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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

More than his share of pain

Bob Geldof, the Irish musician and activist, has accomplished numerous humanitarian deeds but has also endured more than his share of personal loss, most recently with the death of Peaches, his 25-year-old daughter, writes Kevin Hackett

You really do have to wonder how much emotional pain and suffering one man can endure before he finally caves in. He’s seen and experienced a world of hurt and now his daughter has died at the tender age of 25 – something no parent should have to go through. When Peaches Geldof, his second daughter with the late Paula Yates, was found dead on Monday this week, the world once again looked upon her father, 62-year-old Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof, in disbelief that he could be undergoing yet another personal tragedy.

Bob Geldof is, without a doubt, a legend. Whether or not you agree with his politics, there’s no denying that this dishevelled Irishman has saved the lives of countless millions. His music might not be to your taste, but he can live with that. By his own admission, he can’t just keep quiet. If you don’t agree with what he has to say, tough luck. You’re going to hear what is on his mind. It has always been thus.

The port town of Dún Laoghaire, south of Dublin, can stake a claim to two things: being the actual destination of the ferries that leave the Welsh port of Holyhead for Ireland, and being the birthplace of a man whom many think of as a saint – Bob Geldof. While the vast majority of travellers head for the capital of Eire, Geldof’s hometown cannot be forgotten, and the man remains stubbornly steadfast in his determination to make a difference to the lives of those less fortunate than us. But who, exactly, could ever be less fortunate than him?

Just to recap some of the man’s life highlights, he’s a former rock star who married Yates, a former music journalist, after she became rather obsessed with him, back in 1976. She went on to become a prime-time television star and fell in love with (eventually cohabiting with) INXS singer Michael Hutchence, a man Geldof counted as a friend. With Hutchence she had a baby and she incurred the wrath of a nation that viewed her actual husband as a man deeply wronged. She died after a drug overdose in 2000, but not before Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room in 1997. This particular set of circumstances led to Geldof taking on custody of the daughter Yates and Hutchence had sired, now known as Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence Geldof.

How many men, in the same circumstances, would have done the same? This was Geldof’s humanity coming to the fore in a way that nobody could misread. “She will grow up with her half sisters,” was all he said about it, and everybody just knew that her adoptive father was right. He instinctively knew the best course of action, the way that would most benefit somebody else. And that’s been the story of Bob Geldof since the early 1980s.

He was born the son of a Robert and Evelyn Geldof. Robert’s father was a Belgian immigrant, Zenon Geldof, who worked as a chef, and his wife, Amelia Falk, was a British Jew who had lived in London, so Bob Geldof probably knew from the very beginning what it was to not be like everyone else, to be an outsider. He was bullied at school because of his middle name (Zenon, after his grandfather) and, bizarrely, for being a rugby player. And then his mother, Evelyn, suddenly died at the age of 41, after complaining of a headache, which turned out to be a brain haemorrhage. Geldof had to learn how to deal with loss, pain and suffering at an early age – he was just seven years old.

After leaving college, he found work in a number of different roles. He worked in a slaughterhouse, he was a road-building labourer for a while and he spent time working in a facility that canned garden peas in Wisbech, England. His fate seemed to be sealed, however, when he accepted a job as a music journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia.

This didn’t work out and, in 1975, he went back to Ireland, where his experience as a music hack prompted him to take up a new role, that of the lead singer in a band called The Boomtown Rats. At the time, Britain was a very angry place to be, torn apart by trade union strikes and dissatisfaction with pretty much everything. The kids needed a release, something to make them feel relevant, like they had a voice, and punk rock became the platform for a generation to express its disquiet, reaching a popularity height in 1977. The Boomtown Rats weren’t actually a punk band, though. They were a rock band that happened to have punk sensibilities, and people soon started listening.

In 1978, The Boomtown Rats had their first No 1 single in the United Kingdom with Rat Trap and, a year later, another chart-topper came in the form of the controversial I Don’t Like Mondays, written about Brenda Ann Spencer’s attempted massacre at a school in California the year before. Geldof had found his voice, literally and figuratively, and pulled no punches during the many television and print interviews that followed this success. Geldof, when interviewed on Ireland’s The Late Late Show by host Gay Byrne, took the opportunity to attack politicians and the Catholic Church, which he blamed for many of the country’s problems. The ensuing uproar made it quite impossible for The Boomtown Rats to play in Ireland again. But Geldof has never been one to apologise for causing offence.

By 1986, Geldof had called time on The Boomtown Rats, by which stage he had become a world-famous celebrity, and it had nothing to do with his music. Well, not strictly speaking. In 1984, he saw a heartrending BBC News report, presented by Michael Buerk, about the famine that was raging in Ethiopia, and he felt compelled to do something about it. Joining forces with Midge Ure, of British new wave band Ultravox, he wrote the song Do They Know It’s Christmas?. He called his rock star friends, got them on board to form a supergroup called Band Aid, and the resulting single became Britain’s then biggest-ever seller (to the tune of three million copies). But that wasn’t enough.

The song had raised a staggering £8million (Dh49.2m) and much, much more was to come. Geldof had discovered that one of the main reasons for many African nations being in such a state was because of repayments on loans that their countries had taken from banks in developed, western countries, and that for every pound donated to Band Aid, 10 times as much would have to leave these countries in loan repayments. A crazy situation at the best of times, but put famine into the mix and you’re looking at a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scale.

Just months after Band Aid, on July 13, 1985, Geldof and Ure staged Live Aid – the concert to end all concerts – a staggeringly large event that took place simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The BBC cleared its decks for 16 hours of rock music and Live Aid’s donation telephone lines lit up. In those pre-internet days, the organisation it took to put on a show of that magnitude was almost unbelievable, but Bob Geldof simply rolled up his sleeves and got on with it.

The clue was in the title, really. Live Aid was broadcast exactly that way: live, without a time delay that could bleep out anything offensive before it reached the world’s eyes and ears. And, while Geldof was making impassioned pleas and demands to viewers, who he said should not be doing anything that day apart from reaching for their credit cards and their telephones, he let slip a number of profanities, bashing his fist onto a table to make sure we all got the message. The result? Donations went up to £300 every second. By the end, Live Aid had amassed £150m in donations, and his efforts earned Geldof an honourary knighthood when he was 34 years old.

The die had been cast, and Geldof continued as an activist. In 2005, he once again joined forces with Ure to put on six concerts around the world – two decades after Live Aid and just days before the G8 political summit at Gleneagles in Scotland. Live 8, as it was known, put the spotlight on more than just famine. Geldof was on a roll.

He claims that his 50s were halcyon years, when everything in his personal life just meshed together. “You never expect that,” he said in an interview with his journalist friend, Neil McCormick. “I’m at the beginning of my old age, things get easier.”

He’d settled into a long-term relationship with his partner, Jeanne Marine, his kids were growing up and not causing too many sleepless nights for him, and his shrewd business investments had allowed him to become personally wealthy. He lightened up. Aside from touring with the recently regrouped Boomtown Rats, Geldof has become an annual staple at St Patrick’s gigs in Dubai.

But heartache and tragedy just won’t leave him alone. He said in a statement that confirmed his daughter’s death: “She was the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of all of us. Writing ‘was’ destroys me afresh. What a beautiful child. How is this possible that we will not see her again? How is that bearable? We loved her and will cherish her forever. How sad that sentence is. Tom [Peaches’ husband] and her sons Astala and Phaedra will always belong in our family, fractured so often, but never broken.”

Bob Geldof, please do not break – the world needs people like you.

khackett@thenational.ae