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Genesis of a drummer: Michele Magwood interviews Phil Collins about his memoir Not Dead Yet

Phil Collins’s excesses were mild by rock star standards, but he still feels plenty of guilt, writes Michele Magwood

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet: The Autobiography
Phil Collins (Century)

“Music made me, but it also unmade me,” writes Phil Collins towards the end of this absorbing autobiography. “I carry guilt over each of my kids, I carry guilt for everything, frankly.”

On the shelf of rock memoirs it’s comparatively mild: there’s none of the anguish and glamour of Eric Clapton or the visceral swagger of Keith Richards. There’s no heroin or groupies or smashed hotel rooms. Only late in the book – and late in his life – does he tip into alcoholism, bored by retirement and depressed by his patchwork family, shuttling between three ex-wives and five children all over the world, trying to be a presence in their lives.

There are blackouts and falls, pancreatitis and smashed teeth, stints in hospitals and rehabs and eventually – and only recently – sobriety.

Most of the book, though, is an entertaining chronicle of the making of a maestro, a musician whose songs have formed the soundtrack to millions of lives. He is one of only three recording artists to have sold more than 100 million albums both as solo artists and as part of a band (the others are Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson). He’s won an Oscar (for the song “You’ll Be In My Heart”, from Tarzan) and a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order medal from Buckingham Palace for his admirable charity work. (He donates all royalties in South Africa to the Topsy Foundation.) He counts rock gods and royalty as his friends.

Collins sounds tired on the phone from London, vague and slightly rambling. Recent photographs of him show him to be frail. His back is, by his account, “completely shot” after 50 years of drumming, his hands have seized up and he’s deaf in one ear.

We talk about the process of songwriting, whether it starts with a melody or a line. “Basically it starts with improvisation on a piano,” he says. “If it’s Disney you have some kind of guideline, but otherwise you can do what you want. I just improvise and play around with it and record everything until it starts to become an idea. It’s fairly haphazard.”

The early chapters cover his love affair with the drums. He was given his first toy set when he was barely three, moving on at age five to a homemade set that consisted of biscuit tins and a triangle. He’d set it up in the corner of the lounge and play along to all the TV shows. “I’ll play to anything, with anyone,” he remembers. “I’m a versatile jobbing drummer.”

It was a comfortable, lower-middle class upbringing in the dull suburb of Hounslow in London. He had a difficult, distant father and a doting mother who ran a children’s theatrical agency. At the age of 13, young Philip was cast as The Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver!, attending school by day and performing at night. It ingrained in him a steely work ethic that has remained with him all his life.

“I can count on one hand the number of shows I cancelled,” he writes. “I will do whatever I can to ensure the show goes on – even if that means dodgy doctors, dubious injections, catastrophic deafness and sustaining injuries that will require major, invasive, flesh-ripping, bone-bolting surgery.”

He would have carried on acting were his head not turned by the emerging – and golden – music scene of the ’60s. He hung out in the clubs watching Cream, The Who and Led Zeppelin, often paying his way by sweeping the club floors. He played in a series of dead-end bands himself until answering an ad in Melody Maker for a drummer for a new band. It was the birth of Genesis, and Phil Collins was launched.

Ask him what he is proudest of in his life, aside from his children, and he doesn’t mention his charity work, the platinum records, the deafening applause of heaving mega stadiums. Instead, he remembers playing drums in a temporary band with his friend Eric Clapton. “We called it The Heaven Band because we all just loved every night, going on stage and playing those songs.”

Ultimately, he says, “I’m a musician. I got a chance to play with a few great people and that’s all I wanted to do. To play. Whether I was a pop star or not was irrelevant.”

He’s not dead yet, and he’s not going quietly yet, either. He’s announced a comeback tour of Europe next year. It won’t be him behind the drums, though. That honour will go to his 16-year-old son, Nic, who’s shaping up to be a mean drummer. Bred in the bone, it seems.
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
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