He may have just announced he’s coming out of retirement for a series of live shows next year, but decades of drumming have taken their toll on Eighties pop master Phil Collins.
Meeting the 65-year-old Genesis frontman, one of only three musicians to sell more than 100 million records both in a group and as a solo artist, he is upbeat about his return, and the fact his 15-year-old son Nic will be drumming for the gigs.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be the next me or better than me, but he’s a great drummer,” he says proudly.
Today, Collins walks with a stick, thanks to several foot injuries from a number of falls, his spine is weak due to years of drumming and vocal cord-easing cortisone injections which can lead to brittle bones, and a misplaced nerve in his elbow has required several operations.
But the singer, songwriter, drummer and record producer – whose vast repertoire ranges from In The Air Tonight, Easy Lover and Sussudio, to the heart-rending Against All Odds and One More Night – clearly needs to get back to what he does best: making music.
Today, we’re discussing his autobiography, Not Dead Yet, in which he charts his career from Hounslow lad to Oscar-winning music producer and everything in between, his time in Genesis, the songs and their inspirations, his hits, marriages and divorces, and descent from pop master to public enemy number one.
The book paints a picture of a music-mad child actor who found great success but put his career before his personal life on numerous occasions, and whose over-exposure and omnipresence during the Eighties, a period he calls the ‘imperial years’, made him an irritation to many at the height of his fame.
During this period, he collaborated with Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Sting and Peter Gabriel, performed with The Who, starred in the hit movie Buster and even appeared twice at Live Aid. He was everywhere.
Collins also reveals his guilt about the long absences from his five children while he was on tour, and fall-outs with his three wives.
“My career took priority in my first marriage (to Andrea Bertorelli, with whom he has an adopted daughter, Joely, and son, Simon). But it wasn’t the case in my second marriage (to Jill Tavelman, with whom he has a daughter, the actress Lily Collins).
“Jill and Lily came everywhere with me, which puts a different complexion on things.”
But it was during the Nineties that he went from hero to public pariah, when stories emerged alleging he’d faxed his second wife Jill for a divorce, having gone off with translator Orianne Cevey, 22 years his junior. He devotes a whole chapter to this event, which he calls ‘Faxgate’.
It happened in 1994 when he was on tour and having an affair with Orianne, although technically still married to Jill. He couldn’t get through to her because of poor phone connections so sent faxes instead – and one of them found its way to The Sun’s news desk, which led to the headline ‘I’m faxing furious’, alongside angry excerpts from the fax.
“I can’t elaborate for legal reasons,” he says now. “Jill and I had a confidentiality agreement. I will tell you that I don’t know what happened. I sent a fax from my dressing room in Frankfurt to the house [the family home in the UK]. It wasn’t a fax asking for divorce, we’d already gone past that. I was actually just asking to see Lily but the phone kept going down.
“But the fax had certain parts that could have been taken out of context.”
He agrees the whole debacle damaged his reputation hugely.
“I certainly didn’t like being Mr Nice Guy, the Housewives’ Pal. But as soon as I wasn’t that guy any more, I missed it,” he writes.
“The divorce affected us all, but this random event affected my life. It happened just at the start of an English tour, when I was public enemy number one. It was very difficult.
“I’m prepared to be called an a***hole because of some of the things I’ve done, but not for that fax.”
Today, he understands the nature of fractured families. His first wife took their two children to live in Vancouver when they split up. Jill went to live in Los Angeles with Lily when they divorced, and Orianne moved to Miami with their sons Nicholas and Mathew when they parted.
“I carry guilt over each of my kids. All the times I was away, all the moments I missed, all the periods when a tour or an album got in the way of a happy home life, or repairs to that home life. Music made me but it also unmade me. I won’t do it again.”
Retirement and loss of his family resulted in him turning to the bottle.
“It took me ’til the age of 55 to become an alcoholic,” he says in the book. “I got through the heady Sixties, the trippy Seventies, the imperial Eighties, the emotional Nineties. I was retired, content, and then I fell. Because suddenly I had too much time on my hands.”
Today, he reflects: “I don’t believe I was an alcoholic.”
However, his drinking led to acute pancreatitis and at one point he was at death’s door.
“I was rushed to this university hospital in Lausanne by helicopter and taken to intensive care. I had a wad of cables coming out of my neck, bad dreams and couldn’t wait to get out of there. But still I went back and drank vodka and whisky.”
He went into rehab – just for a week. “I couldn’t stand it.”
“For three years, I didn’t drink. Now, I can have a couple of glasses of wine but that’s where I stop,” he continues.
“My doctor in New York, who was worried that I wasn’t going to make it, put me in touch with a therapist and an addiction specialist. I see him every now and again for a chat.”
Orianne went on to marry again, but she and Collins remained close and she wasn’t very happy in her new marriage.
“We often tell each other that we shouldn’t have divorced, how much we miss each other and how much we miss being a family,” he writes.
In 2014, she had spinal surgery in Switzerland to release trapped nerves, but had a spasm while under the knife and was left paralysed down her right side. Collins looked after their children during her recuperation, and it was then they decided to reconcile.
“I’ve said I don’t want to get remarried, and frankly, she’s not divorced yet. We’ve been together a year and a half and her divorce is still trundling on.”
He bought Jennifer Lopez’s old house in Miami Beach, where he now lives with Orianne and their two boys, and also has an apartment in New York, a house in Switzerland and a family chalet in the mountains.
“It’s about three front door keys more than I ever wanted,” he says with a smile.
The body may be weaker but the musical mind is still sharp, as he prepares for his tour next year and dismisses further talk about retirement.
As Collins concludes: “I will never say that word again.”
Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins is available now.