Book review: Is that It? by Bob Geldof

Published in 1987 (I believe). Review written around 2003.

On my third time reading this book , I found myself more drawn into it than ever before. I had trouble putting it down, yet didn’t want it to end. Of course, a lot of that had to do with me reading it in the after-glow of seeing Bob in concert for the first time, but I think it also had to do with the fact that I was the exact age now that Bob was when he wrote this. His life was already well worth a biography. Mine… well… not so much.

Robert Xenon Geldof was born in Ireland in 1953. His life was marked early and permanently by the tragic, sudden death of his mother in 1960. His father’s job took him out of town frequently, and Bob’s older sisters were, well, sisters. Bob essentially raised himself.

Reading about these childhood years is actually one of the toughest slogs through the book, as those were really dark times. Bob endured years of corporal punishment, both at school and at home. The brutality had the opposite of the intended affect: the once-promising student lost all interest in school and did poorly in virtually all subjects, despite spending his leisure hours reading works of philosophy and literature. In the end, he did not even manage to earn his high school diploma.

At this point in his life, Bob’s only goal was to get out of the stultifying environment of Ireland. He went to London first, living in a squat apartment, working in a series of meaningless jobs, and sliding into drug use. (Again, this part wasn’t a very cheery read.) After a near suicide attempt and a fortuitous meeting with an old friend, Bob returned to Ireland with a new goal: earn enough money to immigrate to Canada.

Now Bob’s life—and therefore the book—lighten considerably. (Though I have to add that, from beginning to end, Bob’s story is peppered with humorous anecdotes.)

Bob loved Canada, and his description of his time in this country and the people he met then are a hoot. Landing in Montreal, he’s startled by the reality of French Canada, and bounds the bus for Vancouver. There he manages to talk his way into a job as a rock reporter, finding that the strong opinions that made him a pariah in Ireland are valued on this continent.

Bob wanted to stay in Canada, but the only way to achieve that is to go back to Ireland and apply for citizenship from there.

Back there, however, things take another turn. He meets up with some friends who have formed a band. He joins them, they call themselves The Boomtown Rats, and much to their own surprise, they are a huge success. (It’s easy to forget now how big they were then. In 1979, they sold more records than any other British band—more than the Who, the Stones, or Queen, all of whom were recording at that time also.)

Bob’s tales of life in a band are, as expected, a lot of fun—girls, drugs, giving up drugs, trying to conquer America, failing to do so, falling in love with one girl (somewhat bittersweet to read about now, knowing how badly that relationship ended—but they did have 21 years together first), making movies (I nearly died laughing reading about some of his experiences filming The Wall), doing TV interviews, performing live in front of screaming fans…

But there would be nothing special in that story, really, if it weren’t for the Ethiopian famine crisis, and Bob’s response to it. What’s really startling about this section of the book is:

  • Just how much flak Bob took for this work at the time. The UK press were really not supportive.
  • Just how much of a sacrifice it was. The band was not selling records as it once had. In fact, it it hadn’t been for Paula (his girlfriend)’s good job, they would have gone bankrupt.
  • How much work it was. The phone calls, the cajoling, the logistics…

Geldof had a co-author, and it’s easy to imagine what his role was: taking Bob’s taped and scribbled anecdotes and forcing them into a cohesive narrative, and prompting Bob for transitional material when needed. The result is largely successful, though when he begins to talk about his Live Aid recruiting, I was left wondering just when and how he’d met all these people whose numbers he seemed to have.

The book ends after the success of Live Aid, after Bob has spent time ensuring that the money is going to where it should. At 35, he’s left wondering: is that it? How can I top this?

But enough about Bob. Now about me. Feeling small and insignificant by comparison after reading this, my very practical husband pointed out to me that not only had I not achieved as much as Bob had by age 35; neither had anyone else on the planet, really.

And that made me feel a little better. But I think I should start writing Amnesty International letters again anyway.