A couple of Decembers ago, back before he had any idea he'd be launching his first tour in 15 years, Barry Gibb sat at home in Miami, watching Fox News on his couch. Rep. John Boehner was talking about the fiscal cliff. Gibb was flat on his back in white gym socks, his dog Ploppy at his side.
"Taxes," the former Bee Gee muttered. "I've set aside 40 percent in a tax account since we started. All the money I see is mine." On the floor next to him, an oscillating fan blew back and forth, gently disturbing what was left of his snowy mane. Gibb sighed and changed the channel.
Gibb's wife, Linda, was in the next room, wrapping a mountain of Christmas presents for their five children and seven grandchildren. But Gibb wasn't feeling very festive. In fact, he was depressed. Seven months earlier, his younger brother Robin had died after a long bout with cancer. He was preceded in death by his twin brother, Maurice, as well as their brother Andy and their father, Hugh. "All the men in my family are gone," Gibb said. "The last few months have been pretty intense." Recently, a German TV crew had come to film an interview with him, and the encounter left Gibb shaken. "They were just nasty," he said. "They were holding up pictures of Robin and me, trying to get a reaction. There was no sensitivity about the fact that I'd lost my brothers."
Thirty-five years ago, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb – better known as the Bee Gees – were the most popular band in the world. Their Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – the ne plus ultra of mainstream disco – knocked Fleetwood Mac's Rumours off the top of the charts and stayed there for six months straight. They've sold more than 200 million records; as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put it, at the time of their induction in 1997, only Elvis, the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney had sold more. They're the only group in history to have written, recorded and produced six consecutive Number One hits. "We weren't on the charts," Maurice once boasted, "we were the charts."
And then, just like that, they weren't. America decided that disco sucked, and the Gibb brothers went from icons to punch lines overnight. Andy passed away, then Maurice. Now that Robin was gone, Barry was the only one left.
Robin and Maurice's birthday was in three days, and Gibb was going through photos from their childhood, picking out some of his favorites. "Our group has always gotten criticism without anybody really knowing us," he said. "I'll respond to every question you ask."
We made plans to meet again in two days. But that night, I got back to my hotel and had a message from Gibb.
I called him and asked if everything was OK. "I'm fine," he said. "But I don't want to continue. I'm just really uncomfortable with having my life opened up right now. I'm still grieving. I'm still dealing with the fact that I've lost all my brothers. It's just horrible for me. It's horrible for me inside."
"I like you," Gibb went on, "and I think that you like me. And at some point we can do this. But right now, I'm just too fragile, it's one day at a time." He hesitated, searching for the right words. "I'm just not whole enough," he said. "I pray that you understand." And then he hung up.
What do you think of when you think of the Bee Gees? Saturday Night Fever and "Stayin' Alive" for sure. Bell-bottom suits and falsetto hooks. "Big hair, big teeth, medallions," as Barry once said. Maybe you've seen Jimmy Fallon's Saturday Night Live send-up, "The Barry Gibb Talk Show," or Homer Simpson and Disco Stu dancing by "table five, table five." (The Gibbs to Rolling Stone in 1988 about "Stayin' Alive": "We'd like to dress it up in a white suit and gold chains and set it on fire.") It's possible you have some vague awareness of their vastly underrated early work, like "To Love Somebody," which they wrote for Otis Redding, who died before he could record it, or "Lonely Days," which could be an outtake from Side Two of Abbey Road. Otherwise, they're frozen in 1978, forever pointing to the sky at 120 beats per minute.
Which is a shame, because in reality, the Bee Gees are one of the strangest, most complicated, most brilliant groups ever to achieve pop stardom. They rose from nothing in the backwater of Australia to conquer the music world as teenagers, then lost everything and did it all over again. As songwriters, they're unparalleled: Michael Jackson once called Saturday Night Fever the inspiration for Thriller, and Bono has said their catalog makes him "ill with envy," ranking them "up there with the Beatles."
Ever since their days harmonizing in grade school, the Gibbs wrote almost telepathically, Robin throwing out a lyric, Barry ready with the melody. They once wrote three Number One singles in an afternoon. "We work better as a team," Robin said.
The Gibbs were like legs on a tripod: Take away one, and the others would collapse. This led to a lifetime of love-hate relationships. Often they couldn't stand one another, but they couldn't bear to be apart. Robin and Barry lived in Miami two houses from each other, and Maurice lived just three blocks away. Their success afforded them a fabulous life – mansions, cars, boats, planes – and then, slowly but surely, drove them apart. As Robin once put it, not long before his death, "I sometimes wonder if the tragedies my family has suffered are a karmic price for all the fame and fortune the Bee Gees have had."
To get to Barry Gibb's house, you cross the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a three-and-a-quarter-mile concrete span connecting the Florida mainland to the glitz of Miami Beach. The bridge is lined with girders of reinforced steel, which, when traversed at 55 miles per hour, fill a car's interior with a loping backbeat: chuckity-chuck, ch-chuckity-chuck. Drive a little faster than 55, and the backbeat grows into a funky little groove.
One day in January 1975, Gibb was driving over the bridge heading home from the studio. Things were not going great. The Bee Gees had recently had an album rejected by their label, and they'd been reduced to playing England's dinner-theater circuit. In Atlantic City, they were second-billed to a horse. Their friend Eric Clapton suggested they try Miami, where they could rent his old house at 461 Ocean Boulevard and get a tan while they plotted their comeback. Then one night they heard that groove, wrote a song based on it the next day, and by the end of the summer, "Jive Talkin'" was Number One – the first in an epic run of hits that spanned four years and eight top singles, one of the most successful stretches in pop-music history.
Gibb, 67, lives in an exclusive enclave in North Miami Beach called Millionaire's Row, and his neighbors include Alex Rodriguez, Lil Wayne and some Miami Heat players whose names he can never remember. The place is extravagant, even by Miami standards: Two life-size stone lions guard the front steps, and a full-size basketball court sits out back. In the driveway, there's a big fountain, and parked next to it there's an Escalade.
Inside, Gibb is watching Fox News again, where talk has turned to the missing Malaysian plane. He's as handsome as he ever was – blindingly white teeth, rectilinear jaw, flowing locks, movie-star chin. He looks like an older version of the Burger King king. Gibb's beard is thinning a bit, but it's too late for him to get rid of it now. "The beard pulls all your muscles down," he says, "so it's not so pretty if you shave. Every time I see Brad Pitt with that beard, I think, 'Better cut it before it's too late.'"
Gibb says he didn't know it at the time, but when we first met, he was despondent. "I went on as normal," he says. "But that's not how I felt. I was groping around. I didn't know what to do with myself. When suddenly you're on your own after all those years, you start to question life itself. What's the point in any of it?"
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus