lone bee gee keeping the music alive
The last surviving Bee Gee, Barry Gibb, has seen all his brothers die, and battled through the grief to learn to wake up and be positive, he tells Barry Egan, as he talks about sibling feuds, coping with loss, finding lasting love with his wife Linda, and getting back on stage – alone
Barry Gibb lives in a sprawling, $50m mansion on Miami Beach seafront in Florida (he also owns Johnny and June Carter Cash's old home on Old Hickory Lake in Nashville). He has suffered enough will-sapping loss in the past 10 years to darken even the sunniest day in Florida. The last surviving Bee Gee has seen all his brothers, one by one, shuffle off this mortal coil. Robin died in May 2012 from cancer. Robin's twin brother, Maurice, died in January 2003 while undergoing emergency surgery for a blocked intestine in Miami's Mount Sinai Medical Center. (In March, 1988 the youngest member of the family, Andy – who was never part of the Bee Gees – died of inflammation of the heart muscle caused by a viral infection; he had seemed to have won his prolonged struggle with cocaine addiction.) At Robin's funeral in June last year at St Mary's Church in Thame, Oxfordshire, Barry told the congregation that Robin and his twin brother Maurice were now together again in heaven.
Asked how has he dealt with all the pain, the 66-year-old tells me he has "processed it, but I don't know how. You deal with death the same way as you deal with everything else in life".
How does it make him feel to be the eldest – the big brother – and to see his little brothers all die before him? "It doesn't make sense," he sighs. "It just doesn't make sense."
His mother is still around. She is 93 years of age. "My mum and me and my older sister Leslie, two years older than me, are all that's left," he says. Barry has a maxim he has customised for his own needs: 'I have had enough of death to last me a lifetime'. "It is my own little proverb," he says, adding that "at some point, you turn around and go: 'I've got to be laughing. I've got to have some fun. This can't go on like this.' Grief is not life." You get the impression from him that all the money in the world (and the Bee Gees sold over 200 million records, so Barry must be one of the wealthiest performers in the music business) can't make up for the emptiness he feels inside some weeks.
There must be a lot of bad days then good days followed by more bad days, I say.
"I wake up – you will too, eventually – and go: 'This is going to be a f**king great day.' You talk yourself up even before you get out of bed. You choose to be happy. You monitor yourself," says Barry, who was made a CBE by the queen.
"You don't allow all that darkness to creep in any more. So, for me, I think I have to celebrate what happened and the songs we wrote and what a fantastic time we actually had." Part of the celebration is that the superstar singer is coming to Ireland on September 25 with his Mythology Tour where he will choose from the Bee Gees' timeless, iconic, song book.
It has been reported that one of his life's real regrets was that he was estranged from his brothers when they died. Barry and Robin were said to have had a fractious relationship. He once described it as like Liam and Noel Gallagher "without the violence".
"We were close but ... not close," he explains. "We were a little estranged in the last 10 years. Mo died about 10 years ago and Rob died, of course, in the last eight months," he says, before reflecting on the dynamics within the world-famous group with different members wanting different things.
"The competition had reached its absolute climax," Barry says. "Robin wanted to be a solo artist. I was really tired. To me, the cracks were showing. I didn't really feel the passion to do all of the things that Robin and Maurice wanted to do. I thought we had done what we had dreamed of doing. 'The dream came true, Rob. Sit down, relax.' So I tried to maybe appease the situation for them and myself. We could go on doing it but were we not becoming older people and losing the younger people any way? Maybe I was a little too idealistic."
The power-plays appeared to drive a wedge between each of them and affect their friendships on a deep level. "Life is complex," Barry says. "The people you are closest to, you are not always friends with. You want to be, but it just doesn't work like that."
But did he reconcile with his brothers before their respective deaths?
"I went to see Robin about two months before he died. But you know, he looked ill for such a long time." Barry recognised that there was "something wrong" when he saw Robin about a year before he died. His behaviour became odd and erratic. He would stare at the floor a lot. He would have a deep concern on his face. "I couldn't work it out," he says. Robin would go from being really happy to really sad. "I thought: 'Oh, Robin's manic depressed. He's got problems. Robin's depressed, or bi-polar.' You know?"
But Robin, I say, just knew he had cancer ... "I think so," Barry says. "The whole episode was heartbreaking and devastating for the whole family. We are a really large family, actually. Robin's family knew much more than I knew, and long before I knew. And maybe it was Robin's sadness that made me say: 'Listen, we need to stop. Something's wrong. We are not behaving the same way as we always behaved. We'd become indifferent to what's going on'," Barry says in the context of the ongoing situation with the Bee Gees. "I knew then there is something radically wrong here. I never got to the bottom of it until about seven months before he died."
Part of the process of dealing with what went on with his brothers and him in the last decade, he believes, is the dreams he continues to have about them night after night.
"I see a lot of Andy. I see a lot of Robin too. But I see the happy Robin. I see the younger Mo. We are very chatty." What does he chat about?
"Robin would say: 'You were wrong about that. This is what happened.' Maybe it is me reconnecting with the issues that we never solved. I think a whole lot of me says: 'This is real.' And that I'm actually talking to my brother. None of us know, but I feel that way.'"
Formed way back in the mist of time in 1958, the Bee Gees brought their distinctive three-part harmonies to bear on such classics as New York Mining Disaster, Massachusetts, To Love Somebody, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever, Tragedy, Islands In The Stream and Stayin' Alive to name but a few of the songs to which most of us have made complete eejits of ourselves on dancefloors at different parts of our lives. And whether we admit or not, the Bee Gees became a part, however uncool, of our lives.
