Barry Gibb ( Event, Sept 2016)
Barry Gibb is holding court in his local Indian restaurant – it’s just around the corner from his not often visited British family home in Beaconsfield. He’s lived mostly in Florida for the past twenty odd years but finds himself reclaiming his British territory since signing as a solo artist to Sony UK. He is of course the soul surviving Bee Gee, the band who wrote one of the soundtracks to the seventies. Often mocked for the size of their flares and their medallions but always revered for their creation of the perfect pop song. Staying Alive? Has there ever been a better groove written?
For me it was always Barry. The eldest, the most handsome, the most charismatic, the most complicated. But this is his first album alone without the support/rivalry/competition/banter of his brothers Maurice who died 13 years ago at the age of 53 and Robin who died in 2014 after a protracted battle with cancer.
Just recently there was his rapturous appearance at Glastonbury with Chris Martin and Coldplay. He performed Staying Alive to blissed out ovation. People love the irony. The sole remaining brother. Yes he is staying alive – at 69 he looks still leonine, with a full-ish mane of hair and thick beard.
Barry was always the leader of the pack but finding himself suddenly pack-less was of course devastating and not an easy trajectory. “After Rob died I just sat moping around thinking that was the end of it and I would just fade away. I thought I was quite happy about fading away but then the President of Columbia records, Rob Stringer, came to see me and signed me and said “We’re gonna move your ass.” And I thought, oh well that’s OK. So I’m back. Glastonbury came out of the blue. The whole experience is amazing. Chris is such a gentleman and I met Gwyneth.” Before I have a chance to ask him how they were getting on with consciously uncoupling he also tells me that he also met Noel Gallagher and that was fantastic and he too is coming for a curry.
He seems incredibly self-effacing. He’s written some of the greatest pop songs of all time, yet I’m not sure he believes in himself. “I’ve never had self-esteem. Every person that I’ve met and admire has the same lack of self-esteem. I’ve seen it with Michael Jackson, I’ve seen it with Barbra Streisand.” He goes on to explain, “Self confidence and self-esteem are very different things,” and weirdly I remember Streisand telling me that too. “I’ve always been trying, trying, trying and I think that’s good. That’s the hunger that keeps you alive no matter what and there’s been bad times where I didn’t really want to.”
After the death of his remaining brother he certainly had a slump. “You are in a kind of tunnel. You have to come out the other side and I waited for that and I watched television. Downton Abbey, that got me through it and Ray Donovan and Billionaire. I love them more than movies. I love the cliff hangers. We get English television in America because I have Apple TV.”
So television got him through it. I’d read it was Paul McCartney? “Well, sort of. He always got me through everything. I met him for the first time at the Saville Theatre in 1967. He brought Jane Asher to see a show and he said “You guys have got something. You should keep going and I always found that very encouraging.” The last time I saw him was at Saturday Night Live when we were both playing. We had adjoining dressing rooms. We started talking about the time before we had any success. We talked about being naïve. Not understanding what was happening. About being a great band and being happy and not competitive.”
Does he mean competitive with the Beatles? “No. about not being competitive with each other.” He’s in a cloud of nostalgia now. “Those days of not understanding the business and not knowing why everybody wanted to know when for a long time they didn’t. That naivety.”
There’s something about Barry that really cherishes naivety. To him it seems to symbolise purity, something unspoilt and unspoilable, untainted. “Ultimately McCartney hasn’t changed his keys down. He’s still singing in the keys he always did and I’m still doing that. A lot of artists have lowered their keys. He never said ‘Just get on with it. Don’t worry’, but he’s always been inspiring to me. What he said was ‘always look down on your highest note,’ and I said yes, OK. So he’s basically did say just get on with it in an abstract form.” Does he mean McCartney gave it to him as a musical metaphor? Stay doing what you’re always doing. “Yes, definitely.” Could he explain more about the competitive elements? “There was always competition within the group. We weren’t competitive with the Beatles. We were just another pop group but they changed the world.”
