He's the rock'n'roll singer who became a global hero, the outsider who mixed with world leaders, the husband and father whose life has been overshadowed by tragedy. The one thing Bob Geldof has always been is bloody difficult. And that's just the way he likes it. Will Hodgkinson meets him.
It is quite something, to step off a train at a deserted station in Kent to see Bob Geldof waiting for you – in a face mask. He's picking me up so we can drive to his 900-year-old former Benedictine nunnery of a home and spend the next three hours talking about everything from Live Aid to world politics to the return of the Boomtown Rats. And he doesn't seem too happy about it. Word came only an hour or so beforehand that I should head over to his house near Faversham to do the interview, yet the first thing he asks is why we have to do it face to face. It's seven days before the country goes into lockdown – it turns out Geldof is several steps ahead of the rest of us. Not for the first time.
"Everybody knows what has happened to me. It's been a soap opera life. Things have either been massively triumphant – or I have been sunk in the abyss of loss and grief."
"I've spent a lot of my time wandering through various things that render the human condition ultimately what it is, ie fragile," he announces, with ominous calm. "The 14 deaths from it yesterday were all over-60s, which is my age group, and I get constant colds and flus anyway, so I'm reluctant to hurl myself into the path of this animal. On a personal level, we've just spent two years writing and recording an album [Citizens of Boomtown by the Boomtown Rats, their first since 1984]. The day it comes out, our tour gets cancelled. I've just published a book [Tales of Boomtown Glory, his collected lyrics] and all the literary festivals are cancelled. The Rats had seven festivals – gone. I can wear that, but the crew can't. It may seem like hysteria, but there are 1000 people dead in Italy alone. This is a unique variation of something scientists don't yet understand and you'd want to be a complete idiot not to take it very seriously indeed."
Childhood recollections of a young Bob Geldof shouting, "Give us your f***ing money," during Live Aid come to mind as we pull up to the house, a gothic labyrinth of stained glass windows and panelled walls that comes with its own Norman church. Geldof's beautiful French wife, Jeanne Marine, who is as serene and elegant as he is voluble and crumpled, is in the kitchen, offering tea and biscuits. A downstairs toilet is filled with framed pictures of Geldof, alongside a couple of Marine, and on a wall in one of the living rooms is a Renaissance-era tapestry of the Field of Cloth of Gold. The entire place is exquisitely ancient. We settle into a book-lined room where high windows pour a dusty kind of light on to the old armchairs and frayed Moroccan rugs, and with his shock of wild white hair, oversized jumper, black cords and Dr Martens shoes, Geldof – taller than you might have thought – looks like a bohemian lord of the manor, which essentially he is, albeit one who hangs out with world leaders. He recalls telling the careers officer at his school in Dun Laoghaire, which he left without any qualifications, that his goal in life was to be surrounded by beauty.
"I thought I'd be Oscar Wilde. But it was true – everything was extremely ugly," says Geldof, who grew up with his father and two sisters, his mother having died when he was 6. "You leave school on a cold, damp Irish bus with condensation on the window. You walk home, nobody there, pitch-black house, go to the basement, fill the yellow plastic bucket with coal, tie the newspapers in a knot to build the fire, keep your coat on because it's f***ing freezing, read the John Steinbeck novel you've taken out from the library, and make rice boiled with an Oxo cube and a rasher thrown in. Then I would go up to the bedroom, single bed for me, double bed for my father, and over my head was a CND poster of the mushroom cloud in chalky black and white above the word, 'NO'. That word has been my guiding light since then: no. No is not always a negative, Will."
Geldof is the master of the big idea and as such he's almost impossible to argue with. He holds forth with such confidence, he bombards you with so much statistical and historical evidence, that you're helpless. As for the shape of the interview, it is simple. He talks and you listen – for three hours solid. He sees coronavirus as an adjunct to the technological revolutions that happen every 100 years or so and cause mass upheaval, the current one being the digital revolution.
