The Bee Gees Search for Life After Disco
Barry Gibb’s wife, Linda, recalls clearly the last time she saw Barry’s youngest brother, the singer Andy Gibb, in 1988. The only unusual thing about the encounter was that Andy had died a few weeks before. “I was sleeping alone and felt something very strange,” says Linda, 39. “The light was on at the end of the bedroom, as one of the children had been in. It was about 4 A.M. I felt a kiss and a little bit of bristle on my face. I opened my eyes and looked up, and Andy was there. He was smiling.”
Barry’s brother and fellow Bee Gee Maurice Gibb has never seen Andy’s ghost, although he claims to have heard it while standing near the backyard dock of his Miami home. “Andy always came by boat, he never used the front door,” says Maurice. “He’d park and say, ‘Hey, buddy!’ He always used to say buddy, which I think he picked up from the Osmonds. I was having this barbecue with the family, and then we went inside. I heard, ‘Hey, buddy!’ as loud as anything. It was his voice. It had this slight nasalness to it.”
Gibb brother Robin has never seen or heard from Andy, although Robin’s wife, Dwina, 36, believes that the Prebendal, the couple’s 13th-century house near Oxford, is haunted. While describing the Prebendal’s highlights, she cheerfully mentions the specter of “John the gardener, who walks through the wall regularly.”
Welcome to the unusual world of the Bee Gees, circa 1989. Twelve years ago, the brothers Gibb—lion-maned Barry, now 42, and fraternal twins Maurice and Robin, 39—were the hottest musical act on the planet. The Saturday Night Fever LP was on its way to selling 30 million copies worldwide, and the inimitable falsetto harmonies of “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Night Fever” were driving their fans and their critics into various sorts of frenzy.
Though spectacular, the reign of the Bee Gees proved brief. Their 1979 album, Spirits Having Flown, did well, but Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a movie in which they starred with Peter Frampton, gobbled loudly at the box office that same year. Then complicated record company battles helped keep the Gibbs from releasing LPs for eight years. The break, they maintain, was a blessing in disguise. “They were the happiest years of our lives because we were raising our kids,” says Barry. “We were writing and producing songs for other people, which didn’t take up 100 percent of our time.” The hiatus also allowed the brothers to pursue a variety of idiosyncratic interests—from UFOs to reincarnation to the life of Adolf Hitler—and come to grips with personal problems, including Maurice’s troubles with alcohol.
Still, they have always longed for a musical comeback, which has so far escaped them—at least in America. A 1987 album, ESP, sold 3 million copies in Europe but flopped in the States. Now the brothers are at it again with another album, One, and, for the first time since 1979, a U.S. tour, which begins July 31 in Chicago and continues through early September. The Gibbs are a bit nervous about the road show because it will require them to confront, head-on, the white-suited, gold chain-wearing demon who has made their career a living hell for most of the last decade. We are speaking, of course, of the Ghost of Disco Past.
“We have taken a lot of flak over the years,” says Barry. “We’ve spent too many years on the defensive, and now that we’re on the attack, it feels a damn sight better. This band has been around for 30 years, so it’s a little unfair to tag us with a disco label. Paul McCartney made disco records. Rod Stewart did. Even Ethel Merman, which shows you how outrageous the times were.”
“We had never even heard the word disco when we wrote those songs,” Robin says. “We were just flabbergasted when [Saturday Night Fever] went through the roof.” Agrees Maurice: “Disco was a rude word. I hated it! I loathed it with a passion! But all of a sudden we were the hottest disco band around. The media made it an albatross for us.”
As for crimes of fashion committed in the disco era, the Gibbs plead nolo contendere. “We wore white trousers because that was what everyone was wearing,” says Maurice, citing exhibits in his own defense. “I have pictures of Genesis wearing white bell-bottoms!” He cringes when confronted with evidence of another sartorial infraction—gold medallions set in a field of chest hair. “They used to bang on my chest, and I hated that,” he says. “I only wore one onstage once!”
It’s easy to sympathize with the Bee Gees’ predicament. As Barry says, “It’s very confusing. If everybody said no, I would understand and maybe go off and buy a farm and raise pigs. On the other side, I hear people say, ‘Your music is the most beautiful I ever heard.’ ” That sort of thing is music to a Bee Gee’s ear. “The three of us have one ideal,” says Maurice. “It is just to be approved of.”
