Special Features — 12 August 2016
Phil Collins: Take a look at him now

By Greg Carannante

City & Shore Magazine

It is almost Nic Collins’ moment.

The sweet-faced teenager sits quietly behind the drum kit, barely visible above the tom-toms. In front of him, his father is about to sing In the Air Tonight to a couple hundred guests invited to a recording studio in North Miami to witness Phil Collins rehearse for his first concert in almost six years.

Following a reverential introduction by his ex-wife, Orianne, with whom he reunited a year ago in Miami Beach, Collins limped to the microphone using a walking stick. Recent back surgery left his right foot temporarily numb. Wearing an untucked golf shirt and baggy trousers, his famous balding pate ringed by graying fuzz and his once-unavoidable mug shadowed with stubble, the 65-year-old looked, well, fatherly – vaguely resembling the hit-churning dynamo who energized the electric ’80s.

There had been comeback talk – both initiated and downplayed by Collins.

“I’m no longer officially retired,” he told Rolling Stone last year. Later, in a televised interview with Dan Rather, he admitted: “Well, I was on medication when I said that. I was just recovering from back surgery. I didn’t know anything about it, your honor.”

“I’ve got some lyrics I’ve written and I’ve not really thought about it,” he said in recent conversations with City & Shore. “I’m a little bit back, I’m not completely back.”

***

There is much to come back from. Collins is one of the most successful music makers ever. He has scored eight Grammys, an Oscar and, as drummer for Genesis, a home in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This, however, really says it all: He is one of only three performers to sell more than 100 million albums as solo artist and group member. The other two? Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson.

Comeback or not, he is enjoying a resurgence. On Aug. 29, he will headline the U.S. Open’s Opening Ceremony with a live performance of In the Air Tonight. He was integrally involved in the remastered reissues of his eight solo albums, which spawned seven No. 1 singles. The albums, also just released as the Take a Look at Me Now boxed set, feature a bonus disc and bold new covers identical to the originals – except the younger Collins’ face is swapped out for the older one. A hits collection, The Singles, follows in October.

An autobiography, Not Dead Yet, is due Oct. 25 from Crown Archetype. And artists like Lorde and Pharrell Williams have cited him as an influence. Adele even asked him to co-write a song for 25. Yes, after years of music industry disses for commercial overexposure, Collins is finally getting some props.

“Probably I got a bit annoying,” he told Dan Rather. “I was everywhere. ‘Get him out of here.’ ”

***

Here he is now, on a balmy March evening, rehearsing for the following night’s gala concert in Miami Beach to benefit the Little Dreams Foundation, which he co-founded with Orianne in 2000 to support talented youngsters. It is only a rehearsal, but it is Collins’ first performance in a long time – and he’s definitely feeling it.

Spinal problems have long kept him from drumming, but that voice is still there. When you hear it, you know it can only be Phil Collins. There are surely more artful vocal attributes, but perhaps none so valuable.

The drum machine starts to beat and that voice echoes no less hauntingly for the years: I can feel it coming in the air tonight. And you can almost can feel it – something is coming.

Press pause for a moment. There’s no more famous rock drum break than the one in this mysterious track that opened his first album, Face Value. In the Air Tonight is already over three minutes old when “the magic break” – it even has a name – comes from out of nowhere to detonate the song, which catapulted itself onto the Miami Vice soundtrack and Collins into solo stardom (and a guest spot on the show as “Phil the Shill”). Not to mention that surreal scene in The Hangover when Mike Tyson air-drums to it.

I can feel it coming in the air tonight – that voice more dire with each repetition. And up behind his battery, Nic sits quietly, waiting. Everyone can feel it coming now. But tonight what’s coming – unlike in the song – is no mystery. Tonight, Nic is the one who has been waiting for this moment all his life. Oh, Lord.

The moment comes, and all the power built up for years in a drummer god who can no longer drum – all of it seems to zap straight into the hands of his son. And in that moment, Nic not only nails the magic break – BA-DUM BA-DUM BA-DUM BA-DUM DUM DUM – he hammers it home over and over, elevating the song with a grand finale of tom-tom bombast. In the lingering awe and applause, one thing becomes clear: The night may have belonged to the father, but the moment – that belonged to the son.

