Bee Gees: The Biography By David Meyer Da Capo Press, 416 pp., $27.50
"The Bee Gees are everywhere and in everyone's heads, and still - outside their legion of diehard fans -- don't get the respect they deserve."
This is the theory that author Meyer, who penned the well-regarded Gram Parsons bio Twenty Thousand Roads, posits in this, surprisingly the first full-length book on a group that has sold some 250 million records over a 40-year career together (their late '70s autobiography notwithstanding).
From their earliest days as child cabaret performers in Australia (where the Gibb family had emigrated to from Manchester, England), to early success with pop ballads and soft psychedelia, to their massive, massive success as disco's posters boys, Meyer covers it all.
Also getting ink is their later-in-life work writing and producing for others (Barbara Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers) while maintaining a lower-key career and attempting to shed the heavy fashion shackles of white suits, satin pants, and hairy bare chests with gold medallions.
When the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever spends 24 weeks at No. 1 on the charts and sells 25 million copies in three years, it casts a huge shadow. And while the Bee Gees share the cover and are most closely associated with the record, they only perform six of its 17 tracks.
But make no mistake -- band and family are utterly intertwined in this story -- with all the personal and professional grudges, pride, and jealousies you can imagine. The book paints a picture of each Gibb personality, neatly divided with Barry as the creative, overly pushy alpha male, Robin as the sensitive, wounded romantic with a chip on his narrow shoulders, and Maurice as the good-time go-between (and arguably the most talented pure musician).
As for dishy rock-star behavior, there's plenty here. Not for nothing were Barry, Robin, and Maurice nicknamed "Pot, Pills, and Piss" for their mood-alterer of choice, though it should be noted that Maurice didn't imbibe urine; a bit of across-the-pond translation needed there.
Oddly, though, Meyer vacillates between straight objectivity and opinion spewing through the narrative, sometimes making laughable or head-scratching pronouncements such as the only singer who can act is Queen Latifah, or that "More Than a Woman" and "How Deep is Your Love" are "pablum."
But it's this sentence that might make even the most fanatic fan doubt, as Meyer discusses the grandiose song "To Love Somebody.": "If he never wrote another number, it should be enough to cement [Barry's] reputation as one of pop's most important songwriters."
This, despite the fact that the tune was co-written with Robin.
Houston merits a brief mention when John Travolta (bearded, and nearby while filming Urban Cowboy) joins the Bees Gees for their June 30, 1979 show at the Summit to recreate some of his famous Fever moves during "You Should Be Dancing"). If only there were YouTube video of that encounter!
Even brother Andy Gibb gets his own chapter, one of the book's most riveting. Was he an innocent teen plunged into a world of music and drugs that would very quickly lead to a deadly cocaine addiction? A sorry, selfish son of a bitch who abandoned his young bride and their daughter, the latter of which he would only see once? A semi-talent coasting on good looks? An artist who alternately chafed as being under the control of brother Barry's creatively, but reliant on him for penning his three No. 1 hits? The answer is all of these.
And while he appears to have not done any original interviews, the book is an example of a good narrative melding of previously-sourced material. Meyer also torpedoes a myth about the group's name -- "Bee Gees" not standing for "Brothers Gibb" as is commonly thought, but for the initials of early backers, race-car driver Bill Goodwin and DJ Bill Gates.
In the end, Bee Gees: The Biography does what Meyer intended it to: restore some respect and luster to a family band whose music is incredibly ingrained in a lot of people's everyday listening, embodied with craftsmanship, and far more than just a "disco group." Though, shaking your ass to Bee Gees music at a school dance, wedding, or club is practically a rite of passage today.
Somehow, it seems fitting that Barry Gibb is the Last Brother Standing. And while the now 66-year-old understandably no longer possesses the leonine good looks or high-ranging falsetto of decades ago, Meyer closes the book with him giving a triumphant two-and-a-half-hour show just months ago to tens of thousands of rabid fans in Australia, simply happy to hear him performing at any level.
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And with not a white suit in sight.