Monday, 14 April 2014

Feel: Robbie Williams - Chris Heath


It's really strange. A phenomena even. There are certain books that can be found in just about every charity shop in Exmouth and Feel: Robbie Williams by Chris Heath is one of them.
When a bag of clothes is donated a copy might be found nestled amongst the layers. Never just placed on top but always hidden in the middle, like some escaping prisoner smuggling themselves out of jail by hiding amongst the laundry. Do people think if it's spotted that it might be declined? Do people feel ashamed of actually owning a copy but as nobody likes to burn a book they try instead to get rid of it surreptitiously? Who knows? But whatever the reason, you'll always find a copy on a charity shop book shelf. It's just another of life's little mysteries and so too in his own peculiar way is Robbie Williams.

Robbie was the cheeky one out of Take That, always with a mischievous look on his face and a glint in his eye. On exiting the band he famously (and to their eternal shame) hung out with Oasis before releasing his debut solo single, a version of George Michael's Freedom. After a stumbling take off he just went up and up and up in his solo career, selling millions upon millions of albums worldwide, winning countless Brit Awards and performing to millions upon millions of people. The working class lad from Stoke entered the stratospheric world of mega-pop stardom and became an object of strange fascination where his identity was no longer really his own but was instead the property of the global entertainment industry.

Chris Heath at first got involved with Robbie Williams with the simple intention of conducting an interview with him. Having been invited to visit Robbie at his Los Angeles home, he was expecting to stay for about a week. He stayed instead for almost two years, accompanying him practically everywhere he went from which the initially intentioned interview turned into this book.
For Heath this was an almighty scoop, gaining unlimited access to one of the worlds most successful solo artists and bearing witness to the luxury, the craziness, the privilege and the intrusiveness that came with it. For Robbie too it came with some benefits. Apart from being a vanity project to further boost his ego the whole set up worked as a much needed form of therapy. And therapy - on reading Heath's book - was what Robbie was badly in need of.

From his early days in Take That, Robbie Williams displayed an air of confidence that would often be translated as arrogance. Underneath it all, however, he was always full of self-doubt and prone to depression. On hitting the heights of fame and fortune in his solo career his neuroses was magnified ten-fold, exasperated by endless stories about him in the media that were the stuff of lies and slander. Everyone wanted a piece of him and if the tabloids couldn't get any new gossip about him then they simply made it up. Faced with almost daily reports about himself that were totally untrue, a huge schism developed between the advantages of being rich and famous and the disadvantages. Trying to pin down exactly who he was and where reality lay became an increasingly difficult task.
When commenting on Ronan Keating's bid to break the American market, comedian and television presenter Simon Amstell once touched upon this in his typically amusing fashion: "If Americans have successfully managed to ignore Robbie Williams so far, who has so many different personalities, then they're hardly going to take to someone without one."

Just another typical evening at home for Robbie

This is the theme that is returned to throughout this whole book though it's only really addressed when Robbie reminisces about his drink and drugs period. Heath is not only a writer but a friend and admirer of Robbie and because of this relationship there are things that are not fully delved into or are simply excused. Whilst not being sycophantic to his subject he still at times comes across like Dennis Hopper's photojournalist in Apocalypse Now though it should be said that Robbie is no Colonel Kurtz spouting so-called words of wisdom such as "'If' is the middle word of life". His anecdotes are a lot more funnier, particularly when recounting his lost drug days:
'He had flown over to Bono's Dublin retreat for a party... At the party, Rob got off his head on mushrooms and Bono found him staring at the wall. Rob had been staring at the same thing for ages, because he was quite sure it was the most beautiful picture he'd ever seen in his life.
"Bono," he said, "that picture's amazing..."
"Robbie," pointed out Bono, patiently. "That's the window."'

There are other episodes recounted that only now in hindsight make any sense but which at the time were obviously not helping Robbie's mental state:
'There is a growing paranoia that someone close to him is selling stories to the British tabloids. "I only have to fucking think something at the minute and it's in the papers, and that's scaring the life out of me," he says. "I think all my phones are tapped. I can't trust anybody. It's fucking done my head in. Your mind goes and then you start to distrust absolutely everybody."
He tells me that recently he's even planted false stories with people he suspects, to see if they turn up in the tabloids. Nothing so far. He's had his phones checked but - and he knows this is funny, and he knows it is kind of crazy, but once your mind starts down this track it's hard to find its brakes - he's now even worried that the people asked to check his phones have actually tapped them.'
Robbie was being hacked. Probably by the News Of The World.

Apart from the great songs (and a lot of them are great) and the spectacle of his fame, it's actually this mental state (and the multi-personalities) of Robbie's that make him so peculiar and so interesting. As an insight into the rarefied atmosphere of celebrity and the mindset that comes with it, Heath has succeeded in doing a very good job and has produced a very interesting book.

There's no need to feel ashamed at actually having owned a copy. There's no need to hide it amongst a bundle of clothes if donating it to a charity shop. And when you see a copy on the shelf - buy it. It will be 50p well spent and for your money you'll be well entertained. And entertaining - as he has so eloquently expressed in song - is what Robbie Williams is all about. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.

As an aside, Robbie is actually my neighbour. He owns one of the flats down on Exmouth quay and though he's not in town very often, when he is here he's no trouble. He doesn't hassle me or anyone else at all and as of yet no restraining orders have needed to be taken out against him.  

"That picture's amazing... "
John Serpico

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