When Robin Williams died in August, one of the most unexpected eulogies came from JJ Burnel, the bassist and singer in the Stranglers, who says that he and Williams struck up a friendship in the early 80s. Burnel writes that Williams visited England in 1982 and stayed at the house of drummer Jet Black, where the Stranglers were rehearsing the songs for Feline. Williams then stayed at Burnel’s house in Cambridgeshire, where the comedian and his first wife, Valerie Velardi, reportedly conceived their son Zak. Burnel remembers:
It is with great sadness that I woke up on Tuesday 12th of August to learn of the death of Robin Williams, the actor, comedian, musician and all round genius.
The word genius is often too readily used but having known the man I can vouchsafe the term is appropriate in his case.
I met him through a girlfriend of mine in the early eighties. She had met him in Los Angeles through a film cameraman called Dave Stump, a friend with whom he played in a band. At the time he had just become famous through a tv series called Mork and Mindy and the film Popeye.
When the Stranglers were to play on the west coast of the US he had invited me to stay at his house on his ranch in the Napa valley. He was a wonderful host and I soon started to appreciate his fame when I went out to dinner with him in San Francisco and saw the effect he had on a whole restaurant when he entertained them as a distraction to afford us, his guests, a diversion from the attention.
I reciprocated the gesture when he flew over to Europe with his then wife Val and met him at Heathrow. The Stranglers were in the middle of preparing Feline at Jet’s house in the west country and he was going to hang out with us at Jet’s and then come over to my house in Cambridgeshire for a few days.
Every evening we would stop rehearsals to go down to a local pub before resuming work. He would come down with us and that was when we would discover the multiple personalities and the continuous flow of ideas and comic repartee that had us all in stitches. He would literally have conversations with himself and the other personalities he inhabited.
After a week at Jet’s I drove him over to my house. I would like to think that it was the laid back atmosphere on the Fens that allowed him to conceive his son Zak at my house in the summer of 1982. At least that’s what his wife told me later.
After that, as his Hollywood career took off, he would call me whenever he was in London.
Over the years we lost touch but I have nothing but very fond memories of a very talented and genuine person.
If it is true as to the way of his death it is only testimony to his great sensibility and humanity and the world is a much poorer place for his disappearance.
The Stranglers’ original vocalist and guitarist, Hugh Cornwell, devoted two pages of his 2004 book A Multitude of Sins to memories of encounters with singer Robbie Williams, drummer Robert Williams, and comedian Robin Williams. Cornwell’s account would put Robin Williams’ visit with the Stranglers about a year earlier than Burnel’s, but Zak was born in 1983, so Cornwell is either mistaken about which album they were working on or recalling a separate visit.
I’m jogging with Robin Williams in Gloucestershire. John Burnel has met him somewhere at a celebrity dinner and he’s come down to hang out with us while we rehearse before recording the La Folie album. He’s a lovely bloke and expresses a desire to come running with me first thing every morning. He’s in good shape and is keeping up with me, even though I’ve been doing it regularly. He’s a bundle of energy and constantly comes up with funny life observations. Jet’s got a souped-up Fiesta with lots of lights mounted on the front bumper and Robin asks me if he has to pull a trailer carrying a battery for the extra lights.