When someone asks me if I like Phil Collins, I respond the same way Jack Donaghy responded to Tracy Jordan:
“I have two ears and a heart, don’t I?”
But despite getting some love in that memorable 30 Rock scene, Phil Collins has felt unappreciated over the years. He has not released an album since 2010’s Goin’ Back, a collection of Motown standards, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever record or tour again. In a rather depressing 2010 Rolling Stone interview, Collins revealed that being a punchline for so long has really gotten him down:
Who people think Phil Collins is derives mainly from how absolutely everywhere he was in the 1980s. It’s almost impossible to overstate. He released four solo albums during the decade and had 13 hit singles. As Genesis’ lead singer and songwriter after Peter Gabriel quit, he was largely responsible for that band’s output too, which reached a high point in 1986, with Invisible Touch and its five hit singles. Of all his songs, “In the Air Tonight” was particularly ubiquitous, propelled forward by Collins’ towering drum entrance. It became the unofficial theme song for the Eighties drugs-guns-and-glamour cop show Miami Vice; and was used to hawk Michelob beer; and was prominently featured in Risky Business 26 years before Mike Tyson air-drummed new life into the song in The Hangover. And then there was Collins himself. His face was plastered over all his albums, close up, looking placid and somewhat smugly self-serious. He tried his hand at acting (the 1988 movie Buster, an episode of Miami Vice). He came to be known as Mr. Nice Guy. He did lots of charity work. (Later on, he went so far as to pay for well-known-substance-abuser David Crosby’s liver transplant.)
But then a curious thing happened. The Eighties ended and the Nineties began in a whole different mood, with Nirvana and other punk-influenced bands establishing grunge as the dominant musical force. In many ways, grunge’s threadbare, garage-rock sound was a direct reaction to the overblown, synth-heavy bombast of the previous decade — and no one typified those excesses more than Collins. In the summer of 1994, reports began circulating that Collins had informed his (second) wife that he wanted a divorce — via fax. He denied it vehemently, and the fax itself was never produced, but no matter: Suddenly, it was open season on the guy. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher started hammering on him any time he could, to uproarious effect. Among his choicest bons mots: “You don’t have to be great to be successful. Look at Phil Collins” and “People hate f*cking c*nts like Phil Collins, and if they don’t, they f*cking should.” And so it’s gone, especially on the Internet, where I Hate Phil Collins sites have flourished. He gets criticized for everything. For his hair, for his height, for his pants (pleated khakis), for his shirts (tucks them in), for being “a shameless, smirking show hog.”
“I don’t understand it,” he says, looking pained. “I’ve become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it’s the radio that plays them all the time. I mean, the Antichrist? But it’s too late. The die is cast as to what I am.”
It’s certainly true that Collins has been the butt of many jokes throughout his career. The Rolling Stone article doesn’t even mention what might be the most famous example of this: the vicious skewering Collins received in the “Timmy 2000” installment of South Park. In that episode, he’s portrayed as a smug, angry moron who’s too stupid to understand why everyone loves TIMMY! Furthermore, the children of South Park are only able to enjoy his music while high on Ritalin. When the effects of the drug wear off, Stan memorably proclaims “wait a minute, Phil Collins sucks ass!”
Of course, Collins could just as soon take his South Park mockery as a compliment. After all, Matt Stone and Trey Parker only made the episode when he beat them for an Oscar, after “You’ll Be In My Heart” — a track from Collins’ Tarzan soundtrack — beat out their “Blame Canada” for Best Original Song. Still, it’s obvious that Collins was effected by the insults, and while he never mentions this one specifically, the South Park treatment may have been one more bit of cruelty that lead to Collins current disenchantment with the entertainment business.
The Rolling Stone interview gets even darker when Collins admits that he’s contemplated suicide:
The next day at the rehearsal hall, Collins is taking a break and sawing into another gherkin and saying, “When I say, ‘I’m going to write myself out of the script,’ I’m serious. When I say I’m stopping and I don’t care about all this, I’m serious. I mean, I will write songs, and I will have fun making demos, but I may well not make another record. My deal with Atlantic is over with this Motown record. It’s sobering and quite liberating. Anyway, I’ve had enough of being me. Not to the point—”
He pauses, and then he goes on, “I have had suicidal thoughts. I wouldn’t blow my head off. I’d overdose or do something that didn’t hurt. But I wouldn’t do that to the children. A comedian who committed suicide in the Sixties left a note saying, ‘Too many things went wrong too often.’ I often think about that.”
As a whole, the story paints a portrait of a man who’s been hurt by the insults of general public one too many times, and has decided not to deal with it anymore. It’s a shame, because whether he realizes it or not, there almost certainly is a new audience of people who would appreciate some new Phil Collins music. Maybe everyone got tired of the endless Phil Collins overload, but there’s a new generation of fans who weren’t alive for that bombardment, and thus, can appreciate Collins’ music for what it is. If Collins were to go on tour, or record a new album, many of those fans would likely come out of the wood work.
Sadly, that seems unlikely. Everything in that interview gives the impression that Collins is simply fed up. The fact that we haven’t heard from him since only solidifies that. It’s a shame, in the right hands, Collins could have had a late-career revival in the vein of Johnny Cash or Glen Campbell. As it stands, all we can do today, on Collins 67th birthday, is enjoy classics like “In The Air Tonight” and “I Don’t Care Anymore” one more time, and wish we had been a bit nicer to the guy.