To millions, it is just a love song. But Robbie Williams wrote Angels for the baby I lost; EXCLUSIVE: THE MOVING STORY BEHIND A LOVERS' ANTHEM.
But while lovers dance to the Top Ten hit which won the Brit award for best single, there is one woman who can't hear the ballad without breaking down.
Unknown to fans the world over, Angels is dedicated to beautiful student Joanne Louchart.
The song was inspired by the loss of her real-life angel, the baby she was carrying by Irish songwriter Ray Heffernan.
When the couple broke up, Ray wrote the anthem to cope with his pain at losing both Joanne and their child.
Ray was at his lowest point, six months later, when he met Robbie in a Dublin pub and together they put the finishing touches to the song.
Two years on, the track not only launched Ray's career as a songwriter, it also allowed Robbie to stage one of the most spectacular comebacks in pop history.
But while any fan will tell you Robbie's version is a personal thank-you to his mother Jan for her support through his drug problems, Joanne knows the real story.
Today, at the age of 22, her experiences make the Frenchwoman wise beyond her years.
SITTING in a brasserie near her tiny Paris apartment, she is finally able to talk about what the song means to her.
"It's so ironic," she says in an accent still tinged with the Irish lilt she learned from Ray.
"People kiss to the song and it means something lovely to them. But for me, it isn't a love song at all. It's a loss of our child. That's why Ray wrote it.
"For us, it means loving a little angel - not a living thing."
Although it is almost two years since their break-up, Joanne, a first- year philosophy student, has not been in a relationship since.
There are still times when she cannot listen to the song, which describes unconditional love of a guardian angel.
For Ray, that angel was Joanne, the woman he praises for her "love and courage" during their darkest moments.
But for Joanne, that angel is the baby they christened Matthew, who died in her womb when she was three months pregnant.
"When it comes on the radio, I have to turn the song off," she admits.
"It still hurts too much. I am still mourning for the loss of my baby and the break-up of our relationship."
"But after all that happened, I now realise Angels was Ray's gift. I touched him enough to make him talk about it in a song.
"The past is the past now, but it seals our relationship. I am very happy for him."
Joanne's tragic love story began when she fell for the burly Irishman during her year-out before university.
She decided to work with handicapped people and found a job working in a commune in Boulogne.
Ray had left Dublin three years earlier to work with the disabled while he developed his song-writing. "I noticed Ray and we clicked as soon as we met,'' says Joanne.
"We started talking and he used to play his guitar and sing and give me the opportunity to practise my English.
"I was very attracted to him from the beginning. Ray was very attractive to girls, not just physically.
"He was Irish - a mixture of toughness and sensitivity - irresistible to an impressionable 18-year-old girl."
When Joanne returned to Paris to start university, the couple wrote constantly. On his days off, Ray travelled to the French capital where they would share stolen moments together.
I'D meet him at the main station in Paris and then we would be together for ten hours before he had to go back to Boulogne," she says.
"We'd be together from noon until six the next morning when he could have to catch the early train back to be at work.
"We'd walk through the night in Paris. We'd talk and sing songs together. Ray would sing and play the guitar and I would do the second voice.
"Then we'd get up and say goodbye at the station. Then I would be on my own, knowing my lover was gone. It was so romantic.
"We grew to realise we were in love. Ray said it through songs and expressions and conversations with others he knew I would get to hear about."
Unable to stand being apart, Ray gave up his job so they could be together. While he shared a flat with a friend, Joanne still lived at her parents' home.
Within a month, she discovered she was pregnant. Even though she was barely 20, there was never any doubt they would keep the child.
"Our baby was conceived when the friend Ray was staying with in Paris went on holiday.
