Tragedy: The Sad Ballad of the Gibb Brothers
The dizzying highs, the mortifying lows, and the Tragedy of the Bee Gees
Jeff Apter is a seasoned writer of largely Australia-based music titles, from studies of AC/DC and the Finn Brothers, to books about Keith Urban and Johnny O’Keefe. He co-wrote Kasey Chambers’ memoir, A Little Bird Told Me, and is also a senior writer for Rolling Stone Australia. So he’s a perfect candidate to examine what is perhaps Australia’s biggest musical export: the Bee Gees.
Apter’s biography closely explores the intertwined lives of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, as well as that of their younger brother, ’70s pop star Andy. The book is separated into three sections, allowing for the author to follow the brothers’ story from their early years as Beatles-esque pop tunesmiths (“Beginnings”) through their second-act disco heyday (“Fever”), to their final years, following the deaths of Maurice, Robin, and Andy, leaving Barry to soldier on alone (“Tragedy”).
The story of the brothers Gibb is rife with suffering. They seemed to be famous almost from birth, their lives consistently in the limelight. They found popular success early on and critical success with 1969’s epic double album Odessa. They faded away only to reemerge as heroes for a disco generation through theSaturday Night Fever soundtrack. The double album sold over 15 million copies in North America alone, bringing the Bee Gees a second wave of fame infinitely greater than their first. Andy became a teen idol, his star shining a little brighter than his brothers’ for a brief moment.
Apter’s tale also highlights the bad that came with the good for the Gibbs. Maurice struggled with alcohol abuse. Robin is portrayed as petulant and emotional, often feeling left out between the handsome one (Barry) and the funny one (Maurice). Andy’s well-documented troubles are also detailed—his failed marriages, substance abuse, and ultimate decline and demise. Barry often stands alone as the rational one among the brothers.
Somehow, with all the juicy stories, the decades of artistry, fame, and lifestyle excess, Tragedy presents the Bee Gees’ story in a very matter-of-fact way. While the pace doesn’t bog down and the book never bores, it also does not exactly excite. Apter includes a sufficient bibliography of sources from which he crafts his tale, but there are no new interviews or research to lend the story a sense of the present, so that the story sometimes reads like an extended Allmusic biography.
Still, it’s much more succinct than that the 800-page The Ultimate Biography Of The Bee Gees: Tales Of The Brothers Gibb, from which Apter acknowledges he drew both inspiration and source material. Tragedy: The Ballad Of The Bee Gees is a well-constructed biography that highlights the dizzying highs and mortifying lows of a band whose success defined a generation (or perhaps two). What it lacks in emotionality, it makes up for with valuable comprehensiveness and detail for Bee Gees fans.
By Frank ValishJun 20, 2016 12:00 AM
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Love and Resentment Run Deep in New Bee Gees Bio
Really, did any act in the rock era have a bigger comeback than the Bee Gees? The mere mention of the band’s name, of course, instantly conjures up the all too familiar white suits, chest hair and medallions of the Saturday Night Fever-era (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Jive Talkin’,” “You Should Be Dancing,” “How Deep is Your Love”) that found them on top of the world (and the charts).
But well before that, there was a string of hits like “To Love Somebody,” “Massachusetts,” “I Gotta Get a Message to You” and “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” And then a brotherly breakup, career bottoming out, drifting, and reinvention to Fever. And then it would happen again. And again. But through it all, their songbook remains one of the richest of any pop group.
As an Australian journalist, Apter understandably gives more space to the Bee Gees' formative career in Oz (as English expats from Manchester) and relations to the continent. But he hits all the brothers’ highlights and lowlights, both in the music and their personal worlds. The book also gives a chunk of pages to fourth Gibb brother Andy, whose tragic life and 1988 death is certainly worth its own tome.
There’s not much particularly new information offered here, and many of the same stories and tales can be found in David N. Meyer’s superior Bee Gees: The Biographyfrom 2013. But what Apter does do better is delve more into the psychology of the Gibb brothers in terms of their relations to each other, and the jealousies and power struggles that ran throughout their seemingly united front.
That Lone Survivor Barry was feuding bitterly with Maurice and Robin at the time of their unexpected, respective deaths in 2003 and 2012 makes the end of the book rather wistful. (A sister, Lesley, still lives as well.)
Perhaps Tragedy is not a fair title for a book on the lives and careers of the Bee Gees. For while the story certainly has its share of that, there’s a lot of triumph as well. Plus a canon of songs spread over five decades whose catchiness even today cannot be denied.