NOT DEAD YET: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2016) by PHIL COLLINS (2016, Century, 448pp) ∗∗∗∗∗
Phil Collins tells his life story as he would put it, “warts and all”. It is a fascintating, touching, funny and sad read showing how his dedication to his career resulted in domestic disharmony and ultimately psychological issues, alcoholism and failing health. A man who could do no wrong in the 1980s became pilloried in the 1990s, following what he terms as “Faxgate” – for which he puts the record straight here, and ultimately retreated into a form of semi-seclusion following his so-called “retirement”.
Collins has always been honest and forthright in his interviews and he is brutally honest here about his descent into depression and alcoholism over an 8-year period from 2005-2013. He is frank about how this affected those around him and he is big enough to lay the blame with no-one else but himself. He is riddled with guilt over how he put his career before his family and this is a constant theme throughout the book. It is sometimes hard to read as Collins lays bare his soul and his increased self-loathing, which obviously fuelled his near self-destruction. Fortunately he had people around him who cared enough, but it was a long hard and ugly road that has left many scars on himself and those close to him.
But the book is also balanced and is often very witty and funny. Collins tells of his adolescent years as a child actor and his early musical influences visiting clubs like the Marquee to watch his favourite bands; a strange tale of how, as a 19-year old star-struck percussionist, he was left off George Harrison’s first post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass; his audition and early touring years with Genesis then his ascension to group singer following Peter Gabriel’s departure in 1975. He describes 1987s four-night stint at Wembley Stadium (touring Invisible Touch) as the point where Genesis hit their peak and demonstrates great affection for all his former band mates.
His divorce from his first wife, Andy, set the tone for his song-writing inspiration and led to solo success and his elevation to the pop stratoshpere. He becomes in demand from the musical good and the great (John Martyn, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Bob Geldof, et al) and flattered he finds it hard to refuse his friends. The result is a constant workload throughout the eighties that bred contempt from non-fans and music journalists. When his second marriage broke down in the early nineties – this time through his own infidelity – the press had a field day and this was the catalyst for Collins’ gradual withdrawal from the limelight.
Fans of Collins will likely be shocked as to how self-destructive he became in the 8-year period from 2005-2013, when he was lout of the public limelight for long periods, excepting a brief Genesis reunion, work on a Broadway production of Tarzan and his Motown covers album Going Back. It’s incredible none of his issues became public at the time – although the press had probably moved on to other targets. Non-fans may find Collins’ humility refreshing and be prepared to re-assess their views of a likeable man who undoubtedly likes to be liked and is hurt by “unwarranted” criticism. But, he is ultimately harder on himself than any of his critics.
That Collins has retained his sense of humour is encouraging and this book will undoubtedly have acted as a release for him. It is a sobering parable of how a single-minded dedication to your career will ultimately lead to unhappiness and loneliness. But there is always the hope of redemption if you are willing to see past the psychological wall and admit your failings. Collins is loved by all his children and is on good terms with two of his three ex-wives. An unwritten postscript to the book is that Collins is now reunited with Orianne, his third wife, and living a family life again,. He has also come out of retirement to tour again – on his own terms – with his son, Nic, on drums.
When I finished the book there was a sense of a story incomplete. Maybe there will be a happy ending for Collins after all – his music is being re-appraised and many modern artists have come out to say he was an influence. His fans have not deserted him and the tour sold out instantly. So, there may be a few more twists to the tale. Collins says at the outset the book is his story as he remembers it and no-one can deny it is a compelling and cautionary tale.