Bob Geldof Interview
L’Uomo Vogue Africa Issue
copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2008
Bob Geldof is accustomed to feeding people. Sometimes the people are starving, sometimes not. Today, when he walks into his Chelsea office, he brings some chocolate cake from his daughter Pixie’s birthday lunch. I am not starving, but I gladly eat it. ‘I couldn’t let it go to waste,’ he says.
We are here to talk about Africa, because even though Bob became famous as a musician, he has become globally recognised for his radical activism on behalf of that country’s poor. While most rock stars these days have a pet charity, Bob Geldof’s name has been synonymous with Africa. In 1985 he travelled all over that continent, took pictures, wrote a book and made a television series called ‘Bob Geldof in Africa’, in which he explored the many different Africas, not simply the starving one. In 2005, the year that the G8 was held in Scotland he organised a giant ‘Live Aid’, which took place simultaneously in the capitals of all the G8 countries, was beamed by satellite all over the world and watched by billions. He also spear-headed the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign,Where most of us have at one time or another watched images on television of people starving to death and then gone about our business as usual, Geldof is different. He is a doer. Having seen the same images as the rest of us saw, of people dying in Ethiopia, during the late 1980’s, Bob became angry at the gross injustice that he saw. Angry because he knew it didn’t have to be that way. He decided there was something he could do about it. And he embarked on a project called Band Aid, which brought together all of the famous musicians that he could find, in an enormous effort not only to raise money to help avert the crisis, but also in an effort to alert the world as to what was happening in Africa. They released the first really successful charity single ‘Feed The World’, and succeeded in feeding a large number of people, with the proceeds.
to put as much pressure as possible on the politicians to do something to stop the unnecessary suffering and starvation, because somebody needed to show them that this was what the public wanted.
Bob Geldof is a no nonsense kind of guy. He’s not a politician. Not given to unnecessary politeness. Whereas Bono, his compatriot and fellow activist is known to get on with everyone, perhaps to the point of appearing to lick arses, Bob is quite the opposite. If he disagrees with you, he wastes no time telling you. He asks annoying questions of the politicians. And he is an awkward fucker to get rid of, because once he has his teeth into a project, he doesn’t give up on it. In 2005 the G8 bowing to public opinion, promised to increase aid to Africa to $25 billion a year by 2010. So far, they have delivered around 14% of that aid. Next year, Italy will host the G8. Prime Minister Berlusconi will get to decide the agenda for the summit and he will have enormous influence on the outcomes. You can be sure that whenever he looks over his shoulder, he will be aware of a presence. Maybe he’s a pain in the ass. But Bob’s not trying to be liked. He is just trying to get what was promised to Africa, in what he calls a ‘Sacred contract.’
Before we can begin our conversation about Africa, we need a photo. Despite, or perhaps because he is tall, slim and innately stylish, Bob refuses to be ‘styled’, groomed or made up for the shoot. His only concession to glamour is to bring a choice of shirt to change into. He seems not to think of himself as a sex symbol, but it is awkward for me, when he takes off his shirt and reveals a toned tanned physique, because having fantasised about him since I was a teenager, I am distracted by a sudden moment of sheer lust, which I attempt to disguise by asking him to talk about his own personal views of Africa.
‘People have a primitive, romantic idea of Africa,’ he obliges, having declined tea, coffee or any other form of sustenance, while I eat the chocolate cake. ‘And a contradictory view of this continent where simply to look at people is to make them fall over with illness or hunger. The truth is that there is something in both of those, and there are many other Africas. But essentially the cliché of the dark continent still persists. And in the book, the main point I was making is that the darkness is the darkness of ourselves. I think that in the Victorian period, Africa seemed impenetrable, as did the African mind. And as there were no books documenting laws or theologies, it appeared dark, psychologically impenetrable, as well as the jungles and the physicality of the place. Apart from that, the horrors that were inflicted upon the continent created an image of the place which wasn’t there in the early part of our connection with the place. In the sixteenth century, the Europeans who arrived there were not dismayed in the least. They clearly understood the forms of government because we had the same. And they exchanged things, fabrics, copper for gold, etc. It was only much later as Europe advanced economically and we invented this system which now straddles the world that Africa didn’t keep pace. It didn’t keep pace partly because Africa developed in a radically different way to us. That’s because of geography, really. Our continent is a lateral one, it runs east to west and more or less occupies a temperate climate zone, so that when the wheel and the plough were invented in Asia Minor, they moved rapidly across Europe. We were growing the same stuff in more or less the same conditions so the wheel and the plough were extremely applicable. Africa had them, but they abandoned them because what is the use of the wheel or the plough in a jungle or a desert? If you think about it, all of African society was nomadic, they followed their herds or they were hunter-gatherers. And as a result there were no hubs of development, they didn’t stop to develop a crop and have surplus to sell for profit. They developed a culture on the move, and as a result, you don’t write things down books are just cumbersome to lug around. And so even after the second world war, there were only eleven cities in the whole of this continent, which is impossibly vast. And the cities only had a hundred thousand people on average. Really, they are a North to South continent, as well, with vast differences in climate as you travel through it. Everything from temperate to desert to mountainous to coastal. So there are impediments to having one system of economic development.
