Bij de dood van een groot popjournalist

Er zijn van die artikelen in kranten of tijdschriften die je altijd bijblijven. Interviews met Phil Collins vallen wat mij betreft zelden in die categorie. Maar het interview dat Steven Wells in maart 1990 publiceerde in de NME daar heb ik nog lang van genoten.

Phil Collins was op dat moment een van de meest gehate popsterren onder lezers van het Britse popweekblad dat in die tijd voorsl berichtte over Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Prince en Public Enemy. Succesvolle artiesten daar niet van, maar beslist behorende tot een andere league dan Phil Collins.

Die maakte muziek voor je schoonmoeder, tergde de hele dag de radio met zijn mierzoete liedjes en had tot overmaat van ramp nog een clip met zwervers opgenomen.

In die vroege jaren negentig schreef voor de NME iemand die er in iedere redactionele bijdrage prat op ging een echte socialist te zijn. Hij probeerde zijn gesprekspartners vaak te betrappen op homofobie en racisme, wat vaak geestig was, maar ook nogal eens hinderlijk.

Was getekend Steven Wells. Hij overleed vorige week aan kanker, 49 jaar oud.

Ik was hem volledig uit het oog verloren. Volgens mij verliet hij de NME ergens begin deze eeuw, hij zou getrouwd zijn en naar Philadelphia zijn verhuisd. Het is me niet opgevallen, hij glorieerde vooral eind jaren tachtig, begin jaren negentig. Er heerste binnen de redactie toen een grote strijd: moest er meer over zwartr (dans)muziek gerapporteerd worden of moest de NME vooral een blad voor indie-kids en/of studenten blijven.

Zoals een collega van Wells in een postuum opmerkte: ‘Er werd voortdurend geruzied over de muziek die er op de redactie gedraaid moest worden: alweer een b-kantje van de Shop Assistants of een single van Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley.’ Wat er ook opstond erboven uit kwam altijd het geluid van een debatterende Wells met een van zijn mederedacteuren.

Hij had vooral een pesthekel aan alles wat middleclass was en vooral aan studentikoze muziek. Er was in die jaren heel wat lef voor nodig om kritiek te uiten op Morrissey en The Smiths, maar Wells durfde het aan.

Ik was het vaak niet met hem eens, en wist vooral niet van welke muziek hij wel hield. Zijn ‘rants’ waren bijna zonder uitzondering negatief, dat vond ik ook een nadeel van zijn schrijfsels. Het werd ook een beetje voorspelbaar. Natuurlijk vindt Wells niks aan Belle And Sebastian: die worden vooral door studenten en indie-kids op handen gedragen, niet door socialistische arbeiders.

Maar gelachen heb ik vaak om hem, en hij kon geweldig schrijven.

Hoogtepunt, zoals gezegd, was zijn interview met Phil Collins. Het stond de hele week gratis te lezen op Rocksbackpages.com (waar je tegen een kleine vergoeding ook lid van kunt worden), maar ik vrees dat het er deze week vanaf gehaald wordt, dus ik heb het even gekopieerd.

Een lang stuk, bijna 4000 woorden, maar ik vind het een schitterend voorbeeld van Wells’ capaciteiten. Geestig en toch ook de ruimte latend aan Phil Collins zelf, die zich ook niet ongeestig opstelt.

Ergens las ik de vergelijking tussen Lester Bangs en Steven Wells, die gaat vooral niet op omdat beiden in een heel andere periode actief waren. Zo denk ik ook dat er nu geen ruimte meer zal zijn voor de ‘rants’ van Wells en zijn verhalen over socialisme. Jammer is dat wel, toch. Ik zou ook best net als van Bangs een mooie bloemlezing van zijn werk willen lezen.

Ugly Bald Bastard Speaks (to Phil Collins)

Steven Wells, NME, 3 March 1990

• He leaves the toilet seat up! He does stuff in the privacy of his own house! He's worth 22 million! He's not a rich arsehole, he's cheeky, chunky-knit, Cockernee chappy PHIL COLLINS, talking to bald, wizened pauper STEVEN WELLS.

PHIL COLLINS does not wear chunky knit sweaters and he is sick of his image as the bald and wizened millionaire gnome of Soppy POP.

