Phil Collins Wants You to Know He Isn’t Dead Yet.
If you went to high school in the mid-1980s, chances are you remember buying a Phil Collins album, or dancing to "Against All Odds" in a high school gym, or watching Collins, the onetime Genesis drummer, perform on two continents for "Live Aid." One of the first CDs I ever bought was the Grammy-winning "No Jacket Required," and the first concert I ever saw was on the ensuing tour at Radio City Music Hall. I’m not ashamed to say it was great.
Collins became a prisoner to his moment. It happened, a bit unfairly, to a lot of artists and politicians of the ’80s (not to mention the Members Only jacket); the knowing ’90s had no use for icons of a decade so cringingly synthetic and un-self-aware. If Collins wasn’t already considered something of an embarrassment to his youthful fans by the time "No Jacket" turned 10, composing and performing songs for Disney’s "Tarzan" soundtrack pretty much sealed the deal.
Now, after multiple attempted comebacks and a couple of retirements, Collins re-emerges with a memoir: "Not Dead Yet." Clever, unblinking and unrelentingly painful, it has to be the best thing he has produced in many years.
While not a terribly inventive lyricist, Collins turns out to be a gifted storyteller and a likable narrator of his own audiobook. He toggles deftly between the distant and recent pasts, imbuing the story with a kind of meandering informality while managing to keep it coherent. Like singing and drumming simultaneously, it’s harder than he makes it look.
He takes us through his childhood years in the working-class London suburb of Hounslow — as a theater school student, stage actor and itinerant drummer. Eventually he wanders into the countryside to audition for a trio of prep-school kids at one of their parents’ estates, where Collins takes his first-ever dip in a private swimming pool.
The pretentious youngsters call themselves Genesis. The weird kid with the pool is Peter Gabriel.
The book really starts grooving, though, five years on, when Gabriel leaves the band and Collins replaces him. Collins is at great pains to make it clear he is a shy drummer who never imagined singing anything but backup vocals, though given his theater bent and that astoundingly resonant voice, it’s hard to take this protest too seriously.
Suddenly a commercial success, Genesis is out touring the world, which leads Collins’s wife to stray, which leads to him sitting at home angrily and fiddling around with drum machines. Which in turn leads him to write a little song called "In the Air Tonight," which might be said to define the decade.
(In a strange, lawyerly aside, Collins says he has no recollection of not sharing the "In the Air Tonight" demo with his Genesis bandmates. Of course he didn’t. Would you?)
After three well-received albums and the enormous commercial success of "No Jacket," Collins is in sky-high demand. He’s producing Eric Clapton, singing with Sting, drumming (disastrously) with Led Zeppelin. He’s acting on "Miami Vice" and plunging into movie roles. And always, always, he’s touring.
Living so furiously leaves him little time to sink deeply into songwriting. Instead, he releases a series of albums that might aptly be summed up in the same evocative way Collins describes the first Genesis record he ever heard. It was like a blancmange, he says; "you could put your finger in it and it would somehow reseal."
He fritters away three marriages and mourns his disconnection from five children. There’s a heartbreaking description of him sitting in a car in Surrey with his 6-year-old daughter, Lily, listening to the "Aladdin" soundtrack on a loop while they wait for their Italian restaurant to open, because apparently there’s nowhere else he can think to take her.
You want to scream at him: "Just stop, Phil! You’re already the wealthiest drummer in the world who’s not named Ringo! Go home and have a life!"
Maybe if Collins had cooled out for a few years, given us some time to forget about "A Groovy Kind of Love," we might have cheered his return with a rush of nostalgia. But he can’t. He yearns for normalcy, but he yearns more for validation. He idealizes domestic life, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
When finally he quits touring around 2010, he descends into a near-fatal bout with alcoholism. His bones, brittle from years of cortisone injections to keep his unrested voice intact, are literally crumbling. He goes partly deaf and can barely lift a drumstick. "Music made me, but it also unmade me," Collins says.
It’s not all darkness. "Not Dead Yet" is laced with self-lacerating wit and celebrity cameos (Dustin Hoffman, Tony Bennett, Adele) rendered with unusual candor. In one particularly cruel moment, Noel Gallagher, the Oasis singer, sneers at the aging Collins’s invitation to jam with him in an island bar, prompting Kate Moss to apologize.
For whatever reason — copyrights, maybe? — what’s missing from the audio version of "Not Dead Yet" is the music. You get to hear Collins seal-barking the famous drum hit from "In the Air Tonight," but that’s it.
Which is a shame, because if you go back and listen to his early stuff now, you realize that before he fully embraced the transition from drummer to showman, Phil Collins was pioneering a kind of musical alchemy — primal drum rhythms, jazzy horns, haunting chords — that should have long outlasted the ’80s.
"I really enjoy playing the drums," Collins remembers thinking when he first contemplated replacing Gabriel. "That’s where I live." You have to wonder, by the time you’ve finished his memoir, if he wishes he’d never stepped out from behind.
© New York Times, by Matt Bai