“Not Dead Yet” - the autobiography of Phil Collins. Reviewed by David Yardley.
I’m a Phil Collins fan of thirty three years since I was a ten year old who heard Genesis’ 1983 song Mama from their self-titled album and I was captivated by the evil demonic cackle in the song, the hypnotic drum pattern and the searing, pleading vocal from Phil’s then 32 year old pipes. Now I’ve gotten Ode To Mama out of the way I can provide a synopsis of Phil’s excellent and highly anticipated autobiography: Not Dead Yet.
For the first time, I have read a book while listening to the audio book being narrated at the same time. This has been an enjoyable experience a Phil himself narrated the book from cover to cover complete with accents, upper inflections and comedic musings through his life story.
This has meant two things to me as a reader: 1. The degree to which I was inside his story with the mind pictures I create to identify the things I read was significantly a enhanced, and: 2 the speed at which I made my way through the book was considerably slower than I normally would read a book of this size. Phil’s narration of the text being a lot slower than I read. However, I wanted to experience Phil’s book in this way, so sorry for the delay in the review Alan, you can blame Phil for that!
What becomes apparent in the first few chapters is just how determined and talented a kid Phil Collins was - all self taught from thousands of hours’ practising along to his drumming heroes. He couldn’t read music yet , what musicianship and an ear for a tune Phil had. With a hugely supportive mum in June, it mustn’t have been a surprise to anyone to see Phil achieve an awful lot in music, theatre and film by the time he was twenty.
Phil is candid, honest, humorous and humble to a fault. Sure, there’s rock star confidence, but he is quite possibly the most grounded musician you could ever hope to find. Reading through the early years of Genesis, his calming joker in the pack, class clown persona, helped lower the band’s temperature down from boiling on a number of occasions, only some of which he mentions in th ebook.
What a fascinating life Phil has had. The revealing insights of Phil’s formative childhood years are like a window into a simpler time of post war stiff upper lip Britain which Phil experienced first hand with the paradox of the warmth and encouragement of his dear mother and the chilly effusiveness of his father. How this affects Phil later in life and the choices he makes becomes clear, he is a sensitive soul, wears his heart on his sleeve and yet remains totally absorbed and committed to his work, and perhaps could have put the brakes on a bit more than he did - however he would e defend his workaholic perception by saying that he was asked to do interesting things.
The really interesting part of the book for me was the post Peter period in Genesis where his personal life was severely compromised by the ambitions of the band - a quote from Page 155 Chapter 8 (Family Man Front Man) of the book sums things up pretty we..; “My becoming the singer in Genesis has supercharged my working life in ways I could never have imagined. But it looks like it is also accelerating the demise of my personal life…”
The ‘genesis’ (pun intended of Phil’s solo career is fascinating. That this came out of Phil finding an outlet for his heartache and heartbreak and the need to express his feelings about the events which were impacting upon him, and how he had the opening to throw some songs and sounds together which became Face Value, is a testament to the musicality of the guy.
No one achieved more in music in the 1980’s than Phil Collin. He was everywhere and he apologises profusely throughout the book for this. He’s embarrassed and cringes at how active and busy he was, that in the decade of the 1980’s no one had more hit singles or sold more albums than he did. To me these are great and grand achievements of determination, bloody mindedness and an insatiable working ethic. Hopefully, in the passing of time, and in the talents of all of his gifted children, Phil can allow himself some quiet reflection and be proud of all he has achieved.
His worklaod in the 1980’s was massive, let’s give credit and praise to him for he sheer volume of the things he did, from his solo work to Genesis, to acting, duets, to producing and playing on Eric Clapton’s albums. Then there was the global event of 1985 - Live Aid which was equal parts pain and pleasure for Phil.
By the early 1990’s he was getting tired of being this Phil Collins character, he global music superstar. You can tell. The cheeky cheerful larrikin has gone, and being stretched so thinly between the insatiable Genesis and Phil Collins album and touring machines clearly wore thin. The affair with Lavinia and then the pursuit of Orianne is as honest and confronting as you can imagine. The schoolboy giddiness with which Phil chased Orianne and caused the ending of his marriage with Jill in the process, is something that I am sure Phil has regrets about.
For me, Phil’s desire to end his time in Genesis is where I was lost as a big fan of his solo work and I found it sad that Phil didn’t call on earlier creative and artistic freedom to produce a more adventurous sound to his music. Dance Into The Light is the big creative and musical disappointment for me. That being said, some of the background to his departure from Genesis is easy to understand and appreciate. That he stayed in Genesis for as long as he did is a testament to what the band gave him - the ability to cover wider musical territory be it as past of a song writing, collective and share the load, as Tony Smith has said.
The ease with which Phil was able to step back into being a member of Genesis in 2006-07 says to me that more could have been possible. However, Phil made it very clear that this was the extent of his commitment and absolutely no more. And from this came physical damage. Great for the soul but not so good for Phil’s well being which is where the focus of the book then turns to.
The final couple of chapters of Phil’s book are heartbreaking stuff. Phil is very open and honest to a fault about what he can recall of this eighteen month binge he put himself, his kids and those who were close enough to him through, and how close Phil was to permanent physical shutdown. It’s a hard revealing read. At the time when Phil freed up his life to give all of himself to being a good dad to his five kids, his two youngest were moved away from him, and after having retired he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. It’s a frightening insight into how we all could all go off the rails, if events conspire against you.
I think Phil lost a lot of himself during those dark days, a lot of what made him happy. I had an inkling around this time that he was depressed by some of the things he wrote around this time of ’writing himself out of the script’ and words about suicide which I happened to read online. Phil mentions the noise from the world wide web growing, with rumours of a five piece Genesis coming to fruition, however, this was clearly the last thing on Phil’s mind.
By book’s end to see Phil come through the very dark period is about as good a conclusion as we could hope for, and the longing for stability and normal family life is now all he needs and all we as fans should wish for. Indeed, the love for Phil that he discovered still remained out among the global fan base and general public, that many missed him, in a year with the “Bowie Effect” of many musicians his age leaving us, he has seen a renaissance of love for Philip David Charles Collins. Combined with that and the re-release of his studio albums and a singles compilation and the announcement in early November of the Not Dead Yet series of shows among a plethora of public appearance from opening a US tennis open to countless TV appearances, meant that Phil was back, albeit older, wearier, slower and perhaps still working to find the fire that performing live will need in 2017.
In conclusion, what a spectacular book. I loved it from cover to cover. I think I took so long to read it and hear it narrated to me because I didn’t want it to end. It was bit like seeing Genesis on their 2007 tour because as Phil once said during Home By The Sea, ’anticipation is half the fun’. And it is. Thank you for the gift of your incredible musical career, and the inspiration you continue to be, Phil.
And thank you David, for this excellent and thoughtful review.