Punk rocker and philanthropist Bob Geldof’s quest is almost quixotic, but the man knows his politics and his money
BOB GELDOF knows how to make money. Walking into his hotel room on a sunny day, you can smell the money as soon as he gets the door. That, and success. Clothes scattered around the room, on the bed, on the sofa, on the floor. Half empty wine goblets, some stained with lipstick, whiskey glasses with last night’s residue still in them — no cigarette butts though — you know you’re in a rock star’s room.
This morning, Geldof is dressed in an off-white linen suit and wearing bathroom slippers, looking for his shoes, when his manager, Darell Willis walks into his room. “Do you have my shoes?” Geldof asks Darell. “Yes, I’ll get them for you.” Yes, the swagger of the rock star is still there, as is the I-give-a-damn attitude that’s so characteristic of a frontman of a punk band. But there’s more. Bob Geldof, 61, is not only a rock star; he’s a businessman who made a living and a name out of charity. That, more than his music, is what made Geldof what he is today. Talking to him, you get the sense that is what got him the swagger too.
By his own admission, Boomtown Rats, Geldof’s band was not “great”; he actually got his other friends in music to cut the first single for Band Aid, a band he formed to sing and raise money for Africa. And that set the stone rolling. From across the Atlantic, Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte and a host of others approached him and thus was born “We Are The World”. But, you don’t need another article to tell you that, you probably know that already. What you don’t probably know is that Geldof hated Pink Floyd. In fact, he hated any music that was not punk rock.
Strange, considering many first-timers knew him as the angst-ridden actor in Pink Floyd’s 1982 seminal rock opera The Wall. You can sense his anger even today at the brand of psychedelic music the band espoused. “I did that movie because I wanted to work with Alan Parker,” says Geldof. Parker directed films like Midnight Express (1978) and Mississippi Burning (1988). “We came from the punk era and believed in saying everything in short. Any song that took 45 minutes to philosophise was boring. When Waters (Roger Waters of Pink Floyd) told me I’d have to sing in the movie, I said f*** off. Eventually, I did sing four lines of “In The Flesh” though.” Almost immediately, he adds, “But of course, I was wrong. The Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the top five albums of all time. Now that I’m old, I’m allowed to say that.”
It is this bit about Geldof that is confusing. He seems to be trapped in an image, which requires him to be politically correct at all times. Hard to shake off, a gentility forced out of the awareness that he is now a fundraiser more than a musician. He is not a stranger to wealth now, but it was not always like this. Geldof’s father, Robert, was a salesman, who went around Dublin selling towels. “We weren’t poor, but I was aware that my friends had things I couldn’t afford. I was embarrassed and angry.”
This anger drove a young Geldof to rock music. His charity work, however, began much earlier. “As a 13-year-old, I started an anti-apartheid movement in my neighbourhood, and at 15, I got together with a few friends to work in a soup kitchen for industrial workers.” That is where, he feels, the seeds were sown for later when he raised money for Africa. In fact, Geldof is proud of his work in Africa and he wears it like a badge of honour
A tumultuous personal life, in which his wife left him, and the courts restricted his visits to his children led Geldof to manic depression. He clawed out of it through sheer will borne out of a sense of ennui as much as waste. Depression, ultimately, was also tiring. Geldof needed to keep on raising money for the one thing he believed in — Africa. In senses more than one, Africa today defines Geldof. A 1984 BBC report on the famine in Ethiopia had given birth to the single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise funds. The response blew him away. “People started coming to me and asking me ‘Now what?’ I said ‘What? I just made a f****ing record. I am a singer, what more can I do?’”
But, even he knew that he could not stop now. “The money was huge. I had to do something more,” he recalls. The “something more” was the first Live Aid concert in July 1985, an unprecedented event that saw two concerts happening simultaneously across continents, at the Wembley Stadium in London and the John F Kennedy Stadium at Philadelphia. Geldof says he saw the potential to change things. “Five million pounds is a whole lot of money. Five million people is a political force, a statement.”
Since then, the Africa journey has been an ongoing one. As Geldof says, “Hunger is a byproduct of it, as is lack of education and healthcare. But those are only symptomatic of poverty. Poverty is an empirical condition. You can sing all the songs you like, but you’re not gonna stop poverty until you move to politics and economics”. It therefore took people to see through Live Aid to understand this poverty. “Money was one thing, but it was more a question of working for 20 years to change the politics and the economics, which I think, we were part of,” Geldof explains. “Today, of the top 10 fastest growing countries in the world, seven are African, of which five are countries we started our work in, that were full of dead people, that are now alive.”
That last bit leaves you feeling blue in a nice way, but then you remember, this is the same man who hates a band and also rates it as among the best in the world. And then it dawns, if anyone could have pulled off a Live Aid, it had to be Bob Geldof. After all, he knows how to make money.