That is essentially the disconnect between the economic model that we developed and which we then tried to export and theirs. When we then tried to impose the political model that came out of the economic model that we developed, that didn’t work either. You must go with the cultural grain. If you try to co-erce them into our way of doing things, it simply wont work. These things have to be thought about and looked at.’
Not everyone can be bothered to think about those things, I point out.
‘I don’t know why I became interested in it, but I did.’
‘Your dad told me that you have been interested in politics since you were five or six, when you started telling him how the world should be run,” I tell him, which is true.
‘When I was a kid, I just read a lot. The circumstances of your life determine these sorts of things. I was brought up in the Ireland of the fifties, which is not like Ireland today. It was completely removed from the continent of Europe, not just from the UK. It defined itself in isolation, as a result of its inferiority complex, it had what the Australians call a ‘cultural cringe’. An insistence on the superiority of the native culture, which is a clear indication of cultural inferiority. And the government, in tandem with the church really offered nothing. The economy was terrible so there was nothing they could offer. All they had was this bromide of what they perceived as culture and of course I completely rejected that out of hand, I thought it was all nonsense. This sounds grand, but this is the fifty five year old man responding here, not the ten year old boy. I certainly felt a sense of cultural claustrophobia, which only became heightened with the Beatles and stuff. We had no TV, because we had very little money, and there was no rock and roll on the radio, there was nothing modern. Ireland was just a remote little rock on the western shores of Europe.’
When Bob was seven, an event occurred which was to change his life irreversibly, and which possibly contributed to his interest in the alleviation of human suffering. His mother died, suddenly, at the age of forty, leaving his father, Robert senior, a commercial traveller, to bring up Bob and his two sisters alone.
‘I had two sisters, one got married and the other was the school swot, she stayed in and studied. So I would come home and there was no-one to make me do home work, so I would just read. For some reason, the books that interested me were biographies or histories. I don’t mean the great tomes of our time, just childrens’ versions of those.’
Around the same time, he began to listen to a pirate radio station, radio Luxembourg.
‘Young boys started whispering to me of other universes. Young boys called Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Pete Townsend. Rock and roll for me, at that point became the language, the rhetoric of change. So between those two subversive things, listening to the music and reading the books, it was pretty inevitable that that was going to be my interest. And because I was bringing myself up, I learned about loneliness, but that became independence. You also learn organisation, because when you come home you have to go to the shop to get food, you have to cook for yourself, you have to get coal for the fire.’
Being alone and self reliant made him dogmatic, he says, a trait which he is now famous for.
‘You read things and hear things, but there is nobody to argue with you or temper your opinions.’
‘It must make you tenacious, as well?’
‘Yeah. But I can see clearly where I want to go, and what I have to do.’ At thirteen, he started the anti-apartheid movement in South Dublin, with a friend called Mick Foley.
‘ We were both interested in politics and blues music, the blues is the music of oppression. It was long before I heard of Nelson Mandela, but the badges were cool and the music was appropriate, and it was something that I could do and argue for. I could always talk, because that’s native to the country I come from.’
‘Not necessarily’, I protest. ‘Not all of us can talk!’.
‘Well, a lot of us can. That was the only thing I participated in, in school, debating. I didn’t do any sports, even though it was a sports school. I failed every exam I ever took.
Instead of concentrating on school, he worked with the homeless people in Dublin, with an organisation called the Simon Community.
