Phil Collins - Both sides of the story: my loves and battle with booze
After 100 million albums, three divorces, five children and a stint in intensive care, Phil Collins is making a surprise comeback
Published 24/10/2016 | 02:30
Phil Collins announced that he was coming out of retirement only about 10 minutes or so ago, and already he's embroiled in a disagreement with the tabloids.
Or more accurately, it's a disagreement with one of his ex-wives, via the tabloids. Collins has three ex-wives, the first of whom, Andrea, is the mother of his two eldest children, Joely (44) and Simon (40).
In his new autobiography, Not Dead Yet, Collins describes how their marriage collapsed after she had an affair with their home decorator. But Andrea remembers it differently. According to a splashy feature in The Sun which is published the day Collins is meeting the press, she has always maintained it was Phil who was unfaithful first. He read the story on the way in, and his irritation is palpable. "I think I've been very elegant, if you like, about the relationships," he says, referring to his account of his marriages. "I've not been spiteful, I've owned up." If he had cheated, he says, "I would have addressed it."
Andrea is the only one of his wives with whom he is no longer on speaking terms. "She's got a little bitter in the last 10 years. And she's convinced that I'm not telling the truth. People have different perceptions of what happened, and their reasons for what happened. I mean she's one of my oldest friends, and it would be nice to have a relationship with her, but I feel there are things that have gone on and been said that have made that a little difficult," he says.
Collins is well used to the slings and arrows of life in the public eye. Now 65, he spent close to four decades as one of the most visible figures in pop. And to be fair, Not Dead Yet does seem like a sincere attempt on his part to accept his share of the blame where things went wrong in his personal life. Quite a lot of the book is taken up with confessing. "I am disappointed I've been married three times," he writes. I'm even more disappointed that I've been divorced three times... while three divorces might seem to suggest a casual attitude towards the whole idea of marriage, this couldn't be further from the truth. I'm a romantic who believes, hopes, that the union of marriage is something to cherish and last. Yet certainly that trio of divorces demonstrates a failure to coexist happily and to understand my partners. It suggests a failure to become and stay, a family. It shows failure, full stop," he writes in one particularly self-flagellating passage. You'd never catch other stars like Keith Richards or Rod Stewart engaging in such a hand-wringing show of contrition. Why the need to atone?
"I just felt that it was time to be properly accountable," he explains. He freely admits that the collapse of his second marriage, to Jill Tavelman, with whom he shares a daughter, the actress Lily Collins (27) was all his fault. That time, he was the one who strayed. "It's kind of common knowledge that I fucked my second marriage up," he says.
In any case, he didn't write the autobiography to "get even." Although there are clearly a few points he'd like to address while he has our attention. He didn't, for the record, announce to second wife Jill that he wanted a divorce by way of a furious fax - the infamous "fax-gate" incident which made the headlines in the 1990s. And he didn't move to Switzerland to avoid paying tax in the UK, as was widely reported. He'd fallen in love (again) and the-soon-to-be Mrs Collins III just happened to be Swiss. But he knows only too well that there are several sides to every story. "This is my life the way I see it, the way I remember it... We all remember things differently. This is the way I remember it... It came down to my recollections. And I've got a good memory. Rod Stewart doesn't have such a good memory, for example. Apparently."
He may not have cheated, but the process of writing the book did make him realise he was far from blameless for the breakup of his first marriage. "Up until I did the book, I really didn't quite understand the problem. And then I saw how much I worked... And, of course, when kids are young they can travel with you and your wife can travel with you. But as soon as one of them hits school age then they have to stay at home. And I understand. I understand," he says. "But then, that was my job... I was the breadwinner. I found that I spent time saying, 'just hang on, because if we do this, next year is going to be a lot easier'. But a person has got to live. A year is a long time."
Andrea must have felt a bit abandoned? "Yes, she probably did," he admits. "And I think at that point, I was on the road. The band is the mistress, and (she thinks) you're having fun." But in fact he wasn't having fun. "In fact I was just coming back, going to bed, getting up, going to work. But I just wasn't doing it at home."
As for the third divorce, that one may soon be rescinded. Collins recently reconciled with Orianne, wife number three and mother to his two youngest sons, Nicholas (15) and Matthew (11). These days they are all living together in a lavish mansion in Miami. So his personal life hasn't been quite the unremitting saga of broken homes it might initially seem.
It was near-impossible to stay on top of family life when he was touring, he says. He spent the best part of four decades performing. First with Genesis, the iconic prog-rock band with whom he won his break, and then later as a solo act. He had auditioned to join Genesis as a drummer while in his late teens, before eventually being promoted to lead singer when Peter Gabriel left the band.
He was as big on his own, though. He won seven Grammys and an Oscar and sold more than 100 million albums. But the backlash, when it came, was dramatic. By the noughties, he was widely derided as the least-cool man in pop.
