“Get down off your horse, son,” Phil Collins is saying, “and get yourself some frijole beans.”
Well, he isn’t exactly using those words himself, he’s reciting them along with the actors as we sit in his house above Lake Geneva watching John Wayne’s classic 1960 movie The Alamo.
“No, sir!” Collins proclaims in unison with the young courier played by Frankie Avalon who has been sent out of the besieged garrison to deliver a message to General Sam Houston. “I’ve got to get back to the Alamo!”
Collins turns to me with a smile. “ ‘We’ve got to get back to the Alamo.’ That’s what I say to the guys when it’s time to get back to rehearsal after a break.”
Yes, it’s that Phil Collins, drummer and lead singer of Genesis, iconic solo artist of the 1980s, songwriter, producer, occasional actor, Broadway composer, Oscar and seven-time Grammy winner who has sold more than 200 million records. But it is also the Phil Collins who has amassed in the basement of his Switzerland house the world’s largest, most important collection of Alamo-era documents and artifacts in private hands, and who as the sole owner and curator of this unlikely museum has just released a book about his collection called The Alamo and Beyond, published by State House Press in Buffalo Gap, Texas.
“Hold on,” he says, rewinding the movie to a previous scene. “Here it comes.”
It is the big act two turning point. The men in the Alamo have just learned that help is not coming. They are hopelessly outnumbered by the Mexican army. Colonel William Travis, despised as a preening martinet by rival commander Jim Bowie, calls the garrison together and bids them goodbye. They are free to go. He himself will stay and fight.
Collins leans forward on his sofa, remote in hand, staring at the screen. He wears a blue striped polo shirt with the collar turned up and uncreased chinos in a subtle mustard shade. He has the quiet, stoic, melancholy temperament you might expect from listening to his music, but just now he is almost buzzing with delight as Bowie, played by Richard Widmark, slowly walks across the Alamo courtyard to stand side by side with Travis.
“There’s the look, there’s the look!” Collins declares, as Travis (played by Laurence Harvey in intermittent command of a Southern accent) shifts his eyes in gratitude to Bowie for having chosen to join his former antagonist in certain, glorious death.
“Look at that,” Collins says with a tinge of wonder in his voice, as he reaches down and scratches the ears of his parson’s terrier (name: Travis). “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
This half-century-old glance between two long-dead actors, lasting only a few frames, could be regarded as the moment that set Phil Collins on the path to becoming the world’s most obsessive, most acquisitive, most visible Alamohead. His baseline infatuation with the Alamo, though, is hardly an isolated case. The 1836 battle—in which a small group of Texas insurgents, including Davy Crockett, fought to the last man to defend a crumbling old mission against the forces of Mexican dictator Santa Anna—has always been a lodestone for individuals with dreamy temperaments who are helplessly drawn to the myth of romantic annihilation.
Phil Collins certainly fit that description when he was 9 or 10 years old and first saw The Alamo. He lived in Hounslow, Middlesex, in a semi-detached three-bedroom suburban house, the youngest—by almost 10 years—of three children of Greville and June Collins. Mr. Collins was a company man, off to the City every day to work for Sun Alliance Insurance, mildly confounded by his three artistically bent offspring. (“My brother was a cartoonist and my sister was an ice skater. Dad pleaded for one normal child—then I took up the drums.”) Collins’ mother ran a toy store and later a theatrical agency, where she helped her younger son make a promising start as a child actor. (He played the Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver.) From her, perhaps, sprung his own urgent imaginative responses to movies and music.
“I went with some of my good friends to see The Alamo,” he recalls. “But I was the only one who came out converted.”
It was not his first Alamo epiphany. A few years earlier, he had seen Fess Parker in Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, the 1955 Walt Disney television serial—also released as a movie—that came out of nowhere to weave a profound cultural spell on the baby boomer children of the United States.
“I have very vivid memories of the black-and-white TV in the corner of the room, of watching the Fess Parker thing serialized. I must have seen the last section, because I remember seeing the Alamo scene and being fascinated by it.”
