'I'm not Mr Chuckles'
Published 19/09/2010 | 05:00
For a long time Bob Geldof had something I lusted after. And, no, I don't mean his wife, Paula Yates -- although I will admit that, like many men who interviewed the fabulous, feisty, and skilfully flirtatious Paula, I was utterly charmed by the woman when we met in 1995.
Furthermore, five years later, I wrote a heartfelt obituary for Paula, and then in 2002 I, in effect, fought in her corner against, eh, none other than Geldof, during what he described as our "tennis match of a fucking interview!"
But, no, the something I am talking about takes us back to a time when Bob and I were kids, though he is older than me, and habitues of "teenage dens of iniquity" -- as they were rather irresistibly labelled by priests, teachers, and parents alike -- such as Murray's Record Centre, and the Bamboo Cafe in Dun Laoghaire -- the Boo. So, was I part of Geldof's gang? Hardly. He came from a "posh" area of Dun Laoghaire and had gone to Blackrock College, whereas I was, as some kid from Killiney once sneeringly told me, in the seemingly more downmarket CBS in Dun Laoghaire, "just a pleb from Glasthule". I didn't know what "pleb" meant, but I punched him in the sneer anyway.
More seriously, from that day on -- especially given that a Christian Brother had told me, "whenever you apply for a job, never use Glasthule in your address, use Sandycove instead" -- and, having checked a dictionary and discovered "plebeian" meant I came from "the common people" and was "vulgar" and "low", I became truly -- and now, I see, stupidly -- self-conscious about my background. Particularly when trying to say "hi" to those girls in Murray's or the Boo who Bob seemed to know in a way I could only dream about. And did.
That's what I lusted after. His self-confidence. Even as evident in the way he, say, sashayed into the Boo, not only looking a little like Jagger but as if he were singing "I am the little red rooster" while rushing past the area for not-so-cool customers -- near the front door, where myself and a few mates from Sallynoggin usually sat sipping Coke.
Happily, I soon realised, and noted in my diary, "Yipee! It seems some posh birds fancy 'outsiders' like me!" I also noticed, however, that Bob and his mates "never spoke to us". Apart from "a nice fella" who, even so, the first time he did, one afternoon in the People's Park, embarrassed the hell out of me. How? This guy said, "Like to buy some grass?" and, much to the amusement of my two buddies, who clearly were more hip than me, I said, "Buy grass? Are you mad? Grass is free!" thinking he was referring to the green stuff beneath my ass.
Those were the days, my friend -- before I became a junkie. I'm joking. But, if you think that's surreal, fast-forward four years. Now I'm attending a Psychology of the Visual Media course in Dun Laoghaire College of Art, and one of my classmates, and new friends, is Peter Finnegan, who is a buddy of Bob's, which gives me a kind of social cachet with Geldof, who I often meet and chat with -- and find I like -- in that most social of settings, the local dole office!
The story gets even more surreal. Now fast-forward to 1977. I've become a rock photographer and, apart from being on stage with Bob and the Boomtown Rats for a moment or three, during Ireland's first major rock festival, in Dalymount Park, I'm also asked to cover the launch of the Rats' debut album, in the bar of the Olympia Theatre. Cool, eh? And me, "just a pleb from Glasthule" which, naturally, made me wonder: whatever happened to that kid from Killiney?
But it was at this point that I noticed Bob had changed. I definitely didn't believe what I was hearing when, during the photo session, I asked, "Where did you learn to throw those shapes, Geldof?" and Bob told me he and Rats had gone to "kind of classes to study rock poses and shit like that!" This sure shattered my already strained perception of the authenticity of most punk bands! I also, of course, saw the irony in the fact that, during the punk era, posh kids such as Bob probably had to pose as 'plebs' in order to attain 'street cred' and I wondered if this was why he now seemed to pepper his sentences more profusely with profanities like "bollix" and "fuck".
One thing was sure. He "barely spoke to me in the car on the way to the Bailey," I reported in my diary, and, "seemed far more interested in talking to a record executive about sales figures and demographics". Even more disillusioning, as far as I was concerned, was the fact that he then "proceeded to hold court at the bar of the Bailey, talking over everyone, listening to no one, loving it as Dublin's rock elite queued up to lick his arse, so I left, rapidly."
