Pop star Phil Collins’s fascination with the Alamo began when he was a boy watching Fess Parker in Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. That show sparked a love of the frontier in many a young boy during the fifties—and it stuck with Collins. But after the singer-songwriter revealed that he owned one of the largest collections of Alamo artifacts in the world and that a psychic had suggested he might have been at the mission in a previous life, the media—and the rest of the world—reacted with predictable scorn. But senior editor John Spong was intrigued and contacted him. That call led to a two-year-long dialog that Spong writes about in the January 2012 issue. Here’s the story behind the story.
Why do you think the Alamo is such an important historic event to certain people?
There are a bunch of things that make the Alamo story resonate so strongly with people. For one, everybody loves a hero, a figure who accomplishes some feat that the rest of us probably couldn’t pull off. Then, as you get into the Alamo’s specifics, other details magnify that. The outnumbered Alamo defenders were underdogs. Though there were complicated political and cultural factors at play, on a most basic level they were fighting for independence. They fought to the death. And that sacrifice is the creation story of Texas.
But every Alamo buff I talked to added that one key aspect of the battle keeps the Alamo alive for them in a way other heroic struggles aren’t. None of the defenders survived to give their depiction of what happened. As Collins said when we talked, even the massacre at Thermopylae had its messenger. Not so for the Alamo. So the buffs will always keep searching for a more complete explanation of what happened.
For us youngsters, or people not familiar with him, who is Fess Parker and why does Phil Collins like him?
When Fess Parker played Davy Crockett in the 1954 Walt Disney show Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, he kicked off a pop culture phenomenon that might be hard to understand today. Back then there were only three TV networks, so everybody ended up watching the same shows. And when they saw Parker play Crockett, they all fell in love with him. The show’s theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” sold ten million copies. Realizing there was a mass marketing opportunity, the Disney folks started churning out Crockett memorabilia, and by the end of 1955, there were more than three thousand different Crockett items available, such as lunch boxes, dolls, pop-guns, and, above all, coonskin caps. Every kid had to have one. I read somewhere that an estimated 75 percent of kids’ Christmas gifts in 1955 were Crockett-related. So if you think you see a lot of kids now wearing Justin Bieber haircuts—which actually look a little like coonskin caps—multiply that by about a million.
In your opinion, what was the most interesting item in Phil Collins’s collection that he told you about?
The first item that got my attention was that receipt Colonel Travis signed for the beeves he brought into the Alamo the day the siege started. I’d known about those cows since I’d first read Travis’s letter in my seventh grade Texas history class. But it had never occurred to me that a receipt for the purchase was out there somewhere. Suddenly I realized that that history was born out of an otherwise normal, everyday event, and that a person could hold a piece of it in his hands.
How have your impressions of Collins changed since your interviews with him?
As we say in the story, the eighties are an easy thing to make fun of, and as one of the pop culture figures most associated with that time, Collins has been an easy mark as well. Those songs—or more specifically, those synthesizers—have fallen way out of fashion. And so when the story first came to our attention three years ago, we looked at it as a kind of short, left-field, man-bites-dog story. It just seemed weird. And funny.
Then I met Collins. He could not have been kinder or more unassuming. When I tried to get an interview with him, I wasn’t directed to some access-restricting publicist, the kind who is paid to say “No” to reporters. I was told to call the president of the Alamo Defenders’ Descendants Association. And then, when Collins didn’t have time to talk that first weekend, he took my phone number down and promised to call. Not only did he call—which was a real surprise—he talked to me for about an hour. And then, when I told him I thought this was a bigger story that the magazine could hold indefinitely, so that he and I could spend time face-to-face in San Antonio, he agreed to make that time for me.
Over the course of the next two years I’d get occasional, unsolicited texts and emails from him that said things like this: “You’ll never forgive me. Was in San Ant and Dallas for three days and forgot to call. In NY now…[but will be] back in March for sure, maybe earlier. So sorry. PC.”
It turned out that he was really just a nice, normal guy, who happened to love the Alamo. And when I saw the way other reporters had treated him, it seemed important to show him some respect.
You said Collins tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Was there anything that he wasn’t willing to talk about? Or was reluctant to discuss?
Nope. And that was the most surprising thing about working on a story about him. He really is every bit as open and confessional in his conversation as he is in his songwriting. I figured that out in our first long talk on the phone, when he brought up his past marriages out of the blue.
Then a friend of mine directed me to an episode of NPR’s This American Life called “Break-Up.” There’s a segment of that show entitled “Dr. Phil,” in which a woman who’s been dumped by her boyfriend decides she needs to write a break-up song to get over him. One of the songs they had liked to listen to together was the Against All Odds theme, so when the woman is unable to create a song on her own, she tries to get in touch with Collins. Well, he calls her back. And after a very personal discussion of how music can help deal with failed relationships, he co-writes her break-up song with her.