Bob Geldof "It's the ugliness that marks you"

Irish musician Bob Geldof, 50, on depression after the end of his marriage, his political struggle for the poorest in the world, and his new album "Sex, Age & Death"


Mr. Geldof, after private misfortunes that were discussed in full public and a musical pause lasting many years, you have now released an album whose title alone promises to talk about the very big things in life - about sex, age and death. Is this a kind of philosophical statement of principle.

Geldof: It took a long time to make this record because first I had to live it. Anyone who writes tries to put a shape to experience. I didn't understand any of what happened in the past few years. This is the beginning of understanding.

SPIEGEL: Back then, your wife Paula Yates left you for the INXS singer Michael Hutchence. Both of them later died. Hutchence death in 1997 was officially declared suicide; and Paula Yates died of an overdose in 2000. Are these the central themes of your record?

Geldof: No. It was everything around that. That was a part of it when it reached its ultimate conclusion in a terrible almost Shakespearian tragedy. But in fact the record was finished before Paula died. The record is not a catharsis. However it's still very uncomfortable for me to listen to the album today.

SPIEGEL: When did you start working on "Sex, Age & Death"?

Geldof: I know it sounds strange, but I have no idea. When my wife left me in 1995, I collapsed. I couldn't function at all for two or three years.

SPIEGEL: Did you suffer from depression?

Geldof: It was beyond depression. Everyone has similar stories about leaving them. But my experience, I think, was extreme. In addition to which, this drama was just perfect for the British tabloid press: all the people involved in it were well-known.

SPIEGEL: Didn't the public interest in your misfortune at least give you the sense of not being entirely alone?

Geldof: In fact, you are more alone. Like a specimen under a microscope. But I was busy with much simpler things: I was just existing. I had to remind myself to breathe in, breathe out, and then to breathe in again. It was as if I'd been emasculated and disembowelled. The range of feelings available to you in a situation like that is very narrow.

SPIEGEL: Were you able to work during this period? Besides being a musician you were a co-owner of the television production company Planet 24, which produced successful shows like "The Big Breakfast".

Geldof: No, I wanted to withdraw to as remote a corner of the planet as I could, and howl into the grey void. But you can't do that when you have three kids.

SPIEGEL: And that stopped you thinking about suicide, too?

Geldof: I always used to find suicide pathetic. Up until the morning when I woke up and my face was wet because I had been crying in my sleep again. And I couldn't imagine bearing this condition any longer. My friends said: Believe me, it will pass. But when? You can no longer imagine time, and it's a matter of years. Then I sat down and made a list of reasons why it was worth living - or dying. When I had added everything up the result was that I didn't want to feel like this any more. It was, I thought, a rational, intellectual decision. That was the moment when I realised that I was moving on very dangerous territory.

SPIEGEL: What did you do? Did you see a psychiatrist?

Geldof: No, I thought I simply have to understand what happened, and when I've understood that, I'll be able to bear it. The physical pain alone was terrible. I always used to think the expression "a broken heart" was just a metaphor. But it felt as if I was having a heart attack. The doctor prescribed beta-blockers for me, but they made me feel even weaker.

SPIEGEL: Were you living alone at that time?

Geldof: No. My friends Howard and Pete, with whom I played in the Boomtown Rats, moved in with me. It really was a strange experience, the way men support each other in a situation like that: we would sit around together and be completely silent together. It was bizarre, but calming. Howard took care of me, and Pete worked on his music in the basement. At first I didn't need music or even want to hear it. But then scraps of sound began to register. Then eventually I picked up the guitar and plonk, plonk, plucked the bass string.

SPIEGEL: Do you have the feeling that you've finally left this whole affair behind you now?

Geldof: One might describe it like this: you remove this lump of pain from your gut and examine it and say to yourself: So this is what you look like, I know you now, you fucker, and then put it back again. Until the next time. Gradually, facilities return. First I was able to take care of business affairs. Because there it was not a matter of feelings. Then at some stage I had access to the world of creativity again.

