'Don't do anything f***ing stupid, stay exactly where you are' - Bob Geldof talks suicide and Peaches
With Peaches's anniversary approaching and his documentary on Yeats airing on RTE, he spoke to Donal Lynch about depression, drugs, resilience - and the moment when he thought of ending it all
Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30
You don't expect Bob Geldof to answer the door himself. But it creaks open and there he is, even taller than you expected, a nimbus of wild, donnish hair framing his gloriously craggy face. He leads me into the mixing desk where he and a production team are putting the finishing touches to his documentary about Yeats and 1916.
Commemoration fatigue may well and truly have set in for most of us, but Geldof's examination of Yeats's leading of the country's cultural revolution during the period cuts through the blather.
Geldof speaks with the passion of an evangelist about the poet who "wrote his country into being". Images of Edna O'Brien, Bono and Damian Lewis flash across the screen, and it's clear that Bob certainly hasn't lost the knack of marshalling luminaries behind a project. I've been warned that he can be cantankerous, but seeing him in such good form, bantering with the team, focusing with laser-like intensity on every tiny edit, brings a sense of relief. After the horrors of the last few years, you want everything for him. Including, as he points out himself, "not being seen as this tragic fucking figure, some caricature of grief."
He's wary of being probed - more than once he tells me that he doesn't want to talk about himself, but he also adds that he does interviews instead of therapy.
"I've never really had a problem discussing what's going on inside me. You hear people say, 'Oh men can't express themselves.' Well, I can, and I couldn't give a fuck about it. The more mysterious you act, anyway, the more people tend to probe.
"I don't blather on, but when things are tough and you're with mates, I will talk. I think confession originally had the same kind of function for people, just that sort of sanctioned unburdening."
There is probably much to unburden. Just a few years ago it appeared that he had reached a plateau of contentment that he had striven towards his whole life. His fifties - he is 64 now - were when he really "put the demons of the past behind", he tells me. He had settled into his role as one of rock's elder statesmen, reinvigorated the Boomtown Rats and was happy in his relationship with Jeanne Marine, his partner of the last two decades.
Then, two years ago next week, his daughter Peaches was found dead in London at the age of 25. Heroin was later found to have been a factor in her death and the horrible symmetries with the death of her mother - Paula Yates had died of an overdose - made the tragedy feel like a curse.
Peaches and her sisters had been the subject of a bitter custody battle between their parents, who had split after Paula left Bob for INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. In those years, Peaches later wrote, Bob was "embittered and depressed" and imposed an "almost Dickensian" regime of rules and order in an attempt to compensate for the chaos of life at Paula's.
The author Stephen King once wrote that "beating heroin is child's play compared to beating your childhood" but unlucky Peaches had failed to beat either, leaving her children, husband and grief-stricken father to try to carry on without her.
For Bob, this almost proved impossible, and he tells me that he contemplated suicide.
"I'd make lists and keep working at the writing of those lists until the upside overwhelmed the downside. In my case I wrote down, 'What's the upside of being alive?' and 'What's the downside of it?' Was it ever really serious? Overall, no. In that moment, though, perhaps it was. I had the sanity, luckily, to phone a friend and tell him, 'Look I think I'm just starting to get rationally irrational.' He almost slapped my face (with his tone) and said, 'Don't do anything fucking stupid, stay exactly where you are' and came around very quickly. People talk you through these things."
Male friends were particularly important during that time.
"Men and women are very different. Women want you to talk everything out whereas with men it's good enough if we're just with each other. I remember the lads coming around and just occasionally catching each other's eye. Nobody really said anything but when they'd all gone I felt they had given me a bit of relief."
He tells me that one of the most important factors in getting through the grief was marrying Jeanne.
"Peaches had just died and I decided that John Lennon, in all his glorious naivety, was right; love is all you need. There's one of my own songs that goes, 'To live and love is all there is, life without love is meaningless.' [Marriage] didn't make us love each other any more but I asked her in front of all our friends and family. And I married her on her 50th birthday, so what an amazing fucking present that was."
Had they both always wanted it? "We both always loved each other. She never hassled me and I didn't do it out of gratitude for all she'd done for me and the children, but I think it was important. Among her mates, I don't know if it's a status thing among their group, or among women in general, but I'd notice that other women would say 'my husband' and she'd say 'Bob' or stuff like that, and I subtly clocked that."
It's impossible not to read subtexts about Geldof's own tragedy into his take on Yeats and 1916's "blood sacrifice bollocks".
"In the piece I say that dying is easy, we all will die," he tells me. "The difficult thing to do is to stay alive and continue and effect change. [Yeats] invented Ireland more than any of [the men of 1916] because the Ireland we live in is his Ireland, not the Ireland of the proclamation. He also stayed alive to effect change, whereas they died. He made the institutions on which we built a state. The institutions we got had just been absorbed from English custom and law. Besides the Abbey, he tried to bring modern art to Ireland.
"He tried to bring back Shaw and Joyce. Micheal Mac Liammoir said that he had an anti-immigration scheme for artists. Yeats literally wrote his country into being."
In some ways you could say that Geldof sang his country into being, although he bashfully pooh-poohs the idea himself. But before Bob became the mouthy patron saint of giving, he represented one of the soldiers (to use the language of 1916) of Irish youth, storming the ramparts of the old order.
Growing up, his mother died young - he tells me he does not remember grieving for her, but he remembers seeing his father cry. He shared a bedroom with his father, and Bob's side of the room was adorned with CND posters.
When he left school he went to England for a while, working various jobs including a brief, unlikely stint as a children's TV presenter. He returned to Dublin in the mid-1970s and formed the band The Nightlife Thugs; they later changed their name to the Boomtown Rats, after a gang of children Geldof had read about in Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory.
