How writing helped Bob Geldof get through incomprehensible grief

With the release of a new Boomtown Rats album, tour and book, Sir Bob Geldof talks to Hannah Stephenson about dealing with grief, fame and the scourge of social media.

Sir Bob Geldof. Picture: Mark Cowne/PA.
Sir Bob Geldof. Picture: Mark Cowne/PA.

I’ve hardly started questioning Sir Bob Geldof before he is off on a long, sweary rant about everything he thinks is wrong with the world – from the internet and the perils of social media, to the actions of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.

“It’s a chilling world that I look out at and I pray that my children can make a better go of it than my generation did,” Geldof declares sombrely.

Far from mellowing, he’s as ‘rackety’ as ever – the word he uses as frontman of the Boomtown Rats to describe the band’s style of music; raw, opinionated, musical activism oozing from every line.

File photo dated 23/2/2009 of Sir Bob Geldof and daughter Peaches. Picture: Zak Hussein/PA Wire

Now a multi-millionaire (his fortune is estimated at more than £70m), he’s still a mover and a shaker, serving as an adviser to the ONE Campaign against extreme poverty, co-founded by fellow Irish rock singer and activist Bono, long after his mega-fundraising stint for Live Aid in 1985 and Live 8 in 2005, when he urged G8 leaders to double their overseas aid.

The Rats’ new album, Citizens of Boomtown, their first studio album for 36 years, has just been released in tandem with the publication of his book, Tales of Boomtown Glory, a collection of the complete lyrics from Geldof’s Boomtown Rats and seven solo albums.

It delves into his thoughts on what was happening at the time which inspired his writing too.

“There’s no nostalgia,” he says of the music.

Picture of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates in 1988. Picture: PA Archive/PA.

“I sing Lookin’ After No. 1 for all the kids who are on the dole queue now. I wrote that on the dole queue in 1969.

“I wrote Rat Trap when I worked in an abattoir – it wasn’t just an abattoir of animals, it was a slaughterhouse of dreams if you were a human being.

“There was no way out, you were trapped. I sing Rat Trap now and children respond because Google and Zuckerberg and your smart TV and Alexa is looking at you, measuring you, sucking up every credence you have, sexual, musical, consumerist and packaging you up and sending you to a third entity which will exploit you for gain and to sell you more s*** you don’t need.

“I sing I Don’t Like Mondays, not for a school massacre of 1978 but for a school massacre of two weeks ago – there’s no nostalgia.”

I’ve been requested not to ask about his family, but as he discusses grief in the new book, it seems fair to ask how he’s coped with the shed-load of it he’s experienced in his life.

It has been well documented that his first wife Paula Yates, mother of their three children Fifi, Peaches and Pixie, left him for INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who committed suicide in 1997.

Three years later, Yates died from an accidental heroin overdose.

Geldof went on to adopt Yates and Hutchence’s child Tiger Lily, to be raised with his daughters.

Six years ago Peaches died from an accidental heroin overdose, aged 25.

How does Geldof cope with the terrible loss he has experienced?

He says writing has helped to objectify his feelings and try to make sense of life.

“I can externalise something that’s incomprehensible, something that knows no boundary, that’s the abyss of emptiness and loss. I don’t consciously do it.

“If you wanted me to visualise it, it’s like a rectangular USB stick and once I’ve been able to expunge the pain, it fits into that shape and I slot it into an available space in my brain where it festers and then needs to push forwards every now and again.

“But I know it now, it’s comprehensible. I can say, I know you, you f***. Get back into your place.

“When I sing those songs – they perform a circus trick every night on the stage – I am back in that time.”

But when he’s not externalising as ‘Bobby Boomtown’, how does he deal with the grief then?

“I don’t want to dwell on that any longer,” he says. “I’ve dealt with that. It’s not as if I go moping around the whole b****y time. I don’t! You get on with your life, that’s it.

“There’s a song I’ve written which I haven’t recorded, called Get On With It.

“Life is the hardest thing, but if you do it, you get through it. That’s called being human.”

He admits in the book that the pain of loss hits him at the least expected moments, however. “It travels alongside you, packed into whatever available space there is inside your pain-sodden, grief-laden mind. It unpacks its suitcase of tears any time but most often at the most unexpected and unwanted moments,” he writes.

In 2015, Geldof, now 68, married French actress Jeanne Marine, his partner of 20 years. He has said that he doesn’t know how she puts up with him. Switching off is a problem, he admits.

“Boredom is a problem. I just have to stay frantically busy or else I get melancholy, which I try to avoid.”

These days, when he’s not making music he spends a lot of time making keynote speeches, attending international business conferences and campaigning to end poverty, mostly in Africa.

He has embraced fame not for all its trappings but to get important things done, he offers.

“The fame thing gives you a platform to talk about the stuff that bothers you. People are free to ignore it, but at least people ask you about it. They may completely disagree with me, but it gives you a platform.

“People ask me, ‘How did you do Band Aid and Live Aid?’ Well, because I’m a pop singer. If I was an accountant I couldn’t do it.

“I had access to pop singers and to the media. I could change the platform to talk about things that bothered me.”

But he doesn’t do social media and talks about the digital age in Big Brother terms.

“I don’t do any of it because I don’t need to. I don’t accept any cookies, I’ve never bought anything online. I don’t want to use my card and I don’t get any ads on anything I use online because I’ve never bought anything, so they don’t know what I like.

“In my time, rock ‘n’ roll was the social media. All ideas were transmitted and mediated through the lens of rock ‘n’ roll. All social, moral and political deals came through bands.

“The Beatles expressed optimism, lack of deference and exposed you to different cultural ideas, the Rolling Stones contemptuous insolence.

We used that as a vehicle for change.

“That stopped with new media.

“It will find out what you like, what your sexual and social, musical and consumer preferences are and then another engine will drive you to people who think the same way, to the products which are the same as what you’ve got, and will package you and sell you on.

“You are the product. And these algorithms can be used politically. It’s profoundly dangerous.”

Social media sites like Instagram and Twitter should be scrutinised more, he believes.

“The sump of humanity that spews its filth on to these sites should be hoovered up,” he says.

“Of course, there will always be some dust in the carpet but we can deal with that.

“It’s the way that political influence spreads through it that is extremely dangerous. Everything needs an editor.”

What, even you, Sir Bob? “Well, you can edit the f*** out of this,” he says with a laugh.

Tales of Boomtown Glory by Bob Geldof is published by Faber Music, priced £20 and available Now. Boomtown Rats are due to play York Barbican on April 25.