Sir Bob Geldof feared his life would end in destitution. ‘At 15, I volunteered at the Simon Community,’ he says, recalling teenage nights helping the homeless of Dublin. ‘My greatest fear was that I’d become one of the people I was working with, gathering around the big fire we had in Smithfield, taking the soup we were making. That was my image, at 60: Sleeping on a park bench in the cold, so I had to keep running, keep running. And I can’t stop.’
At 68, Geldof is famous and wealthy (his fortune is estimated in excess of £70 million), with a 12th-century mansion in Faversham, Kent, and a luxury apartment in Battersea, London. ‘Well, it’s been up and down,’ he says, looking at me through a veil of unkempt grey hair. He has been a punk, pop star, political activist, media entrepreneur (setting up two television production firms) and world-renowned Live Aid instigator. Yet he is clearly still driven by that same restless energy of his youth.
On the table between us at his busy management offices in Chelsea Harbour, west London, stands a stack of shiny new albums from his original band The Boomtown Rats, and piles of a handsome hardback of his complete lyrics with essays, Tales of Boomtown Glory.
‘I look at it and think, “Well, that’s what I've done for the last 45 years or so”. It’s full of mistakes, because I couldn’t be a--d reading it before it came out. I just gave Faber [the publishing house] plastic bags stuffed with bits and said, ‘Make what you can of it. That’s my life.’
I am not sure many people think of Geldof as a rock star any more. His fame has transcended his musical origins. But the new album that was released days ago features 10 pugnacious Geldof compositions about sex, social media and a world gone wrong. Music is still how Geldof makes sense of life, constantly scribbling notes that ‘sometimes unravel into songs’, describing the process as ‘pulling the thread on the loose cardigan of my mind’. It’s a telling phrase.
You don’t really interview Geldof, you fire questions into the torrent and hope some of them stick. His speech patterns are fast and furious and he is constantly citing news reports and statistics or offering deep historical perspectives or piercing political analysis, while not so much dropping names as tossing them carelessly around (Sir Paul McCartney, Sting, Lou Reed, Bono, Pope John Paul II and Prince Charles collide in rambling anecdotes). He expresses disdain for social media (‘I don’t care if I’m liked or not, so the tick of approval doesn’t bother me. It’s pernicious, it’s addictive, it’s awful’), declares that rock is dead (‘It was the spine of the culture for 50 years but it’s over. To be replaced by false caterwauling over-emotionalism, that fake break in the voice you get in all teenage music now’) and offers up a digressive analysis of ‘the entrepreneurial type person’, with which he evidently identifies.
‘They are socially awkward, many of them, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates... Some of them are on the spectrum. They invent a trope to make themselves acceptable, which in Branson’s case was to be the awkward soul of the party, you know, picking up girls and jumping into swimming pools. Give it a rest, Richard!’
There is something haphazard about the whole experience, as if Geldof is galumphing around, wrestling with his own wayward internal monologue. A chicken salad in a plastic container is delivered by one of his staff, and Geldof attacks it with alarming gusto, inviting me to join in. ‘Just grab a spoon.’ Food is flying everywhere. Geldof keeps talking the whole time, elbows akimbo, head nodding. Being in his company is inspiring and exhausting.
‘I am exhausting,’ he agrees. ‘I exhaust myself. And to be around it in the domestic sphere is deeply annoying. I don’t know how Jeanne puts up with me.’
French actress Jeanne Marine has been his constant companion since they met in 1996, and the couple married in 2015. ‘I need to be constantly frantic and I keep going until my brain says, ‘Stop, please!’ And then I sleep. But then I worry and wake up again.’ His life has been beset by tragedies with an almost melodramatic, soap operatic quality.
His mother died when he was seven. His father was a travelling salesman, and Geldof has spoken of effectively raising himself. Schooling was a disaster and he failed all his exams. He worked dead end jobs in abattoirs, hospitals and building sites and spent time sleeping rough before achieving fame with the Rats.
His first wife, Paula Yates, left him in 1995 after 19 years and three children for another rock star, Michael Hutchence, in a tawdry saga that culminated in Hutchence’s suicide in 1997 and Yates’s death from an accidental overdose of heroin in 2000. Geldof adopted their child, Tiger Lily, raising her with his own daughters, Fifi, Peaches and Pixie. Then, in 2014, Peaches (at 25, herself a popular media personality) died of a heroin overdose.
‘Time doesn’t heal, it accommodates,’ has become Geldof’s standard answer to coping with that most devastating of losses. He admits vulnerability to overwhelming grief at any moment, recently describing how he can start to ‘sob’ just sitting at the traffic lights. But he keeps going. ‘I’m still the kid in the abattoir, knowing there’s something out there waiting. I’ve got to chase it.’
The new Boomtown Rats album, Citizens of Boomtown, is their first in 36 years, a raw, punky celebration of garage rock, accompanied by a punchy documentary of the same name. It provides fascinating historical context for the origins of this spiky band in Seventies Ireland, when the country was referred to as ‘the sick man of Europe’, divided by terrorism and struggling with rampant unemployment, a falling population due to incessant emigration and a poisonous complicity between church and state. ‘So one way or the other, you’re going to get a group of malcontents making a noise,’ Geldof says.
Between 1977 and 1980, the Rats had nine consecutive top 20 singles in the UK, including two No 1s – Rat Trap and I Don’t Like Mondays – but found themselves banned from playing in their own country. ‘Anger wasn’t permitted in Ireland in those days.’
The thing is that all these years and all this success and acclaim later, Geldof is still angry. ‘Well, yes, it turns out that I am,’ he says, laughing lightly. The loss of his mother and absence of his father gave him ‘no polar centre of authority, parents from which you learn the parameters of what’s allowable. And that’s always been a thing, when I meet the Pope or a president. There’s a part of you that doesn’t understand what gives them authority’.
Geldof is often accompanied on charitable missions by U2 star Bono, and he describes them as a ‘good cop, bad cop’ act. ‘Bono wants to give the world a great big hug. And I want to punch its lights out. But we arrive at the same point, ultimately.’ For a man of such warmth and humour, it seems ever-present anger is a fuel that has to be burned, less it immolate him. It is that anger that has inspired the return of the Rats.
‘The aggressive, propellant power of that band was so immense, I thrilled to it. I wasn’t singing Rat Trap about an abattoir in Ballsbridge, I was raging at the slaughterhouse of dreams that it is to be young now. I Don’t Like Mondays wasn’t about a school massacre in 1979, it was about the massacres that take place every two weeks. Even something as dogmatic and gauntlet-throwing as Looking After Number One makes every bit as much sense as it did in 1977. This is the blues of the now. If you’re not angry about the state of the world, you’re not paying attention!’
The Daily Telegraph