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Soft-rock king still banging his drum

Phil Collins is in self-deprecating form. Within the first minute of our conversation, when I ask him how he's coping with some much-publicised injuries, he quips about how he believes he is now seen by the public.

"It's Phil Collins, that bloke from Genesis, who had a solo career and divorced his wife by fax. Now it's all of that and 'ravaged by injuries'."

More on the 'fax divorce' later, but first those back and arm injuries that for years put paid to the business of playing live. "It's mostly from the drumming days," he says of his time in Genesis. "Bad posture, you know."

Now, he tries to advise his son Nick about how best to sit at the drum kit and what sort of recovery techniques to practise. "I'd hate for him to have this, especially when you feel it may have been preventable."

Nick is just 15 years old but he will be the drummer on his father's Not Dead Yet tour, which calls to Dublin's Aviva Stadium this summer.

"I'm very confident in him," he says. "I won't have to be looking over my shoulder. But I do hope to do a small bit of drumming myself. I think it'll be expected for 'In the Air Tonight', even if they have to tape the sticks to my hands."

The tour is a curious beast. Running for just three weeks - Collins says his injuries would make a longer run very difficult - it encompasses the 6,000-seat Royal Albert Hall in London and the 50,000 capacity Aviva. Most of the shows will be in arenas, and Collins says he will have to make minor adjustments to make the production work in Dublin and, the following night, in the wide open spaces of London's Hyde Park.

Former Genesis bandmate Mike Rutherford will open the Dublin show in his capacity as frontman of Mike and the Mechanics. Anyone expecting the two men to collaborate on stage may be disappointed. "No, it isn't something that's been discussed," says Collins, sounding surprised that the possibility might even be mooted. "Never say never, but I don't think it will happen."

There is no bad blood whatsoever, he insists, but one gets the impression he doesn't want to complicate things on the night. In what's something of a golden-oldies bill, Blondie will also be performing.

The eye-catching tour title is the same as that of his memoir, which came out late last year and is a remarkably frank account of a life that has had as many downs as ups

"I thought, what's the point of doing this if I'm not honest? Of course, there are some things that are too close to the bone or might hurt people, and I left them out, but everything's honest and I've made no attempt to make myself look better."

Collins devoted several years to writing the book - time effectively spent in lieu of working on a new album. It's been seven years since the last one came out, and those keen to hear new material will have to wait. For a man who says he looked forward all his life, this summer will be all about looking back.

Cynics would suggest that the tour is little more than a money-making exercise in nostalgia, but Collins says he has long itched for the thrill of playing in front of a live audience. "It's really been too long," he says, "and I'd tour for more than than three weeks if I felt my health was up to it - but I don't think it is."

Now that he's not in the limelight so much, it can be difficult to recall just how big a deal Phil Collins was in the 1980s.

He was inescapable, thanks to albums like No Jacket Required and songs like 'Against All Odds' which enjoyed crossover appeal. Certainly, anyone who was a fan of Genesis circa the prog-rock Selling England By the Pound album would barely have believed their ears that the guy playing those complex drum parts would become such an attraction as a solo star in front of the microphone.

"I think it's been pretty well documented that I drew from what was happening in my own life on those songs back then. People heard that they came from the heart, not some cynical place, and they responded warmly to them."

By 1985, Collins was a superstar and he has the distinction of being the only performer to play at Live Aid in London and Philadelphia that year. He jumped on Concorde - his preferred mode of flying in the 'Loadsamoney' decade - immediately after playing London and high-tailed it across the Atlantic for the other show.

For a while, he seemed ubiquitous. 1988 saw him releasing such massive hits as 'A Groovy Kind of Love' and 'Two Hearts' and that year he also starred as the real-life East End gangster Buster Edwards in the hit British comedy crime caper Buster, which was based on The Great Train Robbery.

He seems slightly affronted when I ask how he coped being less popular in the 1990s than he was in the 1980s. "Well, I was still selling a lot of records then," he argues, "and we had a huge Genesis hit with 'I Can't Dance' and my very best album came out in the 1990s."

It's a reference to Both Sides, another deeply personal album, dating from 1993. "It's the one I look back to with greatest fondness," he says. "People may have bought Jacket in greater numbers, and it's probably the album I'm best known for, but it's my least favourite of my albums and I don't think it's nearly as strong as Both Sides. Those are the songs that best represent who I am as a songwriter, not something like 'Sussudio' [the uber catchy second single from No Jacket Required]."

If Collins was happy to ransack his private life for love-lorn songs, he wasn't so pleased to be the subject of prurient media gossip. "I don't think anyone could enjoy that sort of attention," he says. "There were times when it felt like it was impossible to escape from."

Today, he lives a comparatively normal life in a millionaire's district of Miami and is happy to be left alone.

It was all so different in 1986, when he was being demonised by the tabloids for apparently divorcing his second wife, Jill Tavelman, by fax. He is uneasy about being drawn on the subject today but last year, during promotional rounds for the book, he insisted it didn't quite happen that way.

"I was in Frankfurt and sent her a fax because the phone kept going down. I was arranging time to see the kids and referenced the fact that [the marriage] was over, but it was translated as me finishing our relationship by fax.

"It really hurt my career, or my public persona. And it was based on an untruth. So, I just thought it would be an opportunity just to lay it all out, and if I say it didn't happen, I'm trusting that people will believe me."

His relationship with actress daughter Lily is not so cut and dried. She has just published her own memoir, Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, which goes into considerable detail about feelings of abandonment at the hands of her father.

"I haven't read the book yet," Collins says, uneasily. "Lily sent me a copy with a really lovely note. Of course there were things that I regret - particularly all that time I spent on the road when she was little - but she has said one or two things in the press that aren't quite as straightforward as she suggests.

"She sort of intimates that when I went to Switzerland, that was the end of it. But that really isn't the case and maybe she doesn't remember it because she was so young. I did make a concerted effort to get back to London as much as possible. But I don't want to get into a tit-for-tat thing. She's my daughter and I love her very much."

Collins says he does not wish to court sympathy but points out that "being a rock star" often does mean heart-rending concessions. "It's okay if you're doing well enough and you can bring children on the road with you when they're young. But when they start school, you can't really do that and you don't get to spend the sort of time with them that you'd like in an ideal world."

Other concessions include having to pay out enormous sums of money in divorce settlements. He's had to fork out three times, including a figure of £25m to third wife, the Swiss-born Orianne Cevey in 2008. It's a British record and a sum that exceeds even that paid out by Paul McCartney to Heather Mills. But there has been a happy outcome. Collins and Cevey have patched up their differences and are back together again.

"I have been very lucky to have had the life and the career I've had and to be a 66-year-old geezer who can get up on stage this summer and people will actually come to see play. If somebody had said to me 30 years ago that they'll still want to see you play when you're a pensioner, I'd have been very happy indeed."

Phil Collins plays Dublin's Aviva Stadium on June 25 with support from Blondie and Mike and the Mechanics

© Independent, by John Meagher


Phil Collins drum Solo @ Bercy HD Tim Bedford

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