‘ I started staying out later and later, and eventually I stayed out all night, with these people . We would make fires in Smithfield market, in Dublin and get free vegetables from the groceries and free bread from the bakeries and we would make a big soup and the drunks would sit around the fire, and the hookers. They weren’t glamorous girls at all, these were very, very rough, they were beaten up, sometimes in our presence. But this was more real to me and far more tangible than anything else that was happening. It was like the books I was reading. I was reading Orwell, but also Studs Terkels, the great Chicago journalist, and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Bound For Glory’. That’s where I got the name for my band. I was reading John Steinbeck. I felt I was right in the middle of it in Dublin, but it wasn’t romantic at all. It just felt awful.’
‘Why were you altruistic rather than nihilistic?’ I ask. ‘Surely the punk movement was nihilistic?’
I am not convinced. I don’t think the punk movement was about destroying society. I think it was about destroying that which we had built that didn’t work. I think punk was absolutely worthy as a movement of all the importance that is given to it. I stood on the sidelines and watched it, because that was not where my band was at. But in as much as we participated I completely supported that and was thrilled to have been in that time.’
‘What I am saying is that most punks I know were busy going around stealing and mugging and fighting while you were helping the homeless!’
He swears he was never a hippy.
‘It was nothing to do with the hippy thing! The hippy thing annoyed me. This thing of ‘hey man, its all inside you’. No its not! Shut up! I thought it was essentially a middle class conceit.’
‘Very self absorbed?’
‘Very. And I thought all the clothes were stupid. I was a Mod. In Dunlaoighre there was a record shop called Murrays Record Centre and they played great blues music upstairs and downstairs they had a coffee shop, completely black with a fantastic jukebox, so that’s where we lived. Down the road is the People’s Park, right on, man! We would go down there and try to get these happenings happening on the band stand! We would play records as loud as we could make the Dansette play. I picked the municipal chrysanthemums and placed them in a collapsible top hat, -in due deference to the cultural leitmotif- and I had an extremely waisted white pinstripe suit, very Mod, with tight coloured t-shirts which I pinned to the waist of my jeans with badges like anti-apartheid and CND.’
But the music of the time didn’t do it for him.
‘It has taken me this long to accept that ‘Dark Side of the Moon is a complete classic record. I didn’t like it at all, if people played it at parties I would have to leave. I thought Irish music was appalling claptrap, it had to be translated through Van and Shane before I heard it. I used to listen to the Dubliners and think this is embarrassing! But for the Irish abroad, of course this was what they clung to, in the pubs. What else had they got? They needed it, to define themselves in opposition to the country they were in.’
Because he loved the Blue, he joined the Irish Blues Appreciation Society.
‘ That’s how crap I was! But they did get in some really great people. I managed to play with John Lee Hooker when I was sixteen.’
‘Yeah. I was drunk and I lurched forward, waving a harmonica, and bellowed into the microphone. He was cool he just looked at me, bemused.’
So that was it. Doing the rounds with the Simon Community, the books, the Blues, all of it seemed much more real. I remember going round to those who couldn’t make it to the fire, people we would now call schizophrenics, and looking forward to having long conversations with them. They must have been so bored with this fifteen year old! But I didn’t romanticise them. I would ask them questions. I remember Mary, she never wanted to hear the slap of the electric bill on the tiles on the hallway floor. She lived in a porch, somebodys porch. In my juvenile passion I used to rail against this fucking idiot who would come home at night and step over this human being, wrapped in her bags in his doorway and just shut the door in the face of this other human being. Several years later, in the desert in Spain, where I lived for a year, I remember thinking hold on! Would I let a stinking old lady live in the porch of my house and have to step over her night after night? In fact, this guy was the very opposite of what I imagined. You change.
Do you think you mother the world because you don’t have a mother?
I don’t think so. I just think that because you have a shit time, you respond to other people. When we did Band Aid and Live Aid, the countries that were the poorest were the ones that gave the most. When you are living it, it’s very raw. I am asked this a lot and what I think is that if your mother dies when you are very young, you don’t really take the shock on, because it’s just too overwhelming. Children are entirely selfish. They just survive. On the day she died, she just woke up, when she was forty and died. My dad came up and told me and he cried. I had never seen my dad cry, so I cried too. Afraid to see my dad cry. I went downstairs and all the family were there. My sister said ‘Go on out and play, Robert.’ So I got my nazi helmet, which my dad had painted white and went across the road to Jackie Kennedy’s house to play, then I went for two weeks to a friends house to stay. All I remember was seeing the Kings of Comedy with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I didn’t go to the funeral because kids didn’t, in those days. Subsequently I was more or less on my own, doing crap at school and getting beaten. Not liking coming home. The house was freezing. This is not self pity, it wasn’t then and it isn’t now, it was just a sense that this was crap. Shit. It wasn’t that I really envied the other guys, going home to mums, although I did like it, I used to go to people’s houses and be amazed at tea time. The first time a girl made me a meal, I really remember this vividly) I was a bit freaked out and kept saying thank you very much! Thank you very much!
