For some, he’s a selfless philanthropist who put his time and energy where his famously large mouth was, and came up with Live Aid. For others, he’s the Irish turncoat who accepted an honorary title from the queen of England during the Thatcher years. More recently, he was tabloid fodder in Europe, a key player in a scandal that included a nasty child custody battle, a rock star’s suicide and an ex-wife’s drug overdose.
In a penthouse suite at the SoHo Grand Hotel, Geldof, at 48, looks surprisingly youthful in a rumpled purple tuxedo shirt and black trousers. The shaggy mane of hair is sprinkled with gray now, but he seems just a few years removed from the brash young punk who made his mark with the Boomtown Rats nearly three decades ago.
It’s in his voice that the passage of time and the echoes of experience are evident. The familiar Dublin twang is still there, but the tones are modulated now, the words measured. It’s the voice of a man who is more accustomed these days to negotiating with politicians than chatting with reporters. In town to promote his new album, “Sex, Age and Death,” Geldof found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain the genesis of an album that chronicled the darkest time of his life.
“It’s an absolutely accurate diary of events over those six years,” he said, staring intently into a cup of tea.
Most surprising for Geldof has been the enthusiastic reaction of critics and fans alike.
“The irony is,” he growled, “I didn’t expect anyone to listen to it.”
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Paula and “Sex”
Geldof’s life was thrown into turmoil in 1994, when his wife, British television presenter Paula Yates, dumped him for an Australian rock star. Geldof, whose life revolved around the free-spirited Paula and their three daughters, was devastated.
“I certainly couldn’t write anything — or really, do anything — for five or six years,” Geldof said.
“And then this urge occurs and you have no option — you certainly have no option in choosing what you write about. And it was inevitable that I would write about this.”
“This” was the painful divorce from Yates and the subsequent custody battle over their children, Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches and Pixie. His ex-wife’s very public romance with INXS star Michael Hutchence was stormy and punctuated with reports of drink, drugs and odd behavior. Yates seemed to enjoy baiting her ex-husband by making wild allegations about him in the tabloid press.
The famously cranky Geldof chose to take the high road, maintaining as dignified a silence as he could manage. But there were times, he said, when he couldn’t leave the house without facing hordes of reporters.
“My thing was just not to pay attention to the press,” he said. “They’d be outside the door, and I wouldn’t say no comment, I’d say look, I really don’t talk about that stuff. And after years of this they finally just backed off.”
Yates and Geldof waged a vicious child custody battle that dragged on for years in the British courts. His refusal to allow the children to travel to Australia led to a nasty phone exchange between the two men. Yates blamed Geldof for Hutchence’s death, insisting that the final argument led to Hutchence’s 1998 suicide in a Sydney hotel room. Through it all, Geldof had no comment.
“I played mum,” he said. “You know, boys don’t talk anyway — and they shouldn’t. I think it’s crap when guys do it.”
The black humor inherent in having his life splashed across the pages of newspapers throughout England and Ireland was not lost on him.
“I went to a cafT once — the Picasso on the King’s Road,” he said, ” and there were 12 people reading different newspapers — all about me — as I sat there having my coffee. It’s weird.”
In 2000, Yates died of an accidental drug overdose. Geldof oversaw the funeral arrangements and offered only one comment to the gathered tabloid press.
“I loved her madly, the girl she once was,” he said.
Geldof fought the Hutchence family for custody of Yates and Hutchence’s daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. He is raising the 4-year-old alongside her sisters in England.
Pain and redemption
Geldof offers the 10 tracks on “Sex, Age and Death” as a minimalist guide to the topography of his emotional landscape.
“I couldn’t articulate that pain,” he said slowly. “Not for years. In a way, this album was articulating the unsayable.
“And still, really, I don’t have words to transcribe the emotion.”
There’s a palpable anger that comes across in the songs, particularly “Six Million Dollar Loser” and “Inside Your Head.” In the latter song, Geldof rails against Hutchence:
“You got a life, you left me for dead . . . / So why put a noose around your neck? What the [expletive]’s going on / Inside your head?”
In the opening track, “This One’s for Me,” Geldof addresses Yates directly. He takes issue with her cozy relationship with the press.
“I heard you sold it to OK,” he sneers. “The more you hoot the more they pay. / You don’t even need to get your clothes off anymore.”
In another song, “My Birthday Suit,” there’s a glimpse of the deep love he had for Yates, before everything went pear-shaped: “I meant to say / I thought you knew / I always prayed for me and you / But never mind / It doesn’t matter now.”
But there is redemption in the final track, “10:15.” The song — tender, loving, evocative and poignant — is dedicated to Geldof’s partner, French actress Jeanne Marine. The hour holds a special significance for the singer.
“10:15 was my getaway,” said Geldof. “I would take the Eurostar [train] to Paris, to get away from all the crap at home.”
On one of the trips, he met Jeanne.
“It was by pure, lucky chance,” he said. “She hadn’t a clue who I was and didn’t care.
Jeanne’s lack of knowledge was like balm to Geldof’s soul.
“She found me attractive,” he said, still with a hint of disbelief in his voice. “As opposed to ‘Live Aid’ Bob or ‘The Wall’ Bob or ‘Boomtown’ Bob or whatever the hell. I don’t know how — really, I don’t know how, because I was just numb.”
Geldof recalls that the two didn’t find much to talk about in the beginning — since neither spoke the other’s language.
“She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French,” he said. “And silence was what was required anyway.
Jeanne speaks the language now, and was reportedly delighted with her song.
“She loves it, of course,” laughed Geldof, all of a sudden the hedonistic rock star.
“All girls are flattered when you write a song about them — you’re definitely up for a good shag that night.”
When he was putting the album tracks together, he did it without a master plan in mind — the songs themselves seemed to dictate their place on the track listing. It was a coincidence that “10:15” found its way to the end.
“It’s the last song,” he said. “And I like the fact that the last word on the whole record is that little redemptive word, smiling.”
Next week: Geldof leads the fight to raise money for the victims of the Omagh bombing.
“I think the very least, the people of Britain and Ireland can do is to pay for the brave civil action that the families of the Omagh victims are taking against the five known participants,” he said. “I think it’s particularly powerful because it’s one further armory in the weapon against these bastards.”