- 05 Oct 21
When he heard that Bob Geldof was coming to Rome, to read the poetry of John Keats in Keats-Shelley House, Mark Hogan thought he’d like to meet the loquacious Dubliner, who was known in the early days of The Boomtown Rats as ‘Bob The Gob’. As it turned out, he did more than that, recording a conversation with Bob that covered not just the work of the revered English romantic poet, but also the state of the world, in a moment when everything felt especially upside down. Now, to mark Bob Geldof’s 70th birthday, we publish what was a fascinating exchange for the first time. Happy birthday, Bob! Words & Portrait: Mark Hogan.
When Bob Geldof travels, he always packs a volume of John Keats’ poetry because, he says, Keats can “express that which is otherwise inexpressible, like all the best poetry.”
Pre-pandemic, Geldof’s travels took him to Italy, where he read Keats’ poems and love letters in the intimate setting of Rome’s Keats-Shelley House. Hot Press caught up with Bob – in the house where John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of just 25 – for a wide-ranging tête-à-tête.
The conversation, which took place in April 2019 is now published for the first time – on October 5, 2021 – to mark the musician, writer and activist’s 70th birthday.
Geldof covers the “dangerous nonsense” of Brexit, local politics in a global world, our misunderstanding of the Internet, why the new economy requires a new political system, the futility of hope, and the spectacular failure of a generation.
Over to you, Bob...
* * * * * *
WHERE POETRY AND SONGWRITING MEET...
Bob: “You get some guys out of the box who just nail it, viz., Dylan. But then others, like McCartney, they get there quickly: “Your day breaks, your mind aches…. And in her eyes, you see nothing”? That’s a fuckin’ 19-year-old, man! How the fuck does he know that? And then he says, “Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been”. As a metaphor for loneliness, as an image, it’s as good as anything. And so, you get there. Of course, it helps if you’re a genius, like Keats…”
IS THERE A WORLD BEYOND WORDS?
“Sometimes they move beyond words: that’s when poets – and songwriters – become difficult. “No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low” … the sound of the thing is conveying an idea, but if you’re with them already, they’re kind of aware that you’re there anyway, so they’re just scatting. But it’s the noise of the words that conveys the idea: “No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low” … I don’t fuckin’ know… but it works for me, man!”
THE FINE ART OF SONGWRITING
“So, if you’re a writer, you get there. When you first start off, it’s [makes vomiting gesture] but you get rid of that. Then it’s essentially 19 years of experience: it’s kicking back at your mates, the parents, the teachers. Then there’s the difficult second album thing. It’s a year’s experience; ‘Am I a writer or not?’, ‘What’s the grist to my mill?’ And then there’s the fuckin’ even more difficult third album: ‘What the fuck?’, ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I trying to say here?’ That’s why very few survive it, because they don’t have the objectivity of self to not consciously think ‘let me consider this’.”
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
“Keats writes these fuckin’ odes, man. They’re drenched in sex. The words are drenched in pheromones. He’s trying to conjure up the specific feeling, the place that he’s at, and the smell, and what he’s looking at... That brilliant word (in ‘On A Dream’) that you would never use to describe rain and a storm… ‘the flaw of rain’! Fuck me! When I first read that… in a thousand years, you’d never think that’s the word you need. But it is weighted perfectly. And that’s what makes you think: ‘I can never do that, man, never’. It’s the same with Yeats: it seems just out of the box. In Keats’ case, I think because he knew [of his tuberculosis diagnosis]… “When I have fears that I may cease to be”… It was the intensity of living on borrowed time. The intensity of being in love and not having the time. The intensity of feeling yourself a failure.”
THE INFLUENCE OF KEATS ON TODAY’S SONGWRITERS
“It takes a while to get to “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” It took Nick Cave a long time to get there. Sometimes you’ll get a kid straight out of the box: “There is no future in England's dreaming.” It’s wonderful. Or “Girlfriend in a coma, I know it's serious” … the rest kind of doesn’t work for me, but Adam Ant’s line “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” – there’s great stuff in some of this. They’re not great writers, a lot of these people… but Keats is all over Cave, he’s all over Nick Drake, (Pete) Doherty and (Damon) Albarn. And of course he is! And he’s over the more educated ones – Drake, Cave, Albarn – because they were made to learn poetry in school.”
A RECOGNISABLE VOICE
“In school, I didn’t really love poetry, I just paid attention for the first time. I paid attention to nothing else. I never passed a single exam. I had three priests in a row who could read: they were crap teachers, they didn’t give a fuck if you were listening, but they relished poetry… when I heard Yeats for the first time, I was just... [gives astounded look] … it was a recognisable voice, totally. But it was a time of high lyricism in pop so the two just happened to coincide.”
