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Of Total Confusion


(Sunday Times – 2001)
Getting to know the real Robbie Williams

'Robbie Williams?' offered my agent, and it took me all of twenty minutes to agree to put myself up as an unlikely Boswell for the great man's upcoming tour of Europe. First call was his management – IE Music – tucked away in a groovy, loft-style space at the BBC end of Shepherd's Bush. Tim Clark and David Enthoven hardly fitted my preconceived ideas of rock 'n roll managers – certainly not for the boozily irreverent, arse-baring sex god I knew from the tabloids. Both in their late fifties, you might take them at first glance to be a pair of senior stockbrokers. David's plummy accent and fruity laugh revealed both his schooling at Harrow and his lack of pretention; Tim had grown up in the Kenyan bush, was just the sort of genial, weatherbeaten figure you might find running an upmarket safari lodge. In fact, they were serious rock veterans, with CVs to inspire awe in the teenager within: Roxy Music, King Crimson, ELP, T. Rex, Cat Stevens, Free, Traffic, Bob Marley - the list went on.

I knew little about the music industry, I told them. Yes, I knew that you talked about a tune not a song; that House wasn't somewhere you lived, or Garage where you parked your car; but ask me to be specific about any musical movement after 2-tone and I couldn't really be specific.

This confession turned out to be a wise move. Tim and David were interested in the idea of an outsider. Seasoned rock journalists might take for granted stuff a 'tour virgin' like me would see with a fresh eye. After a couple of weeks I was signed up, and began on the first series of pitfalls on my steep learning curve. I interviewed Robbie's songwriting collaborator Guy Chambers, and tried to look knowledgeable as he told me about a band he'd once played in called Wild Party (World Party, he corrected me gently). I met tour manager Andy 'Franksy' Franks, known to the team as The Prince of Darkness, and asked him if his job organising the backstage and travel arrangements for Robbie's band and entourage ever allowed him time to party. This to a man who I later discovered had tour managed the legendary Depeche Mode tour of '93/4, described by Q Magazine as 'the most debauched rock and roll tour ever'. 'I have been known to party,' he replied, fixing me with a wry look.

Early Feb. Four days before we left for Europe and I still hadn't met Robbie (or Rob as everyone around him called him.) I was nervous. Who was to say we'd get on? I was twelve years older than him, had no interest in football, couldn't even offer a been-there, done-that, drugs-hell life story. I drove down to the first day of rehearsals, at a studio in Bermondsey, with some trepidation. But Rob wasn't even there. He hated rehearsals, I was told. Under Guy's painstaking instruction, the Robbie Williams band worked their way through the set list without him.

The next day, at the London Arena in Docklands, there was a full-set dress rehearsal for the tour, with both band and numerous black-clad members of the crew in attendance. It was after two before Rob arrived, but the effect was electric. His musicians visibly sprung into life as the star picked up his waiting central microphone. The whole vast empty space seemed to cohere around his presence. Yes, I decided, watching from the stageside gloom, I had made the right decision: this guy was seriously charismatic.

Rehearsal over, I followed him backstage into Catering. Hoping for a one-to-one, I was disappointed. The crowd in the little room was forty strong: management, band and crew. Rob stood up and addressed us formally. He was renouncing drink and drugs forever, he told us. No, he reiterated, to the nervous laughter that greeted this announcement, he really, really was. So could we please respect this and not drink when we were around him, on planes and tour buses and in other confined spaces. Having made his speech, he was gone, whisked away in a private car with Tim, David and Josie Cliff, the scarily switched-on thirty year old who is his current PA.

So it wasn't until we were in a Heathrow Club Lounge on our way to the first gig that I finally got to meet my subject. I was surprised at how star-struck I was, far more awed in his presence than I'd intended to be. He was studiously well-mannered. 'Good to meet you, man,' he said, shaking my hand. We should meet up in Stockholm for supper and talk about the book and everything then.

But when we arrived in the snowy capital and checked into our rooms at the Grand Hotel, the phone rang. It was Josie. Rob had crashed out. How about lunch tomorrow? When the appointed time came, my mobile rang again. Josie had just rung Rob and his reply had been 'Eugughgh'. Perhaps we could talk this evening, at the venue, before the gig.

I was rapidly learning the key skill of touring – the ability to hang. Not to bother people about arrangements, not to get upset when you're kept waiting or things are changed, just be hopefully in the right place at the right time – even if no one's told you where the right place is.

That evening I waited patiently in Catering, and when Rob put in an appearance, finally got to sit down over supper with him. It wasn't the easy exchange I'd hoped for, with Rob revealing all and me instantly becoming his New Best Friend. Rob was restless and not in the mood for a taped interview. Only later did I discover why everyone was so edgy. Two years previously Rob had cancelled an entire European tour minutes before the first gig – right here in Stockholm. The main priority that night was to make sure he got on stage.