But he was a lonely Alamo fanatic, as he would remain for most of his life. “It was my secret,” he wistfully remembers. At the time he happened upon the Disney version of the Crockett story, America was flooded with coonskin caps and toy flintlock rifles and lunch boxes, but in terms of frenetic tie-in marketing, England was seriously underserved. If you were a young boy who wanted to be Davy Crockett, you had to improvise.
“My sister told me my grandmother even cut up her fur coat to make the hat for me,” he says. “I longed for a tassled jacket for years, well into my teens.”
After the John Wayne movie came out, he couldn’t get a record of Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificently stirring soundtrack, so as a substitute he put the “William Tell Overture” on the turntable while he played “Texans and Mexicans” using toy soldiers outfitted in wrong uniforms from the wrong war. (“There was not a Mexican soldier to be had in England anywhere.”)
“I think I’ve always been a romantic person,” he reflects when I press him about why the Alamo story struck such a deep chord. “That comes across obviously in later years with the songs. Having been married three times, it wouldn’t seem to come across like that. But out of those three marriages I only jumped once; I was pushed twice. Sentimental is the word I’m looking for.
“The men in the Alamo were there to do the right thing. We all know, with all the revisionism that has gone on, that everything was not necessarily as it was represented in the movies, but I still get a lump in my throat.”
Such were the emotions that drew Phil Collins deep into Alamo thralldom, and that hold him there still as a man of 60. But there is also another binding element, one that publications such as the UK’s Daily Mail snarkily cite as evidence that Collins is “one drumstick short of a pair”: the idea that in a previous life he might have been at the Alamo himself.
“Not that I believe that sort of thing,” he says—though it sure seems as if he believes that sort of thing, or at the very least is open to this thought experiment: He, Phil Collins, is the reincarnation of John W. Smith, the Alamo’s last messenger, who rode through the Mexican lines with a plea for reinforcements three days before the fort fell, and who later served as mayor of San Antonio.
In the mid ’90s, Phil Collins’ third wife, from whom he is now divorced and with whom he shares custody of two young sons, gave him an unusual gift. Knowing of his deep interest in the Alamo, she had purchased a piece of paper from an antiquarian dealer. It was an old receipt for the sale of John W. Smith’s horse, saddle and bridle, made out a month or so after the Alamo battle. The receipt captivated Collins and became the very first item in what would grow to become his own massive collection.
The gift also cracked open a paranormal window. In 2009, Collins was at a famous party in San Antonio held during what is known in Alamo circles as the High Holy Days, the week leading up to March 6, the date of the final Mexican assault. One of the guests at the party, Carolyn Raine-Foreman, who describes herself as a “spiritual clairvoyant,” took Collins aside and informed him that he had been John W. Smith in a previous life. “I could feel that there was something else with him,” Raine-Foreman told me, “a deeper connection. It made perfect sense that for somebody who grew up far away in England, there had to be something more driving him than just a casual interest in the Alamo.”
Collins talks about Raine-Foreman’s revelation in an unforced, who-am-I-to-say-it-isn’t-true sort of way. He suggests there are other hints of harmonic convergence. Those toy soldiers he played with as a kid, for instance. When he had finished reenacting the Battle of the Alamo with his ersatz Texans and Mexicans, he would surrender to an inexplicable desire to put the plastic soldiers in a pile and burn them. Many years later he learned that Santa Anna had ordered the bodies of Alamo defenders immolated on funeral pyres.
There were also these…orbs. They started showing up in the photographs Collins took on his last trip to Texas: ghostly circles that appeared in front of the Alamo, or in the limestone rooms and open spaces where the defenders had been slain.
“See?” he says as he opens his laptop and points to a pale, almost translucent dot in a photograph taken of the Alamo at dawn. “That’s extraordinary. There’s no reason for that to be there. And here’s another one. This one moves from one photo to the next.”
