There must be some misunderstanding. Is he in or out?
(“You’ve got to get in to get out . . .”)
Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Genesis was finally—and correctly—inducted into last March (by a very nervous Trey Anastasio). The question is: has he hung up his sticks forever? Has he set foot on his last stage, never to sing into the mic again?
(“Hello, I must be going . . .”)
It’s tough to say, based on the man’s recent remarks. Earlier this month there were conflicting reports: is he retiring from music to focus on his family, or not? Is it temporary or permanent? And most significant: who cares? Well, I do, of which more shortly.
Last year, due to medical concerns, he disclosed that he was unable to play the drums (inviting smart-ass types to inquire how long it had been since he had played the drums anyway, if he ever did). Due to a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, his hands were affected and presumably that explained the setback. Optimistic fans could assume that once he fully recovered, he could resume his musical aspirations. The bigger question was: does he have any? Considering it was the same year his band was enshrined, it was distressing to see him in various interviews expressing more ambivalence than pride regarding a career where he shares exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for selling more than a million records with a band and as a solo artist.
Of course, some of this damage was self-inflicted (number one hit or not, you simply cannot write songs like “Against All Odds” or “Just One Night” and not expect some critical blowback, even as you laugh all the way to the bank). But once Genesis effectively closed up shop, somewhere around the end of last century Phil Collins became a living punch line and a go-to guy as shorthand explanation for all that ailed good music. This unfortunate tag was only cemented further into the public consciousness when his music was memorably satirized in American Psycho.
The ridicule and ill-will seemed to have taken their toll, best illustrated by the sensationalistic—and erroneous—headline indicating that Phil Collins has “apologized for his music career”. For me, the low point was his being (or at least feeling) obliged to suffer the snark and unwarranted condescension from some moron at Spin magazine. In a recent fluff piece entitled “Tough Questions for Phil Collins”, we get an insufferable exhibit of what passes these days for hipster street-cred. Suffice it to say, Collins was/is obviously not in the best of places to suffer a fool that politely, but props to the old pro for being a good, humble sport in the finest British tradition.
Much ado about very little? Perhaps, but it occurs to me that Collins deserves better.
Really, you ask? Really, I say.
And this is coming from someone who has virtually no love for the entirety of the man’s solo career and who got off the tour bus after the ‘83 self-titled release (for me the last good thing Genesis did). Nevertheless, even in the mid-to-late ‘80s when Collins was arguably one of the five best-known and best-loved musicians on the planet and made no music I endorsed, I had to appreciate the dude’s superhuman work ethic.
For anyone who is too young or altogether clueless, it may be surprising to remember how huge Collins was in the mid-‘80s. I don’t just mean commercially viable, I mean culturally relevant—as far as such loaded propositions go. Let’s put it this way: it was a big deal when Collins sat in for Led Zeppelin’s set during Live Aid. A huge deal. You can hear the squeals of delight once the cameras pan in on the diminutive dude behind the drum set mid-way into the song (the 6.33 mark for those playing at home). As an added bonus, you can revisit—or appreciate for the first time—the spectacle of a sweaty and strung out Jimmy Page drooling and slobbering all over himself: watching now it makes me marvel that the cat is not only alive, but—based on his lucid and insightful participation in the documentary It Might Get Loud—well.
And so: I reckon if no one else is going to do it, it’s up to me to defend Phil Collins.
If some of the more soporific songs don’t hold up well (and sort of sucked, even then), at worst they seem innocuous, certainly in hindsight. And speaking of hindsight, these days I find myself likening pop stars to politicians: the more time that goes by, the better they look compared to their contemporaries.
A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, as we know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. Note that thus far we’ve focused on the incarnation of Genesis that featured Phil as vocalist (and his solo work); not enough people understand that back in the day Peter Gabriel was the singer and Collins took care of the drums and percussion (and brilliant backing vocals). In the early-to-mid ‘70s Collins was one of the best drummers on the scene, and it’s all there in the albums if you can handle the truth. For that reason alone, Collins should be spared the sort of character assassination we should reserve strictly for Huey Lewis.
Collins, in short, has nothing to apologize for. The only people who need to feel sorry are the suckers who are not acquainted with everything Collins and his mates did during that great decade of the 1970s.
Here is merely one reminder of why Collins can hold his beautiful bald head high, even if he has decided to hang up the spurs once and for all.
// Notes from the Road
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