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The Interview: Phil Collins, drummer, singer and 1980s superstar

“On my grave it will say: he came, he wrote Sussudio, he divorced his wife by fax” “On my grave it will say: he came, he wrote Sussudio, he divorced his wife by fax” Jeffrey Salter

Phil Collins recently moved into a $33m mansion in Miami Beach that used to belong to Jennifer Lopez — but he doesn’t seem very happy about it.

"I don’t like Miami particularly," he sighs, looking out over his palm tree-lined swimming pool to the ocean bay beyond. "I live here because the children are here and I go wherever they go."

The children are 15-year-old Nicholas and 11-year-old Matthew from his third marriage, to Orianne Cevey, whom he divorced in 2008, paying her £25m in what was then Britain’s largest divorce settlement, but who he has since got back together with — hence the purchase of J.Lo’s old pad.

This is not the same wife he famously divorced by fax, by the way. That was Jill Tavelman, whom he married in 1984 but left for Orianne, a 21-year-old he met on tour when he was 43. Only he didn’t really divorce Jill by fax. That was a misrepresentation of what the fax — sent from Collins’s dressing room in Frankfurt to his wife, at home in West Sussex with their five-year-old daughter, before mysteriously appearing on the front page of The Sun — actually said. Don’t worry, there will be more on "fax-gate", as he calls it, later.

There was another wife too: Andrea Bertorelli, his childhood sweetheart. But she had it away with the painter-decorator while he was off on tour, inspiring much of Face Value, his debut solo album. He has two children from that marriage, including a daughter from Andrea’s previous relationship who Collins raised as his own. I trust you are keeping up at the back?

Anyway, he has finally committed his own personal soap opera to paper in a rather bold memoir, which is what I’ve come to talk to him about. I must confess that I don’t arrive entirely without preconceptions. Given everything I think I know about him — the divorces, the faxes, the music for minicab drivers — I am expecting to meet rock’s very own David Brent. And he is certainly unintentionally hilarious: grouching around his luxury digs like a former dictator under house arrest, moaning about the humidity and dressed like a bus driver. I seem to have walked in on some disquiet involving the photographer’s unauthorised rearrangement of garden furniture. But once we get past the gruff small talk and he is sufficiently satisfied that his sun lounger will eventually be returned to its rightful place, he turns out to be, well, rather lovable actually. If very intense.

Krissi Murison on why Phil Collins is cool again

He’s called his book Not Dead Yet, which I’d assumed was a lame joke about the fact he turned 65 this year, but is actually a reference to the fact that he nearly drank himself to death a few years ago.

"Oh yeah, I nearly died," he chomps, through a gnarly piece of gum he’s been going at all morning. "My organs were kind of f*****. It was spirits, corrosive stuff."

He ended up in intensive care with acute pancreatitis. He remembers his sons’ nanny coming to visit him. "Is Monsieur Collins’s will in order?" he heard the medical professionals ask her.

Another time, he was on holiday in Turks and Caicos with his sons, staying in the residence next door to Keith Richards’s, but drank so much, he had to be airlifted to New York for treatment. Imagine what sort of state you have to be in to upstage Keith Richards on holiday.

Eventually he was given Antabuse, a drug used to treat chronic alcoholism. It blocks the enzyme that metabolises alcohol, so you get brutal headaches and nausea if you drink while taking it. That seemed to do the job, but the whole slide was made all the more depressing by the fact that Collins had, up until that point in his life, been Mr Moderation.

"It took me till the age of 55 to become an alcoholic," he notes in the book. "I got through the heady Sixties, the trippy Seventies, the imperial Eighties, the busy Nineties. I was retired, content, and then I fell. Because suddenly I had too much time on my hands."

Phil Collins has reunited with his third wife, Orianne, and they live with their sons in Miami

Only he wasn’t content. He was bored and depressed. His third marriage had already gone down the pan. After the birth of their second son, Orianne suffered from what sounds like postnatal depression. Collins admits in the book that he dealt with it rather abysmally: "I don’t have too much compassion. I keep flashing back to my dad’s attitude to illness of any sort. ‘Pull yourself together,’ he’d say, ‘and get back to work.’ " Plus he was away constantly: on tour, or in the States writing a Disney musical (although she actually seemed rather grateful for his absences).

