The saving of Geldof's soul
Bob Geldof talks to Barry Egan about the mother he can't remember, the agony of losing wife Paula Yates to Michael Hutchence, finding happiness with French actress Jeanne Marine, the joy of having his children enjoy his music and the relevance of the Boomtown Rats' music today, as the band prepares to reform for a major gig
'A MOTHER'S happiness is like a beacon," Balzac wrote, "lighting up the future." Bob Geldof never had that light. The shadows gathered in his world from an early age and remain to this day. Evelyn, just 41, died of a brain haemorrhage when Bob was six.
I ask him can he remember her. He shakes his head – a head full of unkempt, salt-and-pepper hair. A few moments later, the 61-year-old says he can recall "Proustian things," what he terms "hints of a life": a velvet glove on her right hand – "up below the elbow, a velvet, long evening glove" and lipstick on a china tea cup, crushed-out cigarettes with traces of lipstick on them.
"This is what I used to do," Bob says putting his finger through his hair, indicating that it was as a young child he'd put his little finger through his mother's hair. "And put my thumb in my mouth and turn her hair like this while sitting on her knee."
From that, he says, you piece together an emotional sense – "not a visual image" – of a mother. They're triggers to what you felt, he adds, "but it isn't a sense of loss. That's rooted down deep and that's where the discontent comes from. There's always a sort of feeling of emptiness. I go like that" – he touches his lower stomach – "because it seems to be rooted here. 'It's a God-shaped hole, Bob,'" he says in a cod-Christian caricature of a hectoring Irish voice, "if you just accept it'."
"Others say: 'Poor Bob, you're missing your mother.' I'm not," he says firmly. "I'm not missing God, I'm not missing my mother. It is just a sense of it, which probably stems from my mother's death, but it doesn't impede. But the psychological thing must be some sort of animus. Must be. Not that it bothers me, that sense of easy desolation that overwhelms me ... "
Bob describes his panic stages from the ages of 11 to 15, where he would come home to an empty house in Dun Laoghaire. His father, a travelling salesman, was away all week. Bob had two older sisters; one was married, the other was at university.
"I had that sense of 'I need someone to hold on to me here'. That was the loss," Bob explains. "Adding to a bizarre fear of coming home and it is always November – in my head, my youth is always November – and the house is dark, I walk up the steps and I'd go in and I'd keep my head down. And if I don't keep my head down at the top of the stairs, there would be a woman looking at me."
"I'd imagine it was my mum," he says, "but I don't know. And then, because I didn't want to light the fire, I'd turn on the gas oven and put my feet in the oven and tilt back in the kitchen chair and just read a book. But I daren't look at the window on to the yard, because there would be a face looking in the window like that. I remember that face. I'd say: 'Stop it, now'."
This story has echoes of something Geldof told me in an interview in 2002 in London: in 1995, when his wife Paula Yates publicly left him for INXS pop star Michael Hutchence, leaving him a broken man bordering on madness.
"I was actually mad," he recalled of that time of being temporarily parted from his children, Fifi [born March 31, 1983], Peaches [March 13, 1989] and Pixie [September 17, 1990]. Bob added by way of explaining his madness that he could hear their footfall on the stairs. And he would shout out to them in the morning – "7.30am? What are you doing up, love?"
The sad fact was Bob was utterly alone in the house. "I would suddenly twig that I was talking to those ghosts," he told me in 2002, "and I would smell them going up to bed. I would go in to tuck them up and I would be actually at the bed, and the bed was flat and I would just collapse."
Freud believed that traumatic experiences that a child cannot process, because they occurred too early in life, persist in the mind as existential anxieties. Geldof's pre-existing and unresolved abandonment fears because of his mother's death were magnified into something awful for the 48-year-old Bob when Yates in effect abandoned him for Hutchence.
I ask him if that fear of being abandoned ever goes away. When Jeanne Marine – his partner of 16 years – goes away for a weekend, does he fear at a subconscious level she is never coming back?
"No," he says. "That isn't there."
Did he ever ask his father to help him get past all this psychological torment Bob carried because of his mother?
"He couldn't. He was a man of his time," he says of Robert, who died on August 26, 2010 at the age of 96. "You met my dad. He was a very broad-minded, intellectual man. His grasp of things and his perspective of them was solid. You could have a proper argument with him. But what he wasn't capable of dealing with – nor was I – was: 'Dad, I think all this stuff is because I miss my mother ... ' What he would accept is that he went off the rails because of it. No question about that. All of us were deeply affected by it, as are my lot by what happened to their mum," he says, referring to Yates, who died of a drug overdose at her home in London in September, 2000.
