Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet The Memoir (Penguin Random House, LLC, 2016)
Few people in the music industry have reached the same pinnacle of success that Phil Collins has achieved. Even fewer have sold over 100 million albums as both a member of a band and as a solo artist. This is a man who “fought in the prog wars,” hobnobbed with Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela, and who wrote and sang hit tunes for a best-selling Disney movie, for which he happened to also win an Oscar. Seemingly, the man has everything, yet this is merely the public “Phil Collins.” Philip Collins is a much more complicated man, and life isn’t as easy as he made it look over his long career.
If I were to describe this excellent memoir in one word, it would be “honest.” Two words – “brutally honest.” Collins holds little back. He invites us to come in and look at his struggles, hopefully understanding more about him and his music as we do. What stands out the most, however, is how down-to-earth he is. Unlike Genesis bandmates Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford, Collins was not raised in a ritzy upper middle-class British school. Instead, he was raised in a sturdy working-class family at the “end of the line” outside of London. Indeed, as a child he lived just far enough away from anything exciting as to make it a big effort to get anywhere. This didn’t stop young master Collins, however. Many of his formative teenage years were spent milling about in music clubs in Soho, where he saw bands such as Cream, the Yardbirds, The Who, and Yes (who would later offer him a job as drummer). He was even present the first night Led Zeppelin ever played a live show. Did I mention he was in the crowd for the Beatles A Hard Day’s Night? Yeah, he got around.
Drumming from a very early age, Collins always wanted to be a musician, while his Dad wanted him to be an insurance salesman. My, how the music world would have been different had he followed that route. While he initially sought acclaim as a child actor (his first movie was entitled Calamity the Cow – not exactly the perfect role for a young Mod), music was his true passion. His first real band, Flaming Youth received a little attention in The Netherlands, but not enough to make it worth it. Once he saw an ad for the Genesis job, he jumped at the chance to be in a real band with a real record deal. Things would never be the same.
Most of you know the story from then on, so I won’t repeat it. Plus, I have to leave something for the book. What I find most remarkable about this memoir is, despite success with both prog and pop Genesis (which really should have been renamed something else after Hackett left – Exodus perhaps?), Collins always lacked self-confidence. Since he wasn’t an original member, both Collins and Hackett were considered second-tier in the band. Sadly, this ultimately led to Hackett’s departure from the band, because he wanted a larger role as a songwriter. For Collins, it meant that he never believed that what he was doing was good enough. He was a perfectionist about his drums, always listening to live recordings of every show the following day. As a songwriter, he initially considered what would become some of his biggest hits to be mediocre. In short, he didn’t believe in himself.
Despite these musical issues, Collins considers his roles as father and husband to be his biggest failures. Guilt is an overriding theme throughout the book. Having gone through three marriages and three divorces, one can certainly understand why. To be fair, his first wife (and teenage sweetheart) left him, and then tried to take his money once he struck it rich, which occurred AFTER she left him. He foolishly destroyed his second marriage by dancing around the idea of cheating on her with another childhood flame. His third wife, almost twenty years his younger, left him, taking the kids – a familiar theme. Collins faithfully recounts these sad events in his life without any animosity for the players involved, something for which he must be commended. As I stated earlier, brutal honesty.
Sadly, after his retirement following Genesis’ last tour in 2007, Collins lost the ability to drum due to health issues. When his third wife left him shortly thereafter, he found himself with a massive void in his life – one he was hoping to fill with family after he retired from music. With everything gone, he turned to alcohol. He proceeded to almost kill himself (I’m not joking) through alcoholism over the following years. This explains the relative silence from him during that period. The second to last chapter in the book deals with this, and it is a tough, emotional read. Throughout the book, I found myself rooting for Collins to be a better Dad and husband, but it never happens. He hits rock bottom, and it is hard to take. Imagine what it must have been like for him.
Thankfully, the best doctors in the world finally convinced him to get his act together, and he did. He wanted to be a good Dad to his young boys, as well as his older children: Simon (of Sound of Contact), Joely, and Lily. He even managed to reconcile with his third wife, and they are now living happily ever after in Miami with their two boys and her child from her second marriage. His life sure is complicated.
Yeah, I know my audience – you guys want to hear about proggy Phil, not drunk Phil. I must say, he gives equal time to all portions of his life. He doesn’t brush over “the prog wars.” Instead, he looks back upon the period with fondness. He is genuinely proud of the excellent music they wrote back then. Indeed, I consider it some of the best music ever written… ever. Best. Amazing. There’s an angel standing in the sun who agrees with me.
Also perfectly wonderful to hear is that he bears no ill-will for any member of the band. They have all remained friends all these years. For some reason, people get the idea that he pushed Gabriel out of the band so he could be frontman, but nothing could be further from the truth. Collins never wanted to be the center of attention, something he reiterates several times over the course of the book.
If I had one complaint about the book, it is the way he completely avoided talking about why Genesis’ music changed so drastically after Hackett left. After all, it was Rutherford and Banks who wrote such epics as “The Cinema Show.” Why, then, did they go from honoring T. S. Eliot to singing pop crap for the masses? Surely there must be some misunderstanding… sorry. (I hate that song. Now it’s stuck in my head. Damn me and my puns.) In the end, I think they turned pop due to pressure from record labels. Music changed in the late 70s, and all the prog giants, except for maybe Jethro Tull, turned pop. I only wish Collins would have been a bit more forward with that, because I’m not buying the idea that the only reason they changed their sound is because he was going through a divorce and wanted to write emotional songs about that.
Despite this relatively minor shortcoming, Not Dead Yet is an excellent book. Collins is an excellent writer, and the whole book is a page turner. I most enjoyed the first half of the book, which covered his childhood through proggy Genesis. He masterfully litters his dry sense of humor throughout, and I had more than a few good laughs while reading his memoir (Gabriel driving 80 mph in second gear because he was distracted from talking so much was hysterical). His honesty, even when it gets hard to bear, is much appreciated. The expected pictures from throughout his life are excellent, and there are many throughout the book.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, although I’ll add that it isn’t for children – the swearing alone makes it R-rated, although it isn’t overbearing. It actually adds to the impact of what he is trying to get across. After reading this book, I have newfound respect for both Phil and Philip Collins. He isn’t the pop giant (Phil) we typically see him as. Philip is much more complex: drummer, singer, songwriter, lover, father, failure… He discusses it all and pulls no punches. Get ready for a wild emotional rollercoaster, because Not Dead Yet is certainly that.