SPIEGEL: So your friends were after all right when they comforted you that time heals?

Geldof: No. You can try to bury your pain. But time doesn't heal. It only accomodates. And when it manages to work its way into your consciousness again, you can park it in some corner of your brain, always there, always present, but in context. You learn to live with it, that's all.

SPIEGEL: When did it become clear to you that you were on the way to recovery?

Geldof: A friend phoned and asked me how I was. I was about to say: shit, as usual, like I had been saying for years. But then I said: quite good actually. I surprised myself in saying that, but that's how it was.

SPIEGEL: The album in which you describe this drama of life was released a year after the death of Paula Yates. Would you also have published it if she had still been alive?

Geldof: Yes. I would have liked her to hear it. It was finished before she died. And she thought I was good. I think she would have liked the record.

SPIEGEL: Was it hard for you to give the public this glimpse of your innermost feelings?

Geldof: Not at all. I don't mind people knowing what occupies me. And to be honest I couldn't care less what other people think about this album. Because basically I wrote it for myself.

SPIEGEL: What did you daughters say about the lyrics, in which you write about their mother Paula Yates, for instance?

Geldof: They think my music is awful anyway. They don't even begin to listen to the lyrics. And even if they liked the songs they would never admit it. They prefer listening to Eminem or Britney Spears or something. And besides I have to say: I don't really expect people to listen to "Sex, Age & Death" that carefully. It is not very playable for radio. There's no track that would be suitable as a single. So what?

SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound like the businessman Bob Geldof.

Geldof: I'm a musician. Business is a facility. I can do it, so I do. But music is the only thing that engages me totally: emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually, physically. I'm not a good manager either, not a real businessman. I have ideas that I want to implement. And once something is running, like the television company Planet 24, it becomes boring to me. I've sold Planet 24 in the meantime.

SPIEGEL: And how did you, a musician and television entrepreneur, get the idea of setting up Deckchair, an Internet travel agency, of all things?

Geldof: Very simple: I wanted to go to Disneyworld in Florida with my children and I rang up three travel agencies. But firstly they quoted three different prices, and the amounts they were asking were simply absurd. It was a mystery to me how a perfectly normal family could go on holiday under these circumstances. My idea was that it would be fastest and cheapest if you could book directly with travel airlines on the Internet. And what makes it perfect is the fact that you simply get the ticket by post.

SPIEGEL: How did the business go?

Geldof: Fine. But luckily I sold it before the companies crashed.

SPIEGEL: Today you are involved in television, radio advertising and events with your company Ten Alps. Do you go into the office every day like a respectable company boss?

Geldof: No, I never go to an office. It gets too complicated. I stay at home, on the phone. I walk up and down in the flat and play around on the guitar. One part of me is listening to the conversation, one part of me listens to what I'm playing on the guitar. And if I like it, I keep playing it until the conversation is over. I hold all my meetings in a café in the King's Road. I have no e-mail, no answerphone and no secretary. My job is to have ideas and to make contacts.

SPIEGEL: Do you still find time to commit yourself to Africa and your relief programme Band Aid?

Geldof: I've been working on Afrikca for 17 years, I'm chairman of the Band Aid Trust. I'm active in the "Drop the Dept" campaign, which is about writing off the debts of the poorest countries.

SPIEGEL: You and Bono met up with the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for that purpose, at this year's G8 summit in Genoa. Were you able to convince him?

Geldof: The whole business was very quick. Bono and I are the Laurel and Hardy of Third World dept. When he talks, he is very jesuitical. And unfortunately I'm very direct. People like Blair, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Schröder are mor or less the same generation so we share the same cultural background. The problem is changing the system. And they always speak for the system. But there is now a willingness to change. Particularly after Afghanistan. But there are always excuses, like the International Monetary Fund is nearly bankrupt.

SPIEGEL: And what do you reply to that?

