The Bee Gees have been mocked before, after their made-in-Miami, chart-topping hits came to dominate popular music in the late ’70s. Spoof songs. A radio ban on Bee Gees music. Critical bashing. Many of the jokes were ridiculous and unfair, like the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night, a baseball promotion event at Comiskey Park in July 1979 in which a crate full of disco records, including Bee Gees albums, was detonated on the field.
But David N. Meyer’s new biography of the group is among the worst affronts to the Brothers Gibb yet. It’s a poorly written clip job, with paragraphs so laden with quotes from so many sources that your eyes ache. It’s also full of errors. Songs are cited as tracks on the wrong albums, and there are several inexcusable misspellings of famous names (“Barbara” Streisand and “Barry” Gordy — really?)
The failure of Meyer’s book is particularly egregious because The Bee Gees: The Biography is touted as the first narrative biography of the group — “with two years of investigative research” — and because Meyer’s 2007 biography of late country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, Twenty Thousand Roads : The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music, was meaty and insightful.
There’s a compelling story to be told about this family act, which sold more than 250 million records, wrote countless multi-genre classics, helped put Miami on the pop music map and suffered the loss of three of the brothers: solo artist Andy at age 30, Maurice at 53 and Robin, last year, at 62.
This book, however, is a woeful missed opportunity that rehashes previously published accounts. It spends a chapter reviewing Barry Gibb’s first solo concert in 2012 at Hollywood’s Hard Rock Live yet fails to detail more significant topics such as the surviving brothers’ falling-out after Maurice died in 2003 from a twisted intestine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.
Meyer, obviously not a fan of the Bee Gees’ music no matter how much he protests otherwise, is entitled to criticize the trio’s music, even the Bee Gees’ monumental contribution to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack he portrays as glossy “pablum [sic].”
“The Bee Gees’ tracks, save one, have not aged well. . . . No late-period Bee Gees track offers a greater conundrum than Stayin’ Alive. It’s a killer song, as modern today as the day it was recorded. … A closer listen reveals the core problem. The vocal-only tracks from Stayin’ Alive are hard, ugly and effortful. The harshness of the vocals is a hidden time bomb in the song, making it hard to listen all the way through.”
He reaches for inane “proof” to back his shaky viewpoints: “ Stayin’ Alive spent less time at #1 than any other #1 on the LP,” he writes, perhaps unaware that length of time atop the Billboard chart is more likely a reflection of timing and competition from other songs out in the same tracking period. And, anyway, Stayin’ Alive was dethroned by Andy Gibb’s Love Is Thicker Than Water, a Barry Gibb composition.
Even on the rare instances when Meyer likes a tune, he offers insipid reasoning.
“If Barry Gibb never wrote another number… To Love Somebody should be enough to cement his reputation as one of pop’s most important songwriters, and perhaps the one with the most underappreciated range and breadth.”
Barry, along with brother Robin, cowrote To Love Somebody for soul singer Otis Redding who died before he could record it. Meyer writes that if the greatest songwriters of 1967 were locked in a room and told to write a song for Redding — such greats as “Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, Paul Simon, Lennon and McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Barry [sic] Gordy,” — “ none of them could have written a song as soulful, yearning, memorable and yet so attuned, for emotion and commerce, to Otis’ voice, breathing, timing and performance style.… The proof that they couldn’t is that they didn’t.”
Isn’t it conceivable that these legendary songwriters didn’t want to write a song for Redding? Or just had other things to do?
Meyer’s prose reaches a vulgar nadir when his observations curdle into outrageous, crass juvenilia. Fanny Be Tender (With My Love), a 1975 hit written and recorded in Miami and clearly an innocuous love song to a woman named Fanny, elicits this response: “It’s a Robin, one-off dirty joke, either for the benefit of, or at the expense of, their gay audience.
“Like Main Course’s Fanny, the lyrics of More Than a Woman seem both a wink to, and a dirty joke at the expense of disco’s gay demographic. H ow Deep Is Your Love addresses another of Robin’s recurring obsessions, if his studio-wall drawings are any guide: penis size. Perhaps this issue stemmed from sibling rivalry.”
This drivel is a Tragedy.
Howard Cohen is a Miami Herald staff writer. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.