The name is habitual and ubiquitous. It is woven into three decades of the national narrative and its cultural soap opera. Ask people have they heard of him and all will answer in the affirmative. Ask them what he does and all will have a separate answer. Ask do they have an opinion of him and, for good or ill, most will. Ask how that opinion was formed and they don't quite know. Whistle one of his tunes and most will remember it but they won't know who wrote it. Bob Geldof is the most famous secret song writer in Britain.
He on the other hand thinks that's what he does. He thinks that's his job. He's not frustrated or bewildered or upset by this secret life, if anything there's an appreciative bemusement. "Put a poster on the street that says "Tonight - Bob Geldof" and most people will say "Yeah o.k. But doing what?" It's a pity they don't know because as the records, reviews, awards and critiques from everywhere and over many years will attest, he's very, very good.
Perhaps people can't "hear" Geldof like they might another. Perhaps the idea of him overwhelms the objective ear. Had he lived the standard and approved pop star's life without engaging in everything else around him then the notion of a new Geldof album may be somehow more acceptable. And yet of the tiny few of the original New Wavers who have survived his stuff remains as insistently contemporary to himself and our times as what he was writing about in '75.
His public persona is not much different to his private. He has never much cared for the trappings of "proper" rock stars. He was never big on the idea. In 1976 he said he wanted to use fame to do things, to talk about things that bothered him. No-one can seriously argue he has ever wavered from that conviction. He has been as ruthlessly, painfully honest in his songs as he appears on television or confronting politicians. Except that there's something much more profound, more "felt", more personal and therefore more universal than any public utterance in those songs.
Geldof has always said that from being a child in the 60's he has had two interests, music and politics, and this from a time "when the two were inseparable'. As a result he says he "understands and articulates the world through the rhetoric of rock 'n roll". It seems to help him "frame his experiences and helps to make them understandable".
Geldof is 58 ½. Typically blunt, that is what he calls his latest outing (though its published title is 'How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell', a title borrowed from an old music manual Geldof found in a second hand book shop).
When things you say are taken seriously. When your passing utterances turn up in school text books. When your journalism gets referenced. When in surveys people confuse your musings with biblical quotes. When your writings end up in Oxbridge English Literature exams - what chance then the pop singer? Why bother singing anything when what you say will be heard by many more people. "Do you remember the words in John Lennon's' "Julia" he asks "When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind'? I have the opposite problem. I have endless ways to speak my mind but those ways are useless for singing your heart. The former I can do, the latter I must." But people would prefer if you sing what you talk about. He fixes you with a withering glare and having flipped Lennon neatly around he spits Dylan at you: "They say sing what you say but I just get bored' …It is fair to say that Geldof was never going to be employed down on Maggie's Farm either.
If Geldof is to the public mind some kind of Quixotic character forever tilting at imaginary windmills then his musical Sancho Panza is his colleague of 35 years, Pete Briquette the ex-Boomtown Rats bass player. The technologically handicapped Geldof "mooches up to Pete's" when the urge comes and begins putting down basic tracks, snippets, ideas or fully formed songs. "Pete has some decent kit in his back bedroom so we do a lot of stuff there". There are no timetables or deadlines. Then bit by bit an album forms and the mates they've played with for so long go to Bobs' house, set up in the dining room, play the tunes live and record them, then off down to another mates place which has a "proper" studio "cos he's a very rich rock star", do some more, mix it up and here it is. And it feels like that.
Unhurried but not relaxed. Compelling but not abrasive. Insistent but not annoying. Intimate but not invasive. Rueful not wistful. Honest but not confessional. A man whom you think you know but have really not got a clue about. But then again he suspects neither does he. "No I'm not in the least bit interested in myself. I don't bear self-analysis. This is just a record of the feeling of being a person, specifically this person, at this age of 58 ½, 31 songs reduced to a dozen or more for the purposes of a record."
Listening to 'How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell' is like being one of those wine connoisseurs smacking their lips and deducing tastes and aromas of tobacco, rope and rotting strawberries of an autumn evening, except this is pop music and you think you hear or feel everything from the Swingle Singers through to Captain Beefheart by way of Nick Drake, Hot Chocolate and George Harrison! There are production references that drive you mad as they hover just beyond the reach of your consciousness or knowledge. There are old bits of school poems, clarinets, clavinets, jews harps, saws'n'loops'n'rock'n'roll.
Geldof says, "My '50's have been my happiest decade". And it sounds it. "I never imagined that could be the case, but it's true. The emotional wars subside. The battle for ideas has been won or lost. The children have grown. Your peers are in positions of authority, so access and action become easier. There's money. Or there isn't. You're just about young enough to be still interested in the new and not quite old enough to not care. There's a last chance to invent or contribute. There's no need for nostalgia 'cos the present is too interesting, but old age always hovers close on the almost near. But that's sort of interesting too in a confrontational sort of way'.
'How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell'/'58 ½' may not seem like a continuation of the bleaker winter of 2001's "Sex, Age and Death". Its vitality and pervasive optimism would suggest not. But whereas on his last album Geldof mourned the grief and loss and rage that is the end of love, in this he celebrates its re-birth. "To live in love is all there is/Life without Love is meaningless' and later in the same song "Life without Love - absurdity/ Life without Love - Futility". But it's not an easy thing in "Baby's going Down" he says "Love is for wrestlers" and while he sings "Blow hateful wind/ Cold on faithless skin" ultimately "Love will find a way to you again". He seems entirely bemused by this miracle of renewal. This is the man after all who 35 years ago wrote "Looking After No.1"! The 58 year old realises that that just isn't enough. When last we found him in the "boneless ghosts of empty rooms" lit by "Thin bleak Winter moons" where he was "Whipped and I was raw" and "With a cold and bitter venom/ I hated each and every woman" and spent his days "Like a dogfish/ Chewing on that cancer bone" love somehow found a way to this wretched ruin of bewildered humanity.
But this is the practical Irishman brought up to stop moaning and "Just get on with it' who looks at his children's heads "So full of lice and pain" "Crawls through every hour/So the days come round again". But then this Winter inevitably passes and "Laying down in the fields of spring/ Like the flowers I'll re-begin/ Make me whole/ With unimagined lives that nourish me". Our man is alive again to beauty and hope "The world is spinning full of kindly beings/ The one you love will love you back / And no-one's spoiling anything". In this new delirious world the Moon itself "Got drunk and drops his clothes down on the empty streets' and while Geldof re-discovers Life through Love he, as ever, remorselessly turns the mirror on his 58 ½ year old self and composes a funny and poignant note on the condition of being near the onset of early old age. The end is one long sigh of regret "O maaan!" Precisely.