One of the contributors to the Yeats series, novelist Joe O'Connor, once described Bob's first appearance on the Late Late Show: He "shambled onto the screen like an evil, bedraggled wino and sneered his way through the interview in a furtive southside drawl. He detested many things about Ireland, he said. He loathed the Catholic Church; he hated the priests who had taught him in Blackrock College, he disliked his father. He had only gotten into rock and roll in order to get drunk and get laid. Almost everything he said was greeted with horrified gasps and massed tongue-clickings from the audience, and wild cheers from my friends and myself."
Bob only behaved like that, he tells me, because he was sure, after a certain point, that they would never be allowed on television again. They were wild years. The Rats were taking off and the temptations were great. He recalls taking hash and freaking out. "I took it and I remember thinking to myself, 'It's a sedative, so go around the block and walk it off.' When I came back into the house I remember there was a nail sticking out of the wall and I leaned down and thought it would be an idea to stick the nail into my head." He demonstrates against the wall in the kitchen. He tells me he was later prescribed valium and lithium. "I don't envy the young. I'd hate to have to do it all again."
He met Paula in the early days of the Rats. They had a daughter together, Fifi Trixibelle (more appalled tongue-clicking across the Irish sea). "The first time that I got married, Paula and I had been living together for years and we had a three-year-old baby. There was a load of bollocks, annoyances, associated with not being married. I was in LA recording and Barry McGuigan was defending his title in Vegas and I said to her, 'Come on and let's do it here.'"
They had 10 tumultuous years of marriage, but when she left him for Australian rocker Michael Hutchence (with whom she had Tiger Lily) he was devastated. "I couldn't get beyond the huge immensity of loss - that universal grief," he told an audience at the Hay festival a few years ago. "Pain crowded in my head. I couldn't find a way over or beyond it. It was too much, the whole thing. I hated women. I didn't trust them. I didn't want to be near them."
The family court messiness that followed made him one of the patron saints of fathers' rights. But it was Live Aid, of course, that turned him into a global figure and made him 'Sir Bob'.
It won him the admiration of billions, but, with each new iteration topping the Christmas charts year after year, there were those who wondered how much it was about the hungry in Africa and how much about the ego of the celebrities who took part. "I wouldn't give a shite if it were about their ego," he responds. "When Britney Spears started doing breast cancer stuff, people scoffed at it for those exact reasons. Well, all my girls went and got checked because of Britney and continue to get checked. Would they have done that with a 20 million advertising budget on telly? Nope."
Another of the criticisms of Geldof has been that, like his friend Bono, he has cosied up to powerful people with blood on their hands. He nods vigorously when I mention this, but adds a powerful caveat.
"It's true, I shook hands with murderers who, the minute I left, went downstairs to torture people. And I knew that at the time. The guy who ran Ethiopia, for instance, was a brute and a thug. Dealing with him was a question of pragmatics. To be in that country I had to tick the box with this person. But I never just kept my mouth shut, I always raised issues. I remember taking his hand and saying, in front of journalists, "When was the last time this hand strangled people" and he pulled his hand back and said, "Those people are my enemies."
He associates ageing with a creeping sense of pragmatism, he tells me. "When I listen to young people today, they're actually entranced by the sixties - which were grim - or they think that they're living through a great time now - they're not. I hear their ideas and I think, 'Well, that won't work' or 'That's been tried before.' They say, 'Tear down all the corporations' and you think, "Well, think it through, because I had to."
He is "aware of the fucking finishing line of life getting closer", he says, but doesn't fear ageing. "I see myself on telly and I think, 'Fuck, you're old.' I see the chicken neck and the jowls and I make little excuses to myself like, 'Oh, I had flu that day.' But then I'm like, 'Nah, dude, that's what you look like - shite.' It's desperately inelegant to struggle with it, or to, Trump-like, slap on a whole load of orange tan. But, on the other hand, if I felt like doing that I would. Anyway the plain fact of the matter is that I'm just getting more devastatingly attractive."
He's an adoring grandfather to Peaches's two kids, Astala and Phaedra, who live with Peaches's widower Thomas Cohen. The two men are said to have grown closer over the last few years. "I loved the whole bit of grandkids," Bob says. "Mine are tiny little sprogs now and there is this incredible cuteness of them learning to talk. I bring around film of them on my phone to show to people. It's brilliant when they're about six or eight but then they get to 14 and become a huge pain in the hole."
He doesn't fear death, especially not if it comes during his planned space mission, which is still in the works. "I'd go right now if that was possible," he says, eyes shining with Christmas morning-level enthusiasm. "I want to see it. I want to see that little improbable ball we live on. I'm not scared, I've done all the F16 zero gravity stuff. I don't believe in the rockstar way to go, but if that was the way it were to happen I wouldn't give a shite."
He lives with Jeanne and Tiger Lily, who has just been accepted to a very fancy university, he tells me, bristling with pride (although he asks me not to say which one, lest photographers set up camp on the day). Could he live here, in what he once called The Banana Republic, again? "Now I could, but before I couldn't. And it goes back to Yeats's point. We became the people he said we always were - open, plural and for me the final point was the marriage bill. It was like saying to them, the Church, the old leaders, 'Would you ever fuck off?'"
It will be Peaches's anniversary next week and Bob has a sort of vague, if perfectly understandable, fear that there could be more tragedy on the horizon.
"It's not as if there isn't anything coming, and you sort of dread what is coming next. I don't know what it could be. It seems to me to be a bizarrely episodic life. The trick, for me, is to remain incessantly busy."
The second and final part of 'A Fanatic Heart: Geldof on Yeats' can be seen on Thursday at 10.15pm on RTÉ One
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