"New technologies disturb the status quo and so we revert back to what we believe are certainties, like the strong man who seems to know what he's doing," says Geldof. "Actually, Putin is a weak man, a gangster. Xi Jinping is a repressive dictator. Erdogan is a religious fantasist. Trump is a vulgar fool. Brexit is a function of this too. Now a global virus has erupted everything, the economic structures will change, and the ones who will come out of it best will be the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whose companies should be broken up – immediately. They are far too powerful."
Will we get through it? "Of course. But we are at a moment of human restructuring. You and I lived in a period between the Second World War and the digital age, when social democracy was invented to spike the Marxist bullet. Now that's up for grabs. I've viewed things through the prism of rock'n'roll, but rock'n'roll was a product of media, of television kicking off in 1956, and it ended when people realised there was money to be made from digital exhaust, the shadow left behind by all your browsing. The device in your pocket is how we understand life now."
"My poor father thought I was a loser. Our relationship was poisonous to the point of violence."
Rock'n'roll is where Bob Geldof began, even if he then became the figurehead of Live Aid, a very successful businessman, a global spokesperson and a public figure with what he describes as a soap opera life, from the death of his ex-wife, Paula Yates, in 2000 and their daughter Peaches in 2014, to becoming the paterfamilias of a stately pile where daughters Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie and their families come to stay. Amid all of this, you could miss the achievements of the Boomtown Rats. Geldof formed the band in 1975 as an Irish answer to the speeded-up R&B of Dr Feelgood.
"It was pure rejection," says Geldof of the Rats. "Things were shit back home: civil war, utterly corrupt church and government, no economy... Anger was forbidden, silence was demanded. Everyone was complicit. When these wankers came round the pubs saying, 'Money for the lads,' everyone knew what that meant: money for the killers. Once I had the name of the band, I knew we could use it for intent and purpose. We had to literally make a fuss."
That's when Geldof discovered his perhaps most enduring skill: annoying people. Shortly after interviewing Eric Clapton during his short-lived career as a music journalist, Geldof took inspiration from the "Clapton Is God" graffiti that popped up in London in the Sixties and held a press conference for his unknown band wearing a T-shirt that said, "Geldof Is God". I ask him if he annoys his family and friends as much as he annoys the general public.
"My poor father, who spent every penny he had on my and my sister's educations, thought I was a loser," says Geldof. "He clung on to his job selling towels around rural Ireland. All of our spare rooms were rented out, anything to make money… I didn't play ball. I didn't want to cling on to a job. I didn't want to stay in Ireland. Our relationship was poisonous to the point of violence. I frustrated him and he was just a wanker as far as I was concerned. Thankfully, he lived long enough for us to become great mates. In terms of the rest of the country, however, yes, I was consciously annoying them."
"Most people thought I was a complete arse – and so it has been ever thus."
The Boomtown Rats' tipping point in Ireland was an appearance on Gay Byrne's The Late Late Show, a Friday night staple where space was given for discussion that was suppressed elsewhere. By the end of it, the Boomtown Rats were banned from the whole of Ireland.
"I just kicked off," says Geldof. "Gay Byrne allowed it to happen. I was talking about the corruption of the church, these nuns in the audience started shouting, and I said, 'Brides of Christ? Whores of Christ.' None of the Rats told me to shut up, even the ones who hated me. The next day at my father's Mass, the priest got up and asked everyone to pray for that poor deluded soul on television the night before. It kicked off – most people thought I was a complete arse – and so it has been ever thus. The general feeling here in England is, he's a f***ing wanker, but fair play to him about Africa. In Ireland it's, he's a total wanker, but at least he says what he wants to say."
Does it bother him? "I've no desire to be liked!" he shouts, as if the very idea is abhorrent. "Bono says that it isn't normal to want to have 20,000 people saying they love you every night. That's not why I got into this anyway. First, I wanted to get out of Ireland. Second, the concert is where you play the thing that started off in your head, where the loop closes."
