To Love Somebody: A Tribute to the Brilliance of the Bee Gees

Of all the ill-advised remarks Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has uttered throughout his career, few raised as much ire and indignation as a comment he made to a group of Republican faithful a couple of weeks ago at a gathering in St. Petersburg. That's when he made the following dimwitted observation in a lame attempt to provide historical reference:

"The '70s were a very frightening time," Rubio began with feigned gravitas. "Jimmy Carter was president. And we had a president who lied to the American people, who was almost impeached before he had to resign. And most troubling of all, we had to overcome disco and bell-bottoms, and the Bee Gees." 

And that's when the lovefest ended. Ceased abruptly, in fact. Suddenly the audience erupted in cries of protest. "Whoa! Don't go there," they admonished him amid a chorus of boos. Never mind the right-wing politics. Never mind his tirades against entitlements or his disdain for a woman's right to choose. The thing that turned the crowd against their heralded boy wonder was a slap at the Bee Gees.

"All right. I went too far," Rubio retreated when it was clear he had inadvertently offended his constituents. "Let me just write a note to myself about the Bee Gees." The audience erupted in laughter and cheers, as well it should have. Because anyone with even an inkling of music appreciation knows it's inexcusable to knock the Brothers Gibb. 

Indeed, that same night on the CBS4 evening newscast, the Bee Gees found a defense from what might have seemed an unlikely source. Anchor Antonio Mora closed the program with a remarkable commentary in which he singled out several of the band's songs as examples of pop music at its finest. He vigorously rebuffed all those who still consider them relics of the disco era as he pointed to their prodigious history and a productive trajectory that took root in the heady days of the late '60s. It's a crime to sell them short, Mora insisted, and his commentary couldn't have been more correct.

Formed in Australia in 1960 by three English brothers not yet into their teens -- twins Robin and Maurice, and Barry, who was three years older -- the trio showed its proficiency early on, releasing no fewer than a dozen singles before scoring its first success with a catchy tune called "Spicks and Specks." Although they originally dubbed themselves the Rattlesnakes and later assumed the name Wee Johnny Hayes & the Bluecats, it was a DJ named Bill Gates who renamed them the Bee Gees. Contrary to popular belief, the name was chosen not to capitalize on their initials as the Brothers Gibb but rather to vainly tout his own initials (BG) and that of the promoter who introduced them, Bill Goode. 

It was after they relocated back to Britain in 1967 that they began to enjoy international success. Mentored by Robert Stigwood, an early associate of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, the group ruled the charts throughout the remainder of the '60s and early '70s, spinning out such hits as "New York Mining Disaster," "I Can't See Nobody," "To Love Somebody," "Words," "Massachusetts," "I Started a Joke," "I've Got to Get a Message to You," "Lonely Days," "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," and "Run to Me," several of which would go on to become standards that spawned successful cover versions by other well-known artists. 

The fact that many listeners initially thought that the Bee Gees was a pseudonym for the Beatles seemed no surprise; their precise harmonies and sometimes quirky subject matter (i.e., mining disasters, a man on death row, circus elephants) seemed the perfect remedy for the Fab Four's increasing preoccupation with psychedelia.

Even after the hits began to waiver, the band maintained its ambitions. 1969's double album Odessa (bearing a faux red-velvet cover, no less) was a lofty concept album that detailed the fate of a ship disaster similar to that of the Titanic. Labeled pretentious by some at the time, it wasn't without precedent; story narratives and rich orchestral arrangements had defined the Gibbs' musical palette since early on. 

Although Odessa was one of the peaks in terms of the group's creative endeavors, as a double disc set, it was largely overshadowed by formidable competition -- Wheels of Fire, Electric Ladyland, the Beatles' White Album. Still, with lovely, multihued offerings like the good-natured ramble "Marley Purt Drive," the luminescent "Lamplight," the gently caustic "You'll Never See My Face Again," "Never Say Never Say Never Again," and "I Laugh in Your Face," not to mention the willowy "Melody Fair" and "First of May," it provided an idyllic alternative in an era of psychedelic sensibilities. 

Robin temporarily left the band shortly thereafter and began a solo career that he would later resume in the mid-'80s. Yet once the band reunited, the brothers embarked on a second phase of their career that brought the mixed blessings of Saturday Night Fever and rebirth as disco darlings. They were derided in some quarters, of course, but the songs themselves were still strong. They then relocated to Miami Beach, where they continued to record, albeit with less commercial acclaim. Still, the Bee Gees could console themselves with sales that eventually totaled more than 220 million records, making them one of the best-selling music artists of all time. In fact, only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney can claim bigger volumes. When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, they were given their award by none other than Brian Wilson, whose band the Beach Boys also boasted three singing brothers. 

Sadly, though, like the Beach Boys, only the eldest brother remains unscathed. Wilson lost his siblings Dennis and Carl at relatively young ages, and now Barry Gibb is facing the same terrible prospects. His youngest brother Andy embarked on a career of his own in the '80s but was felled by a heart condition in March 1988, allegedly exacerbated by drug abuse. 

Maurice succumbed to an intestinal problem in January 2003, the same disorder that originally led his brother Robin to seek treatment some 18 months ago. At the time of his operation, doctors discovered Robin was suffering from cancer of the colon, which then spread to his liver. As late as last month, it was believed the cancer was in remission, allowing for a February public performance before a group of injured servicemen and servicewomen. Unfortunately, he had to be readmitted to the hospital a couple of weeks ago. As of this writing, Robin is in a coma and suffering from pneumonia, making his prospects dim indeed. Gibb's agent declined to comment on reports that the star may have only days left to live.

While battling the disease, Robin was supposedly quoted as saying, "I sometimes wonder if all the tragedies my family has suffered, like Andy and Maurice dying so young and everything that's happened to me recently, is a kind of karmic price we are paying for all the fame and fortune we've had."

Those who have loved their music would emphatically disagree. One has to believe God would never be so cruel. The Bee Gees' legacy has brought so much joy over the past 40 years that any such suggestion to the contrary can never be disputed nearly enough. And yet, tragedy prevails, tragedy for both a band and a brother who's lost three siblings. 

To borrow the title of one of their aforementioned songs, how indeed do you mend a broken heart? That's one answer that may forever elude us all.

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Lee Zimmerman