Against a plague of biblical proportion he threw everything he had—the showmanship of a space-age Barnum, the powerful simplicity of a messianic vision, the vocabulary of an outraged Teddy Boy, the passion of a punk prophet. Because of what he did the world reached out and stayed the fall of untold thousands who teetered helpless at the abyss. Because of what he did the wells will be sunk and the water will flow in the blasted land and there will be seed to plant against the next starving time. He clothed the naked and comforted the afflicted. He fed the children.
He became, in short, “Saint Bob,” and at best that nickname offers an ambiguous homage, a tribute tinged with cynicism. After all, when he began his effort a year ago he was by his own admission just a run-of-the-mill rock singer, a Boomtown Rat, and few imagined him capable of a startling metamorphosis into a very different animal indeed, into a lion of righteousness. Unkempt, often profane and usually abrasive, he seemed a year ago to resemble superficially the nihilistic rock star he had played in the 1982 movie Pink Floyd the Wall. A rebel, surely, but rebellion in the rock world is part of the show, a marketing strategy, a finely tuned hypocrisy designed to liberate adolescents from their change…. Then real people began dying hopeless deaths, and the image of their suffering took his heart and shook it. Let some now snicker at “Saint Bob.” No pop star has ever rocked a year the way Bob Geldof did.
The day that would change his life began in usual fashion—he rehearsed a new single with his rock group. That evening he and his longtime girlfriend, London TV hostess Paula Yates, 24, watched the now celebrated documentary by BBC newsman Michael Buerk and cameraman Mohammed Amin about the spread of massive famine in Ethiopia. The film, Geldof recalls, showed a relief worker selecting about 300 people from a crowd of nearly 10,000 emaciated figures. The 300 would be taken behind a wall and given a ration of butter oil to help keep them alive another few days. The others looked on in silence. A starving child simply leaned her head against the wall as flies buzzed around her eyes. “I was utterly speechless that night,” says Geldof, 33, who since then has seldom been at a loss for a few hundred impassioned words.
He began work the next day. Calling on old friend Midge Ure of Ultravox, the two quickly wrote a new song called Do They Know It’s Christmas?, whose chorus urges “feed the world.” He appealed to such rock friends as Ure, Simon Le Bon and Sting for help in recording the song. Eventually George Michael, Phil Collins, Boy George and 30 other Anglo-Irish rockers contributed their time and voices, and the song, released under the Band Aid banner, soon became a smash, inspiring USA for Africa and similar efforts in 20 other countries. Within months Geldof had raised $11 million for emergency relief supplies.
After an inspection trip to Ethiopia and Sudan, Geldof set up the Band Aid Trust as a conduit for funds to buy food, medicine and trucks. At the same time he began planning what would become perhaps the most extraordinary event in the history of music. The global Live Aid rock spectacular in July, staged simultaneously in London and Philadelphia and broadcast around the world to an audience of 1.5 billion, staggered the imagination in its conception and dazzled all in its execution. For 16 hours, many of pop’s greatest performers and technicians poured forth their talent, raising some $84 million and riveting more attention on the famine than all previous efforts combined. Geldof by then had become rock’s pied piper for charity. Throughout the year people on the street routinely pressed money into his hands.
He became a master at bypassing bureaucracy’s ensnarements. More quickly than many people thought possible he had five chartered freighters under the Band Aid flag delivering huge amounts of sorghum, bulgar wheat, powdered milk, clothes and medicine to sub-Saharan Africa. Recently he helped organize a joint Band/Live Aid, U.N. and U.S. government-supported fleet of 269 long-haul trucks to ferry food into the Ethiopian hinterlands. He and the unsung helpers who rallied to his call have set up the Live Aid Foundation in Washington. The organization reviews and evaluates relief and development projects run by more than 100 U.S. agencies in six targeted North African countries. (Band Aid Trust, in London, and the Live Aid Foundation have so far allocated $34 million for approved projects.) “We raised the issue,” says Geldof now, “and it worked beyond my wildest dreams.”
Now the year is ending, and Geldof wants only to lay his burden down. “I’m not going to be doing any of this stuff after this month,” he says. “I never wanted to become an institution. We don’t behave like one; that’s why we rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.” That—and Geldof’s irrepressible irreverence. (When solemnly presented with two medals by the leader of Sudan, Geldof cracked, “But, General, what a pity! I don’t wear earrings.”) There has been carping about this or that aspect of Live Aid’s methods, but it does seem that the money has gone where it was supposed to go—and nearly as quickly and effectively as humanly possible. Field workers in the stricken countries, as a recent inspection demonstrated, are universal in praise for Geldof. He is finishing the year bone-tired and broke. He wants to return to music with the Boomtown Rats and to life in his Chelsea Victorian house with Yates and their 2-year-old daughter, Fifi Trixiebelle.
That’s where this year’s incredible hegira began, cozily, in front of the telly, watching a plague spread its horror in his civilized living room. “Imagine if I’d gone out that night. That’s what’s weird,” he says. “I don’t know, but I assume that none of this would have happened. Imagine if I’d gone out to the pub. Very weird indeed.” Weird world, weird ways, weird Saint Bob.