We circle back to talking about his album In the Now which has certainly changed his world. It got him off the couch. It’s a ridiculously emotional album. It dwells on the past, wanders into the future yet the title references the present. Isn’t that ironic? “Hey, that’s right, but it’s all about the past. It’s about the denial of the past and the future. Yet it’s about the moment and how to seize it. It’s about the loss of the people closest to you so it’s live in the moment, grab every moment because you see what happens. The eyes tangibly sadden. Mo was gone in two days.” Maybe that’s better than long and tortured? “Which is what Robin went through. Andy (youngest brother) went at the age of 30 (drug overdose). All different forms of passing and for our mum devastating. She’s 95. She had a mild stroke two weeks back.”
Ever attentive to detail he notices I’ve got chocolate on my cappuccino when I’ve asked for none, because I don’t want chocolate on my lips. He tells me that his greatest fear is, “a bogie on the nose. Although if you’ve got a moustache it’s a great danger for drinking milky coffee.” I would have thought that by now he would have learnt to navigate a whiskery face. He’s always had facial hair. “Not always. I grew it in 1968 because McCartney grew a beard for Long and Winding Road. He’s always been that big of an influence on me. Even when the Beatles broke up I thought that’s it, we should break up.”
Is that why he is not finishing his coffee? He doesn’t want to have white froth on his face? “No, it’s because I don’t want to get too wired. I only drink coffee in a restaurant. In the morning I have a Red Bull to kick start me. Coffee has never appealed to me. I never drink alcohol except sake which I love. You don’t get a hangover. You never feel bad.” I tell him the last time I drunk sake I fell over. He tells me that the last time he got drunk was as a teenager. “I got so drunk mixing different drinks at a convention, I woke up in the bridal suite. I was so violently ill they put me in the room and left me but when I woke up I did wonder to see if there was a bride. Fortunately there wasn’t.” We laugh, we giggle. We’re having a grand time, then suddenly there’s sadness which he doesn’t navigate around, he tackles head on.
There’s been so much passing in my family that at one point I said I’d prefer to go in my sleep or on stage but I never said while singing Staying Alive.” Perhaps that was made up because it’s a funny line. He nods while he’s thinking about the irony.
Does he have a bucket list? “No, I have a fuck it list.” I laugh but I am mystified. “I have a list of things that I know I’ll never do. I’ll never walk through the Grand Canyon, not with my ankles. I’ll never get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I hate heights. I just think in terms that I’m going to be quite happy with whatever comes around the corner. I don’t plan. I’ve grown up in three different cultures. I’ve seen the pyramids and I’m a real fanatic on the ancient worlds. They lived as if they would come back but at that point there was no evidence. There is no evidence of how that civilisation developed. Those people might already have been there before. I’m fascinated by civilisations that were around twenty, thirty thousand years ago that could be advanced as we are now in different ways. I don’t believe that the beginning we think was the beginning was the actual beginning.”
Does he feel he’s been here before? “Perhaps. I’ve had a few incarnations. I try not to question it. There’s been so much loss in my family, for me it’s a standing mystery.” Does he believe he will see them again? “I really don’t want to question it. Don’t want to go there.”
Chris Martin got him back on stage. Did he also get him writing songs? “They were already written. It took six to eight months to write the songs.” Some of the most famous Bee Gees songs like How Deep Is Your Love and Jive Talkin’ were written in less than a day. “Yes, there was a half day when we wrote Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Shadow Dancing and a couple of other songs in one afternoon. I think we were high. Amphetamines, nothing heavy. We never took heavy drugs like heroin or cocaine. There were no songs written on that,” he says adamantly. There were twelve songs on the new album and three bonus tracks. “Daddy’s Little Girl is one of them and that’s written for my daughter Ali. She’s 24 and still lives with us and I’ve never met a lady with a stronger opinion. Star Crossed Lovers is written for Linda. When we first met your manager didn’t want you to have a girlfriend so she always had to stay at home. I always had to seem available. Everyone was against it but that made her stronger and we’re still together 49 years later.”
