Phil Collins: Back from the brink after alcohol battle – BBC News

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width lead”> Image copyright Century

Image caption “I had this gaping void – no work and no family” – Phil Collins on his late-blooming alcoholism

Reclining in a spacious suite in an upmarket Kensington hotel, Phil Collins is polishing off a plate of chips.

“When this is done, could you get me a glass of white wine?” he asks his publicist.

The request comes as a surprise as the singer’s new autobiography, Not Dead Yet, reveals for the first time the extent of his battle with alcoholism.

“Night after night I find myself lying on the bed, staring out of a skylight at grey Swiss skies, rueing my life,” Collins writes about the impact that retirement, divorce and crippling back pain had on his life.

“I’m all alone, save for my good friends Johnnie Walker and Grey Goose.”

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The star unflinchingly describes an 18-hour bender that begins in Switzerland and ends in New York and a spell in intensive care when he heard a doctor whisper to his family: “Is Monsieur Collins’ will in order?”

“There were lots of moments of sadness like that. All of my own making,” he tells the BBC.

“There were times I would just collapse. One time, I remember getting up to give the kids a cuddle and I lost my balance. I left two teeth marks in the tiles in the living room.

“Another time, I was walking upstairs too quickly and I fell down. There was a pool of blood around my head.

“There were various low moments that I’m not proud of.”

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright Getty Images

Image caption Collins is one of the biggest-selling artists of all time

According to the book, he has been sober for three years – so he notices my concern when he orders that glass of wine.

“These days, I’m quite capable of having two or three glasses and that’s enough for me, thank you,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Alcoholism was an aberration, he insists, caused by the “gaping void” of divorce and an empty calendar.

“I had no work and no family. I felt like I had earned myself a break – to do nothing if that was what I wanted to do. So I would turn on the TV and watch a bit of sport and, you know, you just start drinking too much.

“So I think it was just filling the hole. Now I’m back with my family, so there’s a bit more normality now.”

He’s also back at work – having announced a series of comeback concerts next June, starting with a five-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall.

There is some work to do before then, though.

A punishing tour with Genesis in 2007 resulted in a dislocated vertebra in his neck that caused nerve damage in his hands, leaving him unable to play the drums. He had a major back operation last year, and today walks with the aid of a cane, thanks to a broken bone in his foot.

“I can still go on stage and sing,” he says, “but I’m not going to be running around. I’ll have other people running around for me.”

He’s still not satisfied with his drumming, but he’s determined to play – at the very least – his iconic drum fill from In The Air Tonight.

“That’s just something that, in theory, would bring the house down and also be good for my soul.”

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright Getty Images

Image caption The end of Collins’ first marriage, to Andrea Bertorelli, inspired his debut album Face Value

Collins is so amiable and down-to-earth (he spends a good couple of minutes explaining cheats for the PlayStation game Crash Bandicoot) that it’s easy to forget how successful he was in the 1980s and 90s.

One of only three artists to sell 100 million albums both as a solo star and as part of a group, he balanced his solo career with work in Genesis, film roles, Disney soundtracks and production duties for Eric Clapton, John Martyn and Abba’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

Raised in Hounslow by an insurance man and a theatrical agent, he is a self-described workaholic who began his career as the Artful Dodger in two West End runs of Oliver! before joining Genesis as a drummer in 1970 at the age of 19.

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright Getty Images

Image caption Touring with Genesis in 1974, shortly before Peter Gabriel left the band

When Peter Gabriel quit in 1975, Collins reluctantly became the frontman. The band’s commercial fortunes increased under his watch and they spent most of the next three years on the road.

Back at home, however, his wife Andrea began an affair with a decorator. Collins found out during a “particularly heated phone call” but opted to complete the tour.

By the time it ended, their marriage was over. He quit the band and followed his wife to Canada in an attempt to repair their relationship – but admitted defeat after only four months.

With Genesis on hiatus, Collins poured his heartache into a solo album, Face Value.

It was classic reinvention, reframing the singer in a florid prog rock band as a thoughtful, emotionally-charged everyman with a knack for big pop ballads. Spurred by the success of In The Air Tonight, the album went on to sell more than 25 million copies.

And, in what is perhaps the world’s ultimate humblebrag, the singer claims to have discovered this statistic on Wikipedia.

“In the early days, no-one even told you these things!” he says. “And another part of it was just keeping going and not looking back.

“I’m humbled by it because I don’t like a fuss.”

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright Century / Phil Collins

Image caption Happier times: Collins celebrates his 60th birthday at the Tower of London with all of his children (L-R): Joely, Lily, Nicholas, Simon and Matthew

Indeed, fuss is what seems to rankle Collins the most. His autobiography is never vindictive, but it does set the record straight on a few tabloid legends.

He did not, he insists, divorce his second wife by fax. Nor was he responsible for Led Zeppelin’s ruinous Live Aid performance.

The latter gets a whole chapter. He rejects the idea that, having flown across the Atlantic from the Wembley leg of Live Aid, he was not match-fit. In fact, he claims, he was frozen out by Led Zep’s other drummer, Tony Thompson of Chic, who clearly didn’t want him there.

“I know the wheels are falling off from early on in the set,” he writes. “I can’t hear Robert [Plant] clearly, but I can hear enough to know he’s not on top of his game.

“And an awful lot of the time, I can hear what Robert decries as ‘knitting’ – fancy drumming. And if you can find the footage, you can see me miming, playing the air, getting out of the way lest there be a train wreck.”

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright AP

Image caption The star has reconciled with his third wife, Orianne

He says the anecdote is “not meant to be spiteful” but “I was pilloried by the band for being the reason it was so messed up [when] I wasn’t”.

Indeed, he takes pains to praise both Thompson and Plant, stressing the autobiography is “not a ‘get even’ book”.

It’s frequently hilarious. We witness a disastrous attempt to play congas for George Harrison, and discover that – in a flagrant contravention of the rock’n’roll rulebook – Genesis liked nothing better than a good picnic.

“Often on tour, we’d pull over to a greengrocers somewhere in the middle of some vale, buy some bread and cheese, and just pull off the highway and eat in a field,” he says.

“I love vacherin,” he adds. “I could eat vacherin for days, unfortunately. Fondue in Switzerland, that’s fantastic. And strong English cheddar, that’s great as well. Good dreams.”

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright Getty Images

Image caption The star won an Oscar in 2000 for his soundtrack to Disney’s Tarzan

So what did he learn about himself by writing the book?

“Well, I discovered that I’d worked an incredible amount, which is not something that I’d necessarily realised at the time,” he says.

“When you’re doing it, you just keep doing it, then you look back and you see this list of shows and you think, ‘I had three weeks off and then I did it again?'”

While this came at the cost of three marriages, he has no-one to blame but himself.

One chapter describes a Genesis band meeting, arranged to explore a theatre production of their concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Collins leaves having agreed to a full-scale reunion tour. “I can’t say no,” he writes.

When I suggest “the man who can’t say no” could be the book’s subtitle, Collins maintains he was “obliged” to keep his commitments.

“If I was asked to revisit history, I would still say ‘yes’ to all those things,” he says.

“If you say no, the phone may never ring again.”

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