What did she cook?
Spaghetti. I still think it’s really sexy, to be cooked for. So it was lousy, it was really not good. And your parents are the ultimate trust objects. That’s it. There isn’t any other universe really, there is nothing else you can refer to. They are the alpha and the omega of your existence and then they are not there! And they failed you. It doesn’t matter that she died and it’s not her fault. She bailed! And then your father isn’t there Monday to Friday. Hello! He is deciding to leave you. Never mind that he had to go and earn a shit living selling towels. You don’t know that, and even if you do, that’s not what’s in your head. What’s in your head is authority failing you. Ultimate authority, the only authority. All trust is gone. So why would you accept any authority, ever? At school, when the priests would say stuff, I would just look at them and think fuck you! It is pathetic, but I have been like that ever since. When Bono and I went to see the pope he was all freaked out. I was saying get a grip! He is just a geezer! I am like a child. Bono was being normal, I was the infant. Generally, when we go and do presidents and stuff, I really respect the fact that the country has voted this person in, but the geezer? No. In my head, all authority is suspect.
Does that work in your favour?
I think so. I think that all these things lead you to form a modus operandi. I understand that I am a very irritating type of character and that thousands of people cant stand me! And I truly understand it, and go along with that!
You don’t give up?
I don’t give up because I can see where this should go. The only way these things work is if you give a direction and say why you are giving that direction and what the end destination is to be. When we did Band Aid, my band had stopped having hits and so the only way to make it a success was to get the guys who were having hits to do the song. I knew lots of people, so I asked them. You have to put on a show that is the best of the best, otherwise people aren’t going to watch. Once they watch, you can say what about this? I said if we can make ten million it would just be so amazing. The truth is, I had ten million in the bank at that point. As it was, two hundred million dollars later, we got the trucks and the ships and the grain and they were able to see cause and effect, the consequences of their actions. Individuals are not powerless in the face of human monstrosities, they are very powerful indeed. Live Aid was phenomenal, for whatever reason, all the bands excelled, far beyond what they were normally capable of, especially Queen and U2. I was running around like a blue arsed fly with a fucking sore back, and then suddenly I was on stage and I was a pop singer again and I was overwhelmed!
That was the beginning. In 1985, the only possible thing you could do to stop 30 million people dying of hunger was charity. I love charity, but unfortunately people are getting jaded with that word. But we have to remember what charity is. It’s the instinct of one human to help another who is hurting, To just say ‘Dude, let me give you a hand.’ The only way we can do that in our society is to put a quid into the charity box. If we don’t do that, without question something in us withers and dies. And without charity you don’t get the schools, you don’t get the wells, you don’t get the stabilising of the worst crises. Aid is at another level. Once the aid agencies have parachuted in to try and stabilise a situation, you then have state aid which should give people primary education, primary health care and primary agriculture. Unless you have a healthy population, properly educated, you are not going to build a state, the state will constantly fail, people will die.
There is no need for extreme poverty in the world today. There is no economic need. Indeed, it holds us back economically. In the Cold War you couldn’t move anything you could only give charity. We couldn’t afford to fight the Cold War because we would lose too much. The Soviets couldn’t afford to fight it either, because they had no money. So we fought this war in the south, in proxy wars, we paid for our tyrants and the Soviets paid for their pet despots. Nobody expected the Cold war to end but it just collapsed and all those tyrants went and suddenly you could begin to deal with the economic and political consequences and the causes of extreme poverty. So that was in 1989 and gradually groups began to form that could analyse the situation. I persuaded Tony Blair to do the Commission For Africa, to absolutely analyse why this new phenomenon of globalisation which erupted out of the end of the cold war where China and India were dragging hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through trade, why was Africa excluded? Blair did the Commission in 2003/4 which I sat on, and that was, in effect a political Band Aid. Just like I got all the bands together, I got the politicians together. But while Blair was committed to it, the other leaders didn’t want to do anything. So now Bono and Richard Curtis were saying I had to do Live Aid. I said ‘You fucking do it!’ And I didn’t think it could be as powerful if we did it again, because it lives in people’s memories, like Woodstock. But in the end, I had spent a year working on this thing and they weren’t going to do anything about it, so it was vanity that made me do it. I wasn’t going to see this report lying on the shelf. Blair couldn’t force it through without public support.
