The Lost Genius Of Robin Gibb

This is a story about alienation and beauty.  It is a story of thoughtless cruelty and heartbreak.  It’s the story of tempestuous youth in 1979.  It’s set on a school bus, mostly, and it has actual villains.  It is at its heart a story that is laughably sad, and sadly laughable.  (We are talking about puberty, after all.)  But it’s mostly about the voice of Bee Gee Robin Gibb: its haunting desolation, its exquisite ache, the hope despite hopelessness it conveyed.  It’s about how I came to find solace within the voice of Robin Gibb when I was young and the inspiring legacy he left behind.   I hope to do it justice.

I have The Disco Girls to thank for introducing me to the music of the Bee Gees.  The Disco Girls, were, as per the standards of rural southeastern Ohio grade school culture circa 1979, hot stuff.  There were four of them: six graders perched at the top of the social order and occupying the catbird seats at the back of the afternoon bus.  They carried unbreakable fluff combs in the ornately embroidered back pockets of their jeans—the long handled kind that our teachers frowned upon.  They rolled countless syrupy layers of Bonne Bell lip gloss on their serious mouths.  Most impressively, they wore matching t-shirts.  Bearing the likeness of John Travolta in his iconic Saturday Night Fever suit on the front, the shirts actually matched the dreamy blue of his eyes.  On the back, in expensive prism lettering: “Disco Girls.”

Clad in this uniform of impenetrable cool and armed with a portable cassette player, the Disco Girls regularly transformed the Friday ride home into what can only be described as a boogie down hootenanny.  I remember watching in amazement as the lead Disco Girl—a dusky minx with dark, soulless eyes who called herself Bootsie– did her signature move.  It was a shimmying limbo that insinuated from a kneeling position to a supine writhe.  While the rest of us were getting screamed at for merely putting a toe in the aisle, Bootsie pulled this unsafe, rule-breaking stunt every week, right there in that very same forbidden zone, with jaw-dropping impunity.  How she managed to escape the wrath of the child-hating Viet Nam vet  who’d been hired to drive the bus is something I can’t allow myself to speculate upon now.  The conclusions I come to are much too creepy.

Being a mere fifth grader, I was unworthy of Disco Girl membership; however, my second-banana status afforded me proximity to the back of the bus, where I could best hear the music.  The portable cassette deck supplied the soundtrack to this lawless orgy of disco surliness, and the album of choice was Bee Gees Greatest.   I had never heard anything like the music of the Bee Gees.  The voices grabbed me first, of course.  Despite the unflattering comparisons to The Chipmunks volleyed by the boys on the bus, the Bee Gees’ voices were enchanting to me.   The three falsettos–twisted together in elegant, impossible harmony– were ethereal and magical, calling to my mind Rapunzel’s golden braid, a sonic ladder to be climbed to the sky.  Abetted by silky orchestral undercurrents (a mandatory element of disco, but completely new to me at the time), the airy vocals were anchored in a rich pay dirt of bass and propulsive rhythm.  There was a physical earthiness to this music, and it was capped majestically by a melodic emotional urgency at its pristine, sunbathed peaks.  This musical marriage of earth and sky, body and spirit, get-down and uplift was just intoxicating to me.  I could not get enough of it.

The Bee Gees were the enticing icing on the irresistible cake that was the Disco Girls.  Although I’d never presume to even dream of being a Disco Girl myself—I had not the dance chops or the brazen accessories to hack such an affiliation, I did want to be their friend.   My presence was tolerated by the Disco Girls in small doses; I was allowed to browse the liner notes of Bee Gees Greatest, an artifact that incredibly, they had no apparent use for.  They humored me when I’d ask them where they bought the album, and responded monosyllabically to my questions about their favorite Bee Gee, their favorite songs.

Looking back on these brittle exchanges, it’s quite apparent that what I’d interpreted as a “too cool for school” collective mien of the Disco Girls was actually “too cool for you”, the “you” in this case being me.  But my enthusiasm for this fantastic music and my admiration for its apparent proponents made me impervious to all eight of the Disco Girls’ cold shoulders combined.  But when Bootsie finally leveled her coldly glittering gaze at me and hissed “I’m sick of looking at your ugly face”, that pretty much did it.   As it would happen, I also have the Disco Girls to thank for introducing me to heartbreak.

My initiation to emotional pain was a world-altering revelation: on par with my first snowfall, in sense.   The world as I knew it was overcome with a sense of sorrow of near crystalline purity, obscuring everything beneath its cold perfection.  Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me for this.  Not even the Judy Blume books, those alleged primers on the horrors of puberty, contained a single warning about the magnitude of this newfound misery.

It would take years before I’d acquire the self-confidence and maturity necessary to realize that these sham fans of the legendary Bee Gees, these glossy-frowned, feather-haired, writhing strips of bus-floor-bitch-bacon were unworthy of all this agony.  In the meantime, I had Robin Gibb.

My favorite track from Bee Gees Greatest was and still is “Nights On Broadway”—a complicated song of rejection and devotion, set over a sinister piano/moog groove.  Like most Bee Gees songs, “Nights” tells a tale, but in fragments, as if the Gibb brothers had taken a novel off the shelf, read it from cover to cover, and then reconstituted the story using only its most evocative elements.  I loved “Nights” because it seemed to unleash these scraps of poetry in a big city wind tunnel– the gritty desperation of the images and their unremitting sense of alienation set spiraling helplessly amid the litter and other items of urban detritus.  The lone individual–anonymous in a crowd, waiting in the darkness, longing for connection:  THIS, I had decided as a ten year old child who lived on a dirt road, THIS was what the city does to the human heart.  The Disco Girls rarely played this track, instead heavily favoring the Saturday Night Fever hits, but I would play it on my record player at home repeatedly, and I would listen for Robin Gibb’s solo line. When he sang “Well, I had to follow you/Though you did not want me to/That won’t stop my loving you/I can’t stay away” in his plaintive vibrato, he laid bare the emotional core of the song, throwing it at the feet of some heartless love object.  The earnest yearning of Robin Gibb’s voice was transcendent; it made a compelling case for the argument that THIS didn’t just happen in big cities, it happened everywhere, even in the back of yellow busses on dusty rural routes on Friday afternoons.