He describes her as “an incredible power in my life. She is the one who will tell me exactly how it is and Ali too will say ‘you’re not wearing that’ even if I think something looks nice. They are both incredibly honest.” Today he is wearing beaded bracelets under his black shirt and a discreet silver neck chain with a mystic symbol on it. “I’ve outgrown all that gold and diamonds and chains that I used to wear but I do love jewellery.”
The Bee Gees in their heyday, late sixties, early seventies, were known as Medallion Men. They were never style icons. Kenny Everett used to do a fabulous version of the Brothers Gibb, falsettos and flares. They were mocked at the time when the cool kids were into Bowie and Roxy, but over time Bee Gees songs have been reassessed with How Deep Is Your Love being referred to as a pop song as flawless as Bohemian Rhapsody. Of course within the group there were highs and lows. With the world saw them and how they got on with each other. By the time they created the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever their falsetto came into its own with expert and inspirational grooves – their long awaited moment in the sun. Barry also had a massive hit and place in chart history with the Barbra Streisand album Guilty.
Does he feel that people didn’t understand their complicated sibling dynamic? “Well, I don’t think it’s any different from any other brothers or sisters.” Does he mean there’s a mix of rivalry and closeness? “Yes. All of those things and you have enormous arguments. Then you become incredibly close and you have really angry moments with each other. Nothing different from any other family except our obsession with music. That’s how it was.”
Did he feel as the oldest he was always the leader? “Yes, yes, because the oldest brother is always put in that position. Watch over Maurice and Robin, watch over Andy. And often they didn’t want to be watched over. Maurice and Robin were twins so they were always secretly chatting. I was the one that had to make sure we got paid. I had to look out for business. I enjoyed it. It was important that we were not cheated and I think that was pretty common. You hear all these horror stories about the manager making a fortune. Robert Stigwood was kind to us. We were all given about £100 per week and in 1967 you could live well on that money – and that was before we had any real success.”
You feel him working hard to be happy and in the moment. You see his struggle. This year there’s been a pop icon death overload. Bowie, Prince. How did this affect him? “Prince!” he says adoringly. “I’ve always loved Prince. I didn’t quite understand a lot of David Bowie because he was such an artist. I admire it but I was more involved with people like Prince. The R ‘n’ B influence, the falsetto is more me. We worked in his building where he lived in Minneapolis. We did a performance for the music industry of Minneapolis at one point. He was there but hiding behind a speaker so we never met.” Hiding behind a speaker I say incredulous. “I know. You can’t be that shy, right? But there you are.”
Barry, of course is ready to get rid of all his natural shyness again. “I’ll happily hit the road if this album means something. It’s an enormous effort to go on tour without that momentum and I want that momentum.” Is it harder to go out on stage when he’s been used to his brothers standing beside him? “It’s not hard if your eldest son is standing next to you. He’s not a Bee Gee. He wouldn’t like that. He’s Steven. He’s covered in tattoos. He’s a metal head with a heart of gold. He plays on the album. He’s part of the band, in fact it’s the best bunch of musicians I’ve ever had. I want to be on tour so I need to create a reason for people to come and see me.”
In the Now is incredibly moving. It gets you when you’re least expecting it, as a Bee Gees song has always been able to do. His eyes well up with gratitude. “You’re making my day! I need to feel that full cycle feeling, you know that I can come back.”
Many people think he never actually went away. Whilst there was no conscious decision to stop, there was no decision to write a new album while Robin was alive either. Although they did the odd performance here and there, Robin’s illness really took a toll on any creative output. “The feeling is I am reintroducing myself as an individual.” When he did Guilty with Streisand he was an individual, not a Bee Gee. “But I was never allowed to go on about it. We won best duet at the Grammy’s and my brothers never mentioned it. It’s that kind of brothers and sisters thing. If I would ever say we won this many Grammy’s they would always go one less saying ‘No, no, it was THIS many.’ They co-wrote the song with me. I don’t know why they didn’t want to say anything about the idea that we won best duet but they wouldn’t talk about it. And probably I wouldn’t have if they had won a Grammy. I might be a little bit, oh shit. I don’t know. I feel that it’s absolutely normal if you have success with something aside from what you’re all supposed to be doing.”
