As far as the British tabloids were concerned, it was just another example of the Rock Star Mid-Life Crisis.
Open-and-shut case, really. First, Phil Collins releases an album of intensely personal songs that sound nothing like the light, chipper pop fare his fans expect. Next, he leaves Jill, his wife of 14 years, for Orianne Cevey, a Swiss heiress half his age. To top it all off, he then announces he's leaving Genesis, the enormously popular band he had drummed and sung with for 25 years.
With so many sudden changes in such a seemingly staid life, what else could it be but the actions of a man beset by the fear of encroaching age? So the tabs did what they always do when there's a whiff of scandal in the air -- they laid siege. As a result, Phil Collins spent the better part of 1994 holed up in hotel rooms, trying to avoid reporters lurking in the lobby.
"I remember thinking, 'Please, whatever I've got is not worth this,' " says Collins, looking back. "Because it was on the front page of every paper in England. I was on the hatchet."
Being besieged by Fleet Street snoops is bad enough when you're as used to the cost of celebrity as Collins is, but what really hurt the singer was having the women dragged into it. Things were particularly tough for Cevey, who got cast as "the young temptress" by the tabs. "Her father and grandfather were dying of cancer at the same time of this, and [the reporters] were camped out on the lawn," he says.
"Plus she's half-Thai, so there's the Oriental side of her saying, 'Why are they doing this? All we want is to be happy. Why are they doing this to you, and why are they doing this to my family?'
"And of course, there's the other side -- Jill," he adds. "I don't wish any harm to anybody. I don't want any casualties. I just, I just didn't want that anymore. And I didn't want my little girl, who was obviously seeing this happen, I didn't want her to be harmed. But the tabloids were just stirring it all the time." He pauses slightly, then adds, "But throughout all that, I was incredibly happy."
Happy? He was happy being hounded by the press? Well, of course not. But as horrible as that public part of his life was, things on the private side were going swimmingly. Because despite all the tabloid clamor, Collins had arrived at a sense of what he really wanted from his life and his music, and that gave him great happiness -- a joy clearly audible in the sound of his new album, "Dance Into the Light."
"I wrote a lot of this music trapped in my hotel room, if you like, avoiding the people downstairs waiting for me to come down in the lift," he says. "I've never written on the road. But it was different surroundings, a different environment, different tools. I had different sounds. I was listening to a lot of Youssou N'Dour, because I've loved him since the mid-'80s, and I finally said, 'Yeah. I'll take all these albums out on tour. It's uplifting stuff.' And a lot of it rubbed off.
"But it was a very happy period, amongst the miserable moments of just wishing that this thing would just be left to us to sort out."
Of course, the irony in all this is that Collins actually thought he had everything "sorted out" when he started writing the songs for his last album, "Both Sides." About four years ago, Collins had found himself dealing with some "unfinished business" with a woman from his past. Collins doesn't go into specifics, but he does make it clear he felt that the situation had been dealt with in a fairly conclusive fashion.
"Having got that out of the way and behind me, we tried to fix what was wrong with our marriage, Jill and I," he says. It was during that period that he wrote the songs that became "Both Sides." Looking back, he sees that it's easy to misread the melancholy that lies beneath songs like "I've Forgotten Everything" and "Can't Find My Way." Those songs weren't about his marriage but about that "unfinished business" he had.
Hence the melancholy. "It was a sadness about what I thought was going to happen that didn't happen," says Collins. "I guess half of it was being disappointed with myself, and half was disappointment that what I thought might go somewhere didn't with this very important person from my past.
"But it was just a bit of a dark place, really. I mean, it wasn't a mid-life crisis or anything -- which is what it was later to be looked at because of the divorce. But it wasn't anything like that." He pauses, ever so slightly. "Well, I didn't see it as that, anyway," he says. "I don't have any problem with being the age that I am. I'm philosophical about all that stuff.
"But that was a very enjoyable album to make. I loved it and I do think it's my best record of my past stuff. It probably wasn't great fun to listen to, for some people. Particularly in this country. Which made me angry, actually. It disappointed me that people couldn't see that this was my best work."
Glowing reviews or no, Collins was still in demand on the road, and started off on a 14-month tour in March 1994. "About three weeks after we started the tour, I was going through Switzerland," he says. "The blinkers were off at this point. My marriage, I thought, was patched up. I thought we were OK. But obviously, it wasn't patched up very much."