He had long talked about wanting to retire and become a full-time father, but by the time he actually did it, Orianne had thrown him out of the family home on Lake Geneva and filed for divorce. He persisted, buying a house nearby so he could see the boys. But then she announced she was getting remarried and was off to Miami with the kids.

Alone — and officially retired — in Switzerland, Collins started having a few bottles of vino in the afternoon to pass the time. One thing led to another and soon he was drinking vodka straight from the bottle for breakfast.

Today, he says he doesn’t really believe he was an alcoholic. "I drank because I thought I deserved a break in my life where I could do anything, whatever I wanted. England against the West Indies? OK, I’ll watch that. Have a glass of wine. It got a bit out of hand."

After his treatment, he stopped drinking altogether for three years. Now he has the occasional glass of wine, but no spirits. "I need to be in control of my life. Especially with the boys around — I don’t want to piss them off."

Descended from a dynasty of insurance salesmen from Hounslow, he has always been the world’s least likely rock star. He answered an ad to become the drummer for the public school prog enthusiasts Genesis, before his surprise promotion to frontman when Peter Gabriel quit and they couldn’t find anyone else. Turned out the short, balding oik at the back couldn’t just sing, he could sing and drum at the same time. More impressively, he could also write hits. The 1980s saw him steer Genesis away from extended concept albums and towards their soft-rock commercial peak, while also launching his own hugely successful solo career.

He is now faintly embarrassed by his 1980s ubiquity — or what he calls the "imperial years", when his voice and face were inescapable (he even made it onto the big screen, co-starring with Julie Walters in the slushy Great Train Robbery biopic Buster). Inevitably his reputation took a drubbing in the decade that followed. He became the poster boy for yuppie music (and Patrick Bateman’s favourite artist in American Psycho), while Noel Gallagher called him the "Antichrist", declaring: "You don’t have to be great to be successful, just look at Phil Collins." But just look at that success: 10 No 1 albums as solo artist and Genesis frontman, and as many hit singles. To this day, he is reportedly one of only three artists to have sold more than 100m records both as a solo artist and as part of a band (the others being Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney).

Plus, he is finally cool again, thanks to a gorilla drumming along to In the Air Tonight in a Cadbury’s advert in 2007, and Mike Tyson doing the same in the film The Hangover a couple of years later. Now a new generation of superstars including Adele, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West are all card-carrying Collinistas.

Phil Collins with his second wife, Jill, in the early 1990s

But is he happy? In 2010 he gave a haunting interview to Rolling Stone magazine that saw him rattling around his empty house in Geneva, obsessively discussing his vast collection of Alamo relics and insisting that people call him "Philip" rather than Phil. "Sometimes I think, I’m going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story," he was quoted as saying, adding: "I have had suicidal thoughts. I wouldn’t blow my head off. I’d overdose or do something that didn’t hurt." It didn’t help that the accompanying photo had him holding a rifle and an axe.

Does he still have suicidal thoughts?

"Meh," he snorts. "[The journalist] spent three days with me and over those three days we talked briefly about ‘have you ever felt suicidal because, obviously, you’ve been through some dark times — three marriages, five kids, you don’t live with any of them?’ It’s a pretty dark place for a man. Well, for this man, anyway," he says, pointing to himself. "[It’s easy] to say, well, the only common denominator in all of that is me, so maybe it’s my fault, maybe I’m the one who’s lacking … So sometimes of course you would dwell on that and sometimes you would get a little down and think, f*** yeah, what can I do? I think that’s where I just happened to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve [had suicidal thoughts].’ I never thought about it seriously."

He was mortified when the article came out. "I’m thinking, ‘Oh my kids! What are they going to think? What are my kids’ friends going to think? What are my kids’ friends’ parents going to think? "We don’t want to let our kids go and sleep over at Matthew’s in case he wipes the whole lot out with an axe!" You never know!’ "

He pauses. "It never got as bad as that. It never got anywhere near as bad as that. There were no suicidal thoughts. I love my kids. Lily [his 27-year-old daughter with Jill, now an actress and model], at the height of the drinking thing, she said, ‘I want you to be there to walk me down the aisle so don’t f*** this up.’ Joely [his stepdaughter] would say, ‘Your granddaughter needs to know you,’ so that’s what has always kept me going. I’m not going to snuff myself out."