"And you deal with the fallout of that all the time. Unfortunately for my lot, they get beaten up for what happened in their life."
There were other subconscious factors at work, too. Bob told me in an interview last summer that Paula's family was "uber-weird." (It was only in 1997, the year she died, that Paula discovered that her biological father was TV host Hughie Green, rather than the man she thought was her dad, Jess Yates, himself a TV star who had been plagued by controversy) "She was an only child. She was parked into boarding school at a young age, then taken from Wales where they lived ... and moved around the place." As a result, she, Bob remembered, "was completely obsessive about family in an Enid Blyton way. So, without realising it, the family was so important to us because neither of us had it."
I wonder if Jeanne was aware of the underlying emotional minefield she was walking across when she started going out with Bob in 1996. "The thing is," he begins, "I never thought it would happen to me. Never. But when you do fall in love and you love your wife and the family that you both needed but didn't know and the intensity of that – while the outside world could say what it wanted about you – you had this personal thing.
"This own world, which every family has, where whole histories go undetected. We had that and it was really good and then it was ...
" ... and then it was Shakespearean," he says, referring to the break-up of his marriage to Yates and the tragic deaths that followed. "But beyond the Shakespearean tragedy, I inherited this bleak, cold world that has no comfort to offer and is pointless." There is a pause.
"Then suddenly, against every desire or instinct and great fear that you will ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever so expose yourself so nakedly – which you didn't even know you were doing. Your innards were f**king stretched out on a railway line. You didn't know that. And the f**king locomotive comes and cuts them apart. You didn't know that's what you were doing. And suddenly along comes this other thing which belies that. I resisted it. I was not ever, ever ... I was just going to..."
He sang that he "hated each and every woman" on Dazzled on the How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell LP last year.
"There was no question of it. I hated them. Hated them. All of them. And my female friends I was viewing with deep suspicion. I didn't want female company. I didn't want their succour, their support."
At the dinner at which he met French actress Jeanne in Paris in 1996, Bob remembers himself as "not convivial". They had met briefly in 1990 when Bob was recording The Vegetarians Of Love LP.
"She was going out with an actor. I thought she was a staggering beauty, Brigitte Bardot. So when she was at that dinner, it was bizarre. She had come because Katarina and Telse Boorman were my mates. They gave me the dinner to help me out and invited Jeanne. 'He's on his own; you're single.' That was the sort of match-making thing, I guess.
"She's a knock-out," he adds. "Her physical beauty is overwhelming for me still. Besides that, she is a really lovely person. She enabled me to take care of my children. She enabled me to reconstruct myself as a human. What's there not to love?" he asks rhetorically.
What is she getting out of all this?
"She gets me!"
I try again. I say that here is a woman who did everything for him – saved him from himself, helped him bring up the kids by another woman. Bob is, by his own admission, not exactly Mr Chuckles.
So, is he massively witty and funny at home with her by way of compensation?
Mr Chuckles bursts out laughing. "I'm crap. But you know, we watch telly and cuddle up and she insists on watching her crap French news at 7.30pm. At 8pm I go on to the Channel 4 news. She'll go and make something to eat for us.
"It's a man and a wife and their family. She can't cook. She'll make something. That's not to say that it is excellent. It's like any man and woman who love each other: rows like anything else. I love being with her."
In terms of bringing up the children, Bob adds, "it may also have made it more different as well – not being their mum. And you know, you have all that dynamic and politics in the house as every f**king parent in a separate relationship ... "
Did they ever think of having a child together? "I couldn't do that. I couldn't. I just couldn't do it any more. And then when Tiger came to us, you know ... " He is referring, of course, to Michael Hutchence and Yates's child Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence, known as 'Tiger', who was born on July 22, 1996.
Just over a year later, on November 22, 1997, her rock star father was found dead from suffocation caused by hanging under the influence of drugs in a hotel room in Sydney; Yates died of a drug overdose at her home in London in September 2000. Bob and Jeanne subsequently raised Tiger as their own.
"So here was a little sprog. So there was no energy to have another one. I wouldn't want one."
Asked how Jeanne feels about being referred to by him in the media and in his lyrics as his saviour who dazzled him with love, he shrugs: "She doesn't mind. I love her. The love isn't predicated on the gratitude I feel to her. That's a separate thing."
On his song 10:15 from his 2002 album Sex Age & Death, he sang: 'Jeanne saved my soul again last night'.
"That's about the balm of someone loving you when you couldn't possibly love yourself, never mind the person who you loved excessively telling the world how much they hated you," he says, meaning Paula Yates, "and how that love was a chimera and how it never existed – that it was all shite. And so in the self-loathing that occurs to everyone – I am not unique – you are suddenly rerouted and told [by Jeanne Marine]: 'No, no, You are capable of being loved and I am doing it'."
