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  Of Total Confusion


INSIDE THE JESTER'S COURT

(Esquire – 2001)
The touring machine around Robbie Williams


'I've come to entertain you – you – you,' Robbie shouts, picking out individuals in the vast crowd with his outstretched forefinger, clocking them with a one-to-one look. Then, just as he's established this moment of intimacy, he jumps, fist in the air, and swaggers powerfully away across the stage. He throws his arms wide, inviting everyone in. He crosses his hands on his heart and gives his audience a little-boy-lost look as he sings of his anger and pain. He holds out the mike to get them to join the choruses; he puts his hands to his ears; he sits with his head hung and lets them sing to him (they know the words). Near the finale, he invites them to hold up their hands, so the entire stadium is a wonderful swaying forest of fingers.

His performance is so engaging, powerful and apparently effortless, that you might be forgiven for imagining that he just gets up on stage, struts his stuff, then rocks back home for a cup of tea. Needless to say, it isn't that simple. Behind the scenes there's an army at work keeping the show on the road; more important, keeping the star in the right frame of mind to do the show.

Let's start at the centre with the complex, mercurial figure of Rob himself - and it's Rob, not Robbie, to those immediately around him. Robbie is what the public calls him, the fans, the press, all those outsiders who follow him wherever he goes, endlessly wanting a piece of him, not just a look or a smile or a joke, but something tangible: an autograph, a scrap of clothing, an interview. 'This mad world of Robbie' is the way Rob himself describes it.

In one way Rob is the character you see on stage. He's funny, highly intelligent, charming, good company. More important, he's one of those people you want to please and impress; if he's pissed off, you care; he has serious presence, offstage as well as on. But the other side of him is a nervous, genuinely under-confident performer, who repeatedly worries that he's not up to the job. On tour with him round Europe earlier this year, I was initially shocked to discover the level of this private anxiety. 'I developed a front a long time ago,' he told me in his dressing room before one gig, 'that hid my insecurities, my lack of self worth, and that front is one hundred times bigger than myself. Whatever picture I paint of who they think I am – cocky, cheeky, confident, arrogant – is not who I am. Rob is different from Robbie. Robbie is the one who gets on stage and goes, “Let Me Entertain You”. If I'm offstage I wouldn't ask anybody if I could entertain them. I'd be scared if they said no.' Rob smiled as he said this, and I wondered at first, when he spoke like this, whether he was taking the piss. But watching him day in, day out, I soon realised he wasn't. His angst is all too genuine.

So perhaps the most crucial figure in Rob's entourage is the man whose job, by his own admission, is 'to keep Rob happy'. Fifty-seven years old, ex-public school (Harrow, no less), strict teetotaller for fifteen years, manager David Enthoven is at first glance an unlikely figure to be Robbie Williams's mentor-cum-best-friend. You'd imagine this genial, balding, bespectacled figure to be chairman of some City stockbrokers, not the rock veteran he is, one time manager of Roxy Music, King Crimson, ELP, T. Rex (so called because David couldn't spell Tyrannosaurus).

At the centre of David's relationship with his current star act is alcohol and drugs: the avoiding, rather than the taking of them. Both men have indulged to excess, and then some. For David, addiction destroyed his earlier life: he lost his business, his wife, his houses in town and country and almost his life. Recovery is consequently a deeply serious subject for him; as it is for Rob. Indeed, Rob credits David with saving his life. 'That sounds very dramatic,' he says. 'But this compulsion to do whatever I have done is still with me. It might return tomorrow, it might return tonight, and I might still die.' David, meanwhile, talks of Rob as a surrogate son and is immensely proud of his huge and successful effort to leave drink and drugs behind forever. It's an effort that has transformed Rob's life: the European tour that began with Rob saying how much he hated touring ended with him hardly able to believe how much he was enjoying himself. 'I'm on stage going, “I'm ace,”' he laughed. 'And there's 13,000 people going, “We agree.” What could be better than that?'

On the road, David is there for Rob at all times. On his tour bus, in his dressing room, back in his hotel suite after the gig, which is where Rob goes these days, rather than out to the parties organised in his name in the clubs. David will join the star drinking Evian or tea, playing a round of Uno, the children's card game that was Rob's obsession earlier this year; or one of the other games Rob likes to instigate and, ideally, win. Word association is one favourite. The Hat Game, where the names of famous people are put in a hat and two teams have to guess who their representative is impersonating, is another.

