Phil Collins expressed the despair and emptiness of millions of listeners, and convinced at least one lonely teenager that his pain could also be channeled into something beautiful.
This was previously published on Bipolar Bear.
During my depressive haze at the weekend, I clicked listlessly across the internet, trying to find solace in catching up with musicians, comedians or film directors I hadn’t read about in a while.
I’d remembered stories about the much-maligned Phil Collins being forced to give up drumming because of a spinal injury, and how sad that had made me. Being stopped from something creative that I loved doing would be an intolerable blow to my wellbeing, and I wondered if there were any updates on his progress.
It didn’t take much searching to come across an in-depth feature interview he’d given to Rolling Stone in November last year. It made me feel a whole lot worse.
The journalist spent a good few days with Collins at his home in Switzerland, where he lives the life of an Agnetha Faltskog-style recluse, looking after the children from his third marriage and calmly dropping things like the following into the conversation over lunch:
Collins admits that he’s had suicidal thoughts in recent years. “I wouldn’t blow my head off,” he says. “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.”
According to the Guardian, that quote is from Tony Hancock. I have to say, it’s a sentence that’s going to haunt me from now on too.
My connection to music has always been very personal. Listening to records I love is the closest I’ve ever felt to anything spiritual, the elation and the sadness walking hand in hand sometimes.
The records that Phil Collins made, both as a solo artist and with his band Genesis, are still great loves of mine.
I was very fortunate, during my first trip to England in 2004, to meet Genesis keyboard wizard and principal writer Tony Banks. Banks happened to live relatively close to the friends I was staying with, and I ended up going to The Farm, the studio Genesis built in the early 1980s to do most of their recording in.
Banks had recently been remixing the band’s back catalogue for 5.1 surround with their long-time producer Nick Davis, and I was allowed to select a couple of tracks to listen to. I remember Banks saying that the mixes were quite new—“Phil hasn’t even heard these yet.”
One of the more surreal moments in my life, that was, sitting in the Farm’s control roomwith one of my musical idols and hearing another one referred to nonchalantly by first name.
The man would have been dreadfully embarrassed had he known how much the music had meant to me during my teenage years and early twenties, in terms of inspiration and sheer survival.
I had a tendency when hearing a new artist to go and get their entire back catalogue. I’ve always been not just an albums man, but a ‘career’ man, intensely interested in the whole story of how someone has grown or tracked creatively over years.
I was given the Genesis “We Can’t Dance” album as a birthday present in 1991 when it came out, and from there I went backwards, absorbing all there was to listen to.
Everyone hated Phil Collins—most people still do—but given that I was never into anything considered fashionable, my tastes in music were just another thing to bully me with anyway, so I just tuned out the world and turned up the music.
In 1993, during my lowest point at high school, Phil Collins released his album “Both Sides.” He had recently been through a second divorce, and the material was heavy and introspective.
How could a gay teenager in New Zealand possibly relate to a millionaire straight rock star in his forties? That whole thing about music being a universal language is one of the truest clichés.
The record spoke to me, not just through the lyrics, which reflected all the pain of the unrequited love and turmoil of emotions I didn’t understand; but in the ethos of how it was made. Collins had played all the instruments on the album himself, building it up from demos in his home studio and only going to a larger studio for the final mixes.
It felt hand-made, and the lack of virtuosity on keyboards and guitars—just minimalist backing and his ever-present 808 drum machine—just emphasised the empty spaces more, spaces which my private pain could flood into.
At a time when I was unable to express or understand anything I was going through as a young gay man, and as a teenager with a mood disorder, this man did it all for me.
Despite the depths of despair I often fell into as a teenager, I never contemplated suicide, and it’s because of these records and other artists that I loved. I escaped into the music, was rejuvenated by it, and inspired to make my own.
They were living proof that someone else had felt as I did, even if for completely different reasons, and had found a way to channel that sadness and grief into something beautiful.
“I don’t understand it,” he told Rolling Stone of the haters on the internet. “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’m glad you made the records, Phil, and I’m glad you’ve got your kids to give you something to live for. I hope you’ve sought help for those suicidal thoughts, which inevitably made headlines around the world as soon as you uttered them. I would hope the reporter you spoke to encouraged you to do so as well.
You deserve to live to a ripe old age, look back on your achievements and enjoy your body of work. If for no other reason, you really did save a life.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Read more on Suicide.