By now I was starting to get a little worried. Would I ever get to first base with my subject? At the post-gig party in Stockholm's Café Opera Guy Chambers put me at my ease. You have to take your time with Rob, he explained. 'David Enthoven gave me two pieces of advice when I first met him,' Guy said. 'Don't call him Robbie; and don't try and be his friend.'

Two days later, in Copenhagen, everything changed. An hour before the gig I was talking to a couple of the crew on stage when Franksy appeared. Rob would see me now. I found him in his dressing room in confessional mode. Now he met my eyes with his (powerful green ones) and opened up, telling me that Rob the private man was different from Robbie the public act; that as Rob, offstage, he'd never dream of asking anyone if he could entertain them. ('I'd be scared if they said “no”.') How he hated performing, was tired of singing the same old songs; how dreary he'd found the Stockholm audience; how if he felt he couldn't continue with this tour he'd just walk. And so on. Wonderfully revealing stuff that made all the waiting suddenly seem worthwhile.

That evening I watched for the first time the bizarre pre-gig ritual he goes through under the stage, when he kisses framed photos of his heroes – Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr and Mohammed Ali – before settling into the counterbalanced luminous throne that throws him up to face his fans. As their cheers and screams deafened our ears, tour manager Franksy knelt before him to kiss his hand. It was a joke, of course; but then again, how much of a joke?

That night the gig was electric. Copenhagen loved him. It was hard to believe, watching him strutting his stuff from the side of the stage, that he really was hating it. As he came off at the end of the show he fixed me with a one-to-one look and mouthed, 'I enjoyed that'.

As it happened, this wasn't a mighty breakthrough, just the start of a pattern I rapidly got used to. Rob is a mercurial figure. Some days he was in the mood to talk about himself, others he wasn't. But reading his press pack, I soon realised that he'd been tormented by journalists since the start of his career, all asking the same questions about his past, his family, Take That, his likes and dislikes; all wanting to appear as if they were on best mates' terms with him, reporting back to their readers from the chummy environs of the snooker room or football pitch. The reality is, however, that Rob can probably count his friends on one hand and has little or no trust for journalists. Nor is he much interested in the preoccupations of the tabloids who idolise him. What's sexy, what's in or out, what does he look for in a girl, does he ever call up Jason Orange - such questions weary him visibly.

Our meetings were mediated by the ever-present figure of Josie Cliff, a past master at keeping people on hold. When you're hanging with Robbie, at times it seems as if everyone in the world wants to meet him. It's Josie's job to make sure that only the very select few get through. I got into the habit of putting in a regular early-afternoon call to see how the land lay. Was I likely to get an audience tonight, I joked. One of Josie's affectionate monikers for her boss is 'the little prince'.

The situation was made more interesting by the presence of a five strong documentary film crew, under the direction of Brian Hill, of Sylvania Waters and The Club fame. We were both, obviously, on the same track, so precious Rob-time had to be portioned out appropriately. Later in the tour Rob confided that he felt like the subject of a David Attenborough wildlife programme, with all these people following him around everywhere. Band members, too, confessed that they found all this unusual attention intrusive. For somebody who normally researches alone, this didn't make my job any easier. I'd be hanging out on Rob's tour bus, waiting for the moment when he'd stop composing or sleeping and ask you upstairs for a game of Uno or a chat – when suddenly the documentary crew would arrive, with cameras, big fluffy sound dogs and all the other paraphernalia of a 'fly on the wall' team. Bang went another private moment.

As the tour progressed, through Hamburg, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Paris, back to London for the Brits, then on to Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Brussels, Bielefeld, Rotterdam, Zurich, Vienna and Munich, my relationship with Rob grew closer. He liked me, I was told by Josie and the band - who had nicknamed me 'Crummy' and accepted my perpetual presence in dressing room and tour bus. Now, at the after-gig suppers, he would come over and invite me up to his suite for a round of Uno, the children's card game that was his current obsession. Round the table with Rob would be the 'inner sanctum' (their phrase): manager David, PA Josie, Liverpudlian drummer Chris Sharrock, one or more of Rob's three ex-Marine security guards - Marv, Jonah and Pompey, sometimes Guy Chambers or a visiting friend of Rob's. Evian was the beverage of choice at these sessions.

Surrounded by those he trusted in his suite, Rob was visibly more relaxed than elsewhere. Here he could leave Robbie and the endless fans behind and just be Rob, a wittier, lower-key figure than the pouting, thrusting, joking, powerfully upbeat stage persona. There was generally a game of some kind going on. If not Uno, it would be word association, or, with larger groups, the Hat Game, where the names of famous people are put in a hat and two teams have to guess who their representative is supposed to be. By his own admission, Rob finds small talk difficult, but with a game going on, there's a structure to things, a focus for conversation and banter. It was a nice irony that this icon of contemporary irreverence had such a penchant for old-fashioned parlour games.