This, incidentally, was my first experience of how shamelessly and pathetically sycophantic people can become in the presence of a celebrity, and I was not impressed. Nor was I impressed later, the day I bumped into Bob Christmas shopping, and he momentarily lost his temper in response to the price of an item, which he said was "a fucking rip-off!" That, of course, may have been just another little punk pose but, either way, it led to a little epiphany for me. I knew I'd long outgrown my adolescent tendency to lust after Bob's self-confidence, but now I realised it was the last thing I'd want, because he now seemed to me to be shamelessly conceited in so many ways.
All of which might help explain why I was never going to give Geldof the kind of glorified PR interview most celebrities seem to regard as their God-given right. But then Bob knows that's not my style. That's why I was surprised when, following our 2002 interview, he phoned an editor, complaining that my questions had been "really rough"! Though he was then told, "Joe only gave you the kind of interview you yourself would have conducted when you worked in journalism during the early Seventies!"
Yet, let's start with a revisionist look at our first interview, from 1989. Although here I must stress that there is a lot about Bob I still like -- even deeply admire. But this is not an article about his music, or about his charitable work, such as Live Aid. It is more about the guy I've known, to whatever degree, since we were, as I say, kids drooling over maybe even the same schoolgirls in Dun Laoghaire. There also is a lot in Geldof I identify with, such as his seemingly innate sense of rage, which, in fact, was the first subject we discussed in 1989. I even felt it necessary to point out, in the preface of the subsequent article, that Bob at the time had more reasons than most to "hate the media". And, "not only tabloid journalists who, he claims, are 'terrorising' his wife and children but also rock hacks" -- such as those who, on hearing Paula was pregnant concocted these heinous headlines, "One Geldof Bastard is Enough" -- Melody Maker -- and "Abortion of the Year" -- Sounds. But what, I wondered from the start, seemed to make rage so central to Bob's psyche?
"Anger is a great motivator," he replied. "I haven't analysed or attempted to rationalise it because I'm not sure I'd want it to go away! I'd be afraid if it did there wouldn't be anything to get me out of bed in the morning."
"Why did so much resentment towards your father seep through the pages of Is That It?, your bio?"
"Once you start to write, it becomes like a worm wriggling away inside your psyche. You'd want to be a moron if you hadn't reconciled yourself to something that happened 20 years ago. I understand that. But understanding implies everything's OK -- it's not. If you were to take me back to when I was 13, I'd still be enraged remembering what happened. I don't dislike the man. I like him very much, because now I see that what happened, happened not just to me, but him."
Here I knew Bob was alluding to the death of his mother, but this subject we didn't explore until 2002. That said, back in 1989, after Geldof claimed he "didn't like the punk period at all" and that most punk bands, apart from the Sex Pistols, "were made up and a sham", I couldn't resist the temptation to remind him that the Rats "were deft hands at media manipulation" and so, too, was he!
"What's the point in having the media there if you don't manipulate them?" he responded. "Their objective is to manipulate you, in order to get sales. Their sole objective, in talking to you, is to make money. Journalists get paid and publishers make their wage either out of advertising, or out of the popularity of an artist. They are there, they believe, to manipulate you, so it's a quid pro quo . . . I've no time for the media at all. They lie most of the time . . . I've been aware of how newspapers operate since I worked as a journalist, but only now do I really think that the media is the single most anti-democratic force in society."
"The other side of all this is that news broadcasts galvanised you, and the world, to act on behalf of the people of Ethiopia."
"Absolutely. And all along I've said the only thing I can use TV for is as a soapbox to express my ideas."
"But how do you deal with it when you see headlines like 'One Geldof Bastard Is Enough'?"
"You don't. You just cry . . . I really do not crave to be in the papers. They can fuck off unless I actually want something to happen. To be totally honest with you, I don't know why I am doing this interview right now . . . You have to watch what you say and do because it may make headlines. A story starts somewhere like this, then one paper or another picks it up and it grows, until, in the worst cases, something that started out relatively innocently ends up creating great tension between you and your entire family and maybe destroying you and your life. They say, 'OK, Bob Geldof didn't do this but here is X number of girls who will say he did fuck them.' So, what you do is sit inside and fucking die a little every time they print a lie about you. Jesus fucking Christ, you turn on the TV to watch The Terminator and they are listening through the letterbox, so they run off and write that your wife was screaming at you. Or, you're walking your kid to school, and there are 50 people in front of you; reporters, photographers. OK, I know it sounds like, 'Here is this rich, famous bastard singing the blues'. Well, why the fuck shouldn't I? Why shouldn't I say to them, 'Go fuck off, leave my family alone'?"
"Have you come to terms with those tabloid stories about yourself and another . . ."
(He cuts across) "I don't . . ."
