I was thrilled to receive a gift of a Bee Gees puzzle from my younger sister Lars last month. This is not a joke: I was thrilled to get a 200 piece puzzle of the Bee Gees. I love the Bee Gees, and not in the half-assed way that it’s become acceptable to love the Bee Gees, either. They’re not a “guilty pleasure.” Nor is “their early stuff actually pretty good” to me. I love the disco stuff from the 70’s just as much as I love their British Invasion stuff. They were my first favorite band. I grew up with them. My love, like all first loves, is crystalline and perfect: unencumbered by the cloudy complications that attend my “grown up” affections. (I love Neko Case, for example, but I’ve backed away from her latest work, which seems stiff and agenda-addled to me.) As a Bee Gees fan, I’ve become accustomed to snide comments and backhanded compliments. After all, the Bee Gees have been given a bad rap. When called upon to do so, I’ve been their defender and I’ll defend them again in this story. Like the contents of the box handed to me by my sister, this story is a jumble of pieces of the past: a past as distant as the summer of 1981, when my love for the Bee Gees became a full-tilt obsession and as recent as May 27, 2014, when I attended Barry Gibb’s “Mythology” Tour at the United Center in Chicago.
Like the puzzle (which showcases a concert photo of the Bee Gees at the height of their hairy-chested, satin-trousered, hair-flying powers), the distant past and its colors are a faded dream, the surface hues long gone, revealing a lurid pink that seemed to underlie the disco era in which I grew up. Simply put, it was a messed up thing to be an innocent in the cultural aftermath of the Sexual Revolution. Dissonance was de rigeur for my generation, growing up. One of my keenest memories, for example, was of sitting in my parents’ car at the drive-in, waiting to watch Disney’s “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again” while “Afternoon Delight” played on the window-mounted speaker. The brazen pink gloaming on the western horizon behind the blank screen perfectly matched the raunch issuing forth from that metal box. I was nagged by the sense of something that hadn’t happened yet, something scary awaited me in that sexy pink horizon that somehow was supposed to be fun. It was a time when a grade school-aged girl like myself could have a favorite song written from the point of view of “a woman’s man, [with] no time to talk”. Though separated from that confusing time by over three decades, the 2014 concert was a sort of homecoming that completed the puzzle that was the summer of 1981.
“Technicolor Dreams” “Technicolor Dreams” is an odd choice for an opening number. It’s a deep cut from the Bee Gees’ final album, 2001’s This Is Where I Came In, a quirky, off-kilter ditty, not at all representational of their oeuvre—a fluke bordering on novelty song. With its old timey banjo strum, brush on a snare beat, jazzy clarinet, this charming bit of cheese is pure Tin Pan Alley razzmataz.
Barry Gibb appears, not on the stage, but rather on an enormous video screen that hangs above it. He lip synchs the words, leonine as always with his beard and shoulder-length mane, grinning that famous white grin behind wraparound shades. The video is shot partially in a faux sepia tone, the default color of the past, no matter how recent. Intermingled with this “performance” is home movie footage from the 70’s and 80’s of his brothers: Andy, gorgeous and blond, Maurice, balding, bearded, and brilliantly hilarious, and Robin, auburn-maned and intense. All three of them died too soon: Andy at the age of 30 and the twins Maurice at 53 and Robin at 62. The message is clear: we are going to revisit a musical brotherhood spanning five decades and celebrate songs these brothers wrote together and made famous with their unmistakable harmonies. What could this music possibly sound like without them? On the big video screen, Barry Gibb produces a clarinet and mimes a jolly, twiddly solo. He makes a comically poor show of it. In this offhand gesture, he seems to admit he is out of his element: he’s only pretending to be a solo artist here. Watching from the cheap seats at the United Center, I begin to cry.
Thud When the Gibb brothers combined forces, they made pop music masterpieces. When my siblings and I got together, we made noise. Our sound was inspired by the more primitive strains running through the Bee Gees’ catalog, the thud-heavy stuff, like their first hit song “Spicks And Specks” and the chorus of “Lonely Days.” Just as the Bee Gees were born to create soaring harmonies, we were born to thud. The propensity to thud had unmistakably genetic roots, as evidenced by our dad’s version of dancing. It wasn’t really dancing at all. Maybe “musically-induced movement” is a better word for it. Dad was the Mighty Thud King of Guernsey County: his fist was one with the beat of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, Onry, And Mean” album. A single thud would set off a seismic rattle of High Life cans, reducing them to trembling minions on the kitchen table. It was within that thud, like the rush of blood pounding in the brain or the march of an approaching army that the three of us bashed out timeless classics like “Yah Yah”, “Hand Me Down An Aspirin”, and “I’m Going To Kill You.” I owned an acoustic guitar, but had no use for the front of it. The plinky, samurai-funeralesque dirges I played with the front was reserved for solo gigs—alone in my room, strung out on the Whoppers I’d hoarded from the Christmas before. Perhaps troubled by what they heard through the door, or more likely annoyed by it, my siblings would extract me and together we would create a world where a guitar made a better drum and fun was made of everything.
