Jive Talkin’, It Just Ain’t No Good: ‘The Bee Gees: The Biography’

I began David N. Meyer’s The Bee Gees: The Biography while riding Bay Area Rapid Transit to my day job. Within moments of opening the book, I longed to throw it on the tracks. This feeling only grew stronger as Meyer heaped unfounded assertions, one upon t’other in ever-growing piles of sentences so badly written I wondered where his editors went. Clearly they’d boogied off to other manuscripts, leaving readers to enjoy “crotch-grabbing, glimmering trousers with two-foot flairs, because during disco, everybody dressed like that.”

Everybody? Really? Gay Talese? Indira Ghandi? Alice Cooper? Actually, nobody wore “flairs”, a noun my Oxford Concise Dictionary defines as “Selective instinct for what is excellent, paying, etc.”. The Bee Gees, and everyone else concerned with fashion in the ’70s, pulled on wide-legged pants dubbed “flares”.

Then again, you’d better lower the bar when the promotional materials enclosed with a book describe it as “The first and only narrative biography of the band”. A quick web search pulled up two other biographies, one of them authorized, something Meyer’s book definitively is not. Worst of all is the final line:

The Bee Gees is a dishy summer read that will have you digging out your greatest hits CD and signing (sic) along…how deep is your love….

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When reading books for review, I carry a pile of bookmarks and a notebook. The bookmarks hold spots until I can go back and make quick notes about points I want to make when writing the review. My copy of The Bee Gees was bristling with bookmarks, I had pages of notes, quotes, exclamation points. Finally I realized the business pointless and gave up. The Bee Gees is the worst book I’ve read all year, full of poor writing, unsubstantiated assertions, and little interesting information.

Lest anyone think I enjoy panning books, rest assured I do not. Reading bad books is depressing; writing about them is worse. I realize some reviewers relish the opportunity to savage a book. I don’t. Meyer listened to the Bee Gees oeuvre intently, and he deserves some credit for that.

Unfortunately, Meyer’s writing is a primer in poor sentences. He uses the same works repeatedly: that ignoble “flare” surfaces seemingly thousands of times, used correctly and incorrectly, “Ringo-ness”, evidently the state of being Ringo Starr, appears more than once, which is once too many times, Barry Gibb is an alpha Bee Gee repeatedly, and profanity is used liberally. Profanity has its place in writing: it can be used to good effect when deployed sparingly. There are exceptions to this rule; one need only consider Henry Miller and William Burroughs. But when profanity appears regularly in a biography, the book is no longer dishy. It’s trashy.

Meyer’s style is circular and repetitive. He begins by stating the Bee Gees are hopelessly dorky, bad dressers with “innate yobbo insecurities”, (yobbo?) then tries defending them. This is difficult in an unauthorized document, as nobody in the Bee Gees camp would speak with him on the record, forcing him to lean heavily on old articles from magazines like Rolling Stone, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Billboard, and The Daily Mirror. As these publications are widely available, Meyer has no special insight.

Meyer begins with the Gibb parents. He states most family acts have abusive parents who damage their children for life. His sole example is the Beach Boys’s Brian Wilson, who endured his father Murray’s insanity, ultimately going mad himself. Arguably, this is a poor comparison: the Beach Boys were not entirely a family unit, lived across the world from the Bee Gees, and their music could not be more different. Hugh Gibb, who is made out of be a passive, rather stupid man with a drinking problem, oversaw his sons’s early musical career, then stepped back when they grew up and became superstars. The Gibb parents always lived with one or another son, something Meyer finds perverse. Given that the Gibbs all had more than enough room for their parents, what’s so odd about them living in the same house?

Next come a bizarre assertion about band dynamics:

Band members–Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, Yo La Tengo, and the Raveonettes aside—don’t usually expect sex from their band mates, and so bands lack the primal pressure valve and intimacy restorer that marriages rely upon. Band members—Richard and Linda Thompson aside—don’t usually have children together…

I could continue with this wildly inaccurate quote, but why bother? Instead, a wildly incomplete list of band members who expect sex from each other, or did at one point. Children duly noted.

Rodrigo and Gabriela

Exene Cervenka and John Doe

Erik Erlandson and Kristen Pfaff

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. Daughter: Coco

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth: two sons, Robin and Egan

Paul and Linda McCartney: three children: Mary, Stella, and James

John Lennon and Yoko Ono: Sean Lennon

Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo: two daughters: Haley and Hana.

Of course, we cannot leave out Donna Summer, who was married for decades to Bruce Sudano, one of her backup musicians. The couple had three daughters, Brooklyn, Amanda, and Mimi.

