'The words come," writes Bob Geldof. "You hope. And then they arrive, blessedly. A Gabriel-like visitation, whispering in the Virgin's head that something will be born that will rock the cradle of the world. Which would be nice, except the words turn out to be clunky, laboured, struggled for and wrestled with and ultimately become impossible to sing."
Tales of Boomtown Glory - over 350 pages of Geldof's song lyrics, interspersed with memoir notes - may not be what some people were hoping for. It isn't a confessional purging of the man's sometimes tragedy-strewn life over the past 30 years or so, and it isn't a sequel to his stroppy 1986 autobiography, Is That It? It does, however, go a long way to explaining what drives his sense of fulfilment, creative or otherwise, and what the whole damn existential enchilada actually means to him. The deeply personal aspects of his life over the past few decades are never broached and the people who intimately impacted upon his life are not named (outside some lyrics, at least), but this book isn't about the obvious.
Rather, it is precisely what is read between the lines that is important. Pop songs and their lyrics don't have to make sense, he reasons, they just have to make you feel they do. Yet for all of this, Geldof knows what his lyrics have given him: they are, he writes, "the words that got me out. That enabled my escape… that gave me this life."
Applying an alphabetical (and non-chronological) approach, Geldof aims not for cool-headed logic but emotional responsiveness, which is possibly why the very first song lyric is '10.15', from his 2001 solo album, Sex, Age & Death (which was recorded in the aftermath of his marriage break-up with Paula Yates and the death of her partner, INXS singer Michael Hutchence, and completed before Yates died in 2000). Lyrics are not poems, Geldof posits, but the closing words in '10.15' ("God you work in wondrous ways. Bless this girl for all her days. And when I'm old and tired and grey. I'll think of this day. Smiling.") come close enough, as they outline an instance of post-heartbreak healing from his partner (and now wife) Jeanne Marine.
While for the most part the lyrics abstractly document aspects of Geldof's experiences from the late-60s onwards, it is with the memoir inserts that he makes more forceful points, implicitly referring to the tragic fragments of his life in a way that makes you curious to read more.
In writing about his solo work, he says that for some years, private loss had been his travelling companion, the accompanying aches and sorrows "universe wide and black hole depthless. It knows no boundary. It has no known edge. It travels alongside you, packed into whatever available space there is left inside your pain-sodden, grief-laden mind. It unpacks its suitcase of tears any time, but most often at the most unexpected and unwanted moments."
Less personally but just as eloquently and forcefully in these memoir sections, Geldof plugs some gaps about the early days of the Boomtown Rats, a bolshie R&B/proto-punk band that emerged from south Co Dublin at a time (the mid-70s) when the old vanguard of pop/rock music was ripe for a good kicking.
He recalls "dank, dark, hopeless Dublin… the cute whoredom of Charles J Haughey…", the hypocritically silent "all powerful, one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church…" and the "horribly hopeless" showbands. The Boomtown Rats, he warns, had other schemes, and staying quiet about what upset them the most was not on their schedule. "Noisome, irritating non-co-operation with the prevailing orthodoxies of the day seemed the right way to go. Self-aggrandisement rather than self-flagellation suited us nicely, thank you."
Alongside the lyrics, the stories behind some of the Boomtown Rats' best-known songs are acutely detailed. The Springsteen-esque Dublinese of 'Rat Trap' relates being employed in an abattoir, befriended by "a psychopath", of writing what was at first a short story, then a poem, and subsequently a tune that would become, in the autumn of 1978, the first Irish pop/rock song to get to the top of the UK singles charts. 'Banana Republic', released in 1980, was the band's ninth and final Top 20 single, ending a three-year run of substantial chart hits, yet it was forged out of a bitterness that Geldof refused to conceal. It highlighted, he scornfully notes, the whoredom of Ireland's history: "She's up for grabs to be used in whichever way by anyone at any time."
Pop star fame - fleeting for some, but not for Geldof, thanks to Live Aid - is touched upon. The truth is, he observes, he was writing unhappy songs at a time when the Rats were at "the toppest of the tops of Mount Pop", yet the kind of oxygen produced by sizeable commercial success was "hard to breathe".
Lyrics are not poems? Perhaps, perhaps not, but there are words to two songs ('The House at the Top of the World', 'Young and Sober') that belie such a belief. Each pulls aside heavy-weight private curtains to reveal a songwriter of genuine value, real truth. Not all of Geldof's songs achieve this, of course (some, in fact, are, in the man's words, "plain drivel"), but for the ones that do we give sincere thanks.