A Conversation with Bob Geldof – HuffPost 9.19.14

Mike Ragogna: Bob, I’m honored to be talking to the Man Of Peace.

Bob Geldof: You are indeed honored! [laughs] I’d forgotten I was and now my head has swollen so large the phone can’t even fit in this room with me.

MR: [laughs] Bob, let’s talk first about The Boomtown Rats performances. You guys are reuniting for a couple of gigs, but do you think it might go beyond New York and Boston?

BG: Nah, we grouped up about a year ago actually for the Isle Of Wight festival which, along with Glastonbury, are the two big festivals here. It was weird, though. Like everybody I said, “I’ll never do that.” The solo thing I’ve got going was doing great, I brought out a record called How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell or something and it did very well. It got awards and all that stuff and I was touring that. Then two of the Rats came and said, “Look, would you think about doing this?” and I said, “Look, we’ve talked about this before.” If the past is another country it’s not one that I wish to visit. I lost my passport a long time ago. You can’t revisit old glories; they turn out to be not so glorious really, revisited. But they said, “Look, we’ve got this offer for the Isle of Wight.” The Isle Of Wight isn’t where I popped my rock ‘n’ roll cherry, but I saw Hendrix and The Doors and The Who and Leonard Cohen and all of these amazing people in 1969-70 with hundreds of thousands of others. Suddenly, my vanity was piqued. Playing on that legendary stage–I wasn’t going to do that a solo thing. I think the regrouping came about because of vanity, curiosity and cash. The vanity with the Isle of Wight, the curiosity was, “Were we any good? Was that all bulls**t? Was that me shooting off as usual?” And the cash was always handy. I said if it felt like pantomime, if it felt like nostalgia, I wouldn’t do it, and they said, “Okay, well let’s give it a try.”

So we went up to a fan’s farm up in Gatwick and we stayed over. The first hour was fucking awful. Then all of a sudden there was this incredible hour–and I’m serious. Just really, “Whoa, what’s that?” You don’t really know you’re a powerful band. You’re just a bunch of guys who randomly got together from the neighborhood, you start a band, you’re making a racket and you take that racket to wherever you’re going to go. But you’re not really aware that it’s in any way different or how powerful it is, and then after a long, long, long break suddenly you hear this unique group of individuals play together and it’s exhilarating. I was used to my solo thing where I’m fairly internal, I wear a cool suit and I play the guitar. Bobby Boomtown is all extrovert. He’s the front man. He’s an arrogant little prick, and that’s me. He was allowed to come out of his sixty year-old self again and it was very liberating and exhilarating. I started singing those words and I didn’t need the lyric sheet, I remembered them all. They felt in no way nostalgic. In fact it was much like they’d been words that I was trying to grope for in a contemporary sense inasmuch as that the economic circumstances of eighteen months ago pretty much mirrored 1975, ’76 in Ireland. Deep recession, austerity, unemployment chronic for young people.

So why would I alter one line of the first single we did, “Looking After Number One?” The first line you ever heard me say is, “The world owes me a living.” Why would I alter that? And “Rat Trap,” which I wrote when I was working in an abattoir in Dublin, about hopelessness. I didn’t know I was ever going to get out. Why I would I alter a line like that? Two weeks before the rehearsal some other joker in America had killed some of his schoolmates, et cetera. Why would I alter a line of “I Don’t Like Mondays?” “Someone’s Looking At You,” I wrote that in 1979; we’d just been reading about the NSA and Obama spying on everybody, rifling our emails, logging our f**king text messages, the CCTV cameras everywhere, Facebook mining your brain and trying to figure out who and what you are and selling that and here’s a song of paranoia written in 1980; why would I alter that? Suddenly all of it, the sound and the lyrics sounded like they should be sung now. So we went out the Isle Of Wight, the others were very nervous, I wasn’t because I’d just done three very big gigs in Germany with a solo band and a fourth gig in the Rose on the Isle of Wight. But there was a lot of people. We walked out on the stage and we f**king killed it. That’s the truth. It’s boasting, but we nailed it. I was a completely different person from the day before in Germany and on that stage I thought, “How do I get back to Boomtown Bob? Where is he living these days?” I thought, “I know, I’ve got a f**king snakeskin suit made. That’ll bring him out.” So I got this full snakeskin suit, it’s really cool. Bobby Boomtown came slithering out on that stage f**king screaming and shouting again. I loved it. My voice is croaking because yesterday we did a festival in Cornwall. We’ve just done fourteen or fifteen festivals in the summer and we did a sell out tour in the winter and we’re just going to do another sixteen dates in the cities we didn’t do in the UK in October/November. New York and Boston, fantastic, I haven’t played in America since God knows when, I hope three people will show up but I’ll play for those three people.

