In Style (UK Version)
August 2001
"Debt of Honour"
Written by Polly Williams

In Tanzania, he's "Mr Gavin, an esteemed singer," a famous stranger. In Britain, he's "big-in-America-isn't-he?" In America, Gavin Rossdale is a rock god and, with girlfriend Gwen Stefani (lead singer of No Doubt), part of rock's Grammy power-couple. And today, the 33- year-old lead singer of Bush is in a stuffy studio in Camden Town, unknotting a matted dreadlock belonging to his Hungarian sheepdog, Winston, and talking about how he ended up being all these things.

First, the esteemed man of Africa: last year, the singer spent 10 days in Tanzania for Drop the Debt, a charity that campaigns to cancel the unpayable debt of the world's poorest countries. And, as the campaigners hoped, he has the first-hand witness's zeal to prove it. "These people really live in a state of abject poverty," insists Rossdale. "You have to live with a massive amount of denial day to day, otherwise it's so draining. Sometimes it's hard to turn your back." He still sends the village kids crates of footballs.

Next, the "Famous-in-America" guy: founded in the early Nineties, Bush were dismissed as grunge-lite by a British music press seduced by the cute pop ironies of bands such as Pulp, Suede and Blur. They went on to sell 15 million records worldwide, becoming one of the biggest rock bands in the US, a market that the aforementioned Brit bands haven't even dented. Still, things have moved on since 1995, when Bush played to a crowd of 60,000 in Washington DC, then 150 people in a Birmingham pub a month later. They are now Britain's grudgingly sung rock heroes. "It's taken about five years for people to stop being irritated that we've done good elsewhere," says Rossdale.

It all makes for an unusual combination -- the charity and his tanned hand, heavy with chunky, silver jewellery. Truthfully, the image of Rossdale bitten by mosquitoes, Pumas squidging from dusty factory to dank hospital, is not easily conjured up unless envisioned as a particularly rugged album cover. After all, crippled by a spiral of unpayable foreign debts and with Aids ravaging its community, Tanzania is no place for a celebrity safari. And, while there were uplifting moments -- playing football with the boys ("it's a common language"), a new birth on the maternity ward -- what Rossdale largely saw was a country on its knees. In one children's hospital, he inadvertently witnessed the death of a two-year-old child, a death preventable with medicine. "That's about as poignant as it gets," Rossdale says quietly. "Yeah, that was pretty bad."

But it's precisely this sensitivity that has been instrumental in Bush's success. Rossdale's lyrics tap into the post-Nirvana generation's navel: death, broken relationships, hapless urban loneliness. He once half jokingly commented of his parents' split (his mother left when he was 11): "I've never sat down and cried about it. I've just made a career out of it." To his female fans, Rossdale is the soul of a poet trapped in the body of a pin-up.

Still, Rossdale's ranking in the celebrity alphabet is curiously dependent on geographical location. He and Gwen divide their time equally between LA, her home town ("unfortunately") and London, "my people, my world." While in London, he may have the swanky Georgian house in the celestial hood of Primrose Hill, but he can still wander out without getting flash-bulbed by paparazzi. And though the lack of recognition may be slightly irksome, he's not "tabloid fodder, which is a great relief." Fact is, Britain is really a mini-break from America's A list. Although Rossdale says, in LA, "everyone is trained not to stare or care. But that perma-tan hides a mountain of emotions... Deep down, they are tap dancing with excitement." They would implode if Rossdale married Gwen. Will it happen? "I imagine that's definitely possible," says Rossdale coyly. "But [talking about it] does detract from the romance. I am just keeping schtum."

So life is sweet. He's got the girl and he's got the money. Serious money. As Bush's songwriter, Rossdale's wealth makes other British celebrity piles look like loose change. Which brings us back to the first, less sweet, thing: did he ever feel guilty surrounded by Tanzanian poverty "Not in the slightest. I can't be responsible for all those circumstances, but I can for my own. I am self-made. I spent most of my life not being able to pay the rent. We were always outsiders -- doing rock music when no one cared about it -- so there was never a financial incentive," he says. The insistent idealism that turned a group of untrendy musicians into one of the world's most successful rock bands is still very much alive in Rossdale. And it's not unrelated to the idealism that tempted him temporarily into the genuine grunge of Africa.

"After Live Aid, well... perhaps you get used to things. It gets harder and harder to be politicised," he says thoughtfully. "But you need to be. This is political in that it's about governments, who owes, who lends, and government corruption, but the incentive behind Drop the Debt is purely humanitarian."

Rather endearingly, Rossdale admits it was a "great relief" to return home. While remarkably unaffected by his success, the Tanzanian trip has reinforced his appreciation of it, from his art (he's got an impressive collection that includes a few Francis Bacons) to his new car, a Range Rover. "I've never been covetous. But I now understand what all the fuss is about. It makes you feel great!" Besides, he says, "I'm really lucky. I have people around me that I love..." and then he grins impishly, "...and I've got sandwiches for life." His many lives, in fact.