Tuesday 16 July 2019

Bob Geldof: 'My fear was a park bench at 60. I had to work very hard not to end up there'

Bob Geldof bares his soul to Barry Egan on homelessness the Pope, pain, death, and Martin McGuinness
Empathy: Before The Boomtown Rats found fame, singer Bob Geldof lived on the streets in London, in a church crypt, and made money by selling hot dogs and busking Photo: Gerry Mooney
Empathy: Before The Boomtown Rats found fame, singer Bob Geldof lived on the streets in London, in a church crypt, and made money by selling hot dogs and busking Photo: Gerry Mooney
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Joseph O'Connor wrote in Banana Republic: Reflections On A Suburban Irish Childhood about an important time in modern Irish history - November 1978 - when The Boomtown Rats became "the first Irish group of the era to get to the top of the British charts". They ousted "twee single Summer Nights" with the thunderous anti-establishment Rat Trap. "In school," added O'Connor, "my friends and I were speechless with pride."

Ever the self-effacing iconoclast, The Boomtown Rats' frontman Bob Geldof is dismissive of discussing the legacy of the band. In my view, he wrote three songs - Rat Trap, Lookin' After No. 1 and, of course, Banana Republic - that said more about Ireland than any song Van Morrison or Bono wrote ever did.

He talks about the Rats' historic show at Leixlip in March 1980 when the Irish establishment, especially the courts, the State and the Church, seemed against these dirty, godless gurriers from Dun Laoghaire.

Geldof identifies the reaction to the concert as a cusp moment when that young Irish generation just said 'enough'. "For that generation, there was a sense that it was a moment of change," he says, "and that this was different from an older type of behaviour, an older type of deference."

It was a reaction to the Church/State alliance and "everything that came out of that. That's what I was saying in the Yeats documentary I made", he says, referring to A Fanatic Heart: Geldof on Yeats. "That was the original sin, the great betrayal of everything that they had been striving for in the beginning of 1900s," he adds. "It was a stitch-up. I am not equating it [The Boomtown Rats and Leixlip Castle] with that amazing generation, but I am saying that it seemed to come to a head in the 1970s/1980s and the politics that were locked into the perennial status of incompetence, mismanagement and open corruption... the overt governmental corruption in zoning areas, and the Church nodding along with it.

"I don't want to be specific and I don't want to be boring about this because it was such a long time ago that it is meaningless to most people and it roots us back in that time," says Geldof, who once compared Charlie Haughey to Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe.

"But if you want to ask what was it we were fed up about, it was that," Geldof says, adding that it took a bunch of people like him and his band to make a noise that was appropriate to the disgust they and young people felt about Ireland. They didn't want to be sucked into the vortex of the showbands - "which was meaningless musically and the death of musicians".

"So, The Boomtown Rats' legacy? In the teeth of it, a couple of tunes. That's it," he adds dismissively. "Had it a cultural impact? Don't know. Had it a function somehow sensing the mood? Definitely. Do the people who were around at that time associate their youth with the Rats' music? Probably. Does that mean anything to their contemporaries? Probably not. And they are probably sick of people going on about that time because they live in a radically different Ireland. A much better Ireland."

Even though, Geldof continues, the homelessness crisis in Ireland is an appalling disgrace (this is the reason he has agreed to headline INM's Rock Against Homelessness concert in Dublin on April 7).

"Don't forget I worked in The Simon Community at 15, and then when I pitched up in London, I lived on the street, down at the crypt in a church in Holborn," he said.

"I was afraid of what was going to happen to me in my life. I had a stark image - my fear was a park bench at 60. That's what I thought. I had to work very hard not to end up there, because you remember that there was nothing going for this kid. Nothing. I had not a penny. Not a single exam. I had no qualification. I had nothing. So it was likely that this was going to be the case.

"I had been among those people in The Simon Community. I was afraid of that. I did any old f**king job. I was selling hot dogs in the West End. Then busking at a cinema at night."

I'm glad that the privileged Blackrock College education stood to you, Bob.

"Well," he laughs, "a lot of it was a rejection of that. I know you're winding me up, but you're right. It's true. And you get to The Rats and all those things that were in my head at 18 and 19, and that you are going through, and suddenly you find a vehicle for expression. The f**king energy.

"It was like, f**k off! That was the animus."

If Bob's mother Evelyn hadn't died of a brain haemorrhage when he was six, would he have had that animus? "No. There is nothing for us to discuss any more," he says.

"I doubt it. I think that's the pool of anger. I mean, it is certainly the animus in my life. I get worked up quite easily about things that I think aren't good."

Getting inside Geldof's head is a surreal experience. No matter how long you peer in, I imagine the view is never quite the same as from within his complex brain (add the deaths of his ex-wife Paula Yates and his daughter Peaches into all that, and it is a wonder how he coped).

The 65-year-old talks of meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. "Pathetically, I was looking at his shoes," Geldof admits.

"And this man comes out who is tortured with pain and he will not let his dignity succumb to the pain. You see it in his every step - his dignity and his agony. I felt such a fool, an immature fool, for having these sort of childish reactions to things."

Did he tell the Pope that some people believed after Live Aid that Geldof was the reincarnated Christ?

"No, I didn't say that," he laughed, "but it wasn't that they thought that - somebody went and did a survey and they would quote things I said, then something from the Bible, and they'd ask, 'who said that, the Bible or Geldof?' 68pc of people confused me with God."

Geldof once said that perhaps Live Aid was the most selfish act in the world, but maybe he had to do that to rid himself of his "own demons and his own anger".

"Well, it hasn't f**king worked, has it?" he laughs.

Geldof has spoken before about his distaste, even hatred, for Irish nationalism. I ask him if he felt anything when he heard Martin McGuinness had died.

"Yeah, I did. I felt he was a guy who'd done an extraordinary intellectual journey if nothing else and ended up certainly being a key part in finally ending the murder," he says. "To which you would say, 'Well, of course he f**king did'.

"It is quite easy for men of violence to suddenly become men of peace. They just put down their gun and become men of peace. It is much harder to be a man of peace all your life without picking up a gun at all.

"But nonetheless, he made that journey and people say, 'Well, it's Mandela-like'. Not quite.

"Up to the end I think of his political life, his parliamentary political life, he was absolutely critical and a model for why that [non-violence] is always better. Always. Always better. You know, that talking and cooperation, fighting your corner with argument and debate; and law is always better and will always win.

"Like many people, you are torn between disgust at what he was as a young man and then the journey he went on to finally."

I ask him how people see him. "Every taxi driver thinks the same things about me," he admits. "It doesn't matter whether they're true or not. That I ripped up f**king John Travolta's picture on Top of the Pops. I didn't. That I told Thatcher to f**k off. I didn't. And that I told six billion people on television to 'Give us your f**king money now!'

"And I did," he roars with laughter.

"Look, I don't think about the f**king past. I don't live in the f**king past. I am more concerned with what I am going to have to have for my tea tonight."

And what's that?

"Probably cod."

I let him off to dine with his beautiful French wife Jeanne Marine. And, with that, Geldof is gone to solve the riddle inside the puzzle inside the maze inside his brain.

The Boomtown Rats play Rock Against Homelessness in aid of Focus at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on April 7. Tickets cost from €30 and are on sale now via Ticketmaster and the Olympia Theatre

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