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Interview: Barry Gibb

On the eve of Barry Gibb’s debut solo tour, and his first visit to New Zealand since 1999, he talks to Tim Roxborough about faith, family and a surprise for the future.

Barry Gibb performing at a benefit concert in Sydney in 2009
Barry Gibb performing at a benefit concert in Sydney in 2009, photo Getty Images

‘She’s always right behind me and she’s either going to give me a tap on the head or a kick up the ass. And both of those things work,” laughs the ever-amiable Barry Gibb, on the phone from his home in South Beach, Miami. The man whom Guinness World Records lists as the second most successful songwriter of all time (after Paul McCartney) is talking about Linda, his wife of 42 years. They’ve been together since 1967 – the year the Bee Gees returned to the UK after nine years in Australia.

They married on Barry’s birthday, so he’d never forget the anniversary. As well as a ring on her finger, the former Miss Edinburgh beauty queen got a hit song. She was one of the Gibb wives referred to in Lonely Days, a 1970 hit that marked the end of a bitter one-year split between the brothers by asking: “Where would I be without my woman?”

Gibb describes his wife as “a tower of strength” and acknowledges that without her, he could easily let the grief over the deaths of his three younger brothers – Andy in 1988, Maurice in 2003, Robin in 2012 – overwhelm him. “She will say, ‘You know you’ve gotta get yourself together; you’ve gotta pull yourself out of this; you’ve gotta get into your music; and you’ve gotta get back into what you were doing – no matter what.’” He puts a heavy emphasis on those last three words.

The oldest Gibb acknowledges he doesn’t have a hobby beyond music. This is a man who even now feels it’s not a productive week if he hasn’t written at least three decent songs. There was a time when the brothers could blast out three No 1 hits in an afternoon. Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Shadow Dancing were all created on one particularly inspired day in 1978.

Those were the most glorious of the glory days, when the Bee Gees were selling so many records they had to pay other record companies to print enough vinyl to keep up with demand. Even when American radio turned against them in the 80s, the brothers spent the first half of the decade writing hit-filled albums for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross.

By 1987, they were back in fashion, following their No 1 hit You Win Again. More hits followed, not to mention sell-out tours, until Maurice’s death in 2003.

“Losing Maurice was a real shock because we lost him in two days,” says Gibb. “From being perfectly fine, no sign of illness, nothing.” Andy had died 15 years earlier of an inflammation of the heart in England. Robin’s death in May last year also came as a bit of a shock.

Robin was the brother Barry battled with the most, but he was also the one who pushed him to be greater than he would have been on his own. Sadly, Robin couldn’t bring himself to be entirely honest about his health. His dramatic weight loss had scared fans for some time, yet he still peppered interviews with friendly denials of something being seriously awry, usually in the vein of “I wish I’d always felt this good!”

Robin did eventually seek medical help, and it was later revealed he had colon and liver cancer, as well as a similar stomach ailment to the one that had partially led to his twin’s death nearly a decade earlier. But it was about two and a half years before Barry found out about his brother’s illness – not long before he died.

He regrets the tension that existed between them even until the end, but mostly blames advisers. In the early days, issues were kept within the family, but once everyone got married, their spouses also wanted to have a say, he notes.

“That changed a lot of things because all the wives have an opinion about their husband and so we had to deal with that kind of conflict. Like, ‘Why isn’t my husband heard more?’, ‘Why isn’t my husband getting to sing more songs than, say, either Robin or Barry does?’ … It was very difficult because we were actually quite complex people.”

The suspicion among many Bee Gees fans is that the easygoing Maurice could somehow calm as well as foster the more volatile creative sides of his brothers, and that without him it became increasingly hard for Barry and Robin to see eye to eye. But as public as some of their spats were – such as when Robin announced plans for a tribute to Maurice, allegedly without Barry knowing – their underlying bond was never in question. At Robin’s Oxfordshire funeral in June, Barry spoke of his brother’s “magnificent mind and beautiful heart”. He also mentioned how moved he was that “so many people loved this boy”.

“And so I’ve lost all my brothers,” he says, still in disbelief. “And the hardest thing of all is for Mum, not for me. I can deal with it.” Barbara Gibb, who is 93, has now buried three of her sons, as well as her husband, Hugh, who died four years after Andy. Maurice once said his father died of a “broken heart”.

