Bob Geldof : Big mouth strikes again

Bob Geldof has spent much of the past seven years avoiding the public gaze, struggling with private tragedy. Now, at 50, he's back: sadder, wiser and voluble as ever. He tells John Walsh how he put his pain to creative use
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The Independent Online

Bob Geldof is 50 today. Fifty! It seems impossible that the king Boomtown Rat, the dissolute Irish political visionary, the shaggy, world-haranguing charity fundraiser, the holder of the St Augustine Least-Likely-Modern-Day-Saint Award could possibly be the same age as Gordon Brown, Antony Worrall-Thompson and the Princess Royal.

In Shakespearean terms, he's now hit the fifth age of man, at which even the most radical ex-tearaway becomes "the justice/ In fair round belly with good capon lined/ With eyes severe and beard of formal cut/ Full of wise saws and modern instances". Even in his leather jacket and jeans, this description suits Geldof rather well. His beard of formal cut – that hidalgo scribble of facial hair that used to festoon his cheeks and chin – is no more, but he is mildly concerned about his weight. "I don't drink much except wine," he says, "but I was gettin' a tummy because, at 50, your muscles no longer hold it in. Then a friend turned up looking all svelte and godlike, and said he was on this Atkins diet, the no-carbohydrate thing. So I did it. It was brilliant. Apparently you die of a heart attack, but so what? You die thin." His hazel eyes are as sharp as ever, but melancholy when he stares (as he often does) at the floor. Of wise words and passionate topical convictions, he's got a tidal wave.

"...this ferocious death cult called the Taliban, who have no real theology, whose every action is anti-life, including a denial of life to all women, and a shadowed half-life to all men, who can't display their faces. These people are like having the Ku-Klux-Klan running the country. And I don't want them in this world..." It's nice to have the Any Questions? Bob back – arguing with Ann Widdecombe, haranguing governments about Third World debt and starving refugees ("It's an intellectual absurdity that people die of want in a world of surplus"), always looking to stir things up.

How will he celebrate his half-century? "There's a lads' lunch on the day, but I don't know the details; I'm not that keen on lads' stuff generally," he says. "Then, on Saturday night I'm having a bash. There'll be musicians there, who'll start playing if they're pissed and I'll play along with them, but I'll just be embarrassed because they're far better musicians than I am. I might get up and do a token thing – you know, like Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea..."

Bob Geldof being self-effacing isn't a sight you see every day. But he worries, with some justification, that the circumstances of his life have eclipsed his one-time status as torrential rock front-man and skilled, Novello Award-winning songwriter. After masterminding the Live Aid concert in 1985, he entered a strange no-man's-land as a famous and fêted national hero with nothing to do. In fact, he was writing songs and experimenting with Celtic and Cajun music. His spectacular solo album, The Vegetarians of Love, came out in 1990. Along with its successor, The Happy Club, three years later, it revealed Geldof in a groove of pure musical pleasure, playing with ex-Boomtown Rats and what sounded like a troupe of hyperactive, accordion-squeezing diddicoys. The songs were quirky, tuneful, reflective, Van Morrison-esque, autobiographical, romantic, life-enhancing. You could hear him laughing gleefully between tracks. "Talking Voyager 2 Type Things" was an extended reverie about orbiting spacecraft, "and I was remembering a night in Versailles with Paula, spinning round in the courtyard of Versailles, doing wheelies at about two in the morning in the snow, just the romance of it, and the image of this lonely thing, beeping out there in space, and us spinning round Versailles in the courtyard in the snow..."

Some way after the Happy Club, now say hello to the SA&D club – Sex, Age and Death, released this week. A collection of songs put together with painful slowness and reluctance, they reflect the torment of his feelings after Paula Yates left him in 1994 for Michael Hutchence and he was briefly estranged from his three daughters and his home, and even blamed, absurdly, for Hutchence's death, after the INXS Lothario hanged himself in a Sydney hotel room in 1997. The songs pre-date Paula Yates's death from a heroin overdose last year. Geldof, who avoided all interviews while his private life was hit by successive tragedies, is now talking to the papers again. And telling his sad tale on Radio 2. And talking to Parkinson on TV. Was he becoming Sad Bob, the celebrity griever?

"I haven't done celebrity TV for 10 years," he said, "and I was nervous I couldn't do my schtick any more. But I have to talk about the record, and the record could only have been about what happened to us since 1995. I don't mind talking about the physical impact I felt – that's talking about me, not about her [Paula] or Michael or the children. I don't know if that's grieving. I grieve over the loss of love. As for being a professional griever, you're not going to hear me talking about this again after this interview. This is about the record, the product of that grief, loss, pain, love, anger, bewilderment, disappointment – and that's it."