Collins makes it clear that he is not a womanizer. "I've always been a very loyal, monogamous man in my relationships," he says. "I've never done what most rock and roll people do. 'While the cat's away ' you know? It's never been like that.
"So, I met this lady."
It was actually a fairly mundane meeting. Cevey had been asked by the Swiss concert promoter, as a favor, to get Collins and his band from one city to the next, and then back again the next day. "During the course of this day, I just sort of " He pauses, as if hesitant to finish. "I just fell in love with her," he says, finally. "I mean, that sounds stupid, to listen to it. But when it happens to you, you know exactly what happens.
"And basically, that changed my life."
Rocking the boat
Collins understands, of course, that there are plenty of people who would argue that he should have stayed with his foundering marriage, that it's somehow unconscionable for a 40-something rock star to fall in love with a beautiful young woman. "I mean, you see couples all the time, where the guy will prefer to have a couple of drinks in the bar than go home," he says. "You see it, and for our parents and our parent's parents, this is what they did. You just didn't rock the boat.
"But the old cliche, 'Life is not a rehearsal,' really, is truer than just being a cliche. You've got to just do what you actually feel that you have to do, and hope that you're right. And hope that there are no casualties."
That's not just talk, either. Having been left himself, at the end of his first marriage (a situation that inspired most of the songs on his first album, "Face Value"), Collins could sympathize with what Jill was going through. "I was defending Jill to me and mine, because I kind of understood that," he says. "I think she's very happy now. But, anyway, we certainly get on very well now, which was something that, at the time, I thought was never, ever going to be the case."
Leaving the band
His split with his old band, Genesis, was even more amiable. It, too, had its roots in the "Both Sides" period, but for utterly different reasons.
"When I did 'Both Sides,' I felt that I'd arrived at a place, musically speaking, that really was the most fulfilling for me," he says. "I mean, 'I've Forgotten Everything,' which I think is one of my best songs I've ever written -- the vocal performance that's on that album is what I sang that night as I improvised those lyrics.
"That, to me, is organic music. That is what people have always criticized me for not being. I thought, not only am I doing something that's fulfilling to me, but maybe this will be the album that people will say, 'Yeah, he's got rid of all that fluff.' Or apparent fluff."
In other words, Collins felt he was finally coming into his own creatively, and having to make the sort of compromises that a partnership like Genesis requires didn't really appeal to him. "At my age, I should be able to stand up and be counted, and not really do anything I don't want to do," he says. "I mean, I know there are some great magical moments when the three of you are writing together, and the last album we did was the happiest we've ever made."
Breaking up, then, would be hard to do. But Collins knew it had to be done.
"I told our manager, Tony [Smith], pretty much within a month or so of my having thought about it and not changed my mind the morning after," says Collins. "He said, 'Well, listen. We don't have to make any decisions yet. See how you feel in a year.' He knew the ups and downs of my personal life. So we didn't tell anybody; we didn't even tell Mike [Rutherford] and Tony Banks]. There was no need -- the Genesis project was not being talked about at that time. When they started saying, 'When Phil goes off the road, we should start thinking about when we're going to do another project, another album,' at that point, he said to me, 'Well, we're going to have to address this, soon.' "
So Smith convened a luncheon for all three, and warned the other members of the group, Banks and Rutherford, that Collins was thinking of quitting.
"I don't think anyone was bowled over," says the singer.
"Mike said, 'You want to leave. We understand. You want to do something else. It's cool. It could be me, could be Tony.' And Tony said, 'Well, this is a sad day. But I understand.' "
Hiring a 'replacement'
To soften the blow for fans, the band turned its official announcement of Collins' departure into a small joke. Because Collins started out as the band's drummer, and originally became a singer only to fill in when original front man Peter Gabriel left, the band announced that it was "finally" going to hire a replacement for Gabriel -- "the idea being that I decided after a 20-year apprenticeship that I didn't really want to be a singer, anyway," says Collins.
"Ultimately, I'm pleased that Genesis are carrying on," he says. "It's very important for me. I certainly didn't want to destroy something, and Mike and Tony understood. I just hope that the fans out there will keep an open mind as they did when I took over."
Hear the music
To hear excerpts from Phil Collins' new release, "Dance Into the Light," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6125. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 12/08/96