He is at great pains to point out that no way is he as nice or as sensible or as ugly as people think he is. In his wilder moments he contemplates marrying his 13-year-old cousin or spitting at Kylie and kneeing Jason in the nuts at the Brit Awards ceremony or maybe even joining Pop Will Eat Itself as a go-go dancer. Probably. Anything to bust his cosy-nice-bloke-but-a-bit-of-a-boring-bastard-who-goes-on-and-on-and-on-about-his-boring-divorce-all-the-time image.

I mean here he is in the Juke Box Jury studio and he's just said that he quite likes the Sigue Sigue Sputnik single. And this gonk with a pair of fishnet tights over his face comes up to him and sneeeeeers and says:

"God! We must have really got it wrong if you like us!"

Phil is flabbergasted! He opens and shuts his mouth like a goldfish with an ant's egg stuck in the windpipe prob.

"What's wrong with me?" he asks. "I mean if Phil Collins likes it, it must be shit – right? Eh?"

What's wrong with Phil is that he was and is the lead singer of Genesis and thus partly responsible for Marillion and Fish and student music in general. And let's not forget that he's a middle-aged pop star who your granny quite likes. What a bastard!

"I really regret the family entertainer bit," says Phil. A roadie walks past carrying a blow-up doll with a battery operated "vibro-mouth" to stand in Phil's place for the lighting rehearsals.

But Phil, I say, are you as sensible as people make out? Phil admits that he is very sensible with the same mixture of bitterness and self-loathing that junkie metal-heads express when confessing alcoholism or a prediliction for necrophilia.

"Sometimes I think I'm being too sensible and so I tryand stop myself..."

Give me an example of when you've been too sensible.

"Um... washing up before you eat the food you've just cooked. I think to myself – Don't do this! F–ng idiot! EAT!"

Are you a domestic fascist? Do you beat the children if they don't wash up properly?

"Um, well it's not quite like that but I do like a clean kitchen – GAAAAAAAAAAAH! – I can't believe I just said that! – ' I do like clean kitchen'. That sounds terrible doesn't it? After I put coal on the fire I sweep up the dust so that I don't tread in it and Lilly doesn't eat it..."

SUDDENLY, PHIL leaps up. Kicks over his chair and screams. "YEEEEEEAAAAARGH!" he yells, hurling an empty Jack Daniels bottle against the wall. The heroin punctures on his arms glow a bright red. "F– IT! Let me tell you about last night, right? Me and my best mate Eric Clapton lured these 14-year-old schoolgirls back to his pad and we dressed up in Nazi helmets and ballet gear and pranced around to death metal and stuck our heads in a suitcase of Colombian coke and then we drank some virgin's blood and our own urine out of a cup fashioned from a baby's skull and WE DIDN'T WASH UP AFTERWARDS! OK, so we did. But we certainly didn't do the drying. Not properly, anyway..." (NB: Fantasy Sequence – IPC lawyers)

DO YOU have any annoying little habits?

"Oh, I leave the toilet seat up. We were showing my aunt around the house and she said – 'Oh, toilet seat's up, daddy's home!'"

What about this cheeky chirpy Cockney bit. You do play up to that a bit...

"Well, I don't know how else to be! This is me, maybe that cheeky chappy is me. If you'd have come an hour earlier you'd have heard me raving and ranting at the lighting engineers. You know were supposed to be rehearsing right now but we got half way through the show and the lights were a shambles and I just blew my top and sent the musicians home...

"Now some people may say – "Ooh! That's not the Phil Collins know and love! – I mean I hate to keep dragging up all these incidents where I've been nasty people but I'm just a normal person. I don't see why everybody has to keep going – You're nice! Why are you nice? I'm normal! This is what I am!"

Do you torture animals?

"I never torture animals..."

What, never?

"I'm not going to admit to it anyway..."

Isn't it a bit daft that you're a multi-millionaire and yet you've got this 'ver lads' image?

"It's happened so gradually to me that maybe I haven't had a chance to get big headed – I still don't think I'm really there. You've got your Bruces and your Michael Jacksons or whatever – they're the stars. Me – I'm just earning a lot of money for what I'm doing and I don't really understand why."

Have you ever yearned to be a lithe and tight-trousered, two fisted, pissed-up sex god?

"Um... what are you getting at exactly?"

A bourbon-addled hell-raiser, a burnt-out, shuddering rock corpse a screaming kamikaze teeterng on the very edge of oblivion?"

'You're just assuming I don't do those things. I mean that's why I'm uncomfortable with that image because I'm perceived as something which maybe I'm not."

MAYBE! What a great word that is. If only we could really peek into the secret world of Phil Collins – Rock'n'Roll Casualty.