Born Alan Crompton on September 1, 1946, in Douglas on the Isle of Man, Barry was raised in Manchester. There is an apocryphal, makey-up tale of the Gibb family leaving Manchester in 1958 for Australia on the advice of the local police who were worried that young Barry and his brothers would turn to a life of crime. Barry tells me it isn't apocryphal or makey-uppey at all. "We were always on the streets, you see," he laughs. "Mum and Dad were working. In the summers, the sun doesn't go down until 11 o'clock at night. So we were pretty crazy. We were trespassing, playing around in buildings, making life crazy for the local police. I got a probation for stealing a toy car," he laughs again at the memory over 50 years ago. "It wasn't a real car! But that taught me a great lesson. I was about 11 years old when we emigrated. The police came to the door and said: 'You need to get these kids off the streets. Why don't you emigrate to Australia?' We didn't know what Australia was or where it was. So dad got that dream and said, 'Let's call it a new life.'"
The Gibb family got on a ship and sailed for five weeks. Barry and his three younger brothers saw parts of the world that they could never have imagined seeing: the Suez Canal, India, Egypt, Singapore. "We were a bit like Tintin. We saw things as children in Manchester we never would have seen," he says. They were Down Under for eight years. Barry went out a boy and came back a man. He was married when he was 18 and a half. "That didn't work out," he laughs. "Mum and Dad liked the idea of marriage." And did Barry like the idea of marriage? I ask.
"Barry wasn't sure!" he laughs. "Barry was still growing!
"That marriage lasted, I would say about a year and a half," he continues. "During that time we signed to Robert Stigwood and we were walking on air. I think our relationships really suffered from that.
"I think my first marriage suffered from that. I was totally distracted by the idea of making records. We were just so naive. There was so much we didn't know," he says. "It was easy when we were young," he continues, "Maurice and Robin were the younger brothers and Andy was only a baby. Nobody was in competition with each other. I was just the big brother. Maurice and Robin were about 13 and 14. Once you all become men, that changes."
He says they didn't fight over the same girls, they "just went behind each other's backs. Brothers are different from a four-piece band. It is so easy to disentangle yourself from a band. It is a different thing if you are brothers. We grew up together and grew not so much apart but we had our own lives. There was very little socialising between us. Mo was the best." Were there tensions over who got what would be perceived to be a lead vocal in certain songs?
"Whoever was right to sing the song, or whoever really came up with the idea, sings the song. We never took that away from each other."
I mention the fact that in The Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney marginalised George Harrison creatively.
"If you look at that situation, it had to happen that way. It was nature. Lennon and McCartney were already close and were already writing. That was a natural process of that group. With the Bee Gees, the natural process: 'If you like singing that, you sing it, because it suits your kind of voice.' Robin was more like PJ Proby. He had a more operatic style to his voice."
Barry's own voice, he says after much consideration, is "a bit more towards Cliff Richard and Frankie Valli. I am a pop singer. Falsetto. I like pretending to be somebody else and in doing so I sort of find me."
The highlights of the legendary group were, he says, 1967.
"That was probably the greatest year of our lives, because that was the year we had our first international hit record and that was the year I met my wife. 1967 is really profound for me."
Forty-seven years of marriage is virtually unheard of in the music business. It is perhaps a testament to Barry Gibb's character that he and Linda are still very much together and still crazy in love after all these years.
She is a former Miss Edinburgh. "She was also a hostess of Top Of The Pops," he adds of the gorgeous Linda Gray.
I ask him did she tell him a few things about Jimmy Savile, the notorious former presenter of that show during the Seventies.
"I want to say that it was because of him that we met, but at the same time, I don't really want to say anything about him. I just think it is so tragic that he could have been such a dark person and nobody really knew."
When he met Linda – and asked her did she want to have a cup of tea – Barry and his brothers' group had had a couple of hits (New York Mining Disaster and To Love Somebody) and were on their way to becoming the global phenomenon they would soon morph into.
Barry and his brothers became global superstars, more famous and more rich than in their wildest dreams.
How did he keep his marriage together after nearly 50 years?
"I think the best word that I can give you is that I am stable."
Stability is an anomaly in show business, I say.
He laughs. "I'll tell you what it is. We had so much success and so much failure that you never got the chance to build your ego. I didn't, any way. It was always one step up, two steps down. That's been the whole span of this group's life. Because we were brothers, we couldn't pretend to be someone else with each other."
He has four sons (Stephen, Michael, Ashley and Travis) and a daughter Ali. He also has five grandchildren. He says they will all be coming to Ireland for the show.
"I love Ireland," he says. "My mother's grandmother's name is Lynch and a lot of my relatives come from Ireland and Scotland. So for me it is going back, going home, and reliving and remembering certain aspects of all my family.
"My wife is coming to Dublin with me. There isn't anywhere we don't go together. That's the secret!" he laughs, adding that despite the years of living in America, that she still has her thick Scottish brogue.
I tell him a Scottish joke. What's the difference between Bing Crosby and Walt Disney? Punchline: Bing sings and Walt disnae.
"I've got one for you!"
"What's the difference between Gangnam Style and disco?" the onetime king of disco, courtesy of Saturday Night Fever, asks.
"There isn't one!"
Barry says it won't be difficult emotionally to sing those songs on stage in Dublin without his brothers because "he loves singing them". He adds he still "sees" his brothers onstage. "I look around the stage and I still imagine them. I feel they are not gone".
"You know, I still pick up the smell of their breath on the microphone. I still pick up the different textures of their breaths. It was such a long time. We were really like one person."
Barry Gibb's Mythology Tour is at The O2 Dublin on September 25.
Tickets are from €69.50 including booking fee. In person: From 100 Ticketmaster outlets nationwide. By phone (24 hour): ROI 0818 719 300 and Northern Ireland 0844 847 24 55. International customers: +353 1 4569 569. Book online: www.ticketmaster.ie