He may not be suicidal, but I have never interviewed someone so openly plagued by insecurities. He seems in a constant state of angst about what other people think of him and his music. Adele asked to meet him in London while she was writing her most recent album. "She was lovely, but when she walked in the room, first of all I’m thinking that she’s thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s older than I thought.’ Then I’m thinking, ‘F***, I’ve blown this.’ "

Phil Collins sent Jill an angry fax that appeared in The Sun

She gave him an unfinished piece of music she’d written and asked him to have a go at completing it. "I worked incessantly for three weeks in my little studio, just trying to add something; nothing was good enough." He ended up sending her what he’d done, but she never replied to tell him what she thought of it. When her new album came out without it on, Collins thought his worst fears had been confirmed. But then recently she gave an interview, declaring him a "genius" and explaining that the collaboration had happened "super-early", before she was ready to begin writing her album properly. "Which was a relief," he says, "because I felt people would think, ‘Ooh, he wasn’t good enough,’ you know?"

Mostly he worries about what his children think of him. Having been absent or on tour for most of his adult children’s lives, he is determined to make it up to his two youngest sons. The $33m mansion was chosen specifically because it had enough space to build a practice soccer pitch for Matt and a studio space where Nick can rehearse with his band. Nick has recently started playing drums for his father too. There is footage online of them performing onstage together at the US Open in August. "Now if I do anything in the future, he will be my drummer. I have a meeting with the headmaster next week to talk about days off."

What, so he can go on tour with you?

"Well, I don’t know about that yet."

Collins has never officially gone back to work since he retired in 2011, though he drops enough hints that I suspect it won’t be long before there is an announcement on that front. I just hope he is up to it. He may have stopped drinking, but he is hardly a picture of health. He had back surgery last October, which damaged some nerves, leaving his right foot numb. Now he can’t drive, so is stuck inside, hobbling around with a walking stick and foot support to stop him accidentally going over on it. "I can feel the instep, but the rest of it is numb. I don’t have any up and down, I don’t have any toe movement. It’s a question of nerves regenerating from the foot to the back. Nothing is guaranteed. It could take another year, six months."

People looked at me differently. ‘How could that bastard that I liked divorce his wife for a young bimbo?’

He’s also had problems with the grip in his left hand. For a while, he couldn’t sign his own autograph or — worse — hold a drumstick, though he temporarily managed by strapping a stick to his hand with tape.

He and Orianne seem to lead fairly separate lives. "She goes out and does stuff with her girlfriends. I can’t be doing with all that. I said to her when we got back together, ‘You’ve got the older model now. I’m not going to go out and socialise, it doesn’t interest me.’ I don’t go to bed late — 9.30, 10. She sometimes doesn’t come back till one or two in the morning."

What does he do with his time? He struggles to come up with an answer to that. "I went to the dentist yesterday," he offers.

We gaze out at the pool. Does he use it? "No, but Orianne does. She has pool therapy because she’s still getting over the physical stage of her paralysis." Bloody hell, I’d completely forgotten about that, among all his other sagas. Nearly two years ago, Orianne went in for spinal surgery to release trapped nerves, but spasmed while under the knife. She woke up totally paralysed down her right side and was temporarily wheelchair-bound. No wonder Collins is so morose about life.

How is she doing? "She’s doing great. She walks, but she limps. But, you know, a year and a half ago she couldn’t move — just from an operation."

Once just the Genesis drummer, Phil Collins went on to sell 150m records as a solo artist

Their house is so meticulous and grand that I don’t get much of a sense of what they are really like as a couple — very, very tidy? We do the interview in his impressively enormous front room, later retiring to the smaller family room where a 6ft by 4ft television is tuned to CNN. "I’ve been engrossed in this presidential candidacy," he says. "I can’t stand Donald Trump — no reason, other than I think he’s completely wrong and it’s a stupid idea."

He didn’t come back to vote in the EU referendum. In fact he hasn’t voted since he was a teenager. Why ever not? "Well, most of the time I’ve never been there, I’ve been out of the country on tour. I never felt strongly enough about either of the parties."

He is keen that everyone knows how apolitical he is, presumably because he was once outed as a Tory in the run-up to the 1992 general election. Voting Conservative is, like divorcing your wife by fax, one of rock’n’roll’s few cardinal sins — and another accusation from which he feels he has never fully recovered.