When he first saw the real Alamo, in 1973, there had been no occult overtones, just the startling sight of the place itself. He and Peter Gabriel and Richard Macphail were on a three-day break from Genesis’ first American tour. They had rented a car and driven madly across the country, stopping at the Grand Canyon and Hot Springs, Ark., and—unforgettably for Collins—San Antonio, Texas. They drove west on Houston Street and turned south onto Alamo Plaza and suddenly there it was, the famous Alamo church whose facade Collins had been drawing since he was a boy. “It was stirring and emotional,” he says. “It was like meeting the Beatles.”
In the decades that followed, he made a few sporadic and fleeting visits to San Antonio, but he was in his 50s before his touring schedule slackened enough for him to return to the Alamo on a regular basis. He became, he writes in the introduction to his book, “one of the gang. The ladies in the gift shop smile and say hello and seem genuinely pleased to see me. I feel I’m part of the Alamo family, and for a grown up kid like me, that’s all I ever wanted to be.”
During a visit in 2004, he wandered into the History Shop, a store specializing in old maps and books and documents that is located just beyond where the long-vanished walls of the Alamo compound stood. Collins had been acquiring documents and artifacts for years but when he met Jim Guimarin, the History Shop’s owner, his collection rapidly expanded. Guimarin began to act as a treasure scout for Collins, tracking down rare items and helping to authenticate them. In 2007, Collins even sponsored an archaeological dig at the History Shop, unearthing hundreds of items—buckles, musket balls, horseshoes—left behind by Mexican soldiers.
Phil Collins’ house in the village of Féchy doesn’t look like a museum, nor is it a showcase of rock star opulence. It’s a tranquil, relatively unimposing residence perched above terraced vineyards, through whose living room windows on clear days Mont Blanc can be seen shining on the far side of the lake.
The Alamo collection is in the basement. A disinterested visitor could breeze through it in 20 minutes, but Collins knows I’m a fellow Alamohead so he has set aside the better part of two days to show it to me. He unlocks a door and leads me down the basement stairs, past walls covered with framed documents and illustrations, including a painting by the historical artist Gary Zaboly depicting Collins as a member of the Alamo garrison, as well as a city proclamation naming Collins as an “Emissary of the Muses of San Antonio.”
“I’m also an honorary Texas marshal,” Collins points out in a droll tone. “I can actually arrest people.”
The bulk of the collection takes up most of the wall space along a central basement hallway. Kentucky rifles and Brown Bess muskets and Mexican officers’ swords are mounted along one side, above elegant display cases containing shooting pouches and cannonballs and powder horns. On the other side of the hallway, displayed in frames custom-made for Collins by a Geneva artisan, is an array of early 19th-century documents—letters, receipts, maps, circulars—that cover the wall almost from floor to ceiling.
“Why don’t we do the documents first?” he suggests. He wants to be thorough. I know many of these documents by reputation; they are well-known primary sources for scholars of the period. I have also read an early proof of Collins’ book, which is essentially a heavily illustrated (and, at $120, heavily expensive) catalog of his collection, with engaging commentary from the author about the significance and backstory of every piece of paper or cannonball fragment he has acquired.
Collins lingers at each document, letting me get a good long look. He clearly enjoys showing off his collection to a visitor who is capable of experiencing a geeky frisson at the sight of a period Mexican military map of the Alamo compound, or a letter from Mexican general Manuel de Mier y Terán offering Stephen F. Austin advice for growing silkworms in Texas.
Collins points with particular pride to a framed scrap of paper at the end of the hallway. Here is the famous (well, famous to a small circle of historians and enthusiasts) promissory note that Travis scrawled on February 23, 1836, the day the siege of the Alamo began. The note acknowledges that “30 heads of Beeves” have been acquired from San Antonio citizen Ignacio Perez, for which he will be reimbursed 413 pesos at a later date by the government of Texas. What makes this letter so important is that it is one of the very few primary documents to survive the siege and fall of the Alamo. What makes it so electric is the knowledge that it was written by an untested 26-year-old lawyer-turned-soldier who had just been surprised by the arrival of Santa Anna’s army and now was desperately trying to arrange for provisions as he ordered his men behind the walls of the old Spanish mission that would become one of history’s most famous deathtraps.
