St Bob they called him. But he was no saint and he didn’t want the job. He was a punk rocker who went into rock’n’roll for the fame, money, and all the other trappings. When he sent out a message in 1984 telling other rock and pop stars they were going to make a charity single no one took him seriously. His band The Boomtown Rats was in decline, his career was fading, what was this morose rocker up to now?
Bob had been watching TV one Autumn evening and he and his family had been unexpectedly assaulted by one story on the 6 o’clock news. Bob couldn’t believe the scenes on his television. The unforgiving camera revealing the terrible plight of thousands affected by the famine in Ethiopia. There was an interview with a nurse who had to decide which 500 people could be saved with the limited medical care available. That interview affected Bob. And so he called up his mate from the band Ultravox, Midge Ure, and together they wrote Do they know it’s Christmas. They then strongarmed a bunch of their famous pals to sing it and hoped to raise 72 thousand. They got 8 million. The following year they staged the global jukebox known as Live Aid. The rest is history.
You probably know some of this story, it’s been told in various ways ever since. But what I only found out this week is that Bob was a reluctant hero. Hugely so. With the success of the single a trust was set up to distribute the money, and there was pressure to make sure that the public saw it was all getting to the people. That meant St Bob going to Africa himself, with the press in tow. ‘F off,’ said Bob. Again and again and again. He thought the story was all over, he was still in The Boomtown Rats. He’d done what he could.
But the press and the trust would not let up. And in spite of his point blank refusals he found himself out in Ethiopia meeting the president (and insulting him), inspecting the army and most importantly meeting the people who were starving. Bob insisted that there would be no pictures of him holding dying children, he felt that this would be milking the situation for his own ends and he didn’t want that. In the end the press got this shot. A natural moment when a group of youngsters ran to Bob as he walked through the camp.
As Band Aid evolved into Live Aid in 1985 Bob remained a disgruntled, foul-mouthed rocker. But he also continued his reluctant vocation with the charity. His mouth and his uncompromising attitude helped get things done. And as I watched the documentary on YouTube this week, St Bob put me in mind of Moses. Sometimes heroes come from the unexpected places and experiences. They crawl out of the cracks, look unfit for the job, and yet somehow make things happen. Moses,a privileged prince in Egypt, tried to change things by murdering a bad guy. The only result was that he had to run from the authorities and go into a kind of witness-protection program. Posing as a shepherd under the guise of humble family man. When the chance came for him to do a Bob Geldof and change things for the better, he didn’t want it. He said no, again and again and again. He was morose and outspoken. He was not the man to help thousands of people in a distant land. And yet like Bob he did it. He went back to Egypt and, with his mouth and uncompromising attitude, rescued a nation of slaves. Jesus once told a story about two people. One said all the right things but did nothing good. The other, like Bob and Mo, said all the wrong things, yet ended up helping other people.