***

Nicholas Collins, 15, was born with silver sticks in his hands and a drumbeat in his blood. That much was obvious at the rehearsal, where besides sitting in with his father, he drove his funk-rock band through a short set of covers and originals. The gala the next night was the group’s first gig, and though Collins held the adoration of the sold-out Fillmore audience, Nic had his moment there too.

Since then, WYK (or What You Know) has played venues as disparate as Sloppy Joe’s in Key West and last month’s renowned Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Also there, where the family once lived, the quartet has played on national television, two more Collins-headlined Little Dreams benefits and another major festival, Sion, opening for French rock icon Johnny Hallyday.

Born in early 2015 from Nic’s friendships at Miami Country Day School and Little Dreams, the group features Nick Aquilino (vocals), Joey Rodriguez (guitar) and Yannick Waingarten (bass). Their first EP is in the works.

Father: “They’re a great band. They know what they want to do. I find that very refreshing, that they’re not sitting on any fences.”

Son: “If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be drumming. He was the one who taught me at first. After that, he was always there in my corner, giving me pointers and telling me what was good and bad.”

Father: “Of course, I’m very proud. [Younger son] Matthew too is a wonderful soccer player. I try not to sound like a proud dad, but I have to own up when there’s talent there. With Nic, I’ve given him the opportunity to play, but I’ve never really taught him. It’s a bit like trying to teach your wife to drive. You should let somebody else do that.”

Son: “I don’t really know how old I was, but I’ve seen videos of my dad taking me on his lap and playing drums with him, but I started playing real drums at around 5. It’s obviously in my blood, but it’s been a lot of hard work. I wouldn’t be that good if it wasn’t for my drum teacher [J.P. Espiritusanto, also WYK’s manager].”

Father: “They rehearse at the house here, and the other day I just heard something and I gave them a bit of advice. I don’t have much to say, I let them get on with what they’re doing. But if I have something to say, they pay attention to it.”

Son: “I love my dad’s solo stuff. I listen to it most of the time. Musically, it’s like a masterpiece, but Genesis – the drumming on that is just fascinating.”

Father: “I’m very surprised just how quickly he’s matured. If I do anything else, he’s good enough to be the drummer, as far as I’m concerned.”

Nic will be the drummer for Collins’ U.S. Open performance.

***

While Phil’s effect on his son’s musical life is no shocker, Nic and Matthew, 12, have influenced their father’s life as well, which helps explain his absence from the music scene.

“When my kids moved here [with their mother after the 2008 divorce], my obligation to stay in their lives meant traveling. So touring was right out the window as far as I was concerned.”

When he moved here last year to help Orianne recover from prolonged paralysis following surgery, everything changed – including the couple’s relationship.

“Now we’re living together, and there’s a possibility of doing some shows, and them coming to see me,” Collins says. “You know, it’s a normal life, and I don’t have to consider all that traveling.”

“We always tell him to start doing music again,” Nic says. “He’s trying. I think it would touch most young people today.”

“With me it’s a question of turning the studio on and just seeing what happens,” Collins says. “Once it starts to happen – if it starts to happen – you get enthusiastic. I don’t deny the fact of writing, and the excitement that brings is something I would really like to do again. But I’m just taking it slowly. I’ve got a nice little rhythm of life here with the kids. We’ll see what goes on.”

What’s going on now is promoting Not Dead Yet.

“It’s not a ‘get even’ book,” says Collins, a memoir buff. “I treated it like I would treat an album. To me it’s an important thing, and if you’re going put it out, let’s make it as right as possible.”

As for that cheeky title?

“Oh yeah, that was something of mine. I have an English sense of humor. This is what keeps me going. There’s also a Monty Python-esque way of looking at it. The publishers were up in arms saying you can’t call a book this.

“Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of contemporaries this year, and some people would think it’s a nod toward that. But from my point of view, it’s just because so much has been made of my health that I’m kind of putting my hand up and saying, ‘I’m not dead yet.’ It’s meant to be humorous.

“But also there are still things to do.”

 

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