Soon after, they fell in with punk, but were viewed with derision by punk gatekeepers such as Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill: too tuneful, too Irish, definitely too much of a mouthy show-off lead singer. Realising he couldn't compete with the cool of the Clash or the shock of the Sex Pistols, Geldof guided the Boomtown Rats towards Rat Trap and Banana Republic, songs so tuneful and catchy, audiences only realised later that they were about dead-end jobs and corruption in the Irish state respectively. Then there was She's So Modern, his tribute to all the cool girls on the scene. "And I ended up marrying one," he says, referring to Yates, then making her way as a music journalist. "Everyone in London was deeply suspicious of us. We got friendly with John [Lydon], maybe because of the Irish connection [Lydon's family were Irish], but the other bands were very sneery."
It probably didn't help when Geldof said he got into a band to get rich, get famous and get laid. I ask if he feels he has since achieved those goals.
"I was poor all my childhood; poverty is shit," he replies. "I gave being rich a try and I'm here to tell you it's a lot better. As for being famous, I'm not a good star in the way someone like David Bowie is a good star. Back in the day with Paula, I felt like a f***ing eejit in limousines and so on, but I wanted fame because it was a way to talk about stuff that bothered me. And getting laid in Catholic Ireland in 1975? No f***ing way. As soon as I was in a band, at the first gig, a girl came up and said, 'I want to shag you.' And I thought, shall I continue to work in the abattoir or go in this direction?"
As Geldof will point out over the course of the interview, all his dreams came true – at a cost. The personal crisis began in February 1995, when Yates, mother of his young daughters Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches and Pixie, left Geldof for Michael Hutchence of the Australian rock band INXS. A year later Yates and Hutchence had a daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, and in November 1997 Hutchence committed suicide in a hotel room in Sydney, Australia, following a custody battle between the couple and Geldof over their children.
"I went to a football match with Iggy Pop and David Bowie and I had to pinch myself."
Yates died of an accidental heroin overdose on September 17, 2000, aged 41. She didn't die because she was an addict, but because she wasn't one: the coroner found that Yates had no tolerance of the drug. Geldof took on custody of Tiger Lily alongside her three sisters, and then in 2014 Peaches died of an overdose too. She was 25, leaving Geldof to deal with what he describes as the "black hole abyss of loss". As The Women in My Life, an unrecorded song included in Tales of Boomtown Glory, has it, "Mother, daughters, wife, ex-wife and lovers… The women in my life have almost broken me."
"Time doesn't heal; time accommodates and it's ever-present," he told the Irish presenter Tommy Tiernan on his RTE show recently. "You're driving and you're at the traffic lights and, for no reason whatsoever, the person in question inhabits you and I'll cry. But that happens to everyone. And so you say, 'Okay, it's time to cry now.' You just do it to the maximum because there's no use holding it in ... The grief and the abyss are infinite."
Needless to say, the Boomtown Rats' time would come to an end, around 10 years after it all began, but what happened just before that is enshrined in history. In 1984, after a day of trying and failing to get people interested in the band's latest single, Geldof came home to watch Michael Buerk's now infamous report on the Ethiopian famine.
"A pop singer, a man in the überjob of the mid-80s, is at home, feeling his career is over because the new kids have come along," Geldof declaims, as if reciting lines from his yet to be staged one-man show. "He's not having a hit so he gets his mates in rock'n'roll to record a song. How does he know these people? Because his girlfriend is on the television show of the moment [Yates co-presented The Tube]. Simon Le Bon would be here most weekends, sleeping on the floor. Gary Kemp was here all the time, George Michael and Boy George too. So Do They Know It's Christmas? is a hit, and then I go to Africa and see the level of poverty. Now, if I don't do something about it, I'm complicit."
Geldof points to a cabinet in front of him that contains the original sheet music given to him by Quincy Jones and signed by everyone at the recording of We Are the World by USA For Africa, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Paul Simon included. "Quincy goes, 'OK everyone, you all know Bob Geldof.' As it turns out, nobody knows Bob Geldof. But there are gods present, I had just come direct from Africa, and 30 million people were about to die of want in a world of surplus, which I said was intellectually offensive and economically illiterate. And everyone, quite rightly, called me a wanker."
Geldof's grand vision for Live Aid, of two vast concerts in London and Philadelphia connected via satellite, turned out to be a clarion call about globalisation. It was spurred by political reasons as much as economic ones: to fight against European and American policies of producing, then destroying, an excess of food in order to stabilise markets.
