In the past couple of weeks my wife and I have watched three long-form documentaries about Muhammad Ali. I almost prefixed his name with ‘the boxer’ – but, of course, Ali was much more than just a boxer. In one of the programmes a talking head described how he had come to realise that the sport was only a small part of a much larger whole. “Just something Ali did” rather than being ‘who he was’.
Ali’s force-of-nature personality made an impression on me when I was a child. I’m not really ‘into’ boxing but the iconography has always appealed to me. The old-fashioned aesthetic, in particular, has a great romance about it. Those vintage bill posters, the gloves, the ring, the sounds, the look of the TV footage, the characters of the sport seemingly yet to be squashed by the requirements of Modern Showbusiness – although Ali definitely understood showbusiness, and manipulated it. So it is possible to like boxing without liking boxing – and for me Ali is the centre of that, and so far beyond it.
I talked to my wife about how, through my life, there have been certain figures, certain icons, who have become a sort of inner family. Looking back to my younger days, my first decade, there was Ali. And there were also Kevin Keegan and Tom Baker. A little later there was Howard Jones (O-level Dylan with synths). I love each of them deeply and still feel incredibly protective of them all.
When I reached 16 it was the summer of leaving school and Live Aid. I slouched on the brink of adult life – uncertain, awkward and a bit spotty. When I bought the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks and How Soon Is Now by The Smiths on vinyl (from the local independent record shop in which I would get a job a couple of years later), I was auditioning for a guide.
Bob Geldof fit the bill. He captured my imagination and energised me with his compelling personality and his rage against the machine. Unorthodox, unpredictable, uncaring about cool. A loudmouth militant. An intelligent punk spirit operating on a higher moral plane. Standing up for what’s right and unafraid of going toe-to-toe to harangue Thatcher and her ilk. A doer. Hectoring to get things done regardless of the rules, seemingly circumnavigating ‘the machine’ – or, at the very least, using the machine to fight the machine.
The initial aim for the Band Aid project in the winter of 1984 had been to find a quick fix contribution for the famine in Ethiopia – in other words some helpful instant money. But magnified by momentum it quickly became something much larger – a campaign against the injustice of a human tragedy – and it chimed with me as a virtuous and unimpeachable mission. It felt pure and righteous – but with a longer eye I can see that Live Aid became a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
Band Aid and Live Aid were quickly subsumed, co-opted by the establishment. The template was developed and polished and we now have Comic Relief and Children In Need and the like firmly entrenched within our culture, our behaviour, and considered as acceptable. The normal way to deal with what’s wrong and inadequate in our system.
We live within a global society which could easily provide for and protect everyone. So, though I give a little from each pay packet to a favoured organisation, my general feeling about the charity industry is that it’s a tragedy it exists at all. It feels like a con perpetrated on the poor or, at least, the not-rich. The industry is a conduit for what amounts to an optional tax on compassion, and the mechanism facilitates the modus operandi of the multi-millionaires and billionaires who control our lives as much as the cash itself partly props up the needy.
At least the original intentions of Band Aid and Live Aid were good, I suppose. Or, at least, the ideas were good. And, perhaps, one valuable lasting legacy is the raising of consciousness they brought about?
In the wake of Live Aid came two brilliant and much more personal things by Geldof which had an impact on me. An autobiography – Is That It? – which I first read in one sitting, all through a riveted night, and which has remained something of a benchmark for what a book should be. And though better records came after, there was a debut solo album which contained some decent leftfield AOR songs with absolutely fantastic lyrics – Deep In The Heart Of Nowhere. Geldof can certainly choose and use words very well.
However, I digress. My intention wasn’t so much to talk about Geldof’s artistic efforts as it was to talk about his image and reputation and the space they afford, in which he carefully operates. How and why my perception of all that has shifted a bit in the thirty-six years since Live Aid.
I still find him interesting and a compelling speaker, and the soap opera of his life continues to fascinate. I am also wholly present in one or two of the records he made when I listen to them. In addition Geldof has told me, in person, to “fuck off” on two occasions during my life and I proudly wear that like a badge. So I certainly do still admire him in some ways, but that might just be nostalgia.
The simple fact is he now also irritates me and I even feel suspicious of him. I’m not really sure why. A few years ago I interviewed Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magazine and author of a book about Live Aid and the impact it had on the 1980s, and afterwards I realised that something he said had rather deflated me. He told me that Geldof – his friend – has “a monstrous ego” which has consequences one is just expected to cope with.
It’s not as if I didn’t already recognise that his personality was a roaring engine – but an off switch was flicked somewhere in my head. It’s a case of The Wizard Of Oz syndrome, I suppose. Sometimes you pull back the curtain and look a little closer and you don’t like or are let down by what you find. They say that you will outgrow your heroes or that you should never meet them.
Anyway… For a while in my private life I closely orbited a dangerous character who I often describe as The Beginners Guide To Geldof. There appears to be plenty of common ground so some indication of a ‘type’. In his book Rethinking Narcissism Dr Craig Malkin seems to nail it, giving it the classification “the communal narcissist”. There’s quite an interesting overview at Psychology Today.
My tolerance for this particularly public brand of self-centred selflessness has whittled away over time and now that most of my life is already under my belt and a brand new one is in my care. Though we are all complex creatures, flawed and contradictory, and though my thinking may be far too simplistic, I cannot escape the feeling that do-good shouldn’t be a shield to hide behind if you treat-bad. If, as they say, “life is a journey, not a destination” then, equally, it follows that the end does not always justify the means. Be mindful of the means, even though the road will be slower.
This is a fundamental lesson I hope my wife and I can teach our son.