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To Be a Drummer: Read an Excerpt from Phil Collins’s Memoir

Phil Collins, cover detail from Not Dead Yet (UK edition) Phil Collins, cover detail from Not Dead Yet (UK edition)

In his memoir Not Dead Yet, Phil Collins tells the story of his overwhelmingly successful career as the drummer and frontman of Genesis.

Collins treks through his life with us, from the very beginning to now, covering the highs and lows of his career. As one of only three musicians to sell 100 million records both in a group and as a solo artist, Collins is an icon in the music world.

But being a drummer has its own particular challenges and setbacks. Listen to Collins delve into them in detail in the following excerpted chapter from Phil Collins’s memoir, Not Dead Yet, titled "Goodbye to All That."

Listen along to Phil Collins reading the below excerpt in this clip from the audiobook: 

What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.

Did you hear about the drummer who finished high school? Me neither.

What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band? "Hey, guys, how about we try one of my songs?"

It’s not easy being a drummer. I’ve heard all the jokes. I know that it takes five of us to change a lightbulb – one to screw it in, four to talk about how much better Steve Gadd would have done it. I’ve yucked along to the one about the drummer who died, went to heaven, was surprised to hear some phenomenal drumming coming from behind the Pearly Gates, and rushed to St. Peter to ask if that was really Buddy Rich playing. "No, that’s God. He just thinks he’s Buddy Rich." I should have told that one to Tony Bennett.

I became used to the cracks early on. Us drummers have to develop a thick skin, especially on our fingers. We’re the most physical guys on a stage, and we have to keep up. Post- show, the drummer is the one who’s shattered, drenched in sweat in the dressing room, panting. I don’t mind. That’s our gig. Keeping the beat, feeling beat. By the time I’ve completed the very physical A Trip into the Light tour – a busy, in-the-round show – in 1997, and marshaled the troops on the second Big Band tour in 1998, I’ve kept the show on the road for almost thirty years. Although I have long since given over the drumming heavy lifting to either Chester Thompson or Ricky Lawson, both fantastic drummers, I still keep my hand in, making sure that at some point in every show on every tour, I play drums enough to keep my chops up. I always return to the warm embrace of the drum stool. She’s my first love, the seat of all my power.

In three decades out there performing, I have barely ever faltered in brute physical terms. Blisters are generally as bad as it’s got. After any length of time at home, you’d have softened up. A few weeks of bathing the kids, or washing up after dinner, and your hands that did dishes would feel as soft as your face. All of a sudden you’d have to go on tour again and your fingers would need to be gig-ready and hardened.

I remember the first time I went on tour with Eric, in 1986. We’d just started and I was complaining about blood blisters. He told me his ritual: a few weeks ahead of a tour he’d start filing the ends of his fingers. He’d literally scrape off the pads on his fingertips, they’d scab, then he’d scrape them off again. Eventually they’d be nicely calloused and EC would be ready for another run of blistering solos.

Being in pain and getting blisters is just an occupational hazard. The first few years of Genesis were physically arduous, especially when I was pulling double duty. Some singers physically switch off when there’s an instrumental section in a song. Me? I would rush back to the drums and play. Things naturally eased up when the singing started to take over from the drumming. But when I reverted to pure drumming gigs with Eric and Robert Plant, that’s when it was tough: non- stop playing, backing up frontmen who knew a thing or two about working with great drummers like Ginger Baker and John Bonham.

Some people – Stewart Copeland of The Police, for example – wear gloves. I could never do that. I need to feel the stick.

It’s not easy being a drummer. I’ve heard all the jokes.

So fundamentally, there’s no way round it. You just have to develop strength and resilience. On early tours, back in my hotel room, I’d play on pillows in front of the TV, endlessly, into the night, to strengthen my wrists. With the blisters, you have to push through. The blister breaks, then you get a blood blister, then that breaks and you’re working with increasingly butchered flesh.

You have no option but to do it in the raw, in real time, onstage. Even if you’ve rehearsed – seven, eight, nine, ten hours a day – you won’t get there. You won’t find the angst, the nerves or the tension of playing a show. So the fingers won’t get toughened either.

You could use New-Skin, a product like a thick nail varnish that’s daubed on a piece of flayed epidermis desperate for some protection. You paint it on and it stings and it stinks. But once it dries, the nauseous medical pong fades, as does the pain, and you’re armed with another layer of insulation. Then, when that comes off, it rips off another layer of real skin. You start all over again.

Although all of this may sound overdramatic, it’s a reality that drummers live with. You play, and you play on, and on. You might, in desperation, stick on plasters, but the sweat makes them come off during the show, so you hope that you have bits of hard skin developing. If not, the salty sweat will make your cracked, bleeding digits feel like they’re on fire.

Eventually – eventually – you’ve passed the worst. Now you have Tour Fingers.

So while as a drummer you might be mentally enfeebled, you’re physically robust. Even when I became a singer first and foremost, I maintained that mindset, and that fitness. And after A Trip into the Light, with the nightly laps of honor around our huge, round stage, I feel in great shape. There’s none of this personal-trainer malarkey. There’s no gym addiction, as seems to be the way of the preening, peacocking modern pop star.