MR: [laughs] I doubt it will only be three people! You’ve participated or energized many fundraising and awareness raising efforts such as Band Aid, Live Aid and The Secret Policeman’s Ball. It must be at least a little frustrating that after all these years, some themes that The Boomtown Rats called out are still relevant.

BG: Well, it’s a good point. The first thing is you forget that the punks came at a time of political and economic despair. There was no joking about The Clash or The Sex Pistols or The Ramones or Talking Heads or Elvis Costello. Not so much the American ones, but the British ones were kids with clear political intent to change. Johnny Rotten saying, “There is no future in England’s dreaming,” it’s a fantastically astute line. The Clash made no bones about where they were at and the Rats came with, “You owe me a f**king living, I’m not going to be like you. We made this thing.” From there to using the promise of rock ‘n’ roll, whether it’s embodied in Elvis and Little Richard and them telling you, “Poor black boy, we’re coming. You can f**k off. We want in on this thing and we’re coming,” down to the sixties bands and down to the seventies, that was it. The middle of the “me” generation and the middle of Gordon Gekko and the Yuppies and all of that this spaceship called Live Aid lands in the middle of it saying, “Well, no, it’s not just about me. It can be about me, but ‘me’ only exists through the forbearance of others.” That was a sort of shock to the system, which had wonderful reverberations. That’s the musical content, but the person–I was always interested in that kind of s**t because I’m a sixties kid.

So Bob Dylan and Mick and Keith and John were always telling me it’s about this other stuff. “Read this, look at this…” It’s not about Mick and Keith, it’s about Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, “Okay, I’ll listen to that, but what the f**k is that? Muddy Waters? Howlin’ Wolf? Are they people or are they some elemental force?” In fact they’re both and they make music. Those were the things that alerted you. So I kept making music but also on the other hand taking the lobby that Live Aid generated to 2005 and Live 8, and bringing other people along the way with me. So it’s a long journey. If you want actual change you can’t just write a tune or play it; you must engage with the agents of change, and the agents of change in our world are politicians, and that’s slower. So you have to build up the lobby and keep it going until you eventually get political closure, which we did out of the G8 in Gleneagles Hotel in 2005, and the result was that today with the cancellation of deaths, with the doubling of aid, with massive Chinese inward investment to Africa and the device that glued all of that together, the mobile phone in the largest market in the world, Africa, suddenly you had take off and today seven of the top ten fastest-growing economies in the world are African. Sometimes s**t works.

MR: Does that make you want to work even harder to get more projects going?

BG: Well you sort of have to corral the outreach to the focus-pointed end or else it becomes dissipated. I don’t think that rock ‘n’ roll has got the central function in our culture that it had in the past. In fact, we know it doesn’t. Now the biggest bands in the world have to give away their records. We have become the McCluhan-esque society; the medium is the message now. The content of the medium is irrelevant. You give it away for free even though that’s the human genius. The human ingenuity is the device. It’s a very clever device, a little piece of brilliance, but that’s how you identify yourself these days. In my day, it was going swanning around with my new Blonde On Blonde album. Now it’s flashing your iPhone 5. The actual medium, literally, is the message these days. That’s sad, and it means that you’re less able to communicate as you were, and as a result you do get this dissipation you talked about, it’s acute of you to recognize that. My view is that the distribution of the media has meant the dissipation of the message.

MR: Bob, what advice do you have for new artists?