'I always say to Rob,' David says, '“If you wanted an elephant to keep you amused backstage, I'd go and find a fucking elephant." It sounds very pandering, but it's not, because at the end of the day, come nine o'clock at night, he's got to get up there and do his stuff. The boss gets looked after because the boss delivers the bacon.'

The second main figure in Rob's immediate world is his PA Josie Cliff, whom observant fans may spot boogying enthusiastically on the edge of the stage during gigs. A dark, pert thirty year old, don't be fooled by her engaging giggle and friendly manner into thinking that she is anything other than a Ph.D in the dark arts of people management. 'She's all give and I'm all take,' says Rob; but she manages him as skilfully as a top trainer manages a thoroughbred horse. She is at his beck and call, yes; she does fill his fridge and run out to buy him and his friends takeaways and help him choose furniture for his new house, and all the rest; but watch her over several weeks, and you see how she quietly gets her way. With Rob, often; with those close to Rob, generally; with those wanting to get close to Rob, almost always.

Not strictly part of the official Rob machine, but a key member of what his entourage only half-jokingly call 'the inner sanctum', is Rob's flatmate Jonathan Wilkes, whom Rob has known since he was five (when Jonathan was born). With mums who were best friends, Rob and Johnny grew up together in Rob's home town of Stoke. As kids, Jonathan was the 'right nuisance' who wasn't old enough to be Rob's proper mate; ' a little twat,' in Rob's words, 'I used to beat him up regularly.' But as adults, since Jonathan turned up in London at the age of eighteen to seek his fortune, things have changed. Invited by Rob to crash in his flat for a week, Jonathan ended up staying four years. When Rob was in the climactic days of his drinking and druggy life, Jonathan adopted the role of minder, going round parties begging people not to give his friend cocaine. 'He was helping me out,' says Rob, 'by the very fact that he was there and he was somebody that I trust and love.' Now Rob's clean, Jonathan reckons they're closer than brothers. 'It's quite frightening,' he says. 'People say when they meet us, “God, you two absolutely love each other, don't you?” It's true.' But as Jonathan observes perceptively, his role is crucial in another way. 'I'm probably the only one in Rob's life who can tell him to fuck off.' Everybody else, he reckons, 'is part of the Robbie Williams Empire'.

Moving outwards from this central trio, we come first to Tim Clark, David's partner at IE Music, of similar vintage and experience, who runs the tour's Mission Control in Shepherd's Bush, as well as managing the marketing and packaging of the Robbie phenomenon. Onetime managing director of Island Records, Tim has a similarly impressive rock CV. Responsible for signing Roxy Music to Island, worked with ELP, Cat Stevens, Free, Traffic, Steve Winwood, Mott the Hoople, Bob Marley (when I first met him I had to control the teenager deep inside me and not drop to my knees.) And you have to admire his ideals, intact, he insists, from the heady days of the Sixties. 'More power to the artist,' he says, 'simply put. The artists have a vision and we help them realise it. Rob's created the way he wants to look.'

You'd have to meet Tim to understand quite what this means. Put it this way, I wouldn't want to sit on the opposite side of a negotiating table from him; and the IE office, where he and David preside on a dais above a long table of hip and busy young women, is visibly a highly efficient operation, with no time for wasters.

Sitting in the middle on one side of this table is Gabby Chelmicka, perhaps the final member of the 'inner sanctum'. Now an IE director, she was Rob's PA when he began his solo career and knows him as well as anybody. 'Absolute bull terrier,' Rob says of this skinny, blue-eyed, thirty-something blonde. 'My confidante and loves me to bits.' Which is true, but it's not an uncritical love, and with experience dating back to the start of his solo career, Gabs can be as tough with Rob as anyone. But it is, she admits, 'very difficult to say no to Rob. And it's a tricky situation when you work for him. Why piss him off? He's far more important to IE than I am.'

Though not part of his management, there are four other men closer to Rob, nowadays, possibly even than the inner sanctum – his security, who are with him, as they say, 24/7. Rob's been concerned about his personal safety for quite a while now. Pursued day and night by fans, who would wait with autograph books outside his flat in London's Notting Hill, ring the doorbell in the middle of the night, yell at him when he went out, he got to the point where he was 'that paranoid I couldn't sleep. I'd be shitting myself. I'd have to phone David up in the middle of the night and he'd come over and pick me up. I used to end up going to his house or a hotel. Then I thought, Fuck it, I can afford to have somebody around.'