You are perceived as being rather more of a sensible chunky sweater than a gold lamé sweat suit with a giant scarlet codpiece?"Yeah, but there's nothmg about that..."

Yes there is. You could start by vomiting on me now...

He gives me a strange look.

...Couldn't you start thrashing dogs on stage or something?

He sighs.

"I mean, I do do stuff in the privacy of my own home you know, I've got a side to my life that people don't know about...

(LIKE WHAT!? WHAT DO YOU DO IN THE PRIVACY OF YOUR OWN HOME? DO YOU WORSHIP THE DEVIL, YOU BASTARD, DO YOU? DO YOU TAKE CRACK AND E AND ACID AND DO YOU STRIP NAKED AND ROLL IN A TROUGH OF BAKED BEANS WHILST RENT BOYS TEASE YOUR PUBIC HAIR WITH HEATED ROLLERS? TELL ME SO I CAN TELL THE SUN!) ...maybe it doesn't seem, er... (AAAARGH! SPILL THE BEANS! LET RIP, PHIL YOU CAN TRUST MEEEEEE!) ...you know... " YOU BASTARD! AAAA-AAAAAAAARGH!) Do you get people ringing your doorbell at midnight asking for their pound of flesh?

"People mostly arrive at half past ten at night – can I have your autograph Mr Collins? They've had a bet down the pub. Some weekends I fancy a bit of privacy so I lock the gates..."

Why don't you hire a lookalike Butler to sign autographs for you?

"Nah! I don't mind it! It's a small price to pay. I mean these people are taking a big risk that they'll get turned away, they've risked all the possible humiliation – they don't know if I'm going to say – Go on, f– off! Can't you see fucking late? F – off out of my f–ing house! – I mean why be an arsehole if you don't have to be?"

And with that my attempt to smash the image of Phil Collins as a thoroughly nice geezer is shot down in flames. Sorry Phil, you've blown it

YES – I USED TO SMOKE POT!

WHEN PHIL tours with Genesis he plays table tennis backstage. Oh yeah – sure you do, Phil! And Is it true that the white lines on the table are actually lines of COCAINE? And is it true that every time you win a point you get a SNORT?

"Heh heh heh!" chuckles Phil and he doesn't exactly wink at me but I get the feeling that – nudge nudge wink wink – he's been around if you know what I mean, squire. But he can't tell me outright, you see, because then all the mums and dads would stop buying his records. I mean, there's no way that Phil Collins is going to tell the NME – 'Yes!, I do take drugs! I've had more bits of whizz up these nostrils than Axl Rose has had brain operations!' – not really.

"Heh heh heh! Lines of coke on the table! That's not entirely true but I do like the idea! We used to smoke a bit ..."

AH HA! GOTCHA! MUCH LOVED ALL-ROUND FAMILY ENTERTAINER PHIL COLLINS ADMITS – I WAS A DRUG FIEND!

"I mean, that dead time in between sound check and gig, what do you do? You can't really drink a lot. Gone are the days when you had a joint before a gig. I think the last time I had a joint before a gig was in LA in '76 or '77. I was going – how does this verse start? Heh! It's a matter of time and place really... anyway ... what were we talking about?"

We were discussing cannabis abuse and short-term memory loss.

"Heh heh heh heh!"

I WAS A STUNT DOUBLE FOR GRAHAM POPPY'S ARSEHOLE

PHIL COLLINS is not so ugly that if you had a dog with a face like his you'd comb hair over its eyes and walk it backwards. Alright, he's no Jason Donovan, but neither would he make any of the great Ugly Squads of history – Leeds Utd circa 1974, The Glitter Band or the Tory Cabinet when it included Leon Brittain. So it is rather surprising when one realises that 99 per cent of the shit that flies in Phil's direction is thrown at him because he's not a chisel-cheeked bimbo.

"It's a cheap shot. I mean Joe Jackson – he's f–ing ugly and no one has a go at him about it. Well, y'know, I look at him and I think Well if I'm ugly , what the f – is he? What pisses me off more now is with this latest album when my reasons for writing these songs have come under fire from people who don't know me. I asked them to send me all the reviews, I thought, you know, maybe this time it's my time for a bit of credibility..."

No way! Phil was pilloried for ...But Seriously by dickheads who resented the fact that at least two of the tracks – 'Colours' and 'Another Day In Paradise' – were not the "boo hoo my missus has left me" for which Phil is reknowned.