"We spent the week together at his place because there was not much opportunity to be intimate at my parents' home. When I told him the news, Ray smiled. Other boys would have said OK, go and get an abortion, but Ray didn't react like that. Ray was already considered part of my family and my pregnancy endorsed that." Soon the young lovers were eagerly planning how they were going to provide for the baby they were bringing into the world. "Ray decided to become an engineer at night school so he could support his family and work during the day in a pub. "Then within a year, we'd get married and become Mr and Mrs Normal." But, even so, Joanne guessed there was still a blot on Ray's happiness - his as-yet unfulfilled song-writing ambitions. "He didn't really know where he was going in life and how the future was going to turn out. HEenjoyed song-writing most of all, but he was not recognised for that and that was really tough for him because he wanted to pursue music as a career and he hadn't found a way to do it yet. "He needed something I couldn't give him and it made me worry. "It felt a bit like sitting on a chair with a broken leg, wondering when it might give way." As the moment comes to talk about the miscarriage, Joanne pauses. It is the first time she has told the full story - and it is more than a minute before she can find the first words. Her eyes fix on the ceiling and she bites her lip to stop the tears flowing. "Ray came with me for my first scan," she says. "I was very excited and it felt great having the father of my baby with me. "I'd forgotten all our worries. I felt wonderful. My mum even gave me a video camera and told me to ask the doctors for a videotape of the baby so they could all see it. "Ray went with me to another room where I undressed and they put jelly on my belly for the scan. "Then the doctor switched on the TV screen and turned to me and said: 'Have you noticed anything about your breasts lately? "'Have they become smaller or changed in any way?' I almost laughed. I said: 'No, they are not as big as they have been for a couple of months, because I am pregnant. "And the doctor said: 'Well, I can't see your baby's heartbeat. "I didn't understand what I was being told. So she added: 'I am sorry to tell you that you are not pregnant any more'. "'Your baby's heart is not beating. I should be able to see it beating on the screen and I can't. Your baby is dead'. "The room froze. Everything froze. I guess there is no special way to give you this sort of news. "I got off the bed and put my clothes on and I went into another room so they could take a blood sample and do other tests. Ray wasn't allowed to staywith me. Nothing made sense any more. My life felt shattered. The baby I'd been caring for what felt like a century suddenly wasn't there anymore. Everything was taken away. I felt so lonely and empty." But there was worse to come. "The doctor told me my body was supposed to get rid of the baby on its own and they didn't know why it hadn't done it. "Three days later, I had to go into hospital to have it taken out of me. "So for three days, I was carrying death around inside me and it was a nightmare. "I kept waking up in the middle of the night, screaming and Ray would say: 'It's all right, don't worry'. "I had nightmares in which somebody put a cross on my belly, like you put a cross on a grave when there's a dead body under the earth." But instead of bringing them together, the loss of the baby they named Matthew tore the lovers apart. Unable to deal with the miscarriage, they both withdrew into their own private worlds. "Ray didn't come with me to the hospital when I had the baby removed. I think it was too much for him. "It was the beginning of the end. Ray couldn't handle it but that was OK. "I still loved him but I wasn't open with him anymore. "You know when a wolf is caught in a trap and someone tries to help to setit free. I was a bit like that. I was hurt and aggressive towards Ray. I wasn't against him. I was against life."
But, while she tried to heal her wounds, she soon realised that Ray was at a loss how to deal with his grief.
"Ray felt very distant from me after I lost the baby. He was unable to face what I went through. He was very lost.
"Slowly I began to think it might be better if the relationship came to an end.
"I didn't feel strong enough to carry him or give him what he wanted.
"Six months after I lost the baby, I told him I was too hurt to carry on.
WE were destroying each other. It became a time for misunderstanding and silence between us."
For Ray, it was a shattering blow.
But Joanne knew it was over when he accepted her decision without question.
"I thought he would give one last little bit of energy to save our relationship, but he couldn't.
"He left Paris and went back to his parents' home in Dublin, although he would come back every two or three months to see me."
Over the weeks that followed, Ray drowned his sorrows in the pubs and clubs of his home town.
Then, one night in one of his favourite haunts, he struck up a conversation with a familiar-looking stranger. Like Ray, Robbie was also at an all-time low. Written off after leaving Take That, he had gone off the rails.
Ray takes up the story himself. "We were both going through hell at the time and I guess such strong emotions bring people together," he says.
"We just hung out and tried to cheer each other up.
"We talked about writing songs together. We were both really up for the idea - and I invited Robbie round to my mum's house where we could write together.
"Nothing really happened until I played Robbie a song called Angels, which I had written the week before to try and make some sense of what happened."