Geldof: That the 800 million dollars debt relief a year granted at the 1999 G8 summit in Cologne aren't enough. These Third World countries need 3 billion dollars to be free to develop. The fact is that these countries are unable to pay their interest. They can't. And this basic fact must be faced. More is paid in debt each year than can be spent in basic health care. And this at a time of an Aids pandemic in Africa. This is ridiculous. We don't need this money. We are the richest conuntries in the planet. It's mad. It makes no economic sense at all.

SPIEGEL: The logic of the bankers is that: people who don't pay back their loans don't get any more money.

Geldof: That's nonsense. Germany of all countries knows about what happened to Germany after the Versaille treaty of 1919. And the condistions imposed on the weakest countries of the world are worse than those imposed by Versaille. The thing is this: if these states offer no education for the people, no health system, and not enough to eat, then those are the foundations for a rich, corrupt elite which exploits the people.

SPIEGEL: So will you being organising spectacular events for charity again, like in 1985, when leading pop stars like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Elton John performed at two parallel concerts in London and Philadelphia? After all, you were able to collect 150 million dollars at the time.

Geldof: To me it wasn't charity. Live Aid was about creating a political lobby for taking an issue nowhere on the political agenda and placing it at the top. The potential death of 13 million people in Africa at that time was obscene. It is intellectually absurd and morally grotesque that people should die of want in a world of surplus. Money was the physical manifestation of this lobby. The event was watched by 1,7 billion people and as a rusult I could go to the White House, Downing Street and the Elysée-Palace. And we were able to help change 37 laws as a result, and the United Nations discussed Africa for the first time. This is real long-term benefit. And of course all the money was distributed to those who needed it. Individuals are not powerless in the face of monstrous human events. And if you use arguments, reason, logic, persuasion you can change things.

SPIEGEL: Were you actually aware of the dimensions of this event at the time?

Geldof: Befor going on stage at Live Aid I had spent months organising it and my mind was engaged in legal, financial and functional issures. And then suddenly I'm a musician again, on stage with the Boomtown Rats in Wembley Stadium. The noise was absolutely unbelievable. I took off my denim jacket and just thought: "Fucking Hell"! Then I stopped thinking and just acted instinctively. We started, we played "I Don't Like Mondays" and I was already thinking about the next line I had to sing: "The lesson today is how to die." And it really hit me to realise that these words today suddenly took on an entirely different meaning to their original intent. At that moment I was holding up my right arm in the air and I just paused: someone is watching in Vladivostok, someone in Patagonia, 93 percent of all the television sets in this world are switched on. For one moment my world stood still, everything was quiet and clear. Everyone I had ever met was watching, things that were unclear in my head were resolved, the constant internal civial war was still. It was a moment of utter calm. something I had never experienced before. It went through my mind that I'd always been concerned about the connection between music and politics, and now I understood that it had lead to this day. And then I had to let go of this moment.

SPIEGEL: And the reactions of the television viewers to this appeal for help went beyond all expectations.

Geldof: So many people phoned that British Telecom's lines broke down and they had to ask AT&T for help. In Ireland ladies donated their wedding rings, in Scotland one couple sold their house.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that you were eventually broke yourself because of your involvement for the poorest in the world?

Geldof: Yes, because from 1984 until 1987 I only worked for Live Aid, without any salary of course, like everyone else too. We wanted every penny that was donated to reach Africa. I made the phone calls from home, and unfortunately the flights weren't all sponsored by the airlines either. But I had a family to feed. Having been offered a large advance, I accepted the offer of writing my autobiography. It's a constant up and down: rich, broke, rich. It's always been like that. Not only with regards to money. But my life seems to me to be very extreme, very episodic. Like a soap opera. And tiring to live it.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it's a question of fate? Or is it something to do with you?

Geldof: I have no idea. When my teacher asked me, after I'd failed another exam, what I wanted to be, I said: I'd like to be surrounded by beauty.

SPIEGEL: And how did your teacher react?

Geldof: He said: You'll never manage it with marks like these.

SPIEGEL: He was wrong.

Geldof: Maybe. But it's the ugliness that marks you.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Geldof, thank you for this interview.

Interview by Stefan Aust, Christoph Dallach, Marianne Wellershoff.

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