The Secret Club

SXSW 2011 Keynote speaker Bob Geldof was there – and remembers!

The Secret Club

Pick a descriptive for Bob Geldof: rock star, activist, Live Aid founder, humanitarian, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

If none of those, how about 2011 South by Southwest Music Festival keynote speaker and showcasing artist?

Here, the preference is cheeky, nose-thumbing Irish songwriter whose newest CD is titled How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell even though Geldof "couldn't give a fuck about the charts." Outspoken, outrageous, and committed, Geldof took time from his check-in at a trendy Vienna, Austria, hotel to talk about his new CD, being in love at "age 58 and a half," the Boomtown Rats in Texas, and rivalry among the early British punk bands – while getting in a lovable tweak at Bono and U2.

Bob Geldof: I'm in the worst hotel room on the planet.

Austin Chronicle: Can that be true?

BG: I just arrived and feel like I am living in the fucking basement of a battleship.

AC: No portholes?

BG: There are, but they keep telling me it's designed by Jean Nouvel.

AC: One of those where you go into the bathroom and can't find the shower knobs?

BG: It's the worst. It's really hideous, and it's meant to be the new, cool hotel in town. I'm afraid the old Austrians are really provincial. But ... let's go it.

AC: Let's talk about your new CD, because it was a surprise to me.

BG: Consider it one half of a bookend, the other being the last CD I made 10 years ago. That was essentially the close of a horrible period of life. My wife [Paula Yates] had left me, and I was destroyed by that. I was overwhelmed by universes of loss and grief and pain. I couldn't find a way around it. It was so ubiquitous and amorphous, and my head was crowded with pain.

I'm Irish, so when I was home, I was in a pub with a novelist friend, and he said that he writes books "to frame his experiences," to give him reference to his own world, and that struck me as true. A lot of my male friends would gather round and we'd just sit there silently. Maybe that's what boys do, I don't know, but that was helpful. So, How To Compose Popular Songs ... is the rest of that journey.

In the middle of that, I was at a dinner in Paris with beautiful girl. I noticed her, but it made no difference to me because I was in that unmanned state. For some reason, at my most unlovable – physically, I'm not attractive anyway – but I was at my ugliest, spiritually, at my most detestable [point], this girl who knew nothing about me insisted on loving me, or loving a part of me that she divined was still lovable.

I hated women at that point. Really, I hated all of them, but when someone persists in loving you, ultimately there's only one response left. You begin to respond to that insistence, like the song "Dazzled by You." At the ripe old age of 58 and a half, I discovered my "eureka" moment, what many people know in their teens and 20s. Perhaps John Lennon was naively right: Love is all you need.

No, not maybe. It is. Because in that process, this extraordinary woman – I've been lucky to have two extraordinary women in my life; my wife was beautiful and clever and funny, and so is Jeanne – by piecing and stitching my soul back together, reconstructed the particular human being you are speaking to at the moment. The story of this record.

AC: One of the words I chose for this album was "romantic," like "She's a Lover" and the cabaret feel of "To Live in Love."

BG: I didn't want that song to be cabaret, but I know exactly what you mean. It was filmic, like the soundtrack to a Sixties movie. That song sums up the epiphany of what I spent a long time describing, "To Live in Love." Life without love is meaningless, then repeating that. I bang on about it.

Romantic. That's an interesting word. I hadn't thought about that. I don't mean to be slushy, I meant to be desperate, and there's hardly a romantic quality in desperation.

AC: But desperation is part and parcel of love.

BG: It is, but it's part of the wooing of love, the enticement to love. Often, love doesn't survive romance, and often romance doesn't survive love. It's a state of being. It's not as if suddenly the clouds part and the sun beams. That's romantic, but in a song like ...

[Hotel services at Geldof's door interrupts the conversation.]

Would I like a "turn-down service"? Now there's three words to conjure ....

Em ... I've never thought of myself as being a romantic, but maybe I am.

AC: You're Irish.

BG: That's true, but we're not known for being romantic, are we?

AC: Not per se, but the Irish express every condition and emotion in song. That's pretty romantic.

BG: To the listener, maybe. For Sex, Age & Death, I didn't set out to write an album about the last eight years of my life, but that's what happened. When the impulse to music occurs, it will not be denied. I don't look for it. I'm not panicky when it comes.

Music is the peak of human ability. Language is an extraordinary thing. There's jelly in my head that will have a moment of chemical electrical synapses and I can make a sound and you instantly hear that sound and respond to me, and that's speech. It's almost science-fictional, but it's real. So we exchange ideas.

But music is at a greater level because it actually transliterates emotion, inchoate things by definition, and it can make you feel real feelings. That's extraordinary.

Sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – I sit in Canterbury Cathedral. At about 9:30 the boys' choir starts practicing for the weekend. It's Latin or Old English, and I don't understand the language, but I sit in this vast and beautiful building, maybe one or two other people, and I cry. I have no idea why. It's just the sound that makes a cathartic emotional moment. I'm not wracked with sobs, but just listening to this ....