On How I Roll from How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell, Bob sings about being woken up at 4am in a bad dream about the devil under the floor boards. "I've always been like that," he laughs. He reads in bed to the point of exhaustion to get him self to sleep.
I say it sounds like a sitcom: poor Jeanne in the bed beside this restless insomniac. He corrects me: "She is much worse than me. She has got totally broken sleep patterns. I sleep through that. She is always searching for a way to sleep right through the night. It disturbs me. She will get up and make some hot milk or something or watch a bit of French telly and go back to bed. But she has to sleep with her iPad on."
So he and Jeanne have officially the most restless bedroom in England.
"Probably, yes!" he roars with laughter. "It sounds f**king horrendous! I am aware when I talk to you how odd we seem," he laughs again. "But it is not very different to other people. I wish you wouldn't ask these questions because it makes me seem like a complete f**king nutcase."
This domestic intrigue is played out between two homes in England: Bob has a home in Kent and another in Battersea in south London.
As a consequence of his genteel poverty growing up in Dun Laoghaire, he is 'tight' with his own kids. "They leave the lights on and I turn them off," he says. "I object when they spend needlessly."
Bob's father was a master chef as well as a master salesman. He didn't exactly pass on the gourmet skills to his only son. "Can I cook? I'm all right," Bob shrugs.
"I do the full-on Christmas thing," he says, "which is mega, because a couple of the kids went through vegetarianism. I used to slip them gravy and pretend it was the other stuff. And now they are outraged. I was giving them a bit of protein!" he laughs. Asked what he inherited from his mother, Bob pauses: "It is not possible for me to know, but what friends say is my look is hers. The others look like Geldofs, but I look like the Knotts, who came from Cork. My mum won a beauty contest in Cork. My sinuses are from my mum. My adenoidal voice is from my sinuses. So that's physical. Apparently, she used to like banging the piano and singing songs. The Geldofs never did that. So that show-offness is maybe her."
That show-offness can be witnessed up close during the summer in Cork, when Bob reforms his band the Boomtown Rats for a long-awaited concert.
It is not overstating it to say that many of the Rats' more incendiary songs ring as true today as when he wrote them in the mid 1970s and early 1980s: "Banana Republic could be as valid now," he says referring to ferocious lyrics like 'Septic Isle screaming in the suffering sea. It sounds like crying'.
"Looking After Number 1 could be right now," he continues. "Rat Trap is all about here. That is the thing the Brits never got when we were being compared to The Clash. We're Irish! She's So Modern about a Paddy showing up in London and seeing Paula and Magenta Devine and Julie Burchill. That's what it is about. Those precise girls before they made it big."
And there was, of course, also the odd girl back in Dublin – referenced on Mary of the Fourth Form. "That was Bertie's PA – Mary Preece," he recalls of the woman who would subsequently go on to work for the Taoiseach. "She was beautiful and I could never have her. I wanted her so very much and I would never have her. Legs forever and totally self-possessed in her beauty and her youth and I was dumb-stuck."
In terms of his kids' reactions to him onstage, Bob says Tiger came with her mates to a show at Islington Town Hall and "were all into it", he beams.
"The rush of energy and arrangements and melody – you realise very little would have stopped those kids from breaking through at that point in time," he says of the Rats. "We had it."
Joseph O'Connor wrote in Banana Republic: Reflections On A Suburban Irish Childhood from his book, The Irish Male at Home and Abroad: "In November 1978, the Boomtown Rats became the first Irish group of the era to get to the top of the British charts. On Top of the Pops that week, as he jabbered the brilliant lyric of Rat Trap into his mike, Geldof ripped up a poster of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, whose twee single Summer Nights the Rats had just ousted from the number one slot. In school, my friends and I were speechless with pride."
"The legacy in Ireland of the Rats," King Rat Bob Geldof says now, "is that it certainly articulated this generation's time. That possibly altered the cultural landscape to allow other bands to emerge out of Ireland. The record companies were on red alert to look at Ireland as a source of potential."
He put on one of the Rats' album in the car recently with Tiger and her pals in the back.
Tiger: "What's this, dad?"
"She liked it," Bob says proudly now. "And Peaches commented on Rat Trap last year. She texted me: 'Top track!'."
Top band, Mr Geldof. Your mother would be proud.
The Boomtown Rats play Live at the Marquee, Cork on July 5. Tickets, €35, €45, on sale now. www.ticketmaster.ie