Altogether more comfortable with him now, one day I took things too far. I'd been downstairs in the late night bar chatting to two fans when his security guys appeared. This was a fairly regular routine. When the Uno was over, Marv and Jonah would appear to invite a likely-looking fan up to Rob's room for 'a game of cards', which might progress to something more intimate. This time, though, it was pretty clear that these two girls were not that interested in getting too personal with Rob - although they'd like to meet him. But they weren't going to go up with the security guys alone. They'd go if I'd go, they said. So I stupidly agreed to accompany them up. 'Too many people, too many people,' Rob protested, waving his hands in front of his face as we pushed into his suite in a group. That was another interesting thing about him; though his generalised anger often visibly fuelled his stage performance, in private he was always polite. I only once saw him lose his temper – with a hotel manager who tried to force him into a local press photocall. And in this instance, he was easy enough about it the next day, calling me over to sit beside him on the plane to Dusseldorf. But I knew I'd overstepped a line. I was his writer, not his friend.

At the next gig, Stuttgart, this little hiccough was eclipsed by an altogether more serious drama, as Rob was pushed off the front of the stage by a lunatic convinced that he wasn't the real Robbie Williams. He was back performing within a minute, and finished the gig, something, he admitted later, he wouldn't have been able to do in the old druggy days. As I knew well by then, being attacked is one of his major fears. When you point out that he is a much-loved figure his reply is unanswerable: 'John Lennon, George Harrison, Jill Dando ...'

For manager David, this incident, and Rob's successful handling of it, was the point at which Rob 'became a man'. Everyone else in band and crew agreed that it marked a 'new Rob'. As gig followed gig and there was no relapse into drink and drugs, the entourage began to realise that this was a highly significant tour. As for Rob, he was visibly starting to enjoy himself. When we returned home for a few days for the Brits, public and press were treated to a new sober, altogether more modest star. And on the second half of the tour, he went from strength to strength, ecstatic on stage, cheerful off. Both Brian Hill and I were getting better and better interviews with him, till it was clear that he felt the barrel was empty. 'What else can you ask me?' he said to Brian, one evening after yet another post-gig session. 'There's plenty yet,' the director replied ominously.

Hanging out in the Rob slipstream didn't just bring encounters with fans. World-class celebs were constantly on hand. In Stockholm, Britney Spears. In Munich, Boris Becker. Backstage at the Brits, Kylie Minogue. Visiting Rob in Amsterdam, his supposed girlfriend, Geri Halliwell. Kylie told me she was suspicious of writers, but then was quite as sweet as her image, treating me as an equal in best Antipodean fashion. Geri was initially more distant, seemingly more conscious of her position as a super-celeb. But after a round of the Hat Game in which I displayed an English grad's knowledge of poets from other centuries, the ex-Spice seemed altogether more intrigued, seeking my advice about the skate she was contemplating having for her supper. 'Is that a mid-sea fish or a deep-sea fish?' she asked. 'You'd know.' As I explained that the skate was a fish that hugged the ocean floor closely, I felt like a latter-day Jeeves.

Tour over, back in London, I continued to follow Rob as he did the popstar rounds. We sped round London from awards ceremony to Sotheby's, where he was auctioning the contents of the flat he was selling. We flew to Paris with the band for a TV show and Manchester for a radio show, both in private planes. I had got totally used to what Rob calls 'this mad world of Robbie' now. The fans with their autograph books round every corner, the endless obsessional interest in the star. The feeling he inspires in even the most unlikely stranger that he'd be their perfect best mate; simultaneously, that if only they were his best mate/partner he wouldn't be screwed-up any longer. Even on the private plane it didn't stop, as one of the uniformed pilots turned round mid-flight, 'I'm awfully sorry , this is terribly unprofessional, but my kids have been bothering me something rotten ...' Backstage after the Parkinson show, it was Hugh Grant's turn to pay homage, appearing in Rob's dressing room to present a young woman who worked in his office, 'Er, Sarah, er, a huge, huge fan ...'

Sitting out late one evening in the garden of the Chelsea house he was renting before moving into his new popstar mansion, we were talking about the current obsession, not just with him, but with celebrity in general. It was presumably, I said, the recognition he'd been after. 'It's not as if you were like the Hear'say people, just wanting fame.'

He grinned through the darkness. 'I'm a member of Hear'say,' he replied, and I knew him well enough by now to know he was being serious.. 'I am, Mark. I wanted to be bigger and better.Whether that's fame or recognition or being good at a certain thing. In a different set of circumstances, if I wasn't Robbie Williams right now, I'd probably be auditioning for the Big Brother household. I would. I wanted that dream.'

Bettering yourself; suddenly the obsession with celebrity didn't seem such a uniquely modern phenomenon.
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