"Don't feel like addressing that?"
"How? How do you deal with it? You go home and read about it and then the missus reads it, and although you know it's a lie and she's convinced it's a lie, a little bit does die inside you."
At that point, I had tried, patently unsuccessfully, to get Bob to talk about a rather delicate subject that, again, as you will see, we didn't really explore until 2002. However, in 1995, I did that interview with Paula and got her response to those music-paper headlines and articles.
"That, to me, was the worst kind of violation by the media. And it was horrible for Bob, seeing that stuff. I remember reading things like 'Abortion of the Year' and all I could do was cry and cry and cry because I was heavily pregnant and it was my first baby. You're so vulnerable at times like that, you don't need to be reading comments like that in the tabloids, or, as was the case there, music papers."
Only months after giving me that quote, Paula left Bob. The following year they were divorced, and she had a daughter with Michael Hutchence; the next year he was found dead, and she herself died in 2000. Two years later, Bob released Sex, Age, and Death, and it was during his media-courting promotion of that album that we had our "tennis match of a fucking interview".
The interview began with Geldof stating he wouldn't talk about "specific individuals" -- meaning, specifically, Paula and Jeanne Marine, his new partner -- because to do so would be involving himself in what he labelled "the pornography of intrusion". Maybe. But given that so many songs on that album were mercilessly explicit and that the same critique could apply to, at least , some sections of his biography, Is That It?, I asked Bob if, for example, Fifi, his then 18-year-old daughter, had ever responded to parts of the latter, by saying, "Dad, this is a bit much!"
"No, because I'm unapologetic about who and what I am . . . They know who I am, and generally I'm melancholic by disposition, not Mr Chuckles, though I seek that."
"Exactly. Joy, because I am joyless, and grace because I am graceless. That was given to me for many years, then it was withdrawn -- joy, light, grace, beauty."
"When Paula left?"
"But did your whole emotional landscape really implode, collapse inwards?"
"Utterly. I was wholly unable to function."
"Was that process initiated by Paula leaving, the end of love after 19 years, or by the time you spent on your own afterwards? What triggered the descent?"
"When love is withdrawn."
"Had it not been withdrawn before Paula left?"
"I don't want to go into the story. I can only say that's what happened."
"So, am I wrong to think love died before Paula left?"
"You're wrong. Or, at least, I wasn't aware of it."
"The last time we talked, there was a rumour you were seeing someone else. So, am I also wrong to suspect that your life with Paula had begun to fall apart, even then?"
"Likewise, when it comes to the claim that you both had other lovers?"
"That's not true either. But I don't want to talk about that stuff."
"You write about it on the album, Bob. For example, in the opening track, One For Me, you mock Paula. How . . ."
(Geldof cuts in) "You're being a bit tabloid-y here. Because you know -- or think you know -- the story, you will read into the lyrics all that stuff. Yet, you're wrong about all the stuff you've just said."
"What? The suggestion that you each had other lovers while married?"
"Everything you said."
"I'm just trying to get a true sense of you and her as man and woman together, a true sense of the real emotional landscape behind your new album."
"I won't talk about us as man and woman together. But you're wrong in terms of much of what you said about us."
"So, tell me why you mock Paula in that song, though you don't use her name."
"That's a song of disappointment. You understand someone totally . . . and then events occur and suddenly you see this other person, who is not at all the individual you were with for 19 years, and you go . . . 'What about the grace, joy, light?' And the point is that, literally, I can't talk about these things. They are unsayable for me. Music is a higher language because it can articulate the unspeakable."
"But in the lyric of One For Me, you do mock Paula, say things like, 'You don't even need to take your clothes off anymore/You're a bit old for that stuff anyway' and describe her as 'mutton' dished up as 'lamb in ghostly guises'. Let's face facts here, Bob; you are attacking the mother of your children, so, how do you explain that to them?"
(Angrily) "So what? It's none of your business. The kids hear the record and think it's just a bunch of songs by Dad . . . they don't relate to that at all."
"And Fifi doesn't ask 'Why did you write that, Dad?'"
"No, and one of them thought that song was about something else, exactly as a punter would, hearing it. But not you, with you being so fucking specific."
OK. You get the picture. And I obviously didn't ease this less-than-love-fest between Bob and myself by going on to quote some of the more damning things Paula had said about him, in "reams of newspaper reports I'd read as part of my research for this interview", including descriptions of Bob as brooding, self-centred and stingy. Or by further suggesting that those allegations could make any fair-minded person think, "It's not just Paula's fault, or Paula and Michael's fault; the Geldof marriage fell apart -- Bob has to shoulder some blame." How did he respond? He replied, "The only thing I will say to that is that I am not the least bit violent. I can't recall ever hitting a single individual, man or woman."