Does he see the Bee Gees influence in any of the current music makers? “I always felt that I used to hear it with Prince and Michael Jackson. The multi harmonies, the grooves. A lot of people have told me that I made a difference to them and I’d like to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can.” This time there’s no lounging on the sofa watching Downton Abbey to get him through a difficult period this time. “That’s the trouble.” He shakes his head. “We really loved it and my wife was sitting next to Maggie Smith yesterday at Wimbledon. It was the thrill of a lifetime and then her back went out. She said to Maggie ‘I have to leave. My back has gone out.” And Maggie said, “Well, you haven’t got the serve.” He laughs. Perhaps she’s the same character. Being there at Wimbledon was fascinating. I played for ten years straight and then my ankles gave up on me. I’ve got arthritis. My ankle comes and goes of its own accord.”
How is he with flying? I remember him telling me years ago while I was at his house in Miami that he was terrified of flying. It made such an impact on me, I’ve never been able to fly without thinking of him since. Now he says, “I’m getting better. I’m very fatalistic. If it happens it happens. People always used to talk to me about being frightened of take offs and landings. To me that’s OK. I don’t have any fear of those. It’s being at 30,000 feet. It doesn’t go away. It’s just less. The worst thing is I can’t get a sake because they don’t have it on planes and you’re not allowed to bring it on because it’s liquid.”
Is there a vault of unreleased Bee Gees songs? “No. Robin always emptied it out. I would always say, ‘that’s not good enough to go on the album Robin’ and he would say ‘yes, but it’s another song. Let’s put it on.’ In the eyes of the record company the more songs you give them the better deal it is for them but I don’t feel it was necessary. I don’t even remember what songs they were although I do remember Robin insisting we put on a version of Islands in the Stream and it just wasn’t for me.” Is that because he’s a perfectionist? “I thought the groove could have been more conscientious.”
Part of him is very modern. His black shirt and subtle bracelets, his attitude. And part of him is very old school, very proper, very gentlemanly. “I don’t do Instagram or emails but I do text. I have a Twitter account that goes through Ashley, my second eldest son. I try not to think about that stuff too much.”
It’s not that he’s closed to new technology or new music. “In fact I love the new Chinese artists that are coming up. There’s a group called Versailles that come out of Japan that wear more make up than David Bowie. They look a little Samurai.”
In the olden days he always used to see himself as a lion with his virile big mane. In a 1979 authorised, illustrated biography of the brothers called The Greatest, there were caricatures of him as a lion, Robin as a red setter And Maurice as a badger.
I assumed he would have been a Leo and he says, “I’m actually a Virgo. I’m ambidextrous, left footed, play the guitar right handed and I think I’m a little too old for a lion but I’ve still got a bit of a mane going on.” Pause. “Although I have always associated myself with a lion,” he says rather proudly. “In South Africa I bought a walking cane with a silver lions head on it so if there’s ever a time when I can’t walk I’ll be able to be helped by the lion and it’ll still be lion walking.”
Although he’s known pretty well at his local Indian he says restaurants are rare for him. He says, “Restaurants are rare for me because I’m such a homebody. I don’t rise early and I don’t get going till about noon. I’m still useless to everybody till about 2.00pm and then I get sharp and I start to look forward to what’s on television that evening. I read three books at a time. I love ancient history. At the moment I’m reading a book about the French revolution, another about the conscious mind and I’m obsessed with Egyptology. I’m in to the unknown, the supernatural. All that world. I like things that can’t be explained like ghosts.” Has he seen ghosts? “Yes and it’s not fun because you’re not quite sure what it was about. If it was real. I’ve seen two brothers.” Which brothers? “I saw Robin and my wife saw Andy. Maybe it’s a memory producing itself outside your conscious mind or maybe it’s real.” He likes pondering the big questions. “Yes. The biggest of all, is there life after death? I’d like to know.”
In the meantime his album In the Now ponders the past, the future, all kinds of shadows, all kinds of ghosts and it all feels pretty real and emotional. Yet he’s not a sad man. He laughs a lot and jokes with me. “And I love a good curry,” he says. We hug goodbye and I make him pose with a selfie. He doesn’t complain.