We had to do a LIVE AID PLUS. We had to be active in all the capital cities from the G8 countries. We had to get millions on the streets to tell the politicians that we knew they were going to this thing, we knew what they were being asked, and we supported the ask. We wanted to tell them don’t come home unless you have a reason for refusing. So the name ‘Make Poverty History’ was conjured up by the aid agencies and two days before Philadelphia, Bush came and announced he would double aid. As it turned out, he has quadrupled aid to Africa during his administration. Europe agreed, and also to cancel debt. So in the twenty years since this began, the boys and girls with guitars and their supporters finally got to write political policy for the world, and forced them to accept it. Now the fight is to get them to do it. But the first part of it, the debt cancellation immediately resulted in twenty nine million children going to school. That’s a massive benefit to all of us. So it was worth it, but we didn’t ask people for money, because the money, at this point doesn’t matter. Its irrelevant. We want 50 billion per annum, we don’t want a few million. And that’s the difference between charity and justice. Charity deals with the symptoms of poverty, politics deals with the economic structures. Both are necessary.
You continue to put pressure on people.
Yes. You do everything you can. I was in Milan yesterday, talking about this, putting groups together. I know that the economy is in the toilet. Italy is on the front line for migration, but people don’t leave their homes if they don’t have to. So build up the economies of Africa, so they can buy our stuff! We have all benefited from globalisation, trade is mutually collaborative and people do not go to war if they are trading with you. There is too much to lose. Conflict is a by-product of poverty, if you have nothing you try and grab it. If you have no water, you move to other people’s land to find it, same if you have no food. Poverty destabilises states. If people see on television what the rest of the world has, they want it and they get frustrated. So trade is the answer. That is how Africa will resussitate itself and it is happening, Africa is growing at about six % per annum. The more democratic countires can grow at up to 12 % per annum. Huge growth. It’s the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. Africa will develop is ways that we haven’t guessed at because they bypassed the technological age, rather like Ireland did. Africa is worth watching, by 2040 there is no question that it will be a vast economic power. It has no other option. Vast amounts of unemployed, huge amounts of space, every resource on the planet and massive connectivity.
What will he say to the Italians?
Berlusconi is a very popular prime minister, he is very dynamic and he has said that he wants to put poverty at the fore front of the agenda for the G8. The problem is the gap between what you say and what you do. If you think about it, in the year 2000, all these people in the UN said lets really, seriously try and halve extreme poverty in the world within fifteen years. That’s an incredible thing to say. I love that. They sort of worked out that if the rich countries gave 0.7 % of their GDP they could get to certain targets. Asia will probably meet that target, because of trade. China will take 1% of extreme poor out of poverty this year. That’s a staggering achievement. But lets look at that 0.7 % and what it means. Some of the countries are reluctant to do it, Italy included because they have their own problems. But as I have already pointed out if Africa is rich, they will buy our stuff. The Marshall Plan already proved that this works after the second world war. And apart from being great for foreign policy to buy friends, Africa is stuffed with every mineral we could possibly want. And in terms of pure humanitarianism, it’s the correct thing to do. We need to re-phrase the argument. But we also need to say to the prime minister of Italy, and to all of the others that in 2005 you signed a contract with the poorest people of the world. And if you break that contract, you kill them. It is the most sacred contract you can make. In the normal world, if I have a contract with you and I break it, you will sue my ass and I may go to jail. If you tell your kids we will go to the movies and then you turn around and change your mind, you feel like shit because when you look at them you see mistrust and cynicism. So there is always a consequence. But when a leader signs his name, he is deluding himself if he thinks he is just signing his name. Its not even just the name of his party that he is signing. It is the honour and the dignity of his country. So when he breaks it, he breaks the honour, the promise, the dignity of that country. And he kills the poor. That’s what is at stake. In the scale of things, to continue to turn on the television night after night and to have to continually watch the parade of the pornography of poverty, that is just untenable. So there are real, true reasons for doing this.