I don't know another art form that does that.

People cry with country songs or rock songs or laugh, whatever. I'm lucky that the impulse, the urge to music, occurs infrequently, but when it does, it comes in a rush. I walk up and down the living room with a phone clapped on my ear, noodling away on guitar, nervously playing because it relaxes me. Suddenly, there's a musical logic, or some sort of sense, and I put down the phone and follow that logic, and there's a song there. Something going on. Making [a record] is like sending a self-addressed postcard from your psyche.

Sometimes it never arrives because the mail is shit. Often, you don't understand what it is you're talking about, why you want a sound. Then you're playing live a year later, and bang! You realize what it was about. That's the intellectual pleasure of playing live. As my novelist friend said, it puts a frame of reference around your experience. Until I made this record, I had no idea I was happy. I had no idea love had done that. Maybe I would have been embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid in the Boomtown Rats. The boy of 20 could not have written this record, and the man of 59 could not have written "Rat Trap," but I'm very glad I did.

AC: Do you remember touring through Texas with the Boomtown Rats and playing the Armadillo World Headquarters here in Austin?

BG: I do! I remember the Armadillo. I remember Texas. I remember the girls! Were you there?

AC: We were all backstage.

BG: Did I fuck you?

AC: Not me, one of my girlfriends.

BG: Was I any good?

AC: She thought you were a sweetheart and stole a T-shirt.

BG: Texas girls. It's a fucking cliché, but they blew us away. I don't mean that literally ... well, I do, but they were just so great. Refreshing. Really on, great fun. You're touring around this endless, vast country, and suddenly there are people who are great fun to be with. Thank God for Texas.

People over the years say, "What about groupies?" And I say, "God bless 'em!" I wrote in my book that you've got to imagine it – marooned in this alien landscape. Out on the ocean for weeks, the same waves day after day. Suddenly you arrive in a place and there are kids. Women. And they like you, and they're gonna fuck you.

If you're lucky, you stay two days and move on, but they're the girls who take you to the movies, down to the local bar for a beer, or bring you home for meal, and that's the best. You're with real people from the town – slightly wilder, which is interesting. They're hospitable, and they take care of you. What's there not to like?

AC: Ask Bono and Edge – one of the Texas Blondes famously took them to church when U2 first played here.

BG: Fucking hell! Did he shag you?

AC: It was the first tour when they were good boys.

BG: [laughs] That's so tragic. I'm going to call them and take the piss! This is the clear difference in those generations!

AC: That week you played the Armadillo was extraordinary, a turning point for Austin musically because suddenly this cosmic cowboy venue was taking on new life as a punk palace. The Boomtown Rats, John Cale's Sabotage tour, and Robert Gordon with Link Wray all played in just a few days' time. It was clear that something had changed, a harbinger, even though the local rock radio wouldn't play the B-52s.

BG: There were so few places to play! You were there but trying to find places to accept us – it was pre-MTV. There were like-minded spirits like you and your gang and whoever was there that got it, but there were so few of us. It really didn't go beyond the Armadillo. The reviews the next days never understood what was happening.

The Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello – all of us from the UK trundled around endlessly. Then MTV came, but we were a little too early for that. I've always thought if MTV had been there early, the Clash and the Pistols would have broken through straightaway. They had style, and that's what MTV introduced to America.

I don't regret it. It was the secret club, the one place you could go and the kids who would come and hear this stuff. A harbinger of what was to come, as you said, but ultimately – for me – it was very soul-destroying.

AC: But it was a good time?

BG: It was a good time, but it's not a good time being endlessly on the bus, endlessly being tired, endlessly just for two hours playing to like-minded people. Then, an empty hotel again. That's why I say, when you and your friends came along and befriended us, it was a bit of fun. Even then, a couple of hours and you're off.

I don't look back on those days with intense fondness. There were intense rivalries between those bands, with the Clash and the Pistols. Were we selling faster? Were our tickets more expensive? Where were we in the charts, and all that stuff. It sounds fun, but it's quite careerist. You kind of think, "That isn't what I got into this for."

So this period of my life is far better. I couldn't give a fuck about the charts. It doesn't enter my head. If I was number one, great, thanks. Would I have a level of excitement? Not really.

This record is doing very well in Europe, and it's a bit odd. Where I got pleasure was that I had the radio on and they played me, a contemporary song. When they back-announced, they said, "... That was such-and-such, and that was Bob Geldof, and that was so-and-so ...."

I was like, normal again! Fuck me! I'm a pop singer!

Sir Bob Geldof's SXSW keynote speech is Thursday, March 17, 11am, in Room 18ABC of the Austin Convention Center, and his showcase that night is at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, 7pm.

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Bob Geldof, Boomtown Rats, U2, Sex Pistols, Clash, Armadillo World Headquarters, the Texas Blondes

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