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO BOB
HOPE IS FOR SOMEONE ELSE
“I don’t really hope, to be honest with you. There’s ultimate futility in it. I don’t want to waste my time and energy by hoping. I’m essentially pragmatic and I deal with the circumstance in my own way, as I come to it. Every day it’s ‘Don Quixote tilts at another fuckin’ windmill’… completely impotently – but keep on tilting!”
BREXIT – WHEN IT WAS IN ITS INFANCY
“Brexit will absolutely impact Ireland massively and negatively. It will also do the same for the UK, but they’re at the point, largely, where they don’t care. History is working itself through this time’s farce, as it always does. So in a purely pragmatic, practical, political, economic sense – and looking to this generation’s future – it is to be argued against, at every stage. It is a nonsense. It is a palpable nonsense, a dangerous nonsense. Formal power still resides with the nation state at the precise point that the nation state is incapable of dealing with its problems unilaterally. That’s why Brexit is such a farce…”
LOCAL POLITICS IN A GLOBAL WORLD
“...You cannot deal with climate change or the world economic situation or terrorism or nuclear proliferation unilaterally. And the bedrock of all these problems is world poverty. That’s where it starts. Those things must be done with co-operation, consensus and compromise, and we seem to have lost that ability. We were forced into that in the post-war world by the triumphant power, America, and by a zero economy that had to be rebuilt. We had to compromise, we had to co-operate, and so you got the EU. That was paid for by the United States, who understood that the last remaining economic superpower needed somewhere to sell their shit, so they gave us the money to buy their shit. At the same time, the institutions of State were still remembered – though having wiped themselves out – so the State could build itself up quickly. The point about Africa is that the same logic should apply there. And at the same time as foreign power still resides in the nation state, the local citizenry remain stubbornly loyal to local politics.”
KNOWLEDGE EQUALS POWER – BUT NOT THIS...
“We have yet to understand the implications of what you’re cradling in your hand [points to phone, the Internet]. It is without question the single most powerful invention in the history of man. It is Gutenberg (the inventor of the printing press – Sub Ed) times six billion. And the problem is that we think it’s the democratisation of knowledge, which was essentially what Gutenberg did. In fact, it’s the democratisation of information, and we’ve confused information for knowledge, and so we operate on a very shallow basis. And so, those are the fuckin’ big problems.”
THE NEW ECONOMY
“The Internet has completely altered the economy within 20 years of its existence, like Gutenberg. The elites have fallen, the same, again as with Gutenberg. It presupposes that when you have a new economy, you must then have a new politics. And that’s what we’ve been seeing. We’ve been seeing a retreat to nativism in China, in America, in Britain, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and indeed in Germany and France. So that is the problem with this. It has utterly confused us. As of 2019, there is a totally new economy, which is moving far faster than we can possibly understand and as a result you need a new politics that understands and manages that. A political system comes at the logical end of a period of economic development, not before. Politics don’t preface the economy, it’s the other way around.”
THE ELITES HOLD ON TO POWER
“We live in an asymmetric world and instability is inherent to a symmetry; things wobble, they fall over. When one country, Angola – a kleptocracy of less than 30 million people – supplies China with the power to fuel the world economy… if they decide to turn off the tap, that’s it, there’s no raw materials going to China. Then China falls over, then we don’t get cheap shit, then blah, blah, blah! None of it works. The problem is we’ve been here before. When a new technology, steam, gave rise to the industrial revolution, it was the end of the agrarian society. Within decades, man had become industrial man and that led in turn to the Napoleonic wars… India, Africa, all of Europe, and it ended in 1815, 200 years ago. More boys were killed in the Battle of Waterloo than on the worst day of the Battle of the Somme. Why? Because the elites would not allow this new economy – pregnant – to be born, and new man come with it. And so we seem to commit cultural suicide..."
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
“...After that, a more powerful technology, electricity and the internal combustion engine is desperate to be born, and with it, democratic man, but the elites and the powers held back, and it kicks off the 75 year war of the 20th Century: 1914 to 1989. In ‘89 two things happened; the Wall came down and Tim Berners Lee invented the world web. I know Tim, I used to sit on the Web Foundation. Within ten years, the economy had utterly changed, and with it the implication for what society is – which is what we’re struggling with now – what does this fucking thing mean, the Internet? This intensely powerful thing. So there’s all that fear, all that uncertainty… ‘Whither the young’. Every generation fails, but my generation has failed more spectacularly than most. And I’m ashamed of it.”
Mark Hogan spoke to Bob Geldof in Rome, Italy in April 2019. This is the first publication of that interview.
'Love is My Religion: Keats on Love', with a preface by Bob Geldof, is available from ksh.roma.it