Barry Gibb: The Last Brother

Gibb looks back on the monster hits, the long-simmering feuds and the tragedy of life as a Bee Gee

Barry Gibb
Peter Yang
Barry Gibb
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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.

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"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?"

That lasted about a year and a half, until two people snapped him out of it. The first was Linda. "She kicked me off the couch," Gibb says. "She said, 'You can't just sit here and die with everybody else. Get on with your life.'" The second was Paul McCartney. They were talking backstage at SNL, "and I said I wasn't sure how much longer I could keep doing this. And Paul said, 'Well, what else are you going to do?' And I just thought, 'Well, OK, then.'"

So this spring, Gibb is hitting the road across North America for six solo shows, his first tour ever without his brothers. The show costs him half a million dollars a night, so he'll be lucky to break even. But that's not the point. "I have to keep this music alive," Gibb says. "Before my brothers died, I wouldn't have thought of it that way. But that's my job now. It's important that people remember these songs."

When Barry Gibb first came into the world, he was the little brother. His sister Lesley was nearly two when Barry was born, on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of England, where his father was a bandleader and his mother took care of the kids. He almost didn't make it out of childhood: At 18 months, he spilled a teapot and scalded himself so badly the doctors gave him 20 minutes to live. He spent three months in the hospital. Over the next few years, he also fell through a roof, shot himself in the eye with a BB gun and was hit by a car on two occasions. "I was," he says, "just one of those kids that was always getting hit by a car."

The Bee Gees were rounded out a few years later when the twins came along. Three-year-old Barry was unimpressed: Their cat had just given birth to six kittens – what was the big deal with two? Once, when Robin started crying, Barry begged his mother to take him back.

When Barry was eight, the family moved to Manchester, which was still rebuilding from the war. They lived across from bombed-out ruins and ate ketchup sandwiches and stolen candy. For Christmas when Barry was nine, his dad bought him a guitar, and Barry and his brothers started writing songs. Soon thereafter the family moved to Australia, where the boys sang at matinees and RSL clubs (short for Returned Services League – like a VFW hall with drunk Aussies). They dropped out of school when Barry was 15 and the twins were 13, and after a few years of local success decided to make a go of it in the U.K.

The Gibbs arrived in 1967, at the peak of Swinging London: Union Jacks waving in Kensington, Minis and miniskirts everywhere. ("And the miniskirts were really mini," Gibb says. "Not like today – you could see everything.") They signed with Brian Epstein's management company and soon had a couple of hits ("New York Mining Disaster 1941" and "To Love Somebody"). Gibb became a regular on Carnaby Street, dropping £1,500 on shirts like it was Tube fare. He bought a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley and a Lamborghini; one time he walked out his door and realized every car on the street was his. (In his defense, said Linda, "It was a small street.")

And yet for all its success, the group always had trouble earning respect. There's one night Gibb remembers vividly. He was at a nightclub called Speakeasy, surrounded by a who's who of Sixties London: Pete Townshend. Jimi Hendrix. The Beatles and Stones huddled together, John Lennon still wearing his outfit from the Sgt. Pepper photo shoot earlier in the day. After a couple of Scotch-and-Cokes, Townshend turned to Gibb and said, "Do you want to meet John?" He led him across the room to where Lennon was holding court "John," said Townshend. "This is Barry Gibb, from the group the Bee Gees."

"Howyadoin'," said Lennon, not bothering to turn around. He reached back over his shoulder and offered Gibb a halfhearted shake.

"So I met John Lennon's back," Gibb says with a laugh. "I didn't meet his front."

At the time, the group's biggest songs were the ones where Robin sang lead, his crystalline vibrato powering moody dirges like "Massachusetts" and "Holiday." But his overbite and goofy smile were no match for Barry's matinee-idol looks. " 'Resentment' may be a strong word," says Gibb, "but not inappropriate." As Barry got more of the attention, their squabbles grew more intense. Finally, in 1969, with the bitterness at a high point, Robin quit the band.

The next few months were a dark time for the Gibbs. Robin put out a solo album that didn't do as well as he'd hoped. Maurice started boozing it up with Richard Burton and Ringo Starr. Barry became a near-recluse, retreating to his flat in London, where he shot BB guns at his chandelier and read TV Guide alone in the dark. Finally, after a year and a half, the brothers declared a detente and decided to reunite. As Robin put it, somewhat presciently, "It's no fun if you're on your own."

By then the Bee Gees had fallen out of the spotlight, where they remained for the next half-decade. "Those five years were hell," Barry once said. "There is nothing worse on Earth than being in the pop wilderness." Then came the chuckity-chuck, and their comeback with "Jive Talkin'." Playing around at a recording session that same year, Barry discovered his million-dollar falsetto, and soon the group was embracing the growing movement called disco. "I think it was probably the Vietnam War that triggered the whole thing," says Barry. "People wanted to dance."

In the spring of 1977, the Bee Gees spent a cold, miserable month in France's Château d'Hérouville – a.k.a. Elton John's Honky Château – working on their next album, when they got a call from their manager. He was producing a disco movie, and he needed some songs for the soundtrack. The brothers gave him what they had, and the result changed pop-music history.