In another Meyer assertion, we’re informed musicians cannot act, save Queen Latifah. Ahem. Barbra Streisand, Oscar winner. Cher, ditto. Sting, holding his own opposite no less than Meryl Streep in Plenty. Paul Simon’s many cameos on Saturday Night Live. His hilarious cameo in Annie Hall. Art Garfunkel in Carnal Knowledge. David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. I’m probably forgetting somebody. Oh, the hell with it.

In writing about Saturday Night Fever, Meyer takes great pains to describe the origins of disco, working a little too hard at times: “American white people love dancing that involves simple moves repeated over and over and over to a beat that never changes –like punk rock and the pogo, or country line dancing. That’s why disco took over mainstream America, black and white, while, say, Parliament-Funkadelic took over people who could actually dance.”

If I were an academic, I could go to town on this one. Unpack it! Fortunately for all of you, I’m not. How’s this: this is a tad reductive. A bit racist around the edges, however well-intended. Parliament Funkadelic is far more musically complex than, say, Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony. The fact that you can dance to both, whether you pogo like a fool or shake it like Michael Jackson, matters not.

When a biography is peppered with assertions like the above, it becomes impossible to parse truth from fiction. Frankly, the biographer has lost all credibility anyway. So while scarce little personal information is given about the Bee Gees’s personal lives, most of it appearing at the end of the book, it’s advisable to proceed with great caution.

Some information is public record. It’s known that Maurice struggled with serious alcoholism nearly until the end of his life. Whether or not it was a factor in his untimely death at age 53 isn’t known. Robin was an amphetamine addict with a taste for kinky sex. As he was quite public in his tastes, this is also verifiable. Barry is a far less public man; correspondingly less is written about his personal life. He’s been married to the same woman for decades. They have five children.

Meyer makes a point of telling us that “On December 22, 1949, Robin and Maurice, fraternal—not identical–twins-were born.” Did you need “fraternal” defined? Did you need somebody to tell you Robin and Maurice Gibb were not identical, or could you just look at them? Well, lest you memory or eyes fail you, on page 172, Meyer helpfully reminds us all that the Gibb brothers, although twins, were fraternal. That means they were not, I repeat, not identical, folks. Did you ever have trouble telling them apart? Me either.

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The bulk of The Bee Gees: The Biography spends pages analyzing each record, song by song, often hook by hook, a process that establishes Meyer’s credibility as a close listener while boring all but the most musical Bee Gees savants senseless.

The Beatles play a strangely polarized role in the book; although the two bands are hardly comparable, something Meyer states repeatedly, he does compare them. The disastrous decision to film and thus record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was purely manager Robert Stigwood’s, one the Bee Gees went along with and rapidly came to regret; only Aerosmith, drugged to the gills at the time, were blithely unconcerned about the film’s impact on their career, and indeed, their cover of “Come Together” can still be heard on the tattered remnants of FM radio today.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Andy.

Out this mess of a book, Meyer handles Andy best. Andy Gibb had the misfortune of being born the youngest into the tight production unit known as the brothers Gibb. By all accounts a sweet young man, light on talent and work ethic, he had two monster hits penned by brother Barry. His appetite for cocaine and booze killed him; he died five days past his 30th birthday. Meyer’s treatment of Gibb’s sensationalist life is tactful, even elegiac. But one chapter cannot save a book. And this “dishy summer read” is best left in the remainder pile, where it will eventually have a better life, pulped.

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This is not about being a bitchy reviewer. I have mentioned before that my father built stereos, and two of the records he tested on his creations, along with Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday, with its interminable cut “I Feel Love”, were Children of the World and Main Course. I was a child, perhaps nine years old, and those records are wrapped around the fibers of my being. I knew “Nights On Broadway”, “Fanny Be Tender With My Love”, “You Should Be Dancing” and “Jive Talkin’” long before John Travolta appeared in that iconic white suit and the world flipped over. I was, for that reason, initially hesitant to accept this book for review. The music elicits a strange combination of memory and pain and something that isn’t nostalgia, feelings I don’t want tampered with. Then I thought I was being unfair, and accepted the book for review, and I was correct: I should have refused.

It isn’t Meyer’s fault that I have these feelings associated with these records. I was careful of that while reading. It isn’t his fault that hearing “Nights on Broadway” reduces me to a child standing on an orange carpet in a cold house. (“Now in my place / there are so many others / standing in the line / how long will they stand between us?”) I do wish, though, if I had to feel this way, it could have been in service to a better book.

RATING 1 / 10