The voice, however, is a different beast. You can’t put a sticking plaster on iffy vocal cords. So you have to try to transcend via other means.

Mercifully, while I never suffered from nodules on any of the giant Genesis or solo tours in the eighties or nineties, I did have a doctor in every port. I very rarely canceled shows, because I knew when it was time to pull the emergency cord and go for the injection of prednisone, a corticosteroid.

Your vocal cords are very small, like two tiny coins that rub together. If they become swollen, or abused, they won’t meet to enable you to sing a note. Then you’re in trouble. If you keep up the abuse, in their engorged state they eventually become nodules. But a quick steroid injection reduces the swelling and you’re right as rain. In the short term, anyway.

I was forced to seek this recourse on a number of occasions throughout my singing life.

The conversation usually went something like this:
"Doctor, I can’t sing."
"OK. When are you working next?"
"A 40,000-seater stadium."
"Ah . . ."

So you’re given a shot of prednisone, injected into your bum. The steroid will get you through the show, but once you’re on it, you’re on it for ten days. It will also get you a lovely cacophony of side effects: psychotic mood swings, water retention, moon face.

This happened in Fremantle in Australia, on the mammoth Invisible Touch tour of 1986 and 1987. Touring Australia is a huge undertaking – different time zones, major internal flights, upside down and back to front at the bottom of the world.

This is the tour where we bump into Elton John. My old percussionist friend Ray Cooper is a member of his band. We go to see him because we’re playing the same venue soon after. Ray says, "Hey, man, you been working out?" Of course, I haven’t. "You look great, you look great . . ." he adds hurriedly, protesting just a bit too much.

When I get back to the hotel, I check myself in the mirror. "I look OK," I think, at least to me."

However, I’ve picked up an injury on this tour. One night, at the end of "Domino," I jumped in the air and came down on the edge of my foot. The pain was excruciating, but it was just a sprain and I pushed through. Something— adrenaline, cortisone, insurance premiums, the threat of ruinous cancellation fees – helped me keep the tour ticking on.

Some months later, I see pictures of myself from the tour, and I realize what Ray was not saying. I look like David Crosby at the height/depth of his drug woes. No, I look like I’ve eaten David Crosby. Courtesy of the cortisone, I was taking on water like a blue whale sieving plankton. I’ve blimped out and no one had said a word.

Those pictures scared me stiff. I had not heeded the warning: "Do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence." And the machinery doesn’t come much heavier than a Genesis stadium tour.

When I meet Ray a short while after that, at a show at the Royal Albert Hall, he admits that the only "working out" going through his mind in Australia was him trying to work out why his old mate Phil looked so "fucking terrible."

And it wasn’t just that tour. As already recounted, the eyewateringly long and climactic We Can’t Dance tour was almost derailed at the very start when my voice went in Tampa. The audiences on this tour were giant ones, and they knew the words better than me. I couldn’t let them down. But on that occasion, even the needle couldn’t save the show.

By this stage, I’d been dancing around the high notes for a while. This didn’t happen so much on my solo tours since my music was written for me to sing. But portions of the Genesis set were written for Peter’s voice. And for all the uncanny similarities between our voices, some songs were just difficult for my range. But even if Peter had been singing them, they would have been high even for him at this point in both our lives.

You could lower the key in certain songs, but that risked losing the magic. "Mama," for example: take that down too low and it really has no magic at all. It’s all about the key it’s written in, the place on the guitar where you play the chords, the resonance of certain keyboard sounds.

There were certain songs in the Genesis set-list that I’d be dreading coming down the pipe. "Home by the Sea" has a lot of lyrics. I had to make sure I remembered the starts of the lines as a crucial aide-mémoire. Tony Banks wrote that melody, and those words, but he’d never thought about how it would sound; he’d never sung it out loud. So to get through the show I had to gently weave my way round some of the accident black spots.

Tony always noticed. "Having a bit of trouble tonight?" he’d say after a gig, not unkindly. "Noticed you missed a few of my best notes…"

Even "I Can’t Dance," a stupidly simple song, got tough. That opening high burst of the first chorus line – ouch. The reason I wrote that little bit was as a nod to Fine Young Cannibals’ Roland Gift, who has a terrific soul voice. But singing that every night, I’d find myself skipping around the note. Otherwise the game would have been up. Shot myself in the vocal cord with that one.

Then there’s "In the Air Tonight." If I sang that cold, it would sometimes be an effort to reach the emotive peaks that drive the song. Sometimes your body movements, and the shape of your mouth, could help you get there. But if I was drumming as well, the distraction would propel my voice to greater heights. In that regard, one helped the other: the drumming pushing the singing.

Mainly, though, I didn’t allow myself too much time to think of these problems. For three decades I pushed on, and on, and on. What’s worrying is that if I counted now all the times I’ve been pricked in the buttocks in the name of a good vocal performance, I’d have trouble sitting down. I’d have trouble getting back up again, too: as I would one day find out, too much cortisone can make your bones brittle.

Excerpted from NOT DEAD YET: The Memoir by Phil Collins. Copyright © 2016 by Philip Collins Limited. Used with permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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Last modified onTuesday, 19 September 2017 10:40

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