"These people have only heard the singles and so they think that everything I write is about my divorce – gah!"

Phil takes criticism very seriously, he sat down and wrote out a seven page letter to a local newspaper which stagged him off. 'Colours' is about Nelson Mandela.

"People living without their rights/Without their dignity/But how long does one man have to shout before he's allowed to be free." OK, so it's not the greatest polemic ever written, but does that mean we should take the piss out of Phil, with his nice house and his £22 million in the bank, for actually daring to care?

"The criticism was on the level that I'm a millionaire so therefore I must be an arsehole..."

Um, well, millionaires do tend to be arseholes, don't they?

"Do they? Clapton's rich, I assume Rutherford and Banks (Genesis) are rich and Richard Branson's rich and I wouldn't say any of us were arseholes..."

Me? I didn't say anything. Not a dickybird.

"I mean, I earn a lot because I work a lot. I don't have time to spend my money. I don't have any expensive vices, I live in a nice house but I don't live in a huge house. I drive myself, you know, I push a cart around the supermarket. Maybe normal wealthy people are arseholes but I'm not..."

But what about the absurdity of Paul McCartney – worth umpteen zillion quid – playing Live Aid? He could have donated twice the money that Live Aid raised and still have lived in luxury for the rest of his life. I mean, I am sat here opposite a man who is worth 22 million! I'm trying to guilt-trip Phil Collins so that maybe he'll give me – a genuine poor person – just one teensy weensy little million. He wouldn't miss it! GIVE ME YOUR MONEY YOU BASTARD!

"Well, it was a matter of doing something or doing nothing," says Phil, and he's got a point. But the event had its seedy side – like Madonna having the backstage area closed off every time she went for a slash so that nobody would see her enter or leave the ladies.

"Well, yeah, you can't fight that sort of thing. On the other side of the Atlantic you had that

'We Are The World' thing which was champagne and caviar and it was strange, Americans do things in a different way, but I'm sure that Quincy Jones and Diana Ross and George Michael, I'm sure their hearts are in the right place – it's just that the show had this um, ostentatious sheen to it.

"Backstage you could hear these stories of people telling Bill Graham (US promoter) – you get me on this bill or I'm afraid you're not going to get my tour – there wasn't that in this country, it's very easy to be cynical about the whole thing. All I know is that I did it for the right reasons and so did a lot of other people..."You get paid an insane amount of money just for writing pop songs...

"Mmm..." Phil nods.

Isn't it obsoene that you've got so much money when people are starving to death?

"Well, what do you do? How do your rectify that? Do you say you don't want any of that money? It is ridiculous. l haven't done anything I don't want to do in my life. The only time I've ever had a real job is when Genesis went on two weeks holiday and I did interior decorating for two weeks and I hated it. And I'm not a religious person but I thank God I can do something I want to do and I get paid for it.

"The money is a by-product of what do, to be honest. I just do the work and there's this guy who just comes along after me with a shovel sticking all this money in a sack, y'know? I do it because I enjoy working and 1 look back and there's a load of money! I mean it's a kind of very nice by-product."

You refer to yourself as a drummer – do you really think you've got anything in common with, say, the drummer of some anarcho-punk band who travels from gig to gig in the back of a Transit van living off £30 a week Could you hold a conversation with him?

"Yeah, I think so. I think it's slightly superficial to think that just because I've got money..."

It's not just the money, is it? There's a massive difference in attitude and lifestyle...

"Yeah, but I've done all that. I've not always driven a BMW. Once I was at Heathrow and The Clash were there and Topper Headon – after he'd had a good look round to make sure there was no press around – came up to me and he said, 'Man, I'm so pleased to meet you, you're one of my heroes'..."

TOPPER HEADON – PUNK TRAITOR!

"I mean, The Dead Kennedys. I was at the Roundhouse and they were all watching television and one of them came up to me and said what a big fan he was..."

It wasn't Jello Biafra was it? "Dunno, mate. I wouldn't know one Dead Kennedy from another."

DESPITE CLAIMS made in the NME a few weeks ago, Phil is patently not shitting himself at the arrival of Birdland into the charts. Although he admits to their allegation that he wasn't all that keen on punk the first time round – "I was your typical outraged Musician" – he's now a big fan of the punk rock classics.

"I've got The Sex Pistols' records on my jukebox at home, y'know, 'Anarchy' and what's that other one? There's two of them... Well, anyway, they're great singles, they sound great, they've got a lot of energy..."

