Superstar Without Portfolio: Bob Geldof at 70

Jim Sullivan revisits his 1990 interview with the Irish rock great, New Wave pioneer and co-founder of Live Aid

Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd — The Wall (Image: MGM)

Thirty-one years ago, I was talking with Bob Geldof–who turns 70 today–on the phone and asked how, when the time came, how he would like to be remembered.

I know it’s a bit of a cliché question – hello Barbara Walters! – but the man had done so much in his 39 years, I thought I could give myself a pass.

“I’m literally not interested in being remembered at all,” he said, right away. Yet, he knew the first line in the obituary would reference his role in co-founding (with Midge Ure) Live Aid. 

“As the man said,” sighed Geldof, “there are worse things to be remembered for. But I love the idea of oblivion. You have a ball and die and that’s it. Goodbye.”

No reincarnation for him: “I don’t want to come back as a pigeon or a mahogany table. Spare me paradise.”

 

VIDEO: Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats perform “I Don’t Like Mondays” at Live Aid 1985

When the tour came to Boston, I picked up the conversation backstage at Boston’s Paradise, he and his band played a smoking hot, Celtic-flavored rock set. One of the key words here is “club.”

Geldof was only five years removed from being Mr. Live Aid, He’d achieved worldwide fame, played in front of 72,000 live and millions more on TV. In 1986, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him honorary knighthood. As he is not a British citizen, it’s Bob Geldof, KBE–which stands for Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The award was made on Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe’s recommendation. Yet here he was playing a 650-capacity club. It was almost like this charity-fueled superstar and veteran of the late ’70 s punk wars was reintroducing himself.

I ventured something about his popularity or lack thereof: “It’s almost like you’re a superstar without portfolio.”

Which could have backfired big time, but didn’t. 

“That’s a very good expression,” he said, with a rueful laugh. Geldof was well aware of his ironic position, one where his fame and acclaim hadn’t crossed over to his prime field of creative endeavor: pop music. He’d not had the hits. Certainly not in America.

“The cult of personality had reached outrageous proportions, which, at best, was limiting,” said Geldof, “and at worst was foolish and sickening.”

He had a rather humorous recent example. “I came through immigration,” he said. “I gave them my passport and they looked at me and then the picture — put the Irish passport into the computer to see if I was a terrorist — and just as I was going away the guy said, ‘Mr. Geldof, can you sign this picture of me beside your statue in Madame Tussaud’s?’ ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then he goes, ‘I loved you in The Wall.’ ‘Thanks very much.’ [He convincingly played the burned-out, rock star-megalomaniac in Alan Parker’s cinematic rendering of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.] I move on and another guy says, ‘Hey, Bob, Live Aid, fucking great!’ And there’s this woman who stopped me, clutching my book [a memoir, Is That It?], saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is the best book I ever read!’ ‘Thanks very much.’

 “I go through customs and not one person mentioned a fucking song!”

He’s had a few. Geldof staked his first claim to fame with the Boomtown Rats, the first punk/new wave band to crash England’s top 40, way back in 1977. “Lookin’ After No. 1” peaked at No. 11 and hit No. 2 in Geldof’s native land of Ireland. They were the first band of their ilk to go on Top of the Pops.

 

VIDEO: The Boomtown Rats “Looking After No. 1”

It was a brash, bold hooky song that began, “The world owes me a living/I’ve been waiting on this dole too long … I’ll take all they can give me/And then I’m gonna ask for more/’cause the money’s buried deep in the bank of England/And I want the key to the vault.”

Pretty audacious stuff.

And then: “Don’t give me ‘Love thy neighbor’/Don’t give me charity/Don’t give me peace and love or the good lord above/You only get in my way with your stupid ideas.” 

How much of the cynic was in the Bob Geldof of 1977?  In an era where English punk rockers railed about the failures of capitalism and bogus rock stardom, Geldof sang about taking your money and doing all that the self-serving title suggested. With fervent, nasty glee.

“Not cynical,” he said, when I asked. “Skeptical. Cynicism is unhealthy; skepticism is necessary.”

I was never quite sure if Geldof was speaking his own mind in that song or if this was a character song. It seemed the former, but I never asked. Ten years ago, MOJO posited the “was it satiric or ironic?” query: “Both!,” he said. “Don’t forget I was coming from Ireland, ‘Lookin’ After No 1’ is very Irish. My ambition was evident – radical in that context. Everyone was around me told me to conform. I was, ‘Don’t give me love my neighbor. Don’t give me peace and love.’ Peace and love was the hippy mantra, but to me it sounded like the church and the church was what held you back.”

Then, of course, there was the Rats controversial earworm of a ballad, “I Don’t Like Mondays.” School shootings were not such a thing then; school shootings by a girl even more rare and Geldof took up Brenda Spencer’s four-word answer for why she took her gun to school in San Diego on that January day in 1979, killing two and wounding eight. Spencer, who pleaded guilty, remains in the California Institution for Women. (Of course, many people – ignoring the implied backstory – just took to the chorus because they, too, did not like Mondays.)

 

VIDEO: Brenda Spencer sentenced for the Grover Cleveland Elementary School shooting of 1979

Geldof said (not to me, but in a much later video interview): Spencer “wrote to me saying she was glad she’d done it because I’d made her famous, which is not a good thing to live with.”

But those days were behind us, here, because in 1990 Geldof had come with an absolutely terrific second solo LP, The Vegetarians of Love. It wasn’t really a “rock” record per se, and as such, rock radio had no idea what to do with it. It was an impassioned, acoustic-based effort, rooted in traditional Irish folk and Cajun forms. Lyrically, it was insightful, caustic and cutting at times — “I don’t care if the Third World fries!” Geldof sang, ironically enough, in “The Great Song of Indifference” — but musically it was often warm, soothing, invigorating. A high-heeled kick. 

Some critics have called Geldof’s lyrics “world-weary.” He begged to differ. Considering the line — “I’m thinking about mortality/ It’s a cheap price we pay for existence” — Geldof said. “I believe that. I wasn’t being wry. That is supposed to be a celebration of life. The meaning is obvious: The price of living is death and I’ll pay it because it’s well worth the price.”

 

VIDEO: Bob Geldof “Gospel Song”

The lead instrument on Vegetarians was never an electric guitar — and often the fiddle; Geldof’s thoughtful musings were often front and center, more poetically and vocally in line with primo Van Morrison or Bob Dylan than any blowhard new-waver (Geldof included). Geldof’s Achilles heel, as a Boomtown Rats singer-songwriter and, initially, as a solo artist, was his tendency toward pop bombast.

Not here. Much of Geldof’s musical support came from some members of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, old masters of moody chamber rock and emotional depth and dislocation. “What brought me around,” Geldof said, “was being tired of what I heard on the radio. It doesn’t do anything to my intellect or spirit. And I require that of music. So, you start going through your collection and picking out records that suit your mood and the stuff I’ve been listening to has been in that area. And last year I was in Louisiana listening to Cajun music and it struck me that here was great dance music, wonderful drinking music, but it was not stupid. It was about people and things. And I thought you could use that and put it in a contemporary sense and be passionate.”

The critics, well, they liked it. “I’ve been getting wonderful reviews,” Geldof said, “much to my dismay. I was absolutely convinced that people would hate it. It was so different than what I normally did that I thought they might think it was a dilettante’s exercise.” Geldof was speaking chiefly of European reviews, where the record first came out, and where “The Great Song of Indifference” became an improbable hit.

“I just expect America to go with the usual and diffident way toward me,” he continued. “Here’s to the Superstar Without Portfolio!”

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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