but they all seem pretty unimpressed, which is fine by me. At this point in my life I'm quite pleased to be seen in another light. If I go down there, the rangers, kind of the Alamo police – they all tip their hat and say, "Hi, Phil." The gift shop ladies always say hello, too. I'm not Phil Collins down there. I'm Phil Collins an enthusiast about that particular part of history, and that's usually just fine.  

Do you ever think about making some sort of traveling exhibition to showcase your collection in museums? No. I've got to think about what happens when I snuff it, though. What happens to the thing? Because the most obvious thing is that your children get it, but with five children, all with varying interests, I think it's probably better that it goes to some kind of museum that will exhibit it. I don't want them to end up in boxes in some back room somewhere. So, I'm thinking of it, but hopefully I've got a bit of time. 

How is your health? Are your hands getting better? Ah, good days, bad days. It depends. I don't anticipate playing anymore, and I don't particularly anticipate writing anymore. I've kind of put that side of my life on hold mainly because I feel like I've earned this opportunity to do nothing. And I have young children, so I don't feel the drive to go out there and compete. 

Do you ever write music just for fun? Well, my young kids, they're desperate for me to write some new stuff. That's the only thing that would jolt me into that position, but whether anybody will hear it or not apart from them…a CD in the car is probably good enough. I don't even have a record deal, actually. Going Back – which ironically was one of my best-selling albums in the last 15 years – that was my last album for Atlantic, and I don't have a record deal. I don't know. At some point I may go down to my studio in the basement and muck about some. I've got a couple of things that I think are great, but I don't want to get caught up in that rock & roll promotion thing. 

So a new album at any point is probably very unlikely? It's very unlikely. 

And a tour? Uh, that's even more unlikely. [Laughs.]

I guess it's nice to be at a stage in your life where you can just do what you want. Yeah. The odd thing comes up: an opportunity to write another musical, an opportunity to play with some of my heroes. I have had offers in the last few weeks to do things, and I've thought long and hard about it and I just felt…I can't be what I used to be. I can't play like I used to. And I don't want to go out there and do it half-assedly.  

So, I pass. I pass with thanks on the invitations. But, shit, I'm 61. I joined Genesis when I was 19. I've earned the right to actually do nothing. I don't want to be a shadow of what I was, so I've kind of just quite willingly stood back.

You did play drums at the Prince's Trust concert in London not that long ago.
It's funny you mention that. That was when I really knew that I couldn't play the way I used to anymore. That was last November, and that was the last time I had a crack at it. Frankly, it doesn't bother me. It bothers me more that it takes me twice as long to get dressed. [Laughs.] My hands don't really do what I want them to do. So, you know, it's cool. I've had my share of it, and now I can move over and other people can do it.