The ex-Marines who look after him now are not, they are keen to stress, the usual 'hard men' or 'big bodies' employed in the music industry, but sophisticated experts in Close Protection, as they call it. They've all seen action, and should it come to it, are ready to defend Rob with their lives. In the meantime, they probably spend as much time with him as anyone. 'You're privy,' says Duncan 'Pompey' Wilkinson, 'to secrets that he wouldn't want anybody else knowing.' Not that they're going to fess up, even off the record. Discretion is a key part of their honourable soldier mentality.

Originally there were three, working in shifts. Since the 21st Feb this year, when Robbie was pushed off stage in Stuttgart by a lunatic who claimed the star was an imposter (the real Robbie, apparently, was elsewhere), his level of protection has been increased. 'It was a wake-up call,' says David Enthoven, who was hugely relieved that his charge got away with no more than a bit of bruising and a serious shake-up. 'The lesson we learned is that he's a major icon now and we have to have every avenue blocked.' For Rob, the experience revealed to him just how much stronger he was now he's sworn off drugs. 'Old me would have used that as an excuse to cancel the tour,' he admits, 'but I'm feeling much healthier these days. I just wanted to go back on and finish the show.'

Security completes Rob's immediate posse, who travel with him everywhere and have full access to his dressing room and hotel suites. The next layer out in the Robbie circus are the eight members of the band. King pin here is musical director Guy Chambers, who co-writes Rob's songs, providing the melodies to complement his lyrics. David and Tim were responsible for bringing the pair together, and Rob is all too aware of the importance of Guy's input. His most recent album, Sing When You're Winning, has this discreet dedication: To Guy Chambers, who is as much Robbie as I am. 'He's an absolute genius,' Rob says, 'I'm blessed to have him in my life. Robbie Williams could have gone on from Take That and worked with anybody and got hits, but I don't think you can walk into just anybody and have them understand you so well and be the perfect foil to you.'

Guy, ten years older, was 32 when he met Rob, and on the brink of packing in his composing career to become a teacher. He talks of their hugely successful partnership as 'a miracle'. 'He's a mirror to me,' he adds, 'he's my voice in some ways.' Now he not only writes Rob's music, he is also pretty much in charge of the band. Though Rob has, of course, the 'final decision' about who's in and who's out, Guy admits quietly that he 'has control'. Last year one of the male guitarists was replaced by bass player Yolanda Charles. 'It wasn't a personality thing at all,' says Guy, 'and it wasn't an easy decision. But I did it because the band weren't funky enough.' The band know the score. 'He's the captain of the ship,' says backing singer Tessa Niles. 'And he steers it in a very masterful way.'

Guy's special position is reflected in his physical proximity to Rob. On tour, he generally travels on Rob's bus. And if Rob's not catching up on his sleep, playing Uno, or watching a video, the pair may sometimes get to work on a new song, which can be then be laid down on tape in a studio in the next city they come to.

On board as well will be drummer Chris Sharrock, who is also particularly close to the singer. 'He's my little mate,' says Rob. 'Even though he's ten years older than me.' Chris stays at Rob's house when he's in London, and is a regular in his hotel suite after the gigs. He's a funny guy, as quick with the one-liners as any Scouser, a court jester, up for anything. 'If Rob wants to go out, we go out,' he says. 'I've got no opinion one way or the other. Ideal tag-along material I am, because if you want to stay in, I like staying in too.'

The rest of the band travel on their own bus, under the eagle eye of tour manager Andy 'Franksy' Franks. Known to all backstage as the Prince of Darkness, Franksy is another crucial member of the touring machine. Once a performer himself, in Bristol punk band The Wild Beasts, Franksy has long since lost the desire for the limelight. These days he prefers the anonymity of the powerful backstage fixer. 'And in a way, now I'm getting older, I feel like I've got to give something back. So if I can help people go out there, then that's fine by me.'

As well as making sure the band get from A to B, wake up in time, get on the bus, get to their dressing rooms, get changed, get on stage and perform, Franksy also has an unofficial role organising activities for Rob and the entourage on days off. 'We call him Mr Extra Curricular,' says Gabby Chelmicka. 'Because he sorts out distractions.' One day it'll be a group outing to a cinema, the next a Go-Karting trip, the next a football match, with a local side provided. 'Rob's brain works really quickly,' adds Gabby. 'He finds it difficult to relax and sit in silence. He needs to be encouraged and stimulated, otherwise he goes mad with boredom.'

On the arena tour of Europe, the band number eight: Guy, Chris, guitarists Fil Eisler, Gary Nuttall and Yolanda Charles, keyboard player and singer Claire Worrall, and backing singers Tessa Niles and Katie Kissoon. In the summer stadium tour of the UK, you can add to that six rumbustious brass players and four lissom dancers plus choreographer. All have to be found hotel rooms and got safely to the gig.