Like the relentless shadow-man of “Nights on Broadway”, I was compelled to follow the voice of Robin Gibb.   I was amazed to learn that the Bee Gees as I knew them had actually been reincarnated from a British Invasion-esque band of Edwardian dandies.  What they lacked in rhythm, they abundantly compensated for with melody—achingly gorgeous melodies that featured prominently the voice of Robin Gibb.  It was a voice of exquisite sensitivity, a voice on the verge of tears.   Within its tremulous arias, there lingered an otherworldly desolation: loneliness derived from a lifetime’s exile into some mysterious void.  It had a broken quality as well, evidencing injuries that could only be guessed at.

The voice of Robin Gibb was, in essence, the voice of the lost soul.  The voice of Robin Gibb was that of the doomed man trapped at the bottom of the earth, clutching a photograph, in “New York Mining Disaster 1941”.  It was the voice of the condemned man walking his last mile in “I Gotta Get A Message To You.”  The wayward drifter of “Massachusetts” found his voice in Robin Gibb, as did the shattered lover wandering “the lonely streets” in “I Can’t See Nobody.”   The ache and the anguish quavering in the voice of Robin Gibb did more than express dejection; it evinced a guileless desire to reach out despite the insurmountable distances between human beings.   The final acts of Robin Gibb’s dying men were acts of personal expression: sharing the photograph with the ghostly Mr. Jones in “1941”, sending a message of love and remorse to a loved one in “Message”.  The longing for comfort and home in “I Can’t See Nobody” and “Massachussetts”, respectively, lent those songs a bittersweet eloquence.  In this hope and fearlessness, the lost voice of Robin Gibb was almost agonizingly poignant.

There was a joy in finding that lost voice, and healing in the act of welcoming it home into my own lost heart.  The voice of Robin Gibb assured me that there was no shame in loneliness, as it was an essential reality of the human condition. No matter where you sat on the bus, you ultimately sat alone.  Not even a collective camouflage festooned with prism lettering can make us one.  Nonetheless, any attempt to overcome loneliness, even a failed attempt, was an act of bravery.  The act of expression, of sharing what is important, is all we have to comfort us and to connect us, and we should never stop trying to reach out beyond that mysterious void that separates us.  The voice of Robin Gibb, in its beautiful loneliness and its impossible courage, was a gift he spent his life giving.  For those of us in his debt, we have only to throw fear aside and embrace one another in whatever way we can, lost as we all are.

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10 Responses to “The Lost Genius Of Robin Gibb”

  1. Larsy Says:

    Beautiful, MJ. BEAUTIFUL! A fitting companion/tribute to the voice of RG that we love so much. I’m nearly speechless at the poignancy and beauty of your undeniable talent. Damn, girl.

  2. Larsy Says:

    PS I love This Is Where I came in too! I’ve had that song in my head since he died. Thompson Mindlink!

  3. Kathy Laraway Decker Says:

    This article reminds me so much of my own childhood. A fitting tribute to our beloved, as though it were through my own eyes. Thank you for sharing this with all of us, I am sharing this with everyone!

  4. Sharonicus Says:

    What a touching tribute to a beautiful and talented human. I hadn’t seen this version of ‘Nights on Broadway – their harmonizing at 3:22 is pure vocal perfection.

  5. lesley Says:

    Why do girls in HS have to be such assholes. If it makes you feel any better, those girls, in my school, would have been made fun of for liking disco. Well, I guess that doesn’t really help.
    I’ve never seen the mass. video. Didn’t realize robin sung that one. Barry looks so much like andy gibb.

  6. Tali Says:

    Thank you your words are so beautiful. The way you describe Robin’s voice is exactly the way I know it too, the way I feel when I hear him singing. Dear Robin is gone, but his voice, and his other priceless gifts to us all are with us forever.

  7. 10hdt Says:

    A moving tribute to a unique musical talent. I’m sure that Robin’s voice will continue to call out to new fans as the years roll by.

  8. Joy Says:

    Beautifully expressed. I’ve been absolutely gutted by the loss of Robin Gibb–much more than any other celebrity I can recall. I don’t know why exactly, but your post help me understand. There’s something about that voice and those songs.

  9. Barry Miller Says:

    You have an exquisite and wonderful gift for writing. I have rarely
    read anything related to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and the Bee Gees that has conveyed such gravitas and sensitivity….it’s one of the most touching and moving things I have ever read since I made the film over 35 years ago.

    Barry Miller

    “Bobby C.”

  10. Thud: Growing Up With The Bee Gees | The Gaytheist Gospel Hour Says:

    […] Jumbotron Time Machine  The most indispensable element of the Barry Gibb show is the enormous video screen that hung above the stage.  Beyond setting the tone during the “Technicolor Dreams” overture, it seems to be a window into the past.   In this, it possesses powers beyond those of a video screen.  It’s like a Jumbotron Time Machine that dispensed images of the Bee Gees’ better days: a young Barry waltzing with his wife Linda, upstaged by a goose-stepping Maurice and his wife Yvonne, a grinning Robin posing with look-alike pet Irish Setter.   With the second anniversary of Robin’s death […]

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