an interview w/ Bob Geldof (on the Boomtown Rats shows, U2, the importance (or non-importance) of Rock n Roll & more)
‘I grabbed hold of it, and the rhetoric of change was rock and roll, the platform for change was rock and roll, the desirability, the inevitability of change was rock and roll.’
Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats
Bob Geldof‘s legacy is a given. Whether with the humanitarian efforts of projects like Live Aid, Band Aid, and Live 8, or the musical endeavors of The Boomtown Rats and his own solo work, the honorary Knight of the British Empire has done more than offer a service to the entertainment industry. The 1980s saw Geldof’s name become synonymous with philanthropic empathy that went far beyond the well-timed rhetoric of rock and roll’s cause promotion. Geldof backed the attitude with something tangible and inspiring, bringing together events that raised awareness for those often ignored issues of worldwide poverty and famine. Talking to Geldof reveals a kind of casual dismissal of the work he’s done as being anything more than a product of rock and roll’s power or at least the power it once wielded. With upcoming Boomtown Rats shows this weekend in NYC and Boston, announced just months ago and months after the tragic death of his daughter Peaches (most likely not coincidental timing), Bob spoke with BrooklynVegan about the endearing simplicity and therapy that music still affords him and why he thinks music isn’t the force it once was for change and progression.
BV: You’ve got these two Boomtown Rats shows coming up in New York and Boston. Obviously in the context of everything you’ve done both in the musical and in the humanitarian realm, reunion gigs seem almost like a no-brainer. What is it that continues to drive you now after all these years?
BG: Time is short. Curiosity. The road less traveled. I think those things. I mean, you know, in the course of this conversation you might say something that sort of piques my interest or I sort of ask you about it, and we go way off piece on the interview. Some people come out of that or something. That tends to be what happens, but the spine of it all – and I’m not trying to drag the conversation this way – but the spine of it all is music, because practically everything that happens spins off of that. I need to come back to the music thing, and I know this sounds completely ridiculous and cliché, but it’s completely true. Last night we were playing in Cornwall at a festival there, tomorrow I’m going over to Missouri, and then coming back here to do another gig, and then going back to New York and Boston for those shows. Really you don’t need to do that, not at this stage in the game, but I absolutely love it. Just beyond love it. It’s a pure function – a necessary function for me. That function itself is incredibly cathartic if you’ve got a load of stuff going on in your head and in your life, and it works itself out whether in songs or on stage. There’s two sort of parts of that. One’s the solo stuff I do, and that’s sort of internalized. I play the guitar, and I talk. The gigs kick off. And then the Rats, which is a different character like a sort of Bobby Boomtown comes out in a snakeskin suit and something else goes off. I know it’s something a million rock and roll guys say, but it’s absolutely true. I’d give up everything else, but I wouldn’t give up that.
The Boomtown Rats — I Don’t Like Mondays
BV: I think one thing people would immediately associate with that statement is the fact that you specifically “giving up everything else” would involve an enormous amount of work outside the music spectrum. You’ve certainly done the rock and roll star thing, but you’ve also stayed just as rooted in those realities that the world faces as a whole.
BG: You’re right, and I don’t know what age you are, but if you’re of my generation then you’ve got to remember you’re sitting at home in Ireland, this tiny island on the Western shores of Europe, and the present situation wasn’t great. My mum died when I six or seven, my dad sold towels around the countryside of Ireland in the 50s and 60s. I mean, forget it. There’s not much money selling towels in the country, you know? [Laughs] So we were kind of left to our own devices, my two sisters and I. That’s not what my dad wanted. I mean, every penny he had he tried to spend on a good school, but he didn’t have a choice. He’s a 41-year-old man without a woman or without money in 1961. It’s not easy. So it wasn’t great, but there was no one at home to make me do schoolwork, so I’d just come home and you can imagine Ireland – it’s sort of foggy and cold in November and that sort of stuff. You come home and light the fire because there isn’t any central heating. There isn’t television. There isn’t fridges. There isn’t phones. I don’t wanna sound like I’m fucking Little Richard or something down in the Deep South or in fucking Clarksdale, but it wasn’t fun, and I just read books because there was no other option. And in school I just took stuff from the library: Steinbeck, Dickens, and stuff that turned me on. You’re American so you won’t really understand it, but I’m sure you’ve heard it from a million people this side of the pond, but the most improbable of microstates, Luxembourg, started pumping out a rock and roll station, and into my world come these young boys and young girls speaking of their universes and their possibilities rather than the one that I was sitting in. All of them spoke of, and the music suggested and spoke of, change, and it was able to change this kid. I took that to heart like everyone of our generation. I mean, this was this golden thread that suddenly had been dangled out of the lowering clouds of Dublin to me, and I grabbed hold of it, and the rhetoric of change was rock and roll, the platform for change was rock and roll, the desirability, the inevitability of change was rock and roll. I listened to what these people read. I read what Dylan read. I started reading Bound for Glory and James Baldwin’s Cry the Beloved Country I read because I’d read that Dylan was reading