"So, you saw no flaws in yourself as Paula's husband?"
"I am totally flawed. I've said to you, I'm melancholic by disposition. I'm sure I'm very difficult to live with . . . because of my make up and personality."
"In Inside Your Head you refer to Hutchence hanging himself. You say, 'Why put a noose around your neck/What the fuck is going on/Inside your head?' Was that song fuelled by the kind of anger that seems to fire your psyche?"
"Even if anger didn't fire my psyche, don't you think anger would be present in the circumstances I'm talking about?"
"Definitely, especially at the loss of life."
"That, more than anything else. So, Inside Your Head is a song of bewilderment. There is no anger directed at any of the individuals involved in our story."
"But, after Hutchence died, Paula was widely quoted as blaming you for his death and the coroner suggested that Hutchence's 'severe state of depression' on the night he apparently committed suicide was, at least in part, a consequence of 'the pressure of his ongoing dispute with Sir Robert Geldof'."
"Stop. Stop. Stop. I've just done The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times . . . and you're the only one coming back at me with guff from other newspapers. I'm fucking telling you what I felt."
"I also interviewed Paula, wrote an obituary for the woman, and researched her death, so I really have to reject you saying that what I'm quoting is just 'guff from other newspapers'."
"But I bet your research was 99 per cent shit. It's not your fault but the [fault of the] sources you were depending upon."
"Surely it's legitimate to ask if you feel guilty about Paula or Michael's death?"
"No, it's not, because that is the pornography of intrusion. I respect your right to ask these questions, but they are wildly inappropriate."
And so we continued. Wasting time, Bob no doubt would say -- and with me being "a total bollix" his fans might argue -- but nevertheless getting closer to what I still see as some, eh, home truths about the man. Certainly, towards the end of our "tennis match", when he suggested that no one can ever be completely in charge of their own life and I offered the following observation, his responses told me, personally, one hell of a lot about the hell of a tangled psyche of Bob Geldof. In fact, on hearing what follows, I realised that the guy who, back when we were kids, may have seemed to me to be singing Little Red Rooster in the Boo, was more likely to have been crooning a song such as Help!, John Lennon's coded cri du coeur.
As such, let this exchange be my final word on Bob. At least until the next round of our tennis match which, maybe, could even take place in Wimbledon next year to mark his 60th birthday. That is, of course, if Bob still has the balls to go another round! But, for now, to end, let's flashback to that raw and revealing exchange we had this time roughly eight years ago.
"Perhaps the truth, Bob, is that you never lost control of your life until Paula left, then you knuckled under the double pain of her loss and, finally, the loss of your mother."
"You're possibly right. I imagine the depths of grief were so intense, that was what was happening."
"But why, at the age of seven, didn't you deal with the death of your mother?"
"You can't really understand things at that age. Kids have extremely strong survival mechanisms, but you don't deal with a death, or loss, at that level. You must get on with life, so you blanket as much as possible."
"Losing a parent when you are young also can leave someone feeling extreme rage, suppressed or otherwise. You once told me rage definitely was a motivating factor in your life."
"Maybe that's it. What I do perfectly understand is that if my mom hadn't died I'd probably be happy living in Dublin and being, actually, maybe a journalist. I would have been happy going down that route in life."
"So was your mom's death the single most powerful propellant in the life of Bob Geldof?"
"That's it. As in the conditions that immediately followed, like my dad having to be away because he was a traveller, my sister going her own way and me, essentially, growing up on my own. With no one there to make you do homework, you read. Then, listen to pop music, then politics. All those threads of life that bound together, later, were put in place because of Mom dying. The logical conclusion is that I was fired up because of her death, though I didn't understand what the dynamic was. I probably still don't. And this whole thing does seem to be a feature among performers, artists, painters -- a parent dying young. It's like all you're ever saying is 'love me, love me' and the more people say 'I love you', the better you feel. But you don't reconcile yourself to that because it is irreconcilable. You tell yourself it happened a hundred fucking years ago, but deep inside you're still feeling the loss. You, Joe, would recognise, having interviewed me over more than a decade, that there are consistencies in my nature; you've already identified that hollow space. Yet, [I'm] not consciously trying to fill it, it's just a fact of life."
For original interviews, see www.joejacksonjournalist.com