"I was looping the world with the lingua franca of the planet, which was rock'n'roll," says Geldof of Live Aid. "Everyone is listening to this shit. And for the first time we talked to each other about a common problem ... Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, the Who and Black Sabbath reformed for the occasion. Paul McCartney came back. He didn't want to do it, mostly because, just like Live Aid overwhelms anything I do, the Beatles always overwhelm anything Paul does. He knew U2 were the coming band, and he was listening to their set in his car, shitting himself. Then he plays Let It Be, the sound breaks down, Pete Townshend and David Bowie grab me, and you have McCartney, Bowie, Townshend and Geldof singing Let It Be on stage. Spot the odd one out. You couldn't make it up."
This is Geldof's great strength, the eternal outsider who, in hoping to stand alongside his heroes, tries harder than they ever would to earn his position. Live Aid meant he had a direct line not only to Bowie and McCartney but also Gorbachev, Reagan and the world leaders who followed, among them Tony Blair and George Bush. That led to fashioning the G8 agenda of cancelling African debt.
"That's why we had to do Live 8," says Geldof, on the vast multi-city concert series that came 20 years later. "With Live 8 you had co-operation, consensus and compromise from world leaders over an issue that dealt with the poor of the world. Nobody wanted to do it, but they were forced to by the audience of rock'n'roll. Can you imagine it happening now? Can you imagine Trump agreeing to anything?"
Since then, Geldof points out, African economies have blossomed. Whether or not he is taking credit for the economic rebirth of an entire continent, I'm not sure, but he emphasises that Live 8 also coincided with the arrival of invasive social technology that has changed the world for ever and certainly not for good – technology that marked the end of a socially liberal era with rock as its soundtrack. He uses the example of how smart televisions and other devices will now monitor your domestic arguments for financial gain.
"The type and ferocity of your argument is being monitored by an algorithm, so your wife may get a ping about a divorce lawyer," he says. "It is being used by people who are not good people. Everything is fractured because of social media, and now you get important artists like Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Billie Eilish, but can they move the cultural needle? No. Today, music is an adjunct to your life, where once it was the central spine of the culture. Now the phone is the social medium of our time and we are allowing it to usurp our individuality for convenience. We are complicit."
Geldof says he never had a chance to step back and think about what happened to him. "All of a sudden I was with one of the prettiest girls in Britain, and she's smart and funny and a laugh," says Geldof, referring to Yates. "You're playing to huge numbers of people. And then Live Aid happens and people are standing up in the Senate and applauding you as you go in on the arm of Ted Kennedy. You need to put a frame of reference around your life, otherwise you get lost. And that was when I started making the solo albums."
Despite being convinced that rock'n'roll was over as a force for social change, Geldof did get the Boomtown Rats back together in 2013. "We sat here in this room, me reluctantly, and I told them, 'I'm not going to go on stage and jump around like a c***!' " he shouts. "I'm too old for that. But then we started playing Lookin' After No 1 and it was the first time I realised I was in a great band with songs of lasting relevance. Now, when I sing I Don't Like Mondays, I'm not singing about a school shooting in 1979; I'm singing about last week's massacre. In Banana Republic I'm no longer singing about the failed Irish state; I'm singing about the political infantilism of the American republic and that fool in the White House. Rat Trap is about the hopelessness of the gig economy. It was easy to be in this moment with those songs. And then I go on stage and I'm leaping around like a c***! Then, for a moment, when we finish, I am conscious of being happy."
The Boomtown Rats were never the most harmonious of bands, but Geldof discovered that, after the death of Yates in 2000, his old gang was there for him. He says bassist Pete Briquette turned up at his house in Battersea, when it was surrounded by paparazzi and pulled Geldof out of what he describes as a bottomless hole. "He set up a studio in the basement and told me to come down when I was ready. And now, maybe I need those old friends around me once again."
