Saturday 7 December 2019

Review: You know me by Robbie Williams and Chris Heath

Ebury Press, €22.99, Hardback

Feel, which documented two chaotic years in the life of Robbie Williams, set a new benchmark for pop biography. Written by former Smash Hits staffer Chris Heath, it was authorised by the singer and offered an uncommonly candid look at a life in disarray.

In that book, Williams emerged as a damaged soul, with all sorts of addictions and demons, yet also an intrinsically likeable and charming individual still coming to terms with his enormous fame. American Psycho writer Bret Easton Ellis was among the heavyweight names to single out Feel as a classic of the form.

Now, Heath and Williams are collaborating again -- this time on a photo-led book charting the singer's 20 years in the music business. It's life through a lens, to borrow the title of Williams' solo debut album.

It comes perfectly timed in the week the fully reformed Take That, with Robbie back in the fold, announced a major tour for next year.

Disappointingly, the memoir is not nearly as in-depth or wordy as Feel --there's setting-the-scene text at the beginning of each chapter, plus extended captions for each photo -- but Williams' candour is undimmed. If anything, he is more willing than ever to open up.

The book traces Williams' oh-so-ordinary background in Stoke and concludes with his inevitable return to the reformed Take That earlier this year. It's a journey, writes Heath, "of searching for the right balance between growing up and gloriously refusing to grow up".

And that's the essential truth of Robbie Williams -- he leads a charmed, privileged life, but sometimes the real world creeps in and the results aren't particularly pretty.

This is a man more familiar than most with rehab and, he anxiously assures us, it's no health spa.

But it's this willingness to talk of his failings and accept responsibility that makes the cocksure patter so tolerable, such as: "I am as sexy as f***." Williams was thrust into the spotlight at 16 when he became the youngest member of the manufactured pop band Take That and soon this motormouth would be on a collision course with the group's forceful manager, "the spawn of Satan", Nigel Martin-Smith.

The pair's fractious relationship would prove a catalyst in Williams' decision to quit the band, as would his refusal to toe the boyband line, to play -- in Martin-Smith's words -- "the cheeky one".

Post-Take That, William's fledgling solo career was heading for disaster, until the release of stadium-sized ballad Angels in 1997.

It was this song that turned him from a bloated, drink- and drug-fuelled has-been with a dubious cover of George Michael's Freedom to his name, into the fully fledged pop star that would stride the globe over the next 10 years.

Once the song was recorded, Williams claims he instinctively knew it would be massive.

"I remember walking back from Holloway Road with a tape (of the Angels recording) in my hand, just staring at it, walking through the snow. I'd planned on walking all the way back, but I'd got a couple of miles and it was cold, so I flagged down a taxi.

"I said: "Mate, just put this on." And he put it on and he was listening to it and he went, 'That's a f***ing number one, that is, son.' Yeah, it is, isn't it?"

Such self-aggrandisement would be difficult to stomach, were Williams not so willing to send himself up so frequently. At the height of his success, he does not lose sight of the ridiculousness of it all.

One of his biggest solo concerts was headlining Slane in 1999.

"I remember this being a really big deal. I think people had come to have a good time, they wanted me to generate that good time and they were on my side. And I delivered. Though I remember reading the Irish papers on the day, and one headline was, 'Tell this fat English waster to feck off.'"

That reference to his weight won't have pleased someone who is clearly obsessed about how he looks. Williams' fluctuating weight has been a hardly tabloid staple for years and he touches on the subject with alarming frequency here.

In 1996, just before he launched his debut single, he looks especially puffed.

"I'm not well in this photo. I'm bloated. I've been eating all the cake. Everything I wasn't allowed to do before, I could do now."

Five years later, he's photographed just before playing a concert in Dublin, two stone lighter. "I'm so thin there. Gaunt. Underweight. Malnourished. Perfect."

Interestingly, several of Williams' Irish shows bring back unhappy memories for him. In the hours prior to that Dublin gig in 2001, his nerves were frayed.

'I can remember phoning my AA sponsor beforehand, because I was absolutely terrified, and he said, 'You're not there to be entertained.'"

Fast forward to Croke Park in 2006, the opening night of his European tour, and he admits to have been well below par.

"For the encore on that tour, a little lift took me to the top of the scaffolding where I'd start 'Let Me Entertain You' before coming down on a gondola. I'm 120 foot up in the air in a gondola, the audience below ... and the gondola doesn't move. I'm in front of 80,000 people. There was nothing to do but go back down the lift, still singing the song.

"It just capped off a very, very nervous night. I thought I wasn't at my best, and after coming down in the lift, I said, 'I haven't been very good tonight -- I'll come back and do you a free show.' I think they're still holding me to that.

"And so they should -- I promised them. But I didn't realise what was to come on the tour. I didn't realise that evening wasn't a one-off."

Since that tour, Williams -- who lives in Los Angeles -- has seen his stock fall. Famously, CD copies of his Rudebox album were used to pave roads in China.

Despite this, the man himself seems to be happier than before -- not least since meeting his wife, US actress, Ayda Field, whom he married this summer.

With typical honesty, he talks about his very unstarry desire to settle down.

"There was a period in my life which seemed to go on forever, where I'd write songs called If She Exists and literally be pining for a relationship.

"I only used to go out to find somebody to stay in with."

Irish Independent

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