Sex, Age and Death, from the title onwards, isn't a record to have you dancing round your handbag. It's fantastically raw, the songs either shouts of rage at Paula's public disintegration ("I watched you laughing on the TV/ 'I don't get it' said the kindly host/ But there are many here among us/ Who feel the sight is but a joke") and at Hutchence's barely-explicable suicide (Geldof's final scream of "What the fuck's going on inside your head?" freezes the blood); or they're dumb, sub-aqueous murmurs and whispers, the vocals internalised like voices in your head or tiny, pathetic laments. "My Birthday Suit", just solo guitar and Bob's high, plangent repetition of "never mind", had me in tears the first time I played it. If you ever wondered what desolation sounds like, now you know.

The road back from extreme depression was helped by poetry (Keats, Yeats and Larkin) rather than music, and by the ministrations of friends. Geldof never went to see a psychiatrist (surprise, surprise) but "I wasn't keeping it in. With friends, I was extremely verbal and articulate. But it's impossible now to describe how awful I felt – you have an almost out-of-body experience, in which a part of you that's compos mentis examines yourself like a lab specimen – and if anyone displays tenderness or kindness to you, it's like they're touching a livid, raw blob that's been flayed..."

Had he understood how people could commit suicide? "Yes," he said immediately. "I've always despised [the act] but there comes a point when you wake up and say, 'I do not want to feel like this any more, ever.' I was quite cold and rational. I said: 'Nothing is making this better, every single aspect of this is crap and I can't see how it can improve.' People tell you, 'This will pass, everything comes to an end.' And you think about the children. But there is a point where you say, 'This is so bad, I don't think I can bear it a second longer.' When it happened, I called a mate and he dropped everything and came round. But, yes, in answer to your question, I seriously considered it, for a morning."

Of all the things he's endured, being temporarily parted from his children, Fifi, Peaches and Pixie, affected him most painfully. He is fantastically bitter about the power of the courts to take a man's house and family away. "There's this emptiness, this utter loneliness, and you ask, What have I done? Why has this happened? If the woman walks out and takes the children, there's no argument. If the man does that, he'll probably be done for abduction."

On the question of custody, he becomes incandescent with rage, remembering how he was forced to leave his home, where Hutchence moved in with Paula and the children. "They said: 'You have access.' I thought, what the fuck do you mean? How dare you? You know?" He gazed at the floor. "The despair of going to the door that was your home, the door to this thing that locked away the crap of the world and having to knock and hearing their laughter inside... And this life that was yours a week ago, and in fear you lift the knocker to knock, you have to ask permission to go into this thing that you bought and constructed together, that is their home, your home, this is your family, and now you have to knock and ask can you come in. And when you're with your children, it's not like, 'Great, I've got three hours with my children', it's 'There's a second gone, there's another second gone – and all the time it's the going, it's not the being-with. This is the thing that destroys people." Today he is very much the wary paterfamilias of an extended family, with the French actress Jeanne Morine (who gets an adoring, Yeatsian tribute on the song "10.15"), his three daughters and their half-sister Tiger Lily, aged five.

The last time I saw Geldof, it was in May last year. He'd come to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival to play a two-hour gig in the candy-striped main tent. He was charming and funny and left a thousand sweaty bookworms jiving by the stage, like teenagers, to "Rat Trap". I was struck by the insouciance with which he wandered into the bar afterwards, sipped a single glass of wine and went off in a taxi to supper at a hotel where Norman Mailer was guest of honour. It wasn't very rock'n'roll, was it? "Look, I've done the rock'n'roll thing to the max, and it was fan-tastic," he says. "But even at 25, if you'd said, 'We can either take the girls back to the hotel or there's this dinner with Norman Mailer', I'd have gone for the latter. It's only because I was once in a rock band that I did get to dinner with Mailer."

There it is again, the I'm-just-a-musician theme. Behind the social polemic, the political indignation, the casual entrepreneurism and all the effing and blinding, Geldof is happiest playing music. "Playing live is absolutely where it's at for me. Because it's wholly enjoyable and it's the only area where I get a sense of satisfaction, or indeed achievement, in life. The only tragedy is that, if I was to put up a poster in Sunderland saying 'TONIGHT – BOB GELDOF', most people would say, 'DOING WHAT?'" He is, speaking purely musically, much more visible across Europe, in Australia and "most cities in America". In Britain, this extraordinary, many-talented man is just too multi-dimensional for comfort. Hence the surprising response of some home audiences. "If I play over here, they like it, but about halfway through, some people will start shouting 'Talk!' And I ignore them for a while, and more people take it up and they're all going, 'YEAH TALK, JUST TALK!' Why do they do that?"

Well, I'm stumped. Why ever would that be?

'Sex, Age & Death' is out on Eagle records