Not Dead Yet – The Autobiography of Phil Collins
by Robert Mishou
It was 1981 and I was sitting in my grandparent’s living room in Valkenburg a/d Geul, the Netherlands. My grandfather and I were waiting for the weekly Saturday soccer highlight show to start and, to fill air time, the station was, as expected, showing music videos. As I watched the first video, I saw a large black and white face begin to fill the screen. The music was quiet – it had an almost foreboding feel to it. I was about to walk away and get a drink, but something made me stay. I watched the video, wondering the entire time what was going on. I did not like the music much, but I did like the singer’s voice and I was intrigued by the song’s haunting sound. I kept watching and the song built a bit and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a burst of drums blasts from the TV. I was taken aback — and hooked. The song was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, so the Monday, after school, I went to my favorite record store and bought the album Face Value.
This was my first experience with the artist whose career I would follow for the next three decades. I bought every Collins album as soon as each was released – I went back and bought the Genesis albums that he sang on and then bought all future Genesis releases. Don’t believe me? As I look through my music collection now, I see:
Phil Collins albums: Face Value (original and remastered 2015), Hello, I Must Be Going (original and remastered 2015), No Jacket Required (original and remastered 2015), . . . But Seriously (original and remastered 2015), Serious Hits Live, Both Sides (original and remastered 2015), Dance Into the Light, Testify, Love Songs: A Compilation . . .Old and New, Going Back, and The Singles. Yes, both Tarzan and Brother Bear are missing – I just couldn’t.
Genesis albums: A Trick of the Tail, Wind and Wuthering, And Then There WereThree, Duke, Abacab, Genesis, Invisible Touch, We Can’t Dance, Turn It On Again. There are still a few live albums I need to acquire.
You see? I like me some Phil Collins! I do not like all albums equally, in fact, I have been disappointed in a few, but I have never stopped listening to him. When I read, and finally saw, that he was releasing an autobiography, I was excited and a bit nervous. I am a picky reader and I was worried that the writing would not be very good. Also, I did not want my vision of him ruined with “the truth.” Despite my trepidations, I picked up the autobiography, Not Dead Yet, and started reading.
I was not disappointed. The writing is not horrible as he dictated his stories, organized them, and put them in written form – the book sounds like Collins is talking to you. He has a clever sense of humor and tries his best to be honest. This is difficult as he has been married three time which, as a whole he takes responsibility for his role in the ending of all three marriages (although, presently Collins and his third wife are back together, but not married). Collins organizes his stories chronologically starting with his childhood days, his time with Genesis as a drummer and then vocalist, his solo career, and his comeback. The stories are real and full of insights on how some of his great songs were created. This is by no means an expose, but Collins does broach some touchy situations with professionalism and no true axe to grind.
I do want everyone to read Not Dead Yet, so I am not going to give away all of the cool stuff, but I do want to intrigue you all a bit, so what follows are a few interesting tidbits from Collins’ book.
Collins’ interest in show business started with acting. He attended a fine arts performance high school and wanted to be an actor. As a boy, he played the Artful Dodger in Oliver. Clearly, he pursued a career as a drummer and played in several bands before joining Genesis. This acting bug resurfaced when Collins stared in Buster and made appearances in Miami Vice and Hook.
Collins hesitantly replaced Peter Gabriel as the lead vocalist of Genesis. After auditioning many potential vocalists, Tony Banks (keyboards) and Mike Rutherford (guitars) encouraged Collins to try the lead vocals. Everyone liked what they heard and the rest is history. Collins did not think he could be the lead vocalist and play drums for the band in concert. So, when performing live, Chester Thompson played drums while Collins was the front man. Collins maintained Thompson for his live solo shows. During all Genesis and solo shows, there would be segments (mostly instrumentals) in the show where Collins would jump back on the drum kit. Despite all of the many things Collins did during his career, he always came back to drumming as his ultimate love.
“In the Air Tonight” has nothing to do with witnessing a drowning. It is a bitter song about the breakup of his first marriage. “Well, if you told me you were drowning / I would not lend a hand / I’ve seen your face before my friend / But I don’t know if you know who I am” is nothing more than some really hard feelings about the way that first marriage ended. Collins is fully aware now that the constant touring and recording schedule that Genesis maintained was a recipe to end any marriage, but he was totally driven by the work.
The Genesis song “Since I Lost You “ from the We Can’t Dance album was written for his good friend Eric Clapton, whose son died in a tragic accident. Collins played it for him, asking his permission to include it on the album, saying that he would gladly drop it if Clapton did not approve. Clapton loved it and played “Tears in Heaven” for Collins; both men cried with each other that night and remain good friends today. Clapton appears on the Collins albums Face Value and . . . But Seriously.
“Since I Lost You”:
“I Wish it Would Rain Down”:
The title to Collins’ #1 hit “Sussudio” from No Jacket Required means nothing! Both as a solo artist and as a member of Genesis, the writing of the songs came in a similar manner. The musicians would be in a room together and play. The music was almost always written before any lyrics came about. While working on No Jacket Required, Collins was working on the music and, as was typical, needed to improvise lyrics. He used the word “sussudio” as a place holder. The song started to take shape and lyrics were added, but “sussudio” fit so well he decided to leave it.
One last one: Many people have said that there is some contention between Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins after he replaced him as Genesis lead vocalist. Collins insists that this is not true. He feels that he and Gabriel are still good friends as was evident when the original members reunited for a BBC documentary Genesis: Together and Apart.
Documentary (1 ½ hours long):
For ‘80s music fans Not Dead Yet is a must read. It is full of insights to Collins’ creative process as a member of Genesis and as a solo artist. Collins discusses all of his big songs and how they came to be. One more note: Both “Against All Odds” and “Separate Lives” (both #1 hits) could not make the cut for a Collins album and sat on the shelf for some time until given to the soundtracks of Against All Odds and White Knights respectively. The book reads well and is an evenly told autobiography. Yes, there a few things that could use a little more explanation, but Collins does not avoid touchy or embarrassing situations. He is, for example, very honest about his role in the debacle of performing in London and Philadelphia for Live Aid. The book did not talk me out of my Phil Collins fandom, rather, it may have increased it. Collins is performing a Not Dead Yet tour in Europe in 2017. There are rumors that he will bring this tour to the U.S. – one can only hope. Not Dead Yet end optimistically, giving the reader hope that his fantastic musical career continues.