Not long before his death, Robin wondered aloud in the British press whether the family’s tragedies were some sort of “karmic balance” for their successes. And what successes: they wrote 21 No 1 singles, sold 220 million albums, won nine Grammys, are the only songwriters to have had five songs simultaneously in the US Top 10, are the only songwriters to have had No 1 hits in five consecutive decades, etc.

But their greatest professional achievement is probably the extent to which their vast back catalogue, estimated at more than 2000 songs, has been covered by so many artists in so many different genres, from Barbra Streisand to the Smashing Pumpkins.

Although he describes the past decade as “terrible,” Gibb realises how fortunate he has been with his own family. Linda has “seen everything you can see if you’re a pop group on the rise”, he muses.

“She never missed anything and that’s something to take great comfort from. We can talk to each other about any single instance in our lives and what happened to the group, and she was there. We share all that and we’ve got five wonderful children [and] six wonderful grandchildren, so what more can you ask for?”

As it happened, just weeks after Robin’s death, Gibb received something he’d never asked for but always dreamed of. Country/bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs, owner of no less than 14 Grammys, asked Barry to perform alongside him on the most hallowed turf in country music, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

A quick look either side of Saturday Night Fever reveals the Bee Gees’ love of country music. Just listen to such songs as Marley Purt Drive from the 1969 double album Odessa (“we’re clearly being influenced by the Band”), Don’t Forget to Remember (also from 1969), Come on Over (later a hit for Olivia Newton-John, but originally from 1975’s Main Course), Rest Your Love on Me (a hit for Conway Twitty, written at the height of the disco era) and the entire Eyes That See in the Dark album the brothers wrote for Kenny Rogers (which features the hit Islands in the Stream) from 1983.

In 2006, they bought the late Johnny Cash’s Nashville house to preserve it and its place in American music history, while also using it as a family home during Miami’s hurricane season. Less than a year later, they were devastated to learn it had burnt to the ground after an accident caused during maintenance.

When Gibb took the Grand Ole Opry stage with Skaggs, he sang countrified versions of the originally soulful To Love Somebody, as well as How Can You Mend a Broken Heart – the latter bringing many at the venue to tears, with its lyrics of “younger days” and not foreseeing the “sorrows” of the future.

Gibb duets on a new Skaggs song he’s written called Soldier’s Son. The song may indeed be a precursor to a new album. “If you hear an album out of me in the future, it will be a great mixture [of country, bluegrass and immigrant music] and Mr Skaggs will be on that album,” he confirms. Watch the footage from that night and it’s clear Skaggs has taken a fragile Barry under his wing. Gibb agrees that Skaggs, a devout Christian, helped him “through that darkest period”, and also gave him an insight into his own spirituality.

“Religion in and of itself and spirituality are the absolute pure tools of a songwriter,” he explains. “For instance, if you listen to mountain music or immigrant music or bluegrass music, religion was the only subject. So, when you listen to that kind of music, you realise they didn’t have anything else but religion.”

Spiritual messages in Bee Gees songs have cropped up in several tracks, such as 1979’s Too Much Heaven and Spirits Having Flown, as well as the stirring but lesser known Nothing Could Be Good from 1981. “The idea of true faith is behind every artist that ever gets to the place they want to be,” he suggests. The place he wants to be now is Downunder, back where the Gibb family made their first strides to fame half a century ago. He is excited to be performing again and says his band, which will include son Stephen on guitar and Maurice’s daughter Samantha on vocals, is “amazing”.

The show itself will be “a celebration”, he says. “Wherever I look on stage, my brothers will be with me.” He also hints at a further project, different to the Mythology tour, which he hopes will be “the best possible tribute for my brothers that has ever been put on. And the only way I can do that is to reach out to the artists that I love the most and to get them to do it.”

By returning to Australia, Gibb admits he wants to find out – “as corny as it sounds” – who he really is. “Am I a member of a group that no longer exists? Or am I the songwriter and the singer that I can still be? And so I’m out there on an adventure, on a sentimental journey, a sojourn. I want to go and reflect, to go where we lived as kids.”

He’s also keen to see New Zealand again. “I’ve heard about this winery and I’ve gotta go there. So that’s me in search of me.”

Barry Gibb performs at Napier’s Mission Estate Winery (as will Carole King) on February 23.