"That's how Angels was born. I met Robbie and soon realised we were kindred spirits with troubles to share."
Now as he played the song, Robbie was moved by the feelings that inspired it. In words already recognisable from the hit, Ray sang of his belief in a guardian angel with the words: "(When) I feel that love is dead, I'm loving Angels instead."
Ray said: "I played it to Robbie and he really liked it. I told him where the inspiration came from."
Robbie knew instantly the lyrics would have universal meaning.
"Eventually Robbie returned to London and asked if he could take Angels away with him and work on it. He loved the song," says Ray. As a thank-you, Robbie gave the fledgling songwriter a credit on his hit album Life Thru A Lens.
Amazed at where fate had led him, Ray returned to Paris a few weeks later taking a tape of the song with him.
Joanne said: "At first when Ray told me the song was written for me and in memory of our baby I didn't want to know. I was scared to re-live it all.
"He had told me about his special song for his little lost son and how he had to write it to get things out of his system.
THEN I heard the song on the radio several months later. It wasn't the same version but I recognised it was Ray's song."
Still featuring the hook "I'm loving Angels instead," Robbie had added new verses. The single reached No 4 in the British charts, selling more than 800,000 copies, before going on to become a worldwide hit.
Now when Robbie introduces the ballad, he dedicates it to his own personal guardian angel, his mum Jan.
Robbie's manager, David Enthoven agrees the song was a collaboration.
"They got together two or three years ago and wrote a couple of songs together, one of which was Angels.
"Robbie eventually came back to London and made a new recording, but he has properly acknowledged Ray for his contribution." But even so, Joanne could never forget the real reason the anthem had been written.
And while Ray found an outlet for his grief, Joanne still felt confused and depressed - and she felt increasingly alienated from him.
"All Ray could talk about was Robbie. I thought: 'You've known this guy for a few weeks and I've been here with you for a year-and-a-half, carrying you, loving you, sharing your life'. Then he becomes your best friend and suddenly I am nothing any more.
"I hated Robbie. I couldn't stand to hear his name. He could go to hell, as far as I was concerned."
"I didn't hear from Ray for about a year after that. He still kept coming to Paris but he never got in touch with me.
"Then he phoned me at Christmas and told me he was getting married. I think until then I still had some feeling for him.
"But when he told me, I felt at peace at last. I could talk to him freely again because the past was now well and truly in the past.
"Today, I still hurt but I don't regret our breaking up. It was a terrible time in my life but today I feel free again. I couldn't love Ray anymore but I can respect him again."
As she comes to terms with her loss, Joanna is learning to love the song which is a favourite for millions. Freed from her despair, she now sees what a compliment it is to be the inspiration for one of the decade's most popular songs. "I can listen to Angels on the radio now, and I actually think it is a really good song.
"It seals our relationship and I can see how beautiful it is.
"It will take time for me to fall in love again. I will just have to wait until I am ready to meet someone else.
"But Angels, though, will always be a part of me - and I am glad for that.
"I still can't believe it. I am just a normal girl and someone has written a song for me that is now so famous.
IT'S incredible that people all round the world listen to my song and that it's been written in memory of our love and my lost little angel, Matthew."
Even though it made his name, Ray also finds the song hard to listen to.
"It is a heavy statement about how I felt during one of the worst periods of my life. To me the song is misery upon misery," he says.
Now even though few people realise that Ray co-wrote the record, he has no regrets.
"Everyone says I should have kept the rights but Robbie's a mate.
"Robbie has seen me OK and it was always far more important that the song got out there and people heard it. He did a wonderful job with the bones of my song and like me he has used it as something that splits a painful past from the present."ANGELS INSTEAD
By Ray Heffernan
I sit and wait
Does an angel contemplate my fate?
Or do they know the places where we go
When we're grey and old
Cause I've been told
That salvation lets their wings unfold
And when I'm lying in my bed
Thoughts running through my head
And I feel that love is dead
I'm loving angels instead.
And through the waterfall
Awaiting my reflection
Is a white winged complexion
And she knows my name
And she calls my name
Cause like sunshine after the rain
My salvation will shine through the pain
And it's never going to be the same
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 23, 1999|
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