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack went on to sell 15 million copies and win a Grammy for Album of the Year. The songs were inescapable: Five of them went to Number One. When their manager needed a song for another movie he was producing, also starring John Travolta, Barry wrote "Grease," which went to Number One as well. Of the 10 biggest songs of 1978, the Gibbs were responsible for fully half.

"Looking back, it was an incredible experience," Barry says. "But it made us all a bit crazy. It got to a point where we couldn't breathe. I remember death threats. Crazy fans driving past the house, playing 'Stayin' Alive' at 120 decibels. I really like privacy. I'm just not that good with whatever fame is."

For their next album, the Bee Gees mounted a 41-date tour. "We did three nights at Madison Square Garden, and one of those nights we never went to bed," Gibb says. "To this day, I can't figure out how we did it. Youth, I guess." (And possibly drugs. The Gibbs had always been fond of substances: Barry smoked grass, Robin liked pills and Maurice drank. For the most part, they stayed away from harder stuff. "I did a week of cocaine in 1980-something," says Gibb. "But the trouble with cocaine . . ." – he laughs – "is cocaine! You've got to do it every half hour. It's too much work. Amphetamines last four to six hours. And in those days," he says with a grin, "there were some great amphetamines.")

At that point Barry was the undisputed star of the group. He'd always been the leader: As Beatles producer George Martin once put it, "Everybody knows that Barry is the idea man of the three, and when he is too overt about that, they tend to rebel." Now, thanks to Barry's falsetto, he was singing everything too, and old jealousies started to rear up. Barry didn't want a repeat of 1969, so he decided to step back and sing fewer leads. His falsetto fell by the wayside. The thing that made them massive, the thing everyone wanted to hear, he gave up for the sake of the family.

"The best time in our lives was the time right before fame," says Gibb. "We could not have been tighter. We were glued together. The following year is where excesses started coming in. Drink, pills. The scene, egos." That's when the competition began – and with it came the separation.

"It was 45 years, so there were times we had the times of our lives," he says. "But it was never as sweet and innocent as it was in 1966."

Gibb needs to stand up for a bit. "Oh, my joints," he says, stretching his back. "Everything hurts today." He twists one way, then the other: "Movement is important." Then he takes a step. "Ah, fuck."

These days Gibb wakes up late, usually because he was up late watching Netflix. He rolls out of bed around 11, sings for a while to make sure his voice is still there. (Yesterday it was "Blame It on the Bossa Nova.") He takes breakfast and reads for a bit – currently The Sixth Extinction, by environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert – and then heads to the living room to read a little more. He likes end-of-the-world stuff and quasi-science – the Bermuda Triangle, Ancient Aliens, anything about the apocalypse. "All the things that people laugh about, I believe in," he says. "It's much more fun than being skeptical."

After lunch, Gibb goes back to the living room, where he'll fiddle with one of his four dozen guitars, or else to the library, to peruse his collection of first editions. He got an iPad for Christmas, but has hardly used it: "To me, it's just a big clock." He doesn't have e-mail or a cellphone, but occasionally he'll send his lawyer a fax.

A few years ago, Gibb might have passed the afternoon at a shooting range, but he stopped going when it affected his hearing. He still has 25 or 30 guns in a cupboard upstairs. He doesn't take them out much – he learned that lesson the hard way when he was arrested in London in 1968 after chasing a stalker from his front door with an unlicensed .38. (He was fined £25 and released: "Besides possessing two pistols," declared the judge, "about the only thing I can see Mr. Gibb has done wrong is wear a white suit to court.")

All in all, it's a pretty quiet retirement. Every once in a while, a fan might turn up at his gate, and if Gibb's not too busy, he'll go out and say hello. He enjoys talking to fans. "It does your heart good," he says. "Makes you realize not everybody hated it."

After the disco backlash of 1979, the Bee Gees' career imploded. The Gibbs turned their attention to songwriting, penning albums for Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. The brothers also wrote and produced "Islands in the Stream," the seminal duet between Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. "In the long run it gave us credibility," Gibb says of songwriting. "That's what we loved doing: writing a song that people liked and that would be remembered."

Gibb was always driven by an almost childlike pursuit of approval. "It became trendy to laugh at us," he says. "When you're the center of attention, and suddenly people don't want you to be anymore . . ." He trails off. "But it hasn't left a deep scar. Hills and valleys."

Now in his twilight years, Gibb is surrounded by ghosts. Not literally, although he did have some encounters in England a few years back. More figuratively, in the dozens of photos that cover his walls. Most of them are of family. But others are of departed friends, like Michael Jackson, who was godfather to one of Gibb's sons.

"He would come to Miami and stay in our house," says Gibb. "He'd sit in the kitchen and watch the fans outside his hotel on TV, just giggling – 'Hee hee!'" He lived upstairs for a while, right before his child-molestation trial. "We never discussed the case," says Gibb. "We would just sit around and write and get drunk. Michael liked wine – there were a few nights when he just went to sleep on the floor." Gibb nods to a spot on the rug a few feet away. "I look at that floor, I remember that."

