I was a fan of Phil Collins as a teenager in a way that was so easy and seamless for any teen in the 90s, that I didn’t really notice it, if that makes any sense. For me he was one of many successful artists who broke through with solo albums at the time. I was floored by his emotional hit singles, bounced off the walls to his up tempo dance hits, but I never really sought to know more about him as a person. In the 90s, I didn’t dig below the surface of the musical artists I loved. I just loved and lived in their song without ever really knowing what they were about or what was behind them. Phil Collins was also one of those white artists who was heavily inspired by Motown and in so doing, worked his way into the hearts of Black audiences along with Brits like Rick Astley and George Michael.
Lately, all of our favorite artists have become more mortal in the public eye than ever and in the age of celebrity, social media makes the wall of privacy grow thinner and thinner, controversy and scandal popping up more frequently as we discover that our idols are as vulnerable as any human being.
I’m always careful about wanting to know too much about my sentimental faves because I’m afraid the truth will ruin the romance, the idealism of what makes them popular and beloved to millions. Music is such a deeply personal art. It’s hard sometimes to discover all the flaws, imperfection, ugliness and abuse that often lay just behind it. But as I get older, I realize to love anything and anyone is to love it warts and all.
And there are always warts. Just as there is always beauty.
I think I must have almost missed my train stop three different times (once I did) while reading Phil Collins autobiography during my work commute. I finished it this morning on the way to work and got emotional, the way I do when I finish up any book I like.
To summarize, Phil Collins is a cocky, ambitious, musical genius workaholic, someone who experienced a success that was just as big and far reaching as it seemed in the 90s. His music was fucking everywhere and even if you were a fan it did reach levels of annoyance. His personal life was a hot mess and later on his health was just as much of a wreck after years of touring for hundreds and hundreds of days at a time. If nothing else came across in this book (and a lot came across) it’s how we never truly understand how physically demanding it is for successfully performers to have their shit together night after night. Pain killers, cortisone shots and various other drugs become inevitable to keep their bodies, their vocal chords going and soon it all takes a toll. I understand now why Michael Jackson and Prince finally succumbed to these occupational hazards. They want nothing more than to please their audiences to the degree that they push their bodies beyond a point that is healthy for anyone. They sacrifice their personal relationships, their families for their music and for their fans.
Funnily (well not that funny) Collins’ autobiography is titled “Not Dead Yet” which I have to say really encompasses so much that I love about him, although he truly and repeatedly made some shitty mistakes over the span of his career. He is the guy that laughs at his pain and pushes on and gets you to laugh at it is well, which is not to day he isn’t also crying. But it’s true, he’s not dead yet, though just barely not dead. It took him until his late 50s to finally break down and nearly kill himself and then after his body truly began to fall apart he came to a full stop and was finally able to slow down and be a father to his kids by three different women.
I thought maybe after reading his autobiography, I might not feel the same about his music. But I do. I think all the pain, the love, the complicated emotions he failed to communicate to the right people at the right time are there in that perfect way that only exists in melody, in soul, in rhythm and in feeling. That’s one of the things I love most about good music. It alchemizes pain and joy into something we all can share and process and connect through. It’s actually not perfection at all. It is a uniquely channeled and inspired vulnerability which is what makes it so heart wrenching and timeless.