Nearby hangs the John W. Smith receipt that ignited Collins’ collecting obsession. He and I examine it together. It records the sale of Smith’s horse, saddle and bridle for $118 “for the service of the Republic of Tejas.” Perhaps I am indeed standing next to Smith’s reincarnated spirit, in the form of a rather world-weary international pop star, but the charge this document carries for me is less about the presence of the supernatural than the equally confounding and tantalizing presence of history itself.
I turn to Collins. “So that’s got to be the saddle Smith rode out of the Alamo on.”
“That’s what I like to think,” he says.
We stand there soaking in its significance for a moment more, and then Collins declares it’s time to start on the artifacts.
The artifacts are the three-dimensional prizes of his collection: muskets, rifles, cannonballs, knives, swords, pistols, buttons and belt buckles that line the other side of the hallway and spill into another room where empty display cases wait for the objects Collins has yet to buy. He shows me a mule’s pack saddle (“It’s in amazing condition actually”), some corroded cutlery (“That’s rare, that spoon”), a fearsome ax carried by a member of the Mexican zapadores battalion, the combat engineering unit that used such tools to batter down the Alamo’s walls and doors in the final assault, and a rifle that Collins says belonged to an Alamo defender named John Jones and has a splintered stock that may be the result of Jones using it as a club as Mexicans advanced with their bayonets. He opens one of the display cases and lets me hold perhaps the most exquisite item in his collection, a period Bowie knife of such lethal size and heft that I imagine it weighs 50 pounds, but which is so masterfully balanced it seems to float in my hand.
It is a magnificent example of a Bowie knife of the correct vintage, and the initials “JB” are engraved on the knife guard. But is it the same knife Jim Bowie himself used at the Alamo, the one that victorious Mexican soldados pried from his dead hands? Collins is clearly happy to believe so, but he doesn’t press the case either in person or in his book, where he allows that the weapon “has lived a life of controversy.”
“It’s things like this that I know people will say, ‘Prove it,’ ” he admits, but he doesn’t seem to mind if people think him a little credulous. Collins is not a trained historian, he insists more than once during my visit. He is an enthusiast, a collector and, of course, still a romantic.
As we continue our tour of his collection, I notice an open door leading to a big room with a drum set, a mixing board and framed photos of Collins with Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and Ginger Baker. He tells me this is where he recorded his last album, the Motown retrospective Going Back.
But he will probably not be recording here again, or anywhere else. On Genesis’ 2007 reunion tour, he noticed that he wasn’t delivering any power to the drums from his left hand. He blamed the steadily worsening problem—some sort of nerve damage—on his lifelong slouchy drumming posture. Two surgeries failed to correct it, and now he has reached a point where he has trouble gripping anything with his left hand. He can no longer play the drums, he can no longer span the piano keyboard to compose songs.
“It is and it isn’t frustrating,” he says as we stand in his silent studio. “I find the real life part of it, gripping things, reaching for things, more frustrating than the music part. I don’t care if I don’t write any more songs. I don’t care if I don’t go on tour again. I’ve done that.”
I ask a few more questions, but he sounds weary of talking, not just of his injury but of his whole career. He seems, genuinely, to be through with all that. Phil Collins has spent the previous 18 months not making music but writing his book, and his career, believe it or not, is now pretty much the Alamo. Whether this is a crazy development or not depends upon who you are, how receptive you are to the spell of a mythic story, whether you yourself had once been an impressionable boy who had happened to catch a glimpse of the buckskin-clad Davy Crockett on your TV screen, or been forever changed at the movies by the sight of a simple glance.
We walk out of the studio and he closes the door behind him and leads me back through his basement museum. We haven’t yet made our way through all the artifacts, and there is more stuff he wants to show me: Sam Houston’s snuffbox and a flattened cannonball that he says hit the Alamo wall and what he believes, but cannot really prove, was Travis’ sword belt, made of red Moroccan leather with gleaming gold buckles.
“Phil Collins Remembers the Alamo” appeared in the April 2012 issue of American History.