VARIATIONS: There are many variations in the details of this seemingly straightforward legend:
The song is usually said to be a first-person account, but it is sometimes reported that Collins based the song on an incident he heard about (but did not witness).
The time lapse between Collins' witnessing the incident and his writing the song varies: he wrote the song right away, he waited several years, or he wrote the song many years later (because he was a child when the incident took place).
The nature of the tragic incident also varies: it is most often a man standing idly by while someone else drowns (or nearly drowns), but other forms mention a deliberate drowning (i.e., murder), a rape (of Collins' wife), and Collins' catching his wife in an adulterous act.
The victim takes on one of several identities: Collins' brother, Collins' wife (but only when the incident involves a rape), a close friend of Collins', a stranger, a rapist (whom Collins recognizes as his wife's attacker and refuses to help), and Phil Collins himself (who supposedly nearly drowned when a boat he was sailing in capsized).
Collins himself does not aid the drowning victim himself because he is either too drunk (or stoned), too far away, or too busy soliciting help.
In versions where Collins learns the identity of the killer/rapist (sometimes by hiring a private detective), he invites the man to an upcoming concert (sometimes specifically arranged to take place in the man's home town) or sends him tickets anonymously.
At the subsequent concert, Collins premieres "In the Air Tonight," which he sings while a spotlight shines on the invited guest (or while he stares at the man, without the spotlight). In some variations Collins never learns the man's identity and sings the song at every concert as an anonymous accusation.
The results of Collins' musical revelation vary: the invited stranger is humiliated (sometimes leading to a divorce or job loss), he commits suicide, or he is arrested by waiting policemen.
Origins: In the Air Tonight (as well as most of Collins' 1981 Face Value album) deals with his bitterness and frustration over the end of his marriage to his first wife, Andrea. As Collins has repeatedly explained, the lyrics are not based on any specific real-life event.
Phil Collins explains:
'People ask me, 'Aren't you embarrassed? You're putting
your private life out for all to see.' It's like I
oughtn't to let people see that I was hurt, that I cry,
that I do 'unmanly' things. But I'm not embarrassed by
it.' Collins, 41, wed the former Jill Tavelman in 1984
and no doubt hopes this marriage doesn't end with another
sad song--no matter how many records it sells."
This rumor -- nothing more than another case of song lyrics being interpreted too literally -- originated not long after the release of the song 1981 and has been in continuous circulation ever since.