Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

I’ve been thinking about (and listening to) the Bee Gees a lot in the last few days, after watching their HBO documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. Although I found the documentary utterly entertaining and thought it was extremely well done, I also found it profoundly sad. Lead singer Barry Gibbs’ three younger brothers (Robin, Maurice and Andy) are now all deceased (as Barry says at one point, he’d rather have his brothers back and no hit records), and his once mighty head of brown hair is now limp, gray wisps. It was like watching my life flash before my eyes, because the Bee Gees’ career coincided with key periods of my life, from their early ’60s hits (“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “Run to Me”), to their early ’70s rebirth (“Lonely Days,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”), to their spectacular success in the late ’70s (Saturday Night Fever, Spirits Having Flown).

I’ve been thinking about music in general and what you might call the circle of life, to borrow another musician’s phrase. Coldplay’s Chris Martin put it well in the documentary when he talked about the backlash the Bee Gees faced after Saturday Night Fever. He said that younger bands like his can now anticipate the rising and falling of musical careers, but bands in the first wave of international stardom didn’t know how to react.

I thought about the careers of white-hot musicians I myself have seen rise and fall (like Madonna and Lady Gaga, to mention only two of the most recent examples).

By now it’s become a cliché to say that the Bee Gees were more than just a “disco” band, and this documentary makes that abundantly clear by showcasing their decades-long career and enormous music catalogue. (I myself have known this for a long time, but I guess it’s news for people who only know them from Saturday Night Fever.)

Personally, my own music collection runs the gamut from Abba to the Sex Pistols. After several musical purges, where I got rid of records either because I didn’t think were “cool” enough (I still regret not saving my childhood and adolescent record collection), or because for the first six years I lived in New York City I moved an average of once a year (and records are heavy), I’ve finally reached the age of “I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks.”

It’s important to remember, too, that the Bee Gees were sex symbols (at least Barry was) and a cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t just their music, it was their skin-tight white suits unbuttoned to the navel, their hairy chests, their gold medallions. (And, when I saw that rear shot of them performing onstage at the Spirits Having Flown tour, my first thought was of six Parker House rolls.)

There’s been a slew of rock documentaries lately on HBO and Showtime. They fall into either what I call the career-resuscitating documentary (of which this might be one, along with the recent career-spanning documentary of the Eagles) and what I call “grief porn”—documentaries about those artists who died either tragically young or in tragic circumstances (or both): Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse. I guess people my age are no longer buying music, so the idea is to catch us where we live—on cable TV! (The last “new” artist I bought was Lady Gaga. And who can blame me? The charts are now dominated by hip-hop and 19-year-old divas.)

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, with Barry singing his new country-tinged single, “Butterfly,” along with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (and it’s great to hear Barry singing three-part harmony again), and a scene of Barry performing at the Glastonbury Festival, with the stagehands performing disco dance moves.

When faced with the question of, to use the title of a Bee Gees song, immortality (or, as Queen sang “Who wants to live forever?”), maybe I should ask myself, “What would Barry do?”

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