Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Remembering the Bee Gees

Robin Gibb died last week.  Partly because of the coincidence of Donna Summer's death a few days earlier, the Bee Gees retrospectives emphasized their disco period.  While they sold a lot of records with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and for a few later albums, I was listening to the Bee Gees from their U.S. debut in 1967. 

Bee Gees 1st, with its psychedelic cover, was in the pile of rotating albums that fall, along with Buffalo Springfield's first, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Tim Hardin, John Wesley Harding, the Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, the previous spring's Sergeant Pepper, etc. 

Their second album--Horizontal-- came out that winter, along with Magical Mystery Tour, the Stones' Her Satanic Majesty Requests, Disraeli Gears, Strange Days, Vanilla Fudge, more Airplane, Hendrix... Their sound and songs were part of the soundtrack of my senior year of college, and the house at 169 West First Street, otherwise known as the Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.

They had the Beatles patina, but more like the next Beatles thing.  Maybe because their first hit was "New York Mining Disaster 1941" they were given to anthemic surrealism, mixed in with rhythm and blues flavored radio songs like their second hit and one of their most enduring songs, "To Love Somebody."  The surreal flow of their lyrics grabbed me.  Not only pondering poetic possibilities under the influence of this or that, but feeling the emotional undertow, and the feeling expressed in those voices.  I mean, who else could get away with a poignant memory song like "Red Chair, Fade Away?" Or the odd U.S. hit "Holiday?"

"Horizontal" went even stronger towards a novelistic surrealism, a poetic freedom that no one else dared.  It opened with two slow songs, "World" and "The Sun Will Shine," with lines that barely related and lyrics that wandered, quoted an old ballad, observed, expressing a youthful yearning and yet a larger melancholy of time.  Even a lovely song like "Day Time Girl" made more poetic than literal sense.  But they still had the ability to construct tight pop tunes for radio hits, like "Birdie Told Me," although the enduring hit from the album, "Massachusetts," also struggles to stay between the lines.  Nevertheless, they had the sound.

But among the avid listeners of most of the people and bands I named from 67-68,  mine was a minority view.  The Bee Gees were mostly dismissed.  But I didn't care much.  I kept buying and listening to their albums.  I played "Idea" in my single long, narrow room tacked onto a real building in Iowa City, as I tried to navigate the Writers Workshop and the draft, as well as, you know, relationships.  I was such a Beatles fan that in that room I once fought off depression by going through the paperback novelization of the Beatles' movie "Help!" and correcting the dialogue, because I remembered it all from seeing the movie so many times.  But I embraced the Bee Gees, too.  I recall reading an interview with Robin Gibb who said he heard music everywhere--the sound of an airplane engine gave him the melody of "I Started a Joke," one of the hits from this album, along with "I've Gotta Get a Message to You."  I understood that completely.  And I also needed that other message: "Hold on, hold on."

By spring I was pondering their strange double album, "Odessa," with its red felt cover.  Again, the tangled history of a disaster in the title song.  The antic melodies, the wandering ballads.  It was stranger than ever, maybe too ambitious, but something about it held me--some feeling within the excesses, some sense of a meaning just obscured.

The Brothers Gibb broke up, reunited with "Two Years On" and its radio hit, "Lonely Days."  What a song!  Those harmonies, breaking into painful solos.  "Trafalgar" (another historical theme cover and song) starts with "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," and their sound is starting to change.  Though their "Mr. Natural" album was a popular low point, I really liked a song called "Dogs"--nobody but the Bee Gees could have written and sung it.  When I first heard "Nights on Broadway" and "Jive Talkin'" on their album "Main Course," I didn't think disco.  Everybody was doing that beat, even the Eagles.  The song I liked most was "Edge of the Universe."

But then came Saturday Night Fever, and they were officially disco.  I bought their "Spirits Having Flown" and  "Children of the World" albums, I liked them, I was happy for their success, but when I unloaded almost half of my record collection before heading for the West Coast, those records didn't make the trip.

It is incredible to realize that they made all this music in about 12 years.  Only five individuals or groups had sold more records--more than Michael Jackson, not to mention the Stones, the Doors, Dylan, etc. by the time they were inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.  They were lucky to have a very persistent and not unhucksterish promotor, Robert Stigwood, right from their late 60s beginning.  He packaged and repackaged them endlessly even in the lean years.  His judgment wasn't always great--witness their greatest flop, the Sergeant Pepper movie.  But he stuck with them. 

Robin's twin brother Barry is the last Bee Gee left. The Wikipedia entry mentions a possible movie in development about their lives, produced by Steven Speilberg.  For people like me who were there for it all, the Bee Gees were part of the soundtrack that kept us going.  A bunch of their songs will haunt me for the rest of my days.  Their classic songs that have been recorded by others will stay in the pantheon.  And their harmonies will remain unique, lifting up those lonely days.