And to set the record straight, Phil claims he was never a big fan of Yes, Pink Floyd or even, would you believe it, Jethro Tull.

"It took me ages before I heard Marillion. I kept on hearing about these second generation Genesis groups – Pallas were another one – and I didn't want to hear them. I wasn't even that keen on first generation Genesis stuff..."

In 1977 Genesis became so closely identified with a stereotyped pseudo-cerebral spotty student audience, frowning and making notes as they danced – that the band seriously considered changing their name. What to? Severed Head And The Neck F– ers?

"Nah – The Shits!"

SPARE A COPPER, GUV

THE OTHER shock horror how-dare-he controversial track on the album is 'Another Day In Paradise'. It's about the homeless and about how Phil can't get used to living in a country where people beg on the streets and nobody gives a damn. In the song a wealthy man is faced with a homeless person who asks him for the price of a sandwich. The bastard turns away and walks off.

"I came out of the studio after recording it and this guy came up to me and asked for some money, it was weird. I didn't know what to do..."

He walked off without reaching to his pocket. Life imitating pop. And he's as guilty and as confused as hell about it. When I and steer Phil in a political direction the interview starts to break down. Phil thinks long and and before answering. The words drip... out... one... at... a... time. I try to get Phil to say something outrageous like 'vote Labour'...

"Well I remember last time. I don't think it's right that you should earn £100,000 and then they take £90,000 off you! How dare they!"

What? If it's taken off you to build hospitals and schools?

"Um..."

HUMOURLESS GIT?

PHIL APPEARS on Spitting Image as a tear-squirting hideously ugly wimp whining about his divorce.

The next day Eric Clapton meets the incredibly young, handsome, talented and underpaid Simon Bates.

MASTER BATES: Hi! Eric! My main man! Did you see Phil last night?

CLAPPO: Oh yeah! Oooh yeah! He won't be amused! (NB: Clappo is making a joke. )

The next day Bates goes on air with his world exclusive.

WANKER: Crikey! Phil Collins is extremely upset!

"Of course I wasn't. I was actually very flattered that they spent all that time taking the piss out of me, writing that song and everything..."

The image of Phil as the whining deserted hubby still lingers.

"I wrote all those songs as messages. I felt like giving my wife the cassette and saying – listen, right?"

So how were you able to tear your heart out and then see these songs become just another record company product?

"Should I be bothered about that? I think it bothered her..."

CONSIDER YOURSELF AT HOME

OUTSIDE MADAME Tussaud's rock waxworks a looped tape of Phil says over and over:

"Hello. I'm Phil Collins. Most people think of me as a singer who drums. I like to think of myself as a drummer who sings... "

But before he was either, professionally at least, Phil was actor. When his voice broke he was playing The Artful Dodger in the West End stage version of greatest musical ever written in the English language – Oliver. His early credits included Junior Points Of View, knitwear catalogues (modelling chunky jumpers) and a part in the cult drugs film Calamity The Cow. You weren't one of the Double Deckers were you?

"Oh no!"

You never auditioned for the Milky Bar kid?

"No, he was a good friend of mine though."

Since then he's dodgy-cockerneed his way through a bit part on Miami Vice and the lead role in Buster. Hollywood has eagerly awaited his arrival. It may not have to wait long.

"I was in Houston on tour five years ago and I read this article that said – 'Phil Collins blah blah blah who looks uncannily like Bob Hoskins...' – OK, fair enough, l suppose I do look a little like him. Now a couple of days later I read another article that went – 'Phil Collins is the Danny DeVito of pop music' – right? I mean that's a little far out! I mean that's a little cruel!"

Yeah, poor old Danny!

"Yeah, f – you too."

So Phil is at this press conference and a hack asks him what his next film project is going to be and off the top of his head he says – 'The Three Bears starring me, Bob Hoskins and Danny DeVito...' The pisstake gained a life of its own and a script is now being prepared.

If the film ever gets made, Phil, who's going to play the woman? I suppose you and Bob will have to fight it out?

"Well, I dunno, we'd probably try and get Darryl Hannah or..." No, you misunderstand me. She'd be OK for Goldilocks and Danny, being the smallest, has to be the baby bear, but who's going to play mummy bear... ?

For just a second Phil's brow is wrinkled in perplexity.

"Oh! I see what you mean! Nah. Hah! It's not going to be in costume!'

And for the first time in the interview I feel savagely disappointed.

© Steven Wells, 1990

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