But the biggest ghost Gibb lives with is the one of his own past. "I still think of myself as a teenager," he says. "I keep my bathroom mirror dark, so I can imagine myself as a kid and not see myself as I am now. It helps."

One night, Linda makes dinner at home: pork roast, mashed potatoes and traditional Scottish crackling. "Thank you, love," Gibb coos as she brings him a mug of warm sake. (It's the only thing he drinks: "As strong as scotch, and no hangovers.") Linda, a bewitching brunette, has the deep tan and physique you'd expect from a former beauty queen who's lived in Miami for 37 years. A Bee Gees children's book from 1983 portrayed Gibb as a cartoon lion and her as a sexy panther, which seems about right.

They met on Top of the Pops in 1967. Linda was 17, the reigning Miss Edinburgh, and Barry, 21, had the Number One song in the country. "Our eyes met across the studio, and that was it," he says. He asked her to coffee in the BBC canteen, and they had their first intimate encounter that afternoon in the Dr. Who phone booth. (Gibb: "Time was of the essence!") They got married on September 1st – Barry's birthday, so he wouldn't forget. "I'd had my fun," he says. "I wanted to have a family." They've been married 44 years, and they still flirt like teenagers. "We've both been tempted," Gibb says. "She was – she is – a beautiful girl, and because of the Seventies for me there was always someone trying it on. We've both enjoyed the attention, but we've never taken it seriously."

Linda is about to bring out dessert when she brings up Andy, the Gibbs' baby brother. "Poor Andy," she says.

"Oh," says Barry, looking pained. "Let's not talk about that."

Andy was the first brother that Gibb lost, and it's still the one that hurts the most. "We were like twins," Gibb says. "The same voice, the same interests, the same birthmark." Barry gave Andy his first guitar, for his 12th birthday. When Andy grew up, he wanted to be just like Barry.

Andy had a handful of hits in the late Seventies, almost all written by Barry. But he developed an addiction to cocaine and Quaaludes. He eventually cleaned up, but the damage was done. He died in 1988, from inflammation of the heart compounded by years of drug abuse, five days after his 30th birthday. Barry was devastated. "It was the saddest moment of my life," he said at the time. Even now, he feels guilty for pushing Andy toward showbiz. "He would have been better off finding something else," Gibb says. "He was a sweet person. We lost him too young."

Maurice was the next to pass, in 2003. He'd had problems with alcohol – in the late Seventies, he used to have to run his hand along the wall just to make it to the stage. He got clean in the Nineties, but he died of a heart attack at age 53, no doubt exacerbated by a lifetime of drinking.

"With Andy, we could see it coming," says Gibb. "But Maurice was a shock." At first Barry and Robin said they would continue as the Bee Gees, but soon reversed course: "It wasn't the same. We didn't want to be the Bee Gees without Mo."

The only two left were the two who'd never gotten along. Robin and Barry tried to organize a tribute concert for Maurice, but they couldn't even agree on that. "The distance between us became more and more dramatic," Gibb says. "There were times when we didn't talk for a year."

In February 2012, Gibb played his first-ever solo show. "God bless you," he told the fans. "And say a little prayer for Rob." At the time Robin was undergoing chemotherapy. Barry went to visit him in London, where Robin told him he loved him. Six weeks after that, he was gone.

Gibb says that, when it comes to his brothers, "my only regret is that we weren't great pals at the end. There was always an argument in some form. Andy left to go to L.A. because he wanted to make it on his own. Maurice was gone in two days, and we weren't getting on very well. Robin and I functioned musically, but we never functioned in any other way. We were brothers, but we weren't really friends.

"There were too many bad times and not enough good times," he says finally. "A few more good times would have been wonderful."

The first time he lost his brothers – back in 1969 – Gibb didn't perform in public for a year and a half. Now that he's getting back on the road, he's taking his family with him. His son Stephen plays guitar in his band, and Maurice's daughter, Samantha, is a featured singer. Gibb still plays Bee Gees songs, although he won't sing any that Robin sang, out of respect. And he wants to record a new album soon. He keeps a tape recorder on his night stand in case an idea comes to him in the middle of the night. "I've got bits of paper with songs all over the house," Gibb says. "They just sit and wink at me every time I go by."

Gibb thinks about death a lot. "But I don't have any fear of it," he says, "like I might've if I'd never lost a brother." He knows his performing days are numbered: "I will not end up in a casino somewhere – I can't do that."

When his time comes, all he asks is that it's "fucking quick. A heart attack onstage would be ideal," he says, laughing. "Right in the middle of 'Stayin' Alive.'" He can tell the time is getting closer. "I have a bucket list now," he says. "I didn't used to have a bucket list." He'd like to have one more hit – "Who wouldn't?" And he'd like to see the inside of a nuclear submarine. "I'm not sure why," he says. "You can still have little dreams."

Gibb isn't sure what he thinks about an afterlife. "When people say, 'Your brothers are looking down on you and smiling,'" he says, "I don't know if that's true. But maybe, if there's any truth to that stuff, one day I'll bump into my brothers again. And they'll say, 'What kept you?'"

This is from the June 5th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1210: June 5, 2014
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