that. Mick and Keith were proselytizers. People forget that. They were twenty-year-old kids saying “Forget us. Listen to this guy called Howlin’ Wolf and listen to this guy called Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters.” My local record store was run by two brothers, so I just started hanging out down there, but it is that twin axis of: There’s this other stuff out there. Get hip to it because the world is not immutable. Back in school at thirteen, me and a guy who became one of the editors of The Irish Times, Mick Foley, we started Anti-Apartheid to try and stop the South African rugby team coming to Ireland. I slept with the CND post, and I shared a bedroom with my dad. He had the Virgin Mary on his side, and I had the fucking nuclear bomb with the word “NO” on my side. [Laughs] Then at fifteen I just really didn’t come home anymore. I stayed out. I just took the bus into Dublin central and worked with the crowd called the Simon Community who took care of lost people like the bag ladies, the schizophrenics, and the hookers who were not the glamorous girls of Hollywood legend but whey-faced, pinched, thin, put upon and put down children by their parents, and then lost men. There was no divorce in Ireland so men just lost it, their families, and drifted off into drunken oblivion. We’d collect free groceries from the shops around closing time, and then the bakeries would give us their first batch of bread from the shops at two in the morning, and we’d make soup, and there’d be a big fire, and they’d all gather ’round there. And I just found that all those people from Steinbeck had come alive. Here were these people. That’s more interesting. And of course I left school without a single grade to my name, and I just went off trying to find something that worked for me and ultimately ended up in a pop group, but you must remember, too, that we came at the exact period where that last convulsion of rock and roll occurred. I don’t think rock and roll is important anymore. I don’t think it’s the central pillar of the culture as it was, and that’s because of new technologies and the sort of dissemination of the media has meant the dilution of the message. We came with that great vomit of bands who’d had enough, who couldn’t stand the nonsense of the radio as meaningless. Meaning was they’d entered an economic world that offered them no hope whatsoever, so their names were full of intent whether it was The Clash or The Sex Pistols or The Boomtown Rats. At this point if you remember there were no definite articles in bands’ names: Boston, Foreigner. This is a crystal necessity. I think you should do a piece on the necessity of the definite article in rock and roll, Jonathan. [Laughs] All of this was happening. All of those bands came with clear political intent. Clear intent. Whether it’s a cute, funny, clever Irish guy, Johnny Rotten, saying “I’m an antichrist. I’m an anarchist. I’m your worst fucking nightmare,” and then beautiful lines like “There’s no future and England’s dreaming.” And of course the first line you heard me say was “The world owes me a living. Fuck off.” Our first gigs were in England with The Ramones and the Talking Heads, but we played, the three of us, in schools in the afternoons in the gymnasiums. It was full of intent, and it was to do away with what was there and replace it with meaning and content. Band-Aid and Live Aid must be seen in that context but also the fact that I was engaged outside of music. That’s what I discovered when I was ten: the platform, the rhetoric, the way to change. In the first interview that I did with the New Musical Express, they said “Do you want to do this?” and I said “No, no, I don’t want any of that from rock and roll,” and they said “Well, what do you want,” and I said “I want to get rich. I want to get famous, and I want to get laid,” which is the only quote from me in the Oxford Fucking Book of Quotations. Thanks, guys. That wasn’t what you were supposed to say in the punk period, but I meant it. Getting laid in Catholic Ireland? Forget it. I’d been fucking poor all my life. Being rich sounded a lot better, and let me assure you it is. And as for fame I wanted to use the platform it gave me. I said that in ’76, and I have. The trouble is that you can ask for change, and you can suggest it through music or whatever art you’re in, but unless you’re prepared to step outside the artist’s role in effect, which artists really don’t want to do, and it’s not necessary for them to do it, but people always underestimate the ability of authority to absorb dissent. It’s when you just keep at it. The art can be the bullhorn, but you’ve got to be pulling the trigger. You’ve got to be what’s speaking through the bullhorn and some guys really just don’t want to do that. It became confused in the 60s where it was demanded of the pop people that they lead the revolution. This was a confusion because this stuff was now being disseminated all over the world by the technology of the time: the transistor. So people thought “Well, hold on. If these guys are saying this shit like the Beatles and the Stones, then why aren’t they leading us to the barricades?” Forgetting that there’s a difference between slinging paint and throwing stones. Lennon and Jagger engaged directly with this. On the song “Revolution” he’s saying “Let’s talk about what you want. We all wanna change shit, but if you’re talking about destruction? No. If you’re carrying pictures of Mao, forget us. It’s gonna be alright.” And then Jagger says “What do you want me to do? I play in a rock and roll band.” There’s no place in London for streetfighting. What we do is compromise solution. It’s a very interesting time. It’s a real-time dialogue where these people a
re having four singles a year, every three months, and the audience was saying “We want you in.” And it’s like “I’m in, but I’m not gonna lead.” So you’re always in that bind. I thought if I really wanted to do proper political stuff and change, then you need to move outside the job and speak as an individual. Long answer to a serious question.
Is the conduit that rock and roll provided simply not as powerful or useful for change now?
It can’t be. It’s not the job of rock and roll. If you take those twin elemental forces: Little Richard and Elvis Presley. They didn’t understand. Of course they didn’t. “Tutti Frutti” has of course some of the greatest lyrics in rock and roll. It’s just this articulate scream of rage and fuck you, you know, and of course it’s done by this beautiful, young, and black gay minister. Hello, we’re coming. Fuck! [Laughs] And then to make it a little easier, you get his direct equivalent in this beautiful, young – and it’s necessary for them to beautiful. It’s necessary for them to be young. It’s necessary for them not to be able to understand intuitively that they’re tearing up all previous style, all previous musicality. They don’t know they’re doing that, which is essential. Both of these people are sort of saying that “Hey, you’ve invented this economy of forgetfulness, this consumerism, this American dream. We want it. We fought the fucking war, too. We’re not staying out of this one. We’re coming. We’re here whether you like it or not.” That was music with clear intent, but none of the protagonists understood its intent. Then you go down the track a few years later, and you’ve got people deconstructing that, getting a little more granular. Now there has to be different ways of doing that. It remains to be seen what replaces it. It goes back to where it doesn’t matter what the content of the web is, it’s all free. Look at U2, one of the greatest bands to ever emerge in the last forty years, and they give it away free. Bono’s clearly aware of the effect of that. It’s just stuff to move the medium which is iPhone 6 or something. You advertise who you are, how cool you are, by touting your new phone. Instead of walking around with the album on our sleeve that says Blonde on Blonde, you flash your iPhone or your Samsung Galaxy or whatever the fuck it is. That’s more important.
Yeah, apparently people haven’t been too keen on the automatic downloading of the new U2 record.
You know, they’re old, old, great friends of mine, and he’s a great personal friend of mine, and we’ve been texting this morning, and they sense where this stuff is going. It won’t diminish. Obviously it’s a bit of a no-brainer as well because it goes to all these millions of people. Having said that, loads of people don’t know that they have it on their phone. It’s weird to me, and I touched on this at SXSW a couple of years ago when I did the keynote, and I didn’t know what to talk about, and eventually I ended up with relevance. It’s just not relevant. Who cares about a number one single? Who cares about American Idol? It’s just entertainment, you know? It’s ubiquitous. It won, but in its ubiquity, it’s impotent. It’s not to say contemporary music isn’t great. Of course it is. There’s lots of bands popping up everywhere who are fantastic. My kids have got boyfriends in two really excellent bands. I’m thrilled that I can say that. Is it in any way art, though? Not at all. Art plays to the one percent. Art is the commodity. Art is what Lee Siegel defines as “whateverism”. There are these great existential global threats and what has art got to say to them? Nothing. Whatever. It’s a great type of whateverism. It’s empty. And perhaps that’s the point. But I don’t think we’re empty. I think we’re just confused. The 21st Century is fourteen years too late in starting, and so was the 20th Century, and that’s a lesson we’ve got to be very careful of how we do get it started. We don’t want the cataclysm of the 75 Year War that was the 20th Century. There’s plenty to be alert to, but our art and what we are saying: we’ve got a balloon, we’ve got a stuffed shark, well – well done, lads. It’s bollocks. Art, like rock and roll, needs a context in which to exist. For Elvis and Little Richard the context was clear. For Dylan and Mick and John, it was clear. For Johnny and Joe and Bobby and Elvis and all of those, the context was clear. The bands emerged because there was a contextual necessity, but perhaps they don’t emerge now. Perhaps there’s something new to emerge. The brilliant Iranian filmmakers – they’ve got a very clear context. There’s no way to feel that an artist has to have a sort of political opinion. That’s more or less saying that a plumber has to have a political opinion. It’s ridiculous. The job of the artist is to create good art, and they only fail when they create bad art. That’s it. That’s like getting the plumber to fix your fucking toilet, and then he starts talking to you about the fucking Tea Party. “Dude, fix the fucking toilet.” He fails as a plumber if he doesn’t.
Boomtown Rats – Rat Trap
Boomtown Rats – Someone’s Looking At You | Isle Of Wight 2013