All that remains now of the touring operation is the little matter of the set, which has to be erected from scratch every gig day, and then taken down and packed off into the five huge stage trucks, before being driven on overnight to the next venue. As anyone who's seen Robbie live will testify, this is not a matter of a few old amps and speakers being loaded into a transit van, it's a mammoth operation involving three huge lighting trusses, a moveable band 'riser', Rob's counterbalanced luminous throne, steps, a cage, a slide, giant inflatable Brit awards, a full programme of video projections on a massive screen, drapes, an enormous kabuki front curtain, quite apart from the countless instruments and monitors and computers and other hi-tech processing equipment necessary to provide the kind of high quality sound required by the contemporary gig-going audience.

This high-speed unpacking and assembling process, known as the 'load in' and its reverse, known as the 'load out', is managed by a crew of twenty-six, under the supervision of Production Manager Wob Roberts, another forty-something ex-performer. There are guitar, keyboard and drum technicians to set up the instruments on stage; lighting crew to erect and focus lights; sound crew to set up and monitor sound, one lot on stage for the band, the others down in front of house for the audience; a video projection expert; riggers to hang the whole shebang from the roof of each new venue; carpenters to build the set; not to mention four caterers and a chef to keep everyone fed with restaurant-standard nosh. Add to this the six truck drivers (one spare), two band and three crew bus drivers, and two merchandise salesmen (travelling in their own lorry), and you've got the full Robbie complement. In each new venue they are assisted by a 'local crew' of a further twenty or so.

Ultimately, as Jonathan Wilkes observes, they all work for Rob. But 'the turn' (as the crew call him) is genuinely modest about his position at the top of the touring army. 'I've never seen myself as the boss,' he says. 'I always see myself as the bloke at the front. The big difference is I get paid more. But they've always been so fucking nice to me that's it's always been like a group effort. It's not me and them or them and him. They've always wanted me to do well and I've always wanted them to do well as a group.'

Up to a point, this is true. Even though a good many of the crew only know him to nod at ('all I know about his personal life is what I read in the tabloids,' says one), Rob inspires enormous loyalty among his backstage team. 'OK we want the shows to be successful,' says Franksy, we want Rob to sell lots of records, we want him to be the number one star everywhere, but above all that we want him to be OK. There's this thing that people want him to be all right because we love him to bits. There's a real sense of love and concern about him. As there is in a family.'

Unlike some other pop stars, Rob does make the effort to bond. A good many of the crew play football with him, and when he sees them again after a break, you'll notice him going round shaking hands and catching up. It's a happy family, they echo. But like many another happy family, it doesn't really tolerate dissenters. 'I know they regard me with respect,' Rob says revealingly, 'but I don't think any of them are scared of me. I think they all genuinely like me. That's important to me. If there was somebody on the crew that didn't, I wouldn't have them on.'

Though the boss is, within his world, as all-powerful as a Renaissance prince in his court, there's genuinely little desire among the crew, at least, to be under the pressure that the star faces. 'It's one of the few industries,' says stage carpenter George Osborne, 'where no one aspires to be the boss.' Lighting crew chief Mark England goes further: 'I think he's the reluctant pop star. I feel he'd like to be a normal person and he can't. I've worked for a lot of bands and I've seen what being a star can do to you. Robbie's a lovely geezer, down to earth, but I think he'd just like to be an ordinary person.'

He would, and then again he wouldn't. In a confessional interview towards the end of our time together, Rob spoke frankly of the yearning for fame that got him where he is today. 'If I wasn't Robbie Williams right now,' he said with a laugh, 'I'd probably be auditioning for the Big Brother household. I would. Because I've always wanted to bigger and better myself. I wanted the dream: the glamour, the fame, the celebrity.' Why so badly? I asked. 'I just wanted people to like me, basically, but on a grand scale. The world has to adore me – or had to adore me.' And now they do. 'They do. I've got what I wanted.' So was it worth it? 'I'm still learning to cope with it. Be careful what you ask for,' Rob said, leaning back, green eyes shining as he smiled his famous curling smile. 'Because you might just get it.'

Under all his offstage anxiety he is genuinely happy to be the front man for this army of diversely talented travelling folk, all with music in their bones. And when you see that easy figure on stage, you realise it's what he was born to do. He comes alive up there, in a way that he sometimes finds hard offstage, and in a way that most of his hard-working entourage never could.
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