Rupert’s World By the time the Bee Gees landed in England, they had grown to a full band (with the addition of drummer Colin Peterson and guitarist Vince Melouney). They were keen to shirk the identity foisted upon them when they were pint-sized troubadours back in Australia and have a fresh start. The Bee Gees name hadn’t even been their idea in the first place. It was inflicted upon them in by some DJ when they were kids back in the 50’s. The year was 1967; so naturally, they wanted to rename themselves Rupert’s World. “It was like changing your name from Charlie Shit to Fred Shit,” Barry Gibb remarked several years later. The name was wisely vetoed by their manager Robert Stigwood and was relegated to the pages of the Bee Gees paperback biography, where it laid in wait for me to find it and make it our own. This “Fred Shit” doppelganger was everything “Charlie Shit” was, but bigger and almost unrecognizably distorted, as if somehow plugged into and blasted out of a mountain sized amplifier. Like the Bee Gees in those early days, Rupert’s World was three siblings, making music with peers who shared our journey, but not our vision. Like the Bee Gees, we were wildly successful. Unlike the Bee Gees, we had our very own Solid Gold Dancer. When we weren’t making “music”, we were collaborating on Rupert’s World Story, a narrative tapestry that owed as much to Greek tragedy as it did Monty Python. We assumed personas that embodied the most overblown rock-n-roll clichés we could think of.
Hank was Sheldon Ovalton, the slickest of front men, and consummate superstar. Our neighbor Danny was Ralston Purina, bland wingman of the John Oates/Jim Messina idiom. I was Marika San Antone, lead guitar bombast incarnate. Lars and Danny’s sister Julie were The Lone Tambouriners, the masked percussionists of mystery. And last, and especially least, there was our distant cousin, also named Danny. He needed something to do, so we made him a Solid Gold Dancer and had him do backflips on the hay bales during our “outdoor festival” performances. Every single one of Rupert’s World’s songs were international number one hits, even the obscure album cuts (ESPECIALLY the obscure album cuts). The success of Rupert’s World prompted a backlash, but in a twist on the anti-Bee Gees zeitgeist, Rupert’s World was anti-fan. Like perverse gods weary of slavish worship, Rupert’s World deliberately tried to alienate them all with the worst piece of shit album ever recorded. This album (Forever Strawberry Moments Forever) was completely unplayable because it was pressed on pink vinyl in the shape of a strawberry instead of a circle. They were horrified to see it outsell everything they had ever recorded, going to Infinite Platinum, making them the Best Selling Artists of the Universe. Eventually, it occurred to Rupert’s World that the reason they were the most popular band was that they were the only band in the universe. Upon realizing this, they went the way of all true rock-n-roll legends: they self-destructed. Because this was Rupert’s World, no pathetic little overdose or run-of-the mill tour bus crash would do. Rupert’s World went out in a blaze of glory via the power-chord detonation of a mountain-sized amplifier, from which arose thousands of new bands, all of which were potentially new “legends” for us to create. This death-by-insane-loudness idea was pretty much the defining metaphor of our entire misfit childhood. We courted disdain and destruction with every jam session: banging, shrieking, and laughing until our folks pounded on the other side of the wall separating Hank’s room with the living room, where they roared threats over Walter Cronkite and the 6 o’clock news.
Kids Like Us Looking back on it, it seems Rupert’s World was an inevitability.
