Performer: Phil Collins
Songwriter: Phil Collins
Original Release: Face Value
Definitive Version: Eric Clapton & Friends, 1992. I decided to list the performer as PC, although technically, it was Clapton, with Phil on lead vocals. Phil, of course, toured with Clapton in 1986, playing drums. Apparently, EC turned over the mic once a night, so, as he says in the video, the crowd could hear “that song” again.
Aside from the licks that Clapton throws in here and there, I love this version particularly for Phil’s drumming, which is more chaotic than usual even live, and the duet of Phil and Clapton’s keyboard player, Greg Phillinganes, on harmony during the second chorus.
In the Air Tonight is unquestionably a great song. Here I mean great as in one of the greatest rock songs ever, not just as in it’s one of my favorites. I know Phil has taken a lot of pipe for the lameness of his solo music for many years. I was one of the first ones off the bandwagon after he titled an album of political material “But Seriously” as if to indicate that all of his previous heartbreaking songs about breakups weren’t serious.
A few years ago, Rolling Stone did a story about Phil retiring from music to his home in Switzerland and his obsession with The Alamo. Phil was pretty bitter—the years of having everyone rip him beat him down. What I remember most were the letters printed a few weeks later.
One was from a drummer from a big-name metal band. I don’t think it was Iron Maiden or Megadeth, but it was someone like that, Anthrax maybe. Anyway, his letter was direct and to the point, telling Phil, “You were the freakin’ drummer of GENESIS. You don’t have to apologize to anyone. Hold your head high.” I hope Phil read that letter, from someone you’d think would pile on him, and took it to heart. No apologies—or jacket—required.
This song had an epic apocrypha when I was in college. Maybe you know it: Late one night, Phil came upon someone drowning in a river. Phil was ready to help when he recognized the drowning man as the same guy who years before broke into his home, tied Phil down and forced him to watch the intruder rape Phil’s wife.
So now when Phil saw him drowning, he chose to “not lend a hand.” Instead, he watched the intruder go down, slowly, gloriously to the point where by the end of the song, he’s going insane in bloodlust while exacting the ultimate revenge.
It was presented as a true story. Of course, it isn’t. The song is about Phil’s painful first divorce. I think we knew that all along, but the story was so much better than the reality.
Well, I just happen to have my own version of In the Air Tonight. The difference was this one IS true. It happened in March 1986, and I was the man in the river … at least to the guy on the bridge watching me flail about.
The Thursday evening started innocently enough. I was in my apartment at Wabash, watching the NCAA Tournament after completing my studies for the day and starting my four-day weekend of watching basketball. Matt was visiting his girlfriend at Earlham, so just Matt’s dog, Ziggy, and I were home.
There was a knock on the door. At the time, Matt and I didn’t lock the door to our apartment until the end of the day. If we were supposed to feel more unsafe than we did, we just didn’t give it that much thought. So I yelled out, “Come on in,” like I typically did in such situations.
The door opened, and in walked Liv, who was the secretary to the dean of the college. “Hi.” Behind her, however, was a large man I’d never seen before. “What’s going on?” Liv just said, “it’s all right, Will. It’s all right.” She stood closer to me than him, and he looked at her and said, “Is THIS the one?”
In that instant, I understood the gravity of the situation: This man, who must have been Liv’s husband, thought we’d been having an affair. I also knew that if he had a gun, I might be dead in the next few seconds. Fortunately, because this was a more civilized and less fearful time in our country’s history, he wasn’t packing.
I tried to take control of the situation as they began—well, continued, really—to fight. “Look. I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I said to the man, knowing Liv wasn’t about to go anywhere. “I’m not leaving without her,” he said. “No, she can stay, but you need to leave.” “Stay out of this, Will.” “No, you’re in MY apartment. You need to leave.”
Then he grabbed Liv and tried to pull her out of the apartment, and Liv started screaming and fighting him, which led to (in retrospect) the funny moment of all this. Ziggy knew a bad man when she saw one. As the man was trying to drag Liv out of the apartment, ZIggy, with her few good teeth remaining, latched onto his pants and was growling and pulling. Ziggy was about the size of this guy’s boot, but she was all in. Grrrrr. Grrrrr. Grrrrrr. Good dog!
The commotion attracted the attention of the women who lived in the apartment above me and Matt, and they opened the door and yelled down, “Hey! What’s going on!” He yelled at them to stay out of it, and Liv seized that opportunity to break free and run into my apartment. I quickly shut the door and locked it. Then I ran to the phone and called 911, as he started to pound on the door, demanding I open it again.
Not a chance. I stayed on the phone, loudly reporting that a man was trying to break into my apartment, so he could hear. Fortunately, he wasn’t suicidal—and truth be told, since I wasn’t already dead—murderous, so he left while I was on the phone. The dispatcher said they were sending someone over right away.
After I got off the phone, Liv was crying, and I took her into my bedroom, which was out of sight. I tried comforting her, but I was incapable of that, lacking any real understanding of the situation other than what I witnessed. My heart also was pounding in my chest; I grabbed a baseball bat in case he came back. I was all in, now, too.
The cops brought two cars, one from each direction, rollers flashing. I went out on the front porch as they arrived. Only later did I realize that was a potentially stupid thing to do, because for all they knew, I was the guy trying to break in. At the time, I wasn’t afraid of the cops.
They took my statement—I told them exactly what I just told you (minus Ziggy’s contribution, of course)—and they took Liv away. Once again, Ziggy and I were alone in my apartment.
Ho-ly sh … Did THAT just happen?! I need a drink to calm my nerves. No. We just put Mom into rehab at home, and I knew it was bad to “have to have” a drink. I need to get out of here. I had no idea whether this guy would come back, and I didn’t want to be around if he did. I could leave Ziggy for the night.
I called Lance, who lived off-campus in another part of Crawfordsville. It was late at night, but I told him what happened and asked whether I could borrow his sofa for the night. He said he had early class tomorrow, but, sure, I could crash at his place.
It was a fitful night, but when I got home, it appeared to be just as I left it. No windows were broken. Ziggy was eager to be fed and walked, so all seemed normal. When Matt got back on Sunday, I had quite a story for him. I didn’t tell anyone else at Wabash what happened.
I never saw the guy again, but on Tuesday, a note showed up in my mailbox, from Liv, thanking me for my help the previous week. I don’t know how her story ended, but I have an idea. Meanwhile, I swam to shore on my own.
Now, 28 years later, I don’t have a twist ending to the story, like a confession, or an "April Fools" announcement. What happened was true and all there was to it. A few weeks later, I heard through the grapevine that Liv WAS having an affair with a Wabash student. The student named was a basketball player whom I knew lived across the street and two doors down from where Matt and I lived.
Given the events of that March night, that apocrypha has credence. It was easy to fill in the blanks. Liv’s husband found her on the street outside that house and began to accuse her of infidelity. She was afraid and went to the first house where lights were on, first-floor lights visible up and down the street—mine. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the pieces fit.
Maybe I felt more in danger than I really was, but to this day, I feel that had the circumstances been slightly different, I could’ve been a proverbial “in the wrong place at the wrong time” statistic. Fortunately, the guy wasn’t murderous, only aggrieved. Given what I know, I can’t say I blame him. If anything, I might have given shelter to the guilty party instead.