BG: Well, famously, when John Lennon showed up in New York one of the journalists said, “What’s the Beatles’ message?” and John said, “The Beatles don’t have a message, but if they did, it would be ‘learn to swim.'” Which is absolutely meaningless, but frankly in the days of climate change it takes up a whole new resonance. I think they’ve got lesser ambition–that’s my view. My daughters’ boyfriends are in bands, and they’re fantastic bands. Let me be clear: I don’t think the music is any less adventurous, any less galvanizing, any less exciting. Peaches’ husband is a great singer writing properly great songs. Pixie’s boyfriend is a drummer in an amazing band called These New Puritans, beautiful, beautiful music. I go to their gigs and I’m able to talk to these guys who hang with my daughters but get into deep conversations and they’re just as impassioned as before and they want to strike out and do new things. This little minor art form, rock ‘n’ roll, allows you to be endlessly elastic. But where does it go? Who’s listening? Who’s paying attention? It doesn’t have to be about anything. Just by definition rock ‘n’ roll suggests change. It always does. That’s why it’s powerful. Of course when it goes to number one it’s a bit more powerful, but nowadays a number one record is meaningless. How many tracks do you have to sell to get there? I just think it has a different function now. In a way you can argue that that culture succeeded because of its ubiquity, but conversely because of its ubiquity it’s failed. That’s sad, but there will be something else. There will be a Sistine Chapel of the web, we just have no idea what it will be.

MR: Wow. Nicely said. What are you going to be working on now?

BG: Well I do lots of stuff, obviously the solo band, and I’ve got a couple of gigs, The Bobkatz, we’re doing some gigs, I’ve got the tour with the Rats coming up, there’s all the political stuff I do, I work with Kofi Annan and Bob Rubin and Muhammad Yunus and guys like that on the Africa Progress Panel. I obviously work with Bono and the One Campaign, I have a private equity group for investment in Africa which is very exciting because the next thing is to create jobs. Talking to all the funds I’ve invested in Africa I’ve actually decided to do it myself as a way to show that this continent is open for business. I go down there quite a lot and it’s fantastically exciting. Then I do quite a lot of business in the UK, media stuff and education technology stuff I have here. I don’t know what the f**k I’ll do next.

MR: [laughs] What a great way to end that. It seems like every year, you receive and award. What was 2014’s?

BG: There’s a really cool one coming up, it’s October tenth. Our equivalent of the Grammys is the Ivor Novello awards. I think the Grammys are voted on like the Oscar academy, the Ivor Novellos are voted on by other songwriters. If you get an Ivor Novello really, you talk to any British artist that’s the one that they like. That’s the one that they put on their mantelpiece. It looks like a Henry Moore statuette, it’s really heavy and it signifies something. But the academy that votes on that is called BASCA, which is the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. When a body of work has been accrued, if it’s stood the test of time you get their golden badge. They’re giving me their golden badge this year. This is the fiftieth golden badge given out, which is very cool because not many people have it obviously. I think Sting has it, which pissed me off–he’s got f**king everything. He’s got nine hundred Ivor Novellos and three thousand Grammys, it really annoys me, you know? So I’m getting that, I’m really glad about that. I really don’t think about Live Aid, that pride thing doesn’t interest me, but what I am is a musician, so stuff like that does my head in. I’m thrilled to get that. Really thrilled.

MR: Do you take a moment to take a breath and see, “Wow, would you look at all that…”

BG: That’s really a very good question. I do. And I ask my contemporaries, “What the f**k happened to me?” Because in my head always, last week I was on the dough queue in Dún Laoghaire, pissing rain trying to get my benefits–whatever you call them in America, my money–and trying to get any job they’d give me. That was last week. That’s it, I can’t escape it. I walked out with Sting one summer’s morning in his unbelievably beautiful place in Wiltshire. We walked out to the lake and I looked back at his house and I said, “Man, what happened to us?” and he said, “I don’t f**king know.” He’s two days older than me, so he always behaves like my big f**king brother. It really annoys me. He said, “I don’t know. Every day I’m delivering that milk with my trolley.” It’s weird, but you never escape it. Unfortunately. I wish it could all sit easy with me, but it doesn’t. But that’s the thing that propels you on stage every night. That’s the thing that drives you to that righteous anger that you hear in the music of The Boomtown Rats.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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