It was the summer when our mom went back to work, leaving us with Dad during the day. It was the summer when we helped him paint the barn, then the house. In return, he paid us each a buck a day (an enormous sum to us at the time) and taught us how to cook our own lunch: grilled cheese and tomato soup. I wouldn’t say it was a hellish existence– sweating in the heat, straining my back and limbs to push a rickety roller brush as high as I could while being blinded by the sun reflected in the rustic red latex based paint, but I will say it did put many things in a new perspective for me, things like the metric system and liver and onions and going to the dentist. By the time we’d finished, I started to think that maybe even death wasn’t so bad. I spent my earnings on Pickwick reissues of the Bee Gees’ Australian releases, stuff they’d recorded when they were kids like us. I’d forgo the purchase of “The Warlord” comic books to buy these records, they were that important to me. It took roughly a month of paint-pushing and grilled-cheese-eating to accumulate the wealth needed to buy a single record, and when I sat down under the headphones to listen, all of it was worthwhile. The teen Bee Gees wrestled with Richenbackers, banjos and bouzoukis, awkwardly dabbled in soul, and even had the nerve to transform what sounded like a sinus condition into a mournful solo instrument. These spunky, snaggle-pussed dorks were beings of pure potential, slowly approaching their destiny as hit-making kings of the world. I could see my siblings and myself in their dynamic: Hank was the charismatic, sunny Barry Gibb of our group, an important counterpoint to the angsty darkness I shared with Robin and our younger sister Lars was easily our Maurice, the level-headed, good-humored glue that held us all together. We were the Midwestern shadows that the Bee Gees cast on a freshly painted barn door. Our better days would be coming, too; I was sure of it. But the records seemed to cause as many problems as they assuaged. I lived in a near-continual state of low-grade anxiety, worried that someone would come along and buy the others remaining at the K-Mart. I can see now that banging out the Rupert’s World anthems of nonsense and violence was the only reasonable response to the drudgery and uncertainty of that summer.
Jumbotron Time Machine The most indispensable element of the Barry Gibb show is the enormous video screen that hangs 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 normal 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
being less than a week prior to the concert, The Jumbotron Time Machine takes the sorrowful edge off the evening and transfoms it into a celebration of lives lived joyfully. Most astounding is the moment when that window opens and pulls the past into full interaction with the present. When it summons forth strikingly lifelike footage of Robin, standing on a concert stage, taking over for Barry on the anguished refrains of “I Started A Joke”, a collective gasp arises in the United Center.
This Wonderful Thing It was the “Disco Sucks” era and entire nation seemed to turn against the Bee Gees for the crime of showing it a good time. No one wanted to own up to being one of the millions who made the “Saturday Night Fever” Soundtrack go platinum 15 times over, earning it the distinction of being the best-selling soundtrack album of all times (a record later broken by Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard” soundtrack). It was as if the entire country had awakened, screaming after sleeping off a lost weekend of lost inhibitions, a cultural shore leave into an exotic port where it did the Hustle with gays and minorities (for disco was certainly the music of the dancing other) and learned strange and confusing things about itself. Of course, it stood to reason that everything that connoted that disquieting night fever epidemic had to be destroyed. And it came to pass that hundreds of Bee Gees records were piled in an enormous heap in the middle of Comiskey Park and ritualistically blown up in a huge white man shame explosion broadcast on national television. At the time, however, I was completely oblivious to the social/sexual/racial ramifications of getting down. After all, I had a guitar to thud and at least a whole house and half a barn left to paint, to say nothing of the worrisome acquisition of all the Bee Gees records at the K-Mart. All I knew was, Dad hated the Bee Gees and so did John Updike. When he stumbled upon Updike’s searing diss in the pages of Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich one rainy day, the generational battle lines were drawn. “The disco music shifts to the Bee Gees,” Dad read aloud from his favorite chair in the living room, “white men who have done this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like black women.” He could barely get the words out for laughing, but he managed to draw out the pronunciation of “wonderful” to its full sarcastic magnitude. In a single sentence, as miniscule as an atom split, Updike managed to not only insult the Bee Gees but also a significant portion of the human race. It was at this point that the weirdly amorphous, barn-red-speckled resentment I’d felt gathered force, direction, and focus. In that moment, I became a teenager. I may have only been about twelve at the time, but thanks to Dad and that asshole John Updike, I graduated from clueless, shiftless moper to a full-throttle seether, a surly, parent-loathing eye-roller to (as it was called in 80’s teen slang) “the max”. To his credit, Dad eventually made amends by adopting an “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” approach with his fake-band-creating children. He later joined Lars and Hank as Lenny, Kenny, and Benny: The Fabulous Doo-Wah Brothers (one of the phoenixes arisen from the ashes of Rupert’s World.). The three of them (and Dad in particular) did their best to persuade me to join up as Jenny, the sole female Doo-Wah Brother, but I declined. By that time, I was a full-fledged teenager and had discovered Odessa, the Bee Gees’ masterpiece of alienation and sour grapes. It was too late.
