It’s a striking tableau – tinged with irony – that in the basement of a chalet overlooking Lake Geneva in the heart of Switzerland, a country famous for enjoying centuries of peace, rests one of the most extensive collections of artifacts from one of the most iconic battles in world history: The Alamo. Completing the compelling disconnect, the home is owned by English rock star Phil Collins, a man who, like many Europeans in his generation, fell in love with the spirit of the American West while sitting in front of the television as a boy in blue collar London.
“I have incredibly vivid memories of watching it,” Collins says on the phone from Abilene, TX, where he is participating in a tour promoting his book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, which documents in detail his Alamo artifact collection. Collins will be in Dallas speaking at FairPark on May 12.
“Certainly the last episode [of the Disney TV miniseries, Davy Crockett], which involved the Alamo, I was very moved by it,” he says. “I used to play it with my toy soldiers. It was a fad that didn’t pass. Then the John Wayne movie [The Alamo] came out in 1960. I was nine, and that was a real mindblower.”
When people who are familiar with Collins’ musical career (and who isn’t — Collins is one of three artists, along with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, who have sold more than 100 million albums both as a solo artist and a member of a band), hear about the drummer and singer’s life-long love of The Alamo, it raises eyebrows. It confuses the clichéd vision we have of rock stars, their presumed lack of intelligence and manners. There is something both boyishly innocent about his longstanding fascination with these stories of heroes and adventures, and something remarkably serious about how that romantic interest has taken shape in his adulthood. Collins’ new book is a well-researched and detailed tome. Each spread reveals an item – weapons, ammunition, personal belongings, clothing, and many, many letters – accompanied by detailed historical information provided by Collins. He admits he is an amateur historian, but, as his book reveals, a serious one at that.
“There is something like trainspotting about it,” Collins says. “But if you are going to write something, it’s going to have to be right. It is quite a daunting exercise; it’s a minefield. I’m very proud of it, and after I was done, I sent copies to my friends just to show them what I’ve been doing for the last two years.”
Making It Real
Collins purchased his first piece of Alamo memorabilia at a historic artifact dealer in Georgetown, in Washington D.C., while on tour with his band Genesis as a young man. He was browsing through letters by figures like Mussolini, Beethoven, and John F. Kennedy, when he saw a framed item on the wall with the name of his boyhood hero, Davy Crockett.
“And it was this whole concept of those things actually existing,” Collins said. “And a few years later I was collecting.”
Collins’ collection has been guided by that first principal, finding artifacts that are intimately connected to the events of The Alamo, that make the romantic stories concretely present.
“Trying to find things that were actually directly connected is very difficult,” he says. “I don’t buy everything that is offered me at all. I buy something that touches me or is part of the story.”
Some of Collins’ best finds have come through sourcing individuals and families. He was able to track down a Mexican family that held a number of Davy Crockett’s personal articles. He contacts older collectors who would rather see their items passed on to passionate aficionados than auctioned off as part of an estate after their death. In 2004, he even purchased a historic items shop inSan Antoniowith the intent of excavating underneath the building.
“We found a lot of personal items and canon handles and canon balls,” Collins says of the recent excavation.
Hardly any of the individual objects, however, compare to the first time Collins actually saw the Alamo itself, which was in 1973 while on tour with Genesis. The band had a few days off, and Collins and lead singer Peter Gabriel drove down to San Antonio.
“Peter’s emailed me about it recently,” Collins said. “And he remembers very well seeing it for the first time with me and the affect it had on us.”
The Hero And The Man
If there is a focus to Collins’ collection, it is his enduring fascination with his boyhood hero, Davy Crockett. While Collins admits that his research into The Alamo has deepened his understanding of the nuance of the historical situation surrounding battle – the claim Mexico had on the land and the way the myth of The Alamo makes its real history murky – that has only deepened his affection for the hero who’s character started it all, “A man going off and doing what he should even though he might get killed doing it,” as Collins puts it. “That appealed to me as a naïve youngster.”
Reading some of the letters and articles attributed to the American folk hero, you begin to see why Crockett would appeal to a public figure like Collins. In one letter in Collins’ collection, Crockett criticizes a biography that was published of him in 1836, complaining of exaggerations. Collins’ writes about Crockett’s unease with become known as something of a western icon:
“It’s possible that had Crockett survived the Alamo, or not even gone toTexas, this might have been his fate—becoming a larger than life attraction in his self-named show, “wowing” audiences all over the world.”
It is not difficult to imagine an identification Collins must have with Crockett and his own tempestuous life as an entertainer. Married three times, sustaining a career as a musician over many decades has taken its toll on his personal life. The book project has grounded him, and he now lives minutes away from his third ex-wife and their two young children. He says he is no longer that interested in music.
“I followed my nose most of the time, I put in so many air miles,” Collins said of his musical career. “And I just, you know, I don’t even listen to music that much. And I don’t want to disappoint people, but most of the time I was only listing to what we were doing and I was doing.”
In 2004, Collins completed a “farewell tour,” and since then, hand problems have inhibited his drumming. Now, he seems committed to stepping out of the limelight.
“I owed myself some time to sit back and ask myself, ‘What should I do today?’” he said. “I had to make a choice; I didn’t want to do it forever. I have two kids to raise, and there are other things in life.”