'Best of Times Worst of Times' - Sunday Times magazine article 16th January 2005
One of the UK’s most successful record producers, Robin Millar knew he would eventually lose his sight to a hereditary disease. Now 54, he recalls how he convinced the world that nothing was wrong - until a life-changing recording session with Sade in 1985.
I’d known there was something wrong with my sight for as long as I could remember. As a child I could never see properly in the dark, and I had these black blobs that moved around with my eyes. It’s called retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that gradually kills off the cells in your eyes. I knew what was coming: all the males in my family had it. But I thought they were brilliant blokes. Completely fearless. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t too bothered by it.
The first time it really hit home was on my 16th Birthday, when I spent the whole day at the Moorfields eye hospital. The professor eventually sauntered into the room and told me I was going to go blind and there was nothing they could do about it: “You’ve probably got 20 years, or a bit longer if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, if you want to trot down the corridor, we can fit you up with a white stick and a pair of sunglasses on the house. Cheerio.”
I’d always been a religious boy, but that day smashed my faith to pieces. Every night for two years I cursed the name of God, Jesus Christ, and anybody who knew them. I was in so much pain. Not physical pain, but this terrible mental suffering. That’s probably why I identified with the blues so much. I’d always been involved in classical music and singing, but when the blues thing kicked off in the 1960’s, it got right under my skin. My guitar became a tool to express my pain.
The blues helped me do a lot of soul-searching. One day I finally thought I’d understood something very important: if you’re lucky enough to know about your future, then you need to get the most out of life until the day comes. I’m talking about travel, girls, fast cars, success.
So I took my guitar and went to Paris. I busked on the underground, played little club gigs, did the odd studio job, then landed a job as an assistant at the Chateau studio, where people like Elton John and the Bee Gees recorded. I’d worked out a set of rules for myself. It was all about adopting a fun, positive, gracious, modest, friendly, passionate way of life. And it worked. I went out with a former Miss World. I was involved in a tabloid scandal concerning a Guinness chairman and some lesbians. I sailed across the Med. I started a Ferrari rental business. And between 1984 and 1986 I had seven top-10 albums.
I knew the day was coming when I’d go blind, but my success helped me ignore it. As an older, wiser man, I know that’s not the answer. You have to make sure you get the structure and philosophy of your life in place to deal with not being able to see. Which means asking for help. But there’s an embarrassment involved with going blind. You try to convince the world you can cope.
For many years I convinced the world, and myself, there was nothing wrong. I was recording Sade’s second album when I finally dipped below the point where I could see. During those few weeks in 1985, my eyesight got steadily worse. We were in a studio in Camargue and it was full of mosquitoes and ants. I kept getting bitten, but couldn’t see what was biting me. It was a deeply, deeply distressing time. I was too vain to ask for help, and I was too vain to tell the band what had happened. Instead, I had a stand-up row with Sade and went back to London. I completely lost my bottle.
This was the only real depression I’d had since my 16th birthday, and it tested every relationship I had – business, friends and family. Some friends fell by the wayside and, sadly, it also led to a split from my partner and two children. I guess I realised I needed to live on my own. I needed everything set up just the way I wanted it. That way, if I tripped over something, I only had myself to blame. I’m not afraid of asking for help any more. I live very close to my new partner and her two children; I live very close to my ex-partner and my own children. I have someone to come and help me get ready in the morning and I have cars to pick me up and take me to work. It’s like a large extended family of helpers.
I often think to myself: “What would I say if someone told me I could have my sight back tomorrow?” And you know something? I’d have to think long and hard about that. I’m 56 and I’ve had 20 years to get used to being totally blind. I’ve got very good at it. For instance, my hearing and pitch have become supersensitive. Boy George said I had the best ears in the business.
The list of things that really piss me off about being blind is pretty short. One: never having seen my children. I feel that because I can’t look into their eyes, the bond between us is incomplete, and that causes me daily anguish. Two: not being able to fully commune with nature on my own. And three: not being able to look at a woman’s bottom.
Interview: Danny Scott
Portraits: Chris Anderson