A verismo opera set to the shimmering wonderment of unalloyed ‘80s pop melodies occurred without warning in Suwanee, Georgia at the Infinite Energy Arena on Saturday, September 28th as Phil Collins took the stage and instantly recalibrated cool for everyone with ears.
There are exactly two disparate yet conjoined ways to be a bona fide rockstar who is at or past the door to septuagenarian stature, and has never once stepped back from the mic. You can provocatively thumb your nose at gravity and greybeard gravitas like Mick Jagger does so valiantly, and with such a dashing monolayer of sneer. Or, if you are slightly more daring, you can flout the very definition of age and all its attending preconceived, socially-constructed motifs which the majority of the world seems to have tacitly agreed to commiserate within, and you can do this whilst planting your tongue oh-so-squarely in your still-boyishly-dimpled-though-also-grizzled cheek, as Phil Collins executes to radical effect on his ‘Still Not Dead Yet’ tour. Forget reports you have heard that he is frail. He is the opposite of frail; he is wizened, which is the very truth and nature of being powerful. The kind of vitality exuded by a man who does not shy away from the profoundly unsparing wreckage that enough decades, decadence or no, can heap on any of us is a golden parcel of derring-do you will likely have lean chances to observe in any lifetime. Far fewer will be your opportunities to see it in the form of a scampish pop legend from an era when legends were still being written in pearlescent permanence rather than in bubbles of pixelated primogeniture.
Collins opening with the ardent and igneous “Against All Odds” as self-reflective taunt cum searing ballad cum thankful welcome to his audience stood as the first of numerous gestures that conscripted the respect of naysayers, and served as smarting reminder to everyone that here was a man who never aligned his lyrics with the candied cochlea-baubles native to his mirthful style, and to that of many of his cohorts on 1980s radio. Phil Collins could always curve the undulations of meaning in his music to any arc he chose, and he could make a dessert song into dinner (or vice versa) quite effortlessly. Watching him perform classics like “Sussudio” and “Easy Lover”, which all 13,000 people assembled had obviously made treasured and personal paramours, you quickly realize every single song he is going to do was a front-runner and a chart-racer in its day – because that is nearly all this man has produced in close to 60 years in the field of music: incontrovertible, insatiable hits.
Phil Collins is a man who played two solid hours of leviathan radio smashers and did not even touch all of his platinum repertoire. Hearing “Invisible Touch” and “Don’t Lose My Number” teleports you back to a time when artists did not have to take themselves seriously in order to write serious hits, and playfulness, gaiety, and even silliness held happy reign over any lasting path to top-drawer territory. You forget how deeply ensconced Collins is in your collective pop culture psyche, from the Members Only days of Miami Vice to the first unequivocally political music video many of us ever encountered via “Land of Confusion”. The mad dog at his side throughout all of these exceptionally bright lights has been the persistent, inexplicable scrutiny over the worth of his oeuvre and the merit of his success. His is the music of happy populism, a turnstile to a lifetime ago, and this tour proves he made a docile pet out of that mad dog and it now dotingly eats out of his hand too.
Collins has lost nothing of his peerless cheek in the fray either. During the official band introductions, he mischievously presented his zippy trombone player, Luis Bonilla, right before introducing Harry Kim, his trumpet player, both of the highly-respected Vine Street Horns. After encouraging Bonilla to show the audience how far he could stretch the outer slide tube of his instrument (which entailed an impressive reach of arm length that would have given Inspector Gadget pause), Collins gesticulated to Kim and his trumpet with the deadpan, “And with the much smaller thing… but it still works, Harry Kim!” Anyone who has ever worked anywhere near professional music can tell you how borderline impossible it is to keep a band together for any duration of time. You could legitimately start and stop any testimony to Collins’ innate worth as a musician, as well as a man, with the simple fact that nearly every person in his band has been on stage with him for over 40 years, a few throughout the Genesis period, and a couple for 55 years and holding.