All of this led to Citizens of Boomtown. It is very much a classic rock'n'roll album, with songs that borrow from the New York Dolls and Seventies Bowie, complete with a Rebel Rebel-style ode to a stylishly messy girl Geldof saw in a charity shop, called Trash Glam Baby, and a rave anthem about the band themselves called, suitably, The Boomtown Rats. In the middle of it all is a very tender song called Passing Through, which can be read as a memory of Geldof's daughter Peaches.
"That song is me closing my eyes and letting my subconscious vomit from the sump whatever it needed to say," he says of the song. "I had no foreknowledge that I would come up with the line, 'Today in the park I thought I saw you.' But the meaning is self-evident."
Geldof is 68. After everything he has been through and achieved, you might think he would want to take it easy. Surely now he could spend more time in the beautiful room we are talking in, with all of his books, with Fifi, Pixie and Tiger Lily, his grandchildren and Jeanne Marine around him.
"No, because I get bored so f***ing easily," he says. "My mind has to be in a state of frantic activity because otherwise, at around 4 or 5pm, I sink into melancholy. In the summer it will be 7 or 8pm. That is my default state and it is very unsettling. I will become sad very quickly. Everybody knows about what has happened to me and it is a soap opera life. The highs and lows are at such a pitch that there is no equilibrium, no medium range. Things have either been massively triumphant or I have been sunk in the abyss of loss and grief."
Even coronavirus fits into Geldof's vision of his life. "My album comes out, my book comes out, great reviews, sales look good, bang – a wipeout. I got the things I wanted. I used to dream of having a room like this, with big tall windows and dust motes in the air. The fairy tipped me with its wand, but it was a malevolent fairy. Lots of stuff came good. And lots of stuff went bad."
Geldof touches on plenty of other subjects over the afternoon. He holds forth on how song lyrics are not poetry, but an equal art form ("Waterloo Sunset [the Kinks] is just as brilliantly put as Wordsworth's Upon Westminster Bridge") and Brexit ("I think it's a serious f***ing mistake, but the argument continues because that's democracy"). He recalls going to see the Rolling Stones in 1965, where, as if in preparation for his future life as a Zelig of the world elite, he sneaked backstage and nicked Mick's coffee cup.
"When we were talking about Live Aid we met at the Savoy, and Mick was eating bacon and eggs. This was before he was in his nutritionist period," says Geldof, on getting to know his childhood hero. "I asked him why I had his coffee cup and Mick replied, 'I don't f***ing know. Do you want my bacon and eggs too?' I still get starstruck. I may not necessarily like these people now that I know them, but I can't get past that feeling."
Geldof's favourite superstar, in terms of personality, was David Bowie. "He was the very opposite of the cool, Thin White Duke persona," he says. "In the early days of the Rats I hitchhiked to Brussels to see Bowie on his Station to Station tour, somehow got backstage, and David went, 'Who are you?' I said that I was in a band and we did speeded-up R&B. He goes, 'I tried that. Didn't work for me.' He was really kind to this doofus who turned up out of nowhere. Years later I went to a football match with Iggy Pop and David Bowie and I had to pinch myself. That's what I mean about a soap opera life."
Before it is time to leave, talk turns to favourite albums. Geldof claims not to like Sgt Pepper by the Beatles. I always think people who say they don't like Sgt Pepper are lying, but we agree that 1968's Beggars Banquet was the Rolling Stones' absolute masterpiece, and from there Geldof returns eloquently to the theme of the afternoon: rock and pop music as the driving force of the liberal era; an era that, thanks to Google, Facebook and the rest of them, may well have come to an end.
"The harbinger of that album is Jumpin' Jack Flash," he points out, naming the song that preceded that masterpiece. "The Stones are lost. They're going nowhere. And suddenly Keith has a five-stringed guitar and open G tuning and rock music is invented. Mick was at his lyrical best too. Through the Stones we learned about drugs, Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception… Were we going to get that from Frank Sinatra? We found something central to the self in this music. Rock music will continue, but can you live your life by it any more?"
The melancholy that has, for the past three hours, been kept at bay by a torrent and tumble of ideas, returns. Geldof leans his long body deep into the chair, and taps disconsolately at the rug with a Dr Martens shoe.
"I don't think so."
Written by: Will Hodgkinson
© The Times of London