The son of a banker and a toy shop manager, Collins grew up on the outskirts of London and picked up his first drumsticks while still a toddler. He went to stage school as a child, and once played The Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver. But by the time he was into his teens, music, and specifically drumming, had become his singular obsession.
Collins applied himself to the business of being a pop star with a dedication and conscientiousness which seems positively swotty. "I never fucked about on the road," he says. "Genesis weren't that kind of band. We all travelled with wives and girlfriends..." He doesn't really seem to possess the lothario gene. There's a passage in the book when he describes his inability to close the deal on a threesome, while in the early stages of his relationship with Jill. "I still don't quite know how this happens, but later that night I'm in bed with Jill and her girlfriend," he writes. "That hasn't happened before, or since. I should stress that there is no hanky-panky. My abiding feeling is: "What am I supposed to do with two?"
Even when he did eventually have an affair some years later, he insists that there were extenuating circumstances - his mistress was an old flame from his teenage years, for whom he'd always harboured feelings. He seems to consider infidelity to be a serious transgression. As an adolescent he was appalled when he discovered that his father had been unfaithful to his mother.
"I'm not sure how much of what happened in my childhood affected what happened," he says of his own moment of weakness of the flesh. "I'm a romantic and I just thought "Wow, I never thought this would happen again. And now it looks like it might happen again." Even now, talking to you, I think I sound like a complete bastard... It was not something that I am proud of. I can justify it in some respects, but I'm not proud of it."
The second time he was unfaithful, not long later, was with Orianne - a translator half his age. He ended up marrying her.
He's never been very rock-and-roll, even at the height of great wealth and fame. Back then, he barely even drank. "I'm too conscientious," he says. "I had a gig to do at the end of the day. I didn't drink before a show. After a show I'd have a few drinks, but then I had to go to sleep because the next day I had another show. And alcohol dries the voice out. But I also had responsibilities, with children at home."
In fact, it wasn't until he'd decided to give up music and try to give his family life his full attention that he really went off the rails. But this turn of events didn't surprise him. Having been utterly driven since he was a teenager he then found himself retired and rudderless. He moved to Geneva, to be close to Orianne and his two small sons. But they were, he says "10 minutes down the road, not living with me". His sense of isolation only grew then, when Orianne re-married and moved with the boys to Miami. "Then they were 10 hours away," Collins says, "and I had all this time... gradually it became a problem."
Without anything else to do he started drinking "hard stuff" early in the day. Having never been a serious drinker, he now applied himself to boozing with the same vigour and dedication that he used to apply to his music career. He is an all-or-nothing sort of a fella. Drinking, he says in his memoir, "for the next few years became my gig, a low-flying alcoholiday interspersed with only the occasional professional distraction."
The "alcoholiday" eventually landed him in intensive care. He contracted acute pancreatitis and nearly died. "My pancreas is on the verge of shutting down and I am, it seems, close to dying," he writes of the episode.
Even near-death didn't prove quite enough of a wake-up-call to get him on the wagon though, and once out of hospital he promptly started drinking again. Eventually, after further unpleasantness in front of his kids, he agreed to go to rehab and was bundled off to Clouds House in Wiltshire, where Robbie Williams and Eric Clapton also went. There he found himself undergoing group therapy with a journalist from The Sun. But he checked out after a week. The whole sorry saga eventually came to a head when he decided to take the boys on holiday to the Caribbean to make amends, and spent the whole time completely pissed.
In the end, he opted for a "chemical drying out". He was prescribed the drug Antabuse, which causes horrible side-effects when users consume alcohol, "immediate brutal headache and nausea".
The drug stopped him drinking, but it was a change in both his personal and professional lives that saved him. First, he and Orianne got back together, after she'd extracted herself from her second marriage. "Way back we realised we missed being together. I retired to be with my sons, and all my kids. To be available instead of away on tour somewhere. I was quite happy to be retired to be a full-time dad... She missed me, I missed her and I did miss my kids. And I did still want to be a dad to my children. She was unhappily married, otherwise this wouldn't have happened. We stayed very civilly in touch. We'd have lunch every time I went to Miami to talk about the kids and to talk about what was happening in our lives. And the more we talked, the more it seemed that she was a little unhappy.
"Things are good now. The boys are now like dogs with two tails. They love it, I'm there when they come home from school. That's what I missed, because I never had it."
The children have turned out remarkably well so far, considering all the upheaval he owns up to causing them.
"We've always been very open. Especially with the three older ones. Joely and I, we laugh quite a lot about this crazy, fractured family of ours. I've dealt them this bad set of cards which they've all come up with fantastically..." They are happy now, he says of his big, blended family. And his nearest and dearest seem, for the most part, to have forgiven him.
"Jill and I have a great relationship," he says. And his children are understanding. "I think as my kids get older they realise that mums and dads don't know everything."
Not Dead Yet is published by Century. Tour details: philcollins.com
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