Collins’ appeal as an artist has always rested in his unlikeliness, in the lively thwarting of physical expectations, both bodily and tunefully. He is a man not at all tall in stature, but positively towering in talent. This means more when you remember that unapologetic brawn of one kind or another ruled all realms of masculinity in the time when Phil was king. The ‘Still Not Dead Yet’ tour strongarms you into an understanding of what a man would have to possess in order to become a pop icon capable of making male pattern baldness sexually adorable in the same era that hair metal heroes like Jon Bon Jovi and Joe Elliott were the juggernaut dreams of every damsel of the day. This was, however, also the era wherein the world’s most famous actors in every genre (think Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Dan Akroyd) looked not like Brad Pitt but just like every suburban dad you had ever met, and Phil Collins was the Rick Moranis of pop radio. He made ‘dad jeans’ and brilliant dorkiness attractive long before such characteristics were poorly commodified by so-called ‘influencers’ who no doubt have not the first clue where the real influence originated.
Imagining a man that did all of that plus establishing himself as an immovable dynamo in not one, but three separate visionary spaces – prog rock percussion, anthemic vocals, and demiurgic lyricism – is beyond the pale today. Only the amaranthine Levon Helm before him could boast of being as famous for all three at once. The highest rafters where Collins’ tenor range lived at its most elevated altitudes may have lowered a smidge, but nothing about the torque of his famous call voice or comprehensive vocal command has diminished in the slightest. You have got to appreciate Phil Collins, if for nothing else, always being able to laugh at himself, at us, with us, and for us. It is as much this blithe buoyancy as his magnum mallet magic that has made him the second wealthiest drummer in the history of music, right after Ringo Starr, and it is undeniably what enables him to carry on like a sage, weathered sprite in the same vein of frolicsome humor and jocund lack of hubris that paved the possibility of his prodigious fame to start with.
Here’s what no one has told you: the unrivaled star of the ‘Still Not Dead Yet’ tour is a.) able to serve up all the youth anyone could ask for, b.) built on equal parts nadir and nostalgia, and c.) only partially Phil Collins. Eighteen-year-old Nicholas Collins, the second to youngest son among five children for Phil, is quite literally ‘70s-era Phil 2.0. Artfully unobtrusive behind his titanic Gretsch USA Custom kit, you can observe how eerily like his father he is in both playing style and appearance. He plays with the same strong elbow/splashy wrist combo you have come to think synonymous with Phil Collins if you have been watching since Genesis. Nicholas is likewise in precious possession of his father’s rapscallion smirk, and when he ravishingly thrashed through the infamous and causative drum break even inanimate objects associate with “In The Air Tonight” wearing it, this was the lone moment of the show when Phil stood majestically for the performance of the entire song. Nicholas plays like he is endearingly aware of what he has inherited, and the responsibility implicit therein. “Of course I made him go out and buy them,” Phil joked as he told of his son’s initial interest in hearing his father’s old records while they sat down at the piano together for a stunningly elemental duet of “You Know What I Mean” that could have rendered tears from a dead ogre. As fatherly tradition and the spirit of passing the percussive torch should dictate, their onstage union encompassed the kind of tympanic solos that drummers live for, the ‘80s were notorious in demanding, and even people who have never played an instrument in their lives will remember as a keynote highlight. William Faulkner famously proclaimed in Requiem for a Nun that, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Nicholas Collins on tour with his father will make you appreciate the full truth of that sentiment in every respect.
We have a tendency as human beings to cover our favorite artists in myth, and to build upon them a carapace of our own narcissistic schmaltz that glaciates them inside the epoch within which we first encountered them, or in which their music first shaped our lives. Compellingly combative to tabulated age stereotypes and simultaneously fully ready to take you where he knows you want to go, Phil Collins, at 68, shows you what regality comes with the rubble of age if you have the guts to meet it head-on and full tilt. If you are fixated on the physical ramifications of his years on this Earth, you are tragically missing the point and seriously ripping yourself off in the process. There is nothing spondylitic in Collins’ heart-stirring performances, whether he is seated while delivering them or no, and all that “needs to retire” are the tone-deaf and prejudicial comments of critics (both proletariat and professional) who are clearly too cowardly to believe anyone that successful could actually get away with failing to cede their stage spirit post middle age. Despite its early emphasis on youth culture, and the generally accepted truth that it largely created the teenager, rock-n-roll has never been the exclusive province of the young. As the force of internet imagery continues to fetishize the cult of fleeting youth, Phil Collins and the ‘Still Not Dead Yet’ tour give you the scintillating chance to exist for a couple of hours inside the honesty filter of what his contemporaries Tears for Fears, in “Break It Down Again”, resplendently and accurately called, “The beauty of decay.”