Come on, then, let’s talk about fax-gate. "The fax that changed my life," he smiles through gritted teeth. "That changed the way people looked at me. And I didn’t do it."

In 1994, Collins was on tour, engaged in a full-blown love affair with Orianne, though still technically married to Jill. Because of the time differences and poor phone connections, he couldn’t get through to Jill on the telephone to organise when he was next going to see their daughter. There was a fax machine in his dressing room, so he started sending her faxes instead. One of them found its way into the hands of The Sun’s newsdesk, leading to the memorable front-page headline "I’m faxing furious" alongside excerpts from his ranting, expletive-addled transmission. The story spiralled and before long the world knew him, rightly or wrongly, as the pop star who divorced his wife by fax. He is adamant that it wasn’t a divorce note, though is ambiguous in the book about what the correspondence actually said.

"[The publishers] were going to use a bit of the fax in the book," he explains, "but I said, ‘I really don’t want to rehash all that stuff.’ I was in Frankfurt, trying to get through, trying to organise a visit to Lily. The phone kept going down, so I sent a fax from the dressing room. I wrote it and it was just like, ‘For f***’s sake, I’m trying to organise blah blah blah.’ It didn’t mention divorce, we’d already been past that."

Did it say some horrible things, though?

It took me till the age of 55 to become an alcoholic ... I nearly died. It was spirits, corrosive stuff

"Well, no, I mean … ‘I’m fed up with this f****** thing.’ Maybe there was that. I can’t quite remember. The implication was that I was saying, ‘Hello darling, I want a divorce,’ and that wasn’t the case, we’d discussed that on the phone, and probably in person ... All I know is that I have never asked for a divorce by fax."

He has never quite got over the fallout. After the story broke, he says, "People looked at me differently. ‘How could that bastard that I liked divorce his wife for a young bimbo?’ So that will be on my gravestone now: ‘He came, he went da-da-dun da-da-dun da-da-dun da-da-dun da-dat’" — he says, impersonating the In the Air Tonight drum fill — " ‘he wrote Sussudio and divorced his wife by fax.’ "

I bring the conversation back to his rekindled romance with Orianne in an attempt to lighten the mood. So a happy ending after all, eh? "Yeah," he says frowning. "Well … she still has to go through a divorce, which is not a pleasant thing that’s happening now. But she and I stayed very close. She wasn’t very happy in her marriage. We just realised that it was a mistake, what we did. We missed each other. I was kind of a bit of a father figure to her, I guess, not just because of my age, but I’d give her advice and she would confide in me."

In the time he and Orianne were apart, she had a son with her new husband. Andreas is now five years old and the latest recruit to the Collins family home, when he’s not with his own father.

How does he feel about taking on someone else’s child again? "I’ve got no problem with it. I’m Mr Phil — that’s what he calls me. He’s a good little boy, his brothers love him. I don’t know what he thinks in terms of this, he seems to have it together."

The book, by the way, is definitely worth a flick. Alongside the harrowing drink and divorce chapters are some cracking celebrity name-drops (my favourite: Princess Di pulling up in a BMW with James Hewitt, to tell Collins about her colonoscopy). Even the stuff before he got famous is interesting. His mother co-founded the Barbara Speake Stage School and he was briefly a child actor, playing the Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart’s West End show, though roles as an extra in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and A Hard Day’s Night ended up on the cutting-room floor. He later got to know George, Paul and Ringo — although the other good thing about the book is that he’s not afraid to say what he really thinks about people.

"I’ve got to preface this by saying McCartney was one of my heroes," he says, when prodded. "But he has this thing when he’s talking to you, where he makes you feel …[putting on a condescending Scouse accent] ‘I know this must be hard for you, because I’m a Beatle. I’m Paul McCartney and it must be very hard for you to actually be holding a conversation with me.’ I met him when I was working at the Buckingham Palace party at the palace thing back in 2002. McCartney came up with Heather Mills and I had a first edition of The Beatles by Hunter Davies and I said, ‘Hey Paul, do you mind signing this for me?’ And he said, ‘Oh Heather, our little Phil’s a bit of a Beatles fan.’ And I thought, ‘You f***, you f***.’ Never forgot it."

And with that Phil Collins finally cracks a proper smile.

© The Times, by Krissi Murison

Last modified onSunday, 16 October 2016 17:48
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