Saturday, March 5, 2011

But, Seriously: Both Sides of Phil Collins and how we all grew up

A pop masterpiece.
Not many things are more cool than singing about an unbelievable girl who's too hot to hold, and few things on MTV were as unpretentious as the above video. Philip Bailey is SO awesome here, just an unadulterated tenor with rhythmic flourish that never loses the sense that he's really singing about something that matters.

Cool-as-uncool: the hip-t0-be=square mid 80s. The idea couldn't have asked for a better icon than Phil Collins. You can have a lot of fun poking at his un-rock star look, but when I looked in the mirror those days, I wasn't exactly looking at Rick Springfield or David Bowie myself. His image was, "I'm not going to bother with an image. I'm a tiny bald Englishman who looks like he could be picking up half his fans in a Chevy Astro van after school." He beat you to the joke---or maybe God did.

from the briefly-lived Insiders TV show, and the album GENESIS.

I guess at worst you could take that as smug, but really, he had the goods: soulful, unique voice, jazz and world music infused rhythms, and an ear for a hook you just couldn't get out of your head. He frankly had too much talent to sit on the sidelines just because he didn't look like Roger Daltrey. But what I think was happening was that punk and individualism and Do It Yourself had touched the mainstream in a cartoony sort of incarnation, and like with any rebellion that fails to change the world in more obvious ways, it left a jaded wake.

While Prince was questioning sexuality and spiritual values and Madonna was becoming the It Girl of pop fashion and Bruce Springsteen was just kinda selling out, Phil was delivering the goods in a "new Motown" sensibility, worshipping popular Black music of the late 60s and early 70's. Maybe you looked uncool or unathletic or normal to the point of mediocre, maybe your rebellion wasn't worn on your sleeve, maybe you worked a long job just for the privilege of the occasional lost weekend night. That didn't mean, in some sweet part of your inner world, you do not rock. That you do not have the words for your jealousy, or your overwhelmed feeling the girl you can barely talk to gives you. It's inside you, and that's all that matters.

I think the music scape of popular culture changed a lot after that. It's not just Phil making dentist office music for middle-aged affairs of the heart. He actually self-created in entirety an album called "Both Sides" that came just a little too late for me to get excited, after leaving home and maybe trying to sever the inertia of life as I'd known it, which I thought would lead towards such promises of "normal" success, until I ran out of tests to ace and felt torn towards my daydreams that far outlapped my developed talents.

"Both Sides" is the personal record that would've won a whole new generation of fans, besides the harried couples purchasing Tarzan Happy Meals for the soccer team. The wholesome veneer, and also the heavy identification with the times, meant change would have to sweep it away. Only a complete reinvention keeps an artist caring about their own work; as Bob Dylan put it, "he who isn't busy being born is busy dying."

I don't know if the message really got out to all its listeners---ask Jim Morrison about that one, right---but the style suddenly required the young to try to look outlandish again, and not like your Mommie dressed you. (Though that's how some Mommies dress their kids.) The music was loud still, but disturbing in a more psychotic way, a mix of social consciousness, self-righteousness, and abandoned hope as we watched the wickedness that brought power into the hands of the fewer and found a long list of boring, heartbreaking compromises that awaited our attempts at sanity and success. The lyrics became absurd and pointedly ironic, mocking the formulae of the industry for ITS absurdity---that the business of inspiration and feeling could be relegated and monopolized by focus-group-informed professionals.

For me, the importance of somehow not selling out, of clinging to some sweet bit of freedom and ideals and fun and very serious desire for change, the D.Y.I. ethos I tried to imitate, until I could really no longer live the ordinary life without a non-ordinary way. It meant putting aside the safe and expected to touch the genuine infusion of art touching earlier music, to glory in the risks that seemed now to be the blue print for those who create. It meant trying to hop onto the wave of hot music, getting in the know, staying current, staying as excited about a new cd I'd found as I could possibly be about anything in my life. I had to pose, but I was adamant in that pose.

Maybe I wasn't a suburban Oregon kid with all the latest bootlegs and demos, but I had a sincere yearning that would force me to try, however long it took to complement that desire with accessible performances, and the poverty and the brains to make it truthful and the phrase well-turned... even if almost no one heard it. To this day, it is really all I've got.

I think, for Phil Collins then, he doesn't have that. I would just argue with anyone who said he never did. There WAS a point. He was the rock star of our awkward phase, the appeal to boomers and their children to co-habitate in the same room or car. Maybe his attempt to cash in on his rising star in a fashion we consider the American Dream left open a sensitivity dating back to the days when he waited through 400 auditioners to finally become the new singer for Genesis after brilliant Gabriel left. What we really are, we hardly ever know, but when what we think we are gets too entangled with what others say we are, there can be harsh pains indeed.

But what he came from, I think, was interesting music indeed. That and some last comments and feedback will be in "That's All," after a short break.

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