In a new series exclusive to FlipCollective.com, noted music historian Tom Dinard uncovers, through hours of interviews with the artist, the meaning of the oft-misunderstood prose that accompanies your favorite classic rock music.
FlipCollective.com is proud to present the first installment of “Behind the Lyrics.”
(Thanks to Phil Collins for spending four weeks with Dinard in Montserrat, and thank you for your continued patronage.)
Over the years, people without the ability to understand anything other than literal English took the first verse of “In the Air Tonight” and assumed that the true meaning of the song lay therein. Taking these constructions of letters into words and adding rumour and a few flourishes, even without the benefit of the internet, a dramatic, chilling revenge plot for the musical ages was concocted
Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before, my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am
Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies.
Picture the concert hall in which Collins has set up the ultimate act of shame for the man he saw allowing his girlfriend to drown.
Actually, first, let’s rewind to the scene of the drowning itself.
It was probably some foggy river in foggy England back when foggy Collins had more than just that little dollop of hair hanging in the center of his forehead and hadn’t yet thought of stealing Peter Gabriel’s costumes (or songwriting ability). Before he pre-humblebragged by taking the Concorde on the day of Live Aid just so he could play “Against All Odds” in London and Philadelphia and then say, “Only a fool such as I would do such a thing.”
So Phil Collins is 19 years old and his beloved, who’s been on his mind (all the time) but doesn’t even know his name (but he thinks she loves him just the same) is swimming naked during high tide. Collins goes off to get a packet of crisps, thinking, “Tonight, tonight, tonight. Oh. Oh. I’m gonna make it right, tonight, tonight, tonight,” because earlier that week his girlfriend had proven that she had an invisible touch that reached in and wrapped right hold of his heart (and other organs). On his way back, he notices that his girlfriend is drowning and that there’s a man sitting by the bank of the river smoking a fag, doing nothing about the waterborne catastrophe that is taking place not twenty yards away. Collins doesn’t have time to argue with the stationary bloke. He’s got to save his girl, who’s now being taken to Leeds by the current.
“Su … su … sudio!” he yells, but to no avail. He’s thrown it all away.
When he walks back to the bank to get in his Citroen and drive to the nearest magistrate’s office, the man is gone. But he remembers his face, and one day while he’s in the post office and he sees an advertisement for a local barrister and recognizes the face of that man – oh, that man! – he devises a plan. Oh, we should mention that by now it’s the early 1980s and Gabriel has been a Genesis afterthought for a while and Collins and Mike Mechanics and the other guy are as rich as the Queen Mother and snorting coke off each other’s cocks backstage (Collins couldn’t confirm this despite four weeks of interviews in Barbados, or somewhere) and they’re playing Wembley Stadium and it’s sold out and they’re expecting 240,000 people with flags in their hands.
Collins sends a front-row ticket to the guy who watched his girlfriend drown all those years ago, and as the lights dim on the stage and the crowd comes to a hush and Mechanics’ guitar rages into the intro of a never-before-played tune, “In the Air Tonight,” Collins looks straight ahead into the front row and sings that verse and sears his flaming red eyeballs into the flaming red eyeballs of the accused, the words burning a hole in the guilty one’s soul.
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord
And then Collins realizes it’s the wrong guy.
No, wait! It’s the right guy, it’s just the wrong seat! Yes, that’s it! He sent him the front row of the section right on the side of the stage, not in front! How silly! Of course!
Collins quickly remembers between drum fills that he was a little wasted when he filled out the guest list. And the road manager was so concerned with getting the right kind of Beluga on the rider that maybe a few things got confused. Anyway, where is that God-I-miss-Sussudio-not-doing-anything-while-she-was-drowning-bastard motherfucker?
Oh, right. Side stage!
Collins looks to his right and sees him now. Perfect timing, too:
Well I remember, I remember, don’t worry, how could I ever forget
It’s the first time, the last time we ever met
But I know the reason why you keep your silence up, oh no, you don’t fool me
Well the hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows
It’s no stranger to you and me
And then the drums. Oh, the drums!
Duh-duh, de-duh, de-duh, de-duh duh-duh, BOOM!
Instead of harping on what this song really means, let me tell you a little bit about what Phil Collins and I did while we were working on this hard-hitting interview in, uh, Barbados. First we checked out his home by the sea. Then we checked out his second home by the sea. Then I got tired of eating all that conch chowder and getting massages from beautiful brown women and told him I was bored.
“It’s just another day of you and me, living in paradise,” I said. And then we went snorkeling. And he told me who “Billy” was in “Billy, don’t you lose my number.” I’ll save that one for a future installment.
I’ve got to go now. Just when I thought it was going alright, I found out I’m wrong when I thought I was right.
Better luck next week, I write about Mikey from the Life cereal commercials mixing Pop Rocks with Rod Stewart’s semen.
For more from Tom …