THE MAN BEHIND LIVE AID : 'We're talking about the possible death of 130 million people, which is not an exaggeration,' says Bob Geldof, organizer of the Live Aid concerts.

Times Pop Music Critic

"Don't talk to me like that," Live Aid concert organizer Bob Geldof shouted into the phone. He was behind a closed door, but his side of the conversation could be heard throughout rock promoter Harvey Goldsmith's suite of offices here.

"If you want to continue this conversation, you ought to stop trying to give me that crap," Geldof continued. "How can you demand to speak for starving people? Are you starving? We both know you're not."

Half an hour later, Geldof hung up, but only after agreeing to talk further with the caller, who represents a political activist group here. The caller was demanding to be involved in the mammoth benefit concerts scheduled for July 13 in London and Philadelphia. It was just one of dozens of calls that Geldof routinely handles every day.

The sidewalks along Oxford Street, the city's busiest commercial avenue, were filled at 5 p.m. with shoppers and office workers headed home. But Geldof was still in the middle of one of his typical 18-hour days in behalf of his Live Aid "responsibilities."

The concerts--whose unprecedented talent lineup includes Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Tina Turner--will be televised around the world as part of a campaign to raise upwards of $10 million for African famine victims. It shapes up as perhaps the most celebrated pop gathering ever. Behind the glamour of that event, however, are thousands of hours of planning. While no single person could be responsible for such a major undertaking, Live Aid carries Geldof's stamp to a remarkable degree.

The Irish rock singer is a tireless worker who is involved in virtually every key decision--and his eyes showed the tension and fatigue of that commitment late last week. For months now, he has been cajoling, debating and pleading with musicians and businessmen to maintain what he sees as the purity of the Live Aid project. He has been called cocky, brash and arrogant, but no one has questioned his dedication.

"I don't think for one minute what we're doing is charity," Geldof said, taking a break from the phone calls and strategy sessions with Goldsmith and the promoter's aides. "We're talking about the possible death of 130 million people, which is not an exaggeration.

"If you're talking about one continent going down while the others stand by and watch, I think what we're talking about transcends charity and becomes a responsibility."

Continuing in the same spirit, he said, "Charity is when you give something because of sympathy and a certain amount of guilt. From my point of view, this has nothing to do with that. It has to do with not accepting the fact that a vast amount of humanity is about to die in a world of surplus."

Geldof, 32, has always been known as a talker. Soon after his band, Boomtown Rats, surfaced in 1977, a British journalist began a Geldof profile by writing: "Geldof can talk a blue streak. Ask a question and you'll get a dissertation. Don't ask a question and you'll probably get a dissertation anyway."

Consequently, many initially dismissed his outspokenness as show-biz bravado. TV watcher Geldof came up in 1977 with some classic lines--including this first reaction to Los Angeles: "The whole city looks like a Quinn Martin production."

Geldof's band enjoyed some success, and he starred a few years ago in the film version of Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Yet he hadn't achieved the superstar status that would have guaranteed the Rats a position in the exclusive Live Aid lineup.

So when Geldof began contacting British rock stars late last year about making a record to benefit famine victims, he didn't have a name like McCartney or Bowie that would virtually assure a major turnout. Still, he corraled the cream of the British rock crop to record the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" He simply refused to accept any excuse for non-participation. If Rolling Stone nominated a Man of the Year the way Time magazine does, he'd probably be a cinch.

Despite his sharp-tongued image, Geldof still seems humbled by the TV news accounts of Ethiopia's hunger victims that sparked his pop crusade.

One scene remains lodged in his mind. It involved a female nurse, whom he subsequently met. She was standing next to a waist-high wall in Ethiopia, looking out at about 10,000 people wearing tattered clothes and near death. The woman only had food for 300 of them and literally had to decide which ones would live.

"The camera showed these people holding up their babies, hoping the children would be picked," Geldof said. "But how does anyone pick in a situation like that? So the nurse just started choosing people at random. It was awful.

"The ones who were picked were so ashamed that they had been chosen to live that they went behind the wall, so that the others couldn't see them."

Geldof hadn't planned to continue his fund-raising efforts beyond the Band Aid single, but he found himself forced to do so when the record became the biggest-selling single ever in England.

"Suddenly, there was the need for a spokesman," he said. "It also became incumbent on me to come up with a system to guarantee that the money would be given to the poorer people. I had to go to Africa to find out what I was really talking about and get their thoughts about how it should be channeled."

You can't talk to Geldof long without having someone pull him away for a few minutes. Some of the activities were obviously inviting, like trying to piece together a finale for the Philadelphia show that would involve two of the most famous songwriters of the modern pop era singing their anthems. Other matters were clearly more trying, like dealing with the continuing competition between rival American television companies (ABC, MTV and a coalition of independent stations) over programming details.

In some matters he engaged in spirited give-and-take; in others he simply gave edicts. When it was suggested during a meeting here that the Philadelphia stage be filled with flags from around the world, he snapped, "absolutely not," followed by an expletive. "How many wars are caused over a colored piece of cloth? The idea of the flags would be to show all the nations of the world united together. But they're not united if they're allowing 130 million people to die. So forget those flags. . . . Forget that tokenism."

Away from the planning sessions for a moment, Geldof looked to the future and didn't see anything planned beyond these concerts.

"My feeling now is that there is nothing else that pop music can do," he said, rummaging through the office refrigerator for something to eat--he still had a series of meetings coming up that would stretch into the evening. "There are still small things that can be done. You could put on an occasional concert here or in Africa--something symbolic. But that's all I can see."

With his flamboyance, it's sometimes difficult to see his private side--a point he realizes. "People are very much surprised that someone like me was behind all this."

Surprisingly, it takes repeated questioning before Geldof begins talking about some of the factors in his youth that foreshadowed his social concern. Finally, however, he pointed out that he started the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Dublin during his early teens, but downplays his involvement, saying it was partly because the movement was trendy, partly because it irritated his father--something that appealed to his rebellious side.

The real parallel between now and then was mentioned virtually in passing. During his teens, he spent three nights a week helping care for the homeless and needy in Dublin. "We'd make these soup runs and build these huge bonfires for people," he said softly.

"I remember an old lady named Mary, who must have been 75, and she lived on the porch of this house for 15 years. She'd put all these cardboard boxes around her at night, and the extraordinary thing was that the owner of the house would say, 'Good evening, Mary,' and step over her on his way into the house.

"I'd see her on my rounds and she'd say, 'How are you, Robert?' I'd say, 'Fine, how are you, Mary?' Then she'd always say, 'Well, could be worse.' And I'd go home every night thinking, 'How could it be any worse?' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World