Sadly, the same desire for approval may have played a role in their brother’s death. “I feel that he really didn’t want to make another album,” says Robin of Andy, whose solo 1977 LP, Flowing Rivers, made him an instant teen idol. “He didn’t want to be successful in the music business. What he really wanted was to join the Navy and be a pilot. But he had this feeling that he had to prove himself to us, which was a mistake. If he had pursued another course, I genuinely feel that he would be alive today.”
Instead, Andy died of a heart ailment at age 30 after years of abusing his body with cocaine and alcohol. He ignored his brothers’ pleas to stop. Says Maurice: “I remember standing on the balcony of Andy’s house in Malibu, saying, ‘It’s a nice house. That’s a nice Porsche. Do you want to keep them? Because the way you’re going, you won’t. You’ve got to stop this crap.’ And he felt maybe [I was] right.” But Andy didn’t act on that feeling. “We went back inside,” says Maurice. “He left and came back and said, ‘Mom, where are the tissues?’ And I could see his nose running and I knew what he had been doing. I thought, ‘Well, when he’s ready.’ You can only plant the seed. If it doesn’t grow, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Maurice knows about denial: it took a series of personal and professional crises to convince him to get treatment for alcoholism in 1980. At one point his wife, Yvonne, refused to board the Concorde with him because she was sure he would be thrown off for being drunk and disorderly. He was. Another time, when a worker was rebuilding a bathroom at the Bee Gees’ Miami studio, 16 empty liquor bottles fell through the weakened ceiling onto his head. “My brothers could never understand how, when I was in the studio, I would have only two beers and get sloshed as a newt,” says Maurice. “I had backup everywhere—in the glove box, under the seat, wherever.” Until he admitted his problem to himself, says Maurice, who also had an eight-month flirtation with cocaine in the late ’70s, there was nothing anyone could do. “I just said, ‘Piss off. 1 can handle it.’ I didn’t give a damn what I did to other people, and Andy was the same way.”
When Andy died, he says, “it was like someone kicking you in the stomach and you don’t know how to breathe again.” Adds Barry: “Andy’s problem wasn’t drugs or alcohol. It was the lack of things. He lacked confidence. He had forgotten how to grab life. That was the sad thing. He’d lost faith.” Barry, clearly, has not. “Andy is out there, somewhere,” he says. “When you lose someone close to you, your concept of death is changed. You can’t believe it is just dust.”
That sort of belief comes easily to Barry, who, like his brothers, is fascinated by the supernatural. “I read a lot of life-after-death books, a lot of metaphysical books,” he says. “I am a UFO-logist, and I love ghosts and the idea of fear.” He has tried to regress to past lives through hypnotherapy—with mixed results. “I am not convinced I was ever hypnotized,” he says. “I came out with stuff like I was in a Victorian street. I died at sea when I was an emigrant to America as a teenager in my other life, but we didn’t go back any further. If I ever really lived another life, I must have been a good person, as so many wonderful things have happened to me in this life.”
Chief among them are Linda, his wife of 19 years, and their sons, Stephen, 15, Ashley, 11, Travis, 8, and Michael, 4. “I can’t imagine what it is like to be a successful pop star without a family to support you,” says Barry, who often brings them all with him on tour. “I don’t feel sorry for George Michael, but I wouldn’t want to be him. No thanks.”
Each of the brothers has a home in Miami and a home in England, where they generally spend the summer months. Though landlocked, the British residences cover the waterfront. Barry and Linda’s place, a 19th-century mock-Tudor on 87.5 acres west of London, offers their kids plenty of room to maneuver on their Honda ATVs. Maurice, Yvonne, 38, and their two Gibb-lets, Adam, 13, and Samantha, 9, live in a large, ultramodern four-bedroom abode. Amenities include a tennis court, an indoor swimming pool and an air-conditioned garage, the better to preserve the leather-and-wood interiors of Maurice’s Aston-Martin and his Rolls-Royce convertible.
Robin and Dwina’s home, by contrast, hasn’t been ultramodern since shortly after King John signed the Magna Charta. The Prebendal was originally built as a monastery in 1241; the property also includes a chapel begun in 1138 and a 14th-century refectory. On one wall hangs a portrait of Anne Boleyn, who once visited the house with her husband, Henry VIII, prior to their marital difficulties.
The Bee Gees would probably just as soon forget Boleyn as they begin their American tour; she is, after all, a sobering example of what can happen when you stick your neck out. But come what may, the brothers say they will never back down. “I want to see the Bee Gees where they are not made fun of,” says Barry. “That’s my cause. And I’ll go on until that happens. It may never happen, but I don’t care. I’m prepared for the fight.”
—Cutler Durkee, Jonathan Cooper in London