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Paranormal orbs and the dark side of Phil Collins

One of the defining societal and psychological traits of electric media culture, stretching back many decades, is its collective wholesale infatuation with the cult of celebrity, which is of course a severely debased form of traditional hero worship.

For a surprisingly riveting look behind the curtain and smokescreen of the whole sorry phenomenon, see the March 2011 interview with Phil Collins in Rolling Stone, which several people have been bouncing around the social media milieu for the past couple of days. The interview originally appeared right when a widespread “I hate Phil Collins” meme was at its peak, and it showed how Collins had gone from standing at the very center and pinnacle of the culture and industry of musical celebrity in the 1980s to becoming, in shockingly rapid fashion, an object of widespread hatred and mockery after that decade’s ephemeral styles and attitudes cycled out of fashion in the way that such things always, egregiously do.

It also featured Collins talking about his collection of Alamo memorabilia — which is the largest in the world, and which has famously supplanted music to become his new life’s work and passion — and about the paranormal possibility that he himself was present for the Alamo’s famous fall in a former life, a speculation supported by unsolicited information from a self-proclaimed psychic plus stacks of photos that Collins has taken at Alamo battlefields that show multiple “orbs” of the infamously spectral variety.

It’s a fascinating read, all in all, and really one to engender reflection — and to generate a surprising sense of melancholy — if you just let it unfold, especially since you don’t have to be a psychologist or literature professor to notice the profound irony and symbolism of Collins’ expressed fascination with the ghosts of fallen soldiers, given the context of his overall life trajectory. In some ways the piece as a whole reads like a kind of prophetic parable about the spiritual underside or downside of celebrityhood for everybody involved, including not just the celebrities themselves but for all of us who are caught in this warped psychic space of overwrought, overblown hype and egoism.

Who people think Phil Collins is derives mainly from how absolutely everywhere he was in the 1980s. It’s almost impossible to overstate . . . . But then a curious thing happened. The Eighties ended and the Nineties began in a whole different mood, with Nirvana and other punk-influenced bands establishing grunge as the dominant musical force. In many ways, grunge’s threadbare, garage-rock sound was a direct reaction to the overblown, synth-heavy bombast of the previous decade — and no one typified those excesses more than Collins. In the summer of 1994, reports began circulating that Collins had informed his (second) wife that he wanted a divorce — via fax. He denied it vehemently, and the fax itself was never produced, but no matter: Suddenly, it was open season on the guy. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher started hammering on him any time he could, to uproarious effect. Among his choicest bons mots: “You don’t have to be great to be successful. Look at Phil Collins” and “People hate fucking cunts like Phil Collins, and if they don’t, they fucking should.” And so it’s gone, especially on the Internet, where I Hate Phil Collins sites have flourished. He gets criticized for everything. For his hair, for his height, for his pants (pleated khakis), for his shirts (tucks them in), for being “a shameless, smirking show hog.”

“I don’t understand it,” he says, looking pained. “I’ve become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it’s the radio that plays them all the time. I mean, the Antichrist? But it’s too late. The die is cast as to what I am.”

. . . [He] sits at a laptop, where he pulls up picture after picture of the modern-day Alamo and related battle sites, various angles and times, and in the majority of them, soft little glowing balls, whitish in color and semitransparent, sometimes a few, sometimes a great many, seem to be hovering in the air.

“They’re orbs,” Collins says solemnly. “I’m not sure what the scientific term is, but it’s paranormal energy. See this one? Now this one is at Goliad, where, after the Alamo, 400 guys were executed. You’ve got to be careful. You can talk yourself into this stuff. See how many there are here? I get chills just talking about it. All of those orbs! They’re all over the place! If you believe this, then you have to rethink everything you’ve been taught. That’s what freaks me out.”

Finally, he goes back to talking about what the clairvoyant had told him: “I don’t want to sound like a weirdo. I’m not Shirley MacLaine. But I’m prepared to believe. You’ve seen the pictures. You can’t deny them, so therefore it is a possibility that I was here in another life.” And he says lots more about this, too, all of which proves he’s not the bland dude everyone thinks he is. He’s got a lot of multidimensional fringe in him, and once he gets going on the Alamo, he seems thrilled to be talking about anything and anyone but himself.

. . . [T]here does seem to be some serious darkness in him as well. He has spent time imagining battle scenes at the Alamo. “At one point, the Mexicans were killing each other. It was dark, and you killed anything that moved. And then when they attacked the last line of defense, it was hand-to-hand fighting and they went around decapitating all the bodies and making sure they were dead. ‘What must that have been like?’ I think. And you have things like that coming over your head all the time.” He bites his nails. “I’m fascinated by what people will do to each other,” he goes on. “Actually, I’m sort of interested in the gory details of life.”

. . . “Everything has added up to a load that I’m getting tired of carrying,” he continues. “It’s gotten so complicated. It’s the three failed marriages, and having kids that grew up without me, and it’s the personal criticism, of being Mr. Nice Guy, or of divorcing my wife by fax, all that stuff, the journalism, some of which I find insulting. I wouldn’t say that I have suicidal tendencies over my career or bad press. They’re just another chink in the wall. It’s cumulative. You can say, ‘Grow up, man, everybody gets criticism.’ I know that. And I’ve philosophically adjusted to it. But does that make it any more pleasurable? No.” And that’s the trouble with wishing you were somebody else. As much as you may want it, you know it’ll never happen, at least not in this lifetime.

More: “Phil Collins’ Last Stand: Why the Troubled Pop Star Wants to Call It Quits