Colette Sheridan: Documentary reflects on the ‘James Joyce’ of rock ’n roll

In her weekly column Colette Sheridan talks about an insightful documentary, Citizens of Boomtown
Colette Sheridan: Documentary reflects on the ‘James Joyce’ of rock ’n roll
The Boomtown Rats.

THE writer, Joseph O’Connor, summed it up for my generation when, as a contributor to Citizens Of Boomtown (the documentary about The Boomtown Rats), he conjured up a miserable rainy day on Dun Laoighaire Pier. You’d be looking at the ships bound for England, wondering when you’d be on one.

England may have been our historical oppressor but it was also seen as a place of opportunity — or at least, it held out the dubious promise of a better class of squat than what you’d get here.

Ireland in the 1970s was like Britain in the 1950s, said journalist, Neil McCormick, in the documentary. There was no divorce, no contraception, no abortion and absolutely no future economically.

Neil said that Big Tom was the biggest star in Ireland in those sheltered, backward days. Despite the talents of rock ‘n rollers like Phil Lynott and Van Morrison, Ireland liked to keep it country.

U2 hadn’t yet happened so the vacuum for loud-mouth pronouncements and energised noisy music, influenced by punk, was filled by Bob Geldof, the articulate middle-class boy from Dublin who went to Blackrock College but was no Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.

Unlike the fictional failed thick rugby jock, he was intelligent, well-educated and didn’t hide his learning. Rage, he said, was the driver of the band — and still is, he added.

Ireland, Geldof declared, was putrid with corruption back in the heyday of his band. And there were The Troubles in which 3,600 people were killed.

We were all complicit in it, he said, with our silence about what was happening to our neighbours over the border — and to what was happening in the republic. It was a truly awful country.

But out of such darkness came not so much a ray of light but an electrifying vehicle to expunge our shame. Shame was the national blight. The Boomtown Rats burst onto the scene with Geldof mouthing off about everything that irked him — the church, political cronyism and corruption. He was the James Joyce of Irish rock ‘n roll, breaking the rules and putting Ireland on the map as a burgeoning modern country, scarred but no longer willing to skulk in the shadows. (And he was doing this mainly from the UK — in exile like Joyce.)

There was a nice detail in the two-part documentary (the final episode is on RTÉ tomorrow night) with a shot of Geldof’s dole card from the seventies. He spoke of queuing in the cold for the few quid from the state on which he was supposed to survive while the civil servants, in the cosy offices of the labour exchange, drank tea and were indifferent to the plight of the young and jobless.

“The world owes me a living,” was Geldof’s response and it inspired the song, Looking After Number 1.

While Geldof’s manifesto was to get rich, famous and laid (like every rock ‘n roller), he has always held onto a strong moral core — without being a bore about it. In recent times, he has articulated the terrible grief he suffers as a result of his daughter, Peaches’s death from a heroin overdose. Time doesn’t heal, he said. It just allows you to accommodate the slings and arrows of life.

Geldof got rich, famous and laid but he also got more than his fair share of tragedy, including the death — also from heroin — of his ex-wife, Paula Yates. And there was the loss of his mother who died when Geldof was a child. He didn’t have it easy. But he doesn’t come across as a victim. Far from it.

Now, at 68, he has mellowed a bit (don’t all provocateurs?) and is interesting and entertaining on the chat show circuit.

On Tommy Tiernan’s TV show recently, Geldof spoke of thinking about Peaches and sobbing in his car while stopped at traffic lights — and then making sure there are no paparazzi about, hungry for the money shot. Talk about living your life in public.

But that’s the price Geldof pays for being mouthy, opinionated and a bit of a media luvvie these days.

When Geldof wrote the brilliant no. 1 hit, I Don’t Like Mondays, inspired by a school shooting in America by a girl whose father used to give her presents of guns, he hit a nerve.

Geldof was prescient. That song is even more relevant today with school shootings stoking the debate on gun ownership in the US.

‘Citizens of Boomtown’ is an insightful documentary. But I have one quibble. Apart from Sinead O’Connor, there are no female contributors (at least in the first half of the documentary.) Rock ‘n roll has always been sexist, serviced by groupies. Not a good role in the Me Too era. Get with the programme lads!

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