If You Can Stand It, So Can I The subject of disco doesn’t come up until the final third of the concert. Although the show kicked off with a “Jive Talkin’”/”You Should Be Dancing” boogie-down one-two punch, it seemed there was a sort of white-suited, gold-medallion-wearing elephant roaming the aisles of the United Center while Gibb performed. That he and the disco component of his catalog have been the butt of over thirty years’ worth of jokes seemed quietly evident in the unceremonious performance of “Stayin’ Alive”. This was the song that cemented the destiny the Bee Gees sought since childhood, yet it was submitted without the loving commentary that bracketed many of Gibb’s relatively lesser-known hits. “Stayin’ Alive” was a real artistic accomplishment in that it crystalized the desperation lurking in the shadows of the bright lights of the seventies. It stands as an expose of the emptiness of the decade’s cut-throat egotism. It is arguably the best song they’d ever write. Unfortunately, it was also the song that assured the Bee Gees’ place on the summit of Comiskey Park’s “Disco Sucks” mountain. It’s hard to imagine the inner conflict Barry Gibb must feel, performing a song that was once so loved, he was later reviled for it, even if the audience assembled before him never stopped loving either. Before performing “Nights On Broadway” (a tune that had been hijacked and butchered by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake to use as the theme song of their “Barry Gibb Talk Show” skit)
Barry Gibb confronts thirty years of ridicule with dignity and good humor. Even though he was savagely lampooned by Fallon as a screeching, foul-tempered, medallion-clanking tyrant, Gibb projects a photo of himself singing with Fallon and Timberlake on the video screen. “I’m not mad,” he says, flashing that Vegas shark smile of his. “But tonight, it’s MY show.” The last three words are a direct reference to the “Talk Show” version of himself, who constantly interrupts his guests with this shrieking battle cry. Equally gracious was Gibb’s acknowledgement of Bruce Springsteen’s recent tribute to that most reviled anthem, “Stayin’ Alive.” There was no gloating on Gibb’s part, merely a modest return of admiration in the form of a fantastic cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” It seems as though this touching validation from a well-respected peer may have been too little, too late, however. Just before the disco ball finally descends from the United Center’s rafters with the grim inevitability of a guillotine blade, Barry Gibb mutters “If you can stand it, so can I.”
This Wonderful Thing (Part Two) If my wife Kate hadn’t given me Barry Gibb’s Mythology tickets for my birthday, I might have never gone. With both Maurice and Robin gone, my misgivings were myriad. Would the show be too sad to sit though? Would the seats be packed with morbid, rubbernecking weirdos? Emotional considerations aside, what would the music sound like without Robin’s vibrato and Maurice’s octave-spanning versatility? How was Barry going to recreate the stunning harmonies that were the Bee Gees ‘ instantly recognizable trademark? Even with tickets in hand, I was ambivalent. Ultimately, I decided to go even if the whole thing turned out to be a nightmarish, disco karaoke death trip. The debt of gratitude I had to Barry Gibb as the man behind the soundtrack of my youth and unwitting founding father of Rupert’s World was much too great. I owed it to him to support him as he stood alone on that stage. But still, the question nagged at me: who could possibly take the place of Maurice and Robin? The answer reveals itself on stage right, within spitting distance of the drummer: three backup singers, all of whom were women, two of whom were black—young, beautiful, talented women who would do this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like the Bee Gees.
I could almost hear John Updike gagging hideously on his own words in whatever blisteringly ironic hell that all sexist, racist assholes go to when they die.
The puzzle given to me by my sister brought back memories of a similar puzzle I had owned as a kid. I had completely forgotten about my Bee Gees puzzle. In bringing me that puzzle, my sister had, in effect, presented me with a piece of my own past, gone missing for years. But now I remember it keenly. I used to like to piece it together while listening to my headphones. With the music playing, and the puzzle coming together before me with a steady and reliable logic (I always assembled the logo first, then Robin’s face, then Barry’s and Maurice’s and ended with the edge pieces), my solitary Bee Geeverse was perfect. The serenity was almost unimpeachable, and it was probably the closest thing to happiness I felt at that time. To know I nearly lost that memory forever is almost unbearable to me. The new puzzle is missing ten pieces, but in this, it’s perfect: symbolic of the passage of time and what we’ve lost along the way. When I assembled this new puzzle during a recent visit to my parent’s house, I was quietly and miraculously joined by my dad. At some point between the completion of the logo and the start of Robin’s face, he sat down at the table beside me and helped me put it back together again.