Come and Take a Look at Me Now

When British pop star Phil Collins revealed that he owned one of the largest collections of Alamo artifacts in the world and that a psychic had suggested he just might have been at the mission in a previous life, the world reacted with predictable scorn. But as with his music, Collins is willing to suffer for his passions.

Phil Collins reading the San Antonio Express-News

On a Saturday morning last April, Phil Collins was looking out the window of his suite atop San Antonio’s Hyatt Regency on the River Walk. It’s not the biggest or the priciest room in the hotel, the one in which you’d expect to find a pop star who’s sold more than 250 million records, but it’s the one Collins always asks for when he comes to town. That’s because it provides the best view of the Alamo, and at that moment he was making good use of it, his left index finger pressed lightly to the glass. “Crockett defended the palisade, of course, which is the row of sharpened wooden poles that ran diagonally from that end of the Alamo,” he said, pointing at the chapel’s south corner. “Outside that was what is called an ‘abatis,’ trees that had been cut down and pointed outwards to slow down the enemy. That’s why there wasn’t much killing in this area, because of the Tennesseans and their rifles, the cannons, and the abatis. So the Mexicans decided to attack other areas.”

He moved his finger down the window as he outlined the rest of the garrison. On the streets, sightseers filled the plaza, but Collins scarcely noticed. Occasionally he pulled his hand to his face and stroked his stubbled chin as he summoned the details, but then he pointed again. The pauses were brief. “Those white tents are where the lunette was, the main entrance. And the building where Bowie died was on that grass patch. The Mexicans tried to get up the wall here and here,” he said, moving his finger along Alamo Street before letting his gaze settle on the federal building to the left of the cenotaph, “until eventually everybody ended up here, around the north wall. Beyond there, behind the federal building, there’s a car park where Santa Anna had his battlefield headquarters. That’s where he stood and watched the north wall, sending in more and more troops. That wall was the weakest point of the Alamo, and he knew it. The Texans knew it too.”

We’d been together all of five minutes, but he talked as if he’d forgotten I was there. When I’d arrived, with a photographer and her assistant, he’d been the picture of proper English manners, waiting in the hallway for us as we got off the elevator, then ushering us into the suite he’d been in all week. The living area looked freshly tidied, with some manila folders, bearing handwritten titles like “Bowie Knife,” stacked neatly on the bar by an unopened complimentary bottle of wine. Through a doorway I noticed a bed that he’d clearly tried to make himself. He wore a pair of denim painter’s pants and a cream-colored polo with its collar flipped and an image of the Alamo over his heart. His beard appeared to sport three or four days’ worth of growth, his shaven head maybe one or two. He apologized as we entered for having no coffee or tea to offer.

Then he moved to the window and, without a question being asked, started to talk. His voice, that light tenor with the soft outer-London lilt, was instantly familiar. It had the transportive effect of old perfume, taking me straight back to the eighties and high school, to last-chance slow dances to the theme from Against All Odds and long, lonely nights with nothing to keep me company but the train scene from Risky Business. Back then he was all but ubiquitous, the diminutive drummer who somehow pulled off top-of-the-chart success both as a front man for Genesis and as a solo artist. His signature songs—which ranged from earnest, lovelorn ballads (“One More Night”) to bouncy, blue-eyed soul (“Sussudio”) to, particularly with Genesis, synth-heavy pop (“Invisible Touch”)—may have had a vanilla quality, but it was a vanilla beloved the world over; the only other artists to have sold more than 100 million records both in a band and on their own are Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. And it fit perfectly with the image presented in his videos, which dominated the early days of MTV: a slightly cheeky, altogether normal guy who just happened to create music that resonated with millions of people.

And now that voice, still pervasive on grocery-store playlists, was detailing one of the ghastlier moments in Texas history. “The more Mexicans that got shot trying to get over the north wall, the more their corpses mounted up, and the easier it became for others to climb up the bodies and get over. Once they got through, they went into the long barracks, which you can still see”—he pointed to the center of our view—“though it was a two-story building then, with the hospital on top. This is where the bloody, hand-to-hand fighting took place. That was pretty grim.”

So the morning went. He sounded like a college professor, the kind who never lectures to empty seats, authoritatively examining various accounts, buying some and dismissing others, and giving frequent personal asides that showed how much the history meant to him and how long he’d been thinking about it. He described the museumlike display in the basement of his home in Switzerland, which is believed to contain the world’s largest private collection of artifacts and documents from the Texas Revolution. He talked about his book, The Alamo and Beyond, scheduled to be published in March. It’s a coffee-table edition with photos and essays he’s written about each of the two hundred items in the collection. And he traced his fascination back to being a little kid playing Alamo with toy soldiers in his garden in England. “I didn’t have an official set, didn’t even know if one existed. I just made these soldiers the Texans and these the Mexicans. I’d tried to buy Dimitri Tiomkin’s fantastic sound track to John Wayne’s The Alamo, but I couldn’t get that either. So I used the ‘William Tell Overture.’

“And this is kind of interesting,”

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