'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
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
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
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.