Time and public perception have been neither kind nor entirely fair to Phil Collins. A hugely impressive song-writer, musician, performer and (to a lesser extent) actor, his prolific success in the mid ’90s made him an almost perpetual presence on TV, radio and even in the cinema. The phenomenal rise of Genesis, a remarkable career as a solo artist, seemingly endless collaborations with iconic musicians, performing at Live Aid in both the U.K. and the U.S.A., a plethora of film and music awards and an association with Disney all combined to keep him firmly fixed in the spotlight.
Collins is quick to acknowledge that these are the years “when I’m everywhere, all the time, monopolising the airwaves, MTV and the charts, even the bloody Oscars. Try as you might, when you turn on a TV or radio, you can’t escape me.” (p.222). As he soon discovers, such perpetual familiarity breeds an easy contempt, leading to the brutal verdict by Entertainment Weekly in 1996 that “even Phil Collins must know that we all grew weary of Phil Collins”.
As it happens Collins was, and still is, sensitively aware of just how acute public perception of him had become by the mid 1990s. “If you take a charitable view, I simply write a lot of hits. If you take a pragmatic view, me and my music just won’t give it a rest.” (p.222). On the one hand you get the impression he feels bemused and rather wounded by the reaction; on the other hand, with an almost quizzical shrug of the shoulder, he doesn’t seem to see it as ultimately being his problem.
That strange situation is one of the key illuminating insights of the book. The simple truth is that here was a man having the time of his life, relishing the unbelievable opportunity of working with people who were his film and music idols, enjoying what it was he did and still does best: being a musician and making music, either in tandem with others or on his own. “I can’t believe I managed to do all these things, that they were all successful, that I was busy across such a range of projects. If it’s tallied now, in simple numerical terms, I was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. But at the time, on the inside, it didn’t feel like that.” (p.224).
It’s a revelation which goes a long way in explaining the troubling complexities of his life as well as the deeply touching poignancy and heart-breaking empathy which you naturally begin to feel for him. He is living the fullness of life at break-neck speed; we, along with the other people in his life, are seeing the slow motion car crash which is gradually unfolding as the years go by. The one thing he is good at, the driving force which somehow makes everything he touches turn to gold, is the exact same thing that tears him apart and dismantles all that has meaning and value in his life. “Music made me, but it also unmade me” (p.406).
He is the exemplar of all that can go wrong in the life of a workaholic, a tragic testament to the chronic failure of getting the work-life balance wrong, primarily because you are so consumed with enjoyment of what you do it doesn’t feel like work and there is no ‘balance’ which needs to be achieved. One of the recurring themes throughout the book is the dreadful, almost crippling sense of guilt with which he lives at being the absent father in the lives of his children as they were growing up, along with a hapless ability both to fall hopelessly in love as well as a singular inability to be able to sustain lasting relationships leading to the wreckage of three failed marriages.
Collins can write, and he writes extremely well, but what you are not prepared for as you read this remarkably sensitive and critically intelligent book are the excruciating psychological and emotional depths he will dredge in the telling of his story, the painful, shameful humiliations he reveals again and again at the way he sabotages all that is good in his life. On releasing Both Sides in 1993, the familiar fault lines are piercingly present: “my life is all over the place. I’ve made what I consider to be my best album, but at what price? … These are songs of separation, of a love lost” (p.306). The turmoil he feels is the decisive factor which leads to his decision to leave Genesis.
He is unblinking in describing the unfathomable pain and shame he feels at what his life has become: “‘Phil Collins’ comes with aggravations, expectations, obligations and suppositions dragging round his ankles and hanging off his neck. He has splintered families and embittered partners and distant children. I don’t like that guy. I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve had enough of me” (p.344).
And just as he reaches the pinnacle of his success he contrives to find himself so lonely, so riddled with guilt and remorse, that literally drowning himself at the bottom of a bottle brings him within a whisker of death: “the truth is: I’m crying on the inside. The cliché is true: I’m literally drowning my sorrows. Drink doesn’t make me feel better. But it does make me sleep. And if I’m sleeping, I’m not thinking. … I’m flooding the void in my brain and the hole in my life with booze” (p.379).
The book concludes with a noticeably shorter chapter which tells of a reunion with his third wife, a more settled family life, his enormous pride in the achievements of his children and the resurfacing of his drive once more to do the thing he loves most – make music – and a return to a more tightly controlled and limited environment of concerts and recording.
But you do leave with a profound sense that in the telling of his story he has come to fully appreciate the awful price he has paid along the way just for being good at what he does. There is a touching moment of wistful reflection when he confesses: “I always return to the warm embrace of the drum stool. She’s my first love, the seat of all my power” (p.336). As he heads back out on the road again, this time with his son sat on the drum stool, seeing him in the public gaze once more will be tinged with the rather sad reflection that even Phil Collins grew painfully and self-destructively weary of Phil Collins.
On so many levels it is a thoroughly thoughtful, engaging piece of writing, a fascinating and enjoyable read with some genuine laugh out loud moments which occasionally blunt the force of the personal and emotional intensity flowing from the pages. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Century (Penguin)
ISBN: 978-1-780-89512-3 Hard back, 464 Pages
Date of Release: October 2016