By Jody Denberg
He is THE Bee Gee, and he is standing a few feet away from me in a control room in Miami’s legendary Criteria Studios (now The Hit Factory). It is early September, the day after his 70th birthday, less than a month since his mother passed away at the age of 95, but Barry Gibb looks as striking and youthful as ever albeit in a low-key beachy way.
He is THE Bee Gee because, well, he not only was the frontman for one of the five most successful acts in pop history, but he is the last of the group’s three brothers left alive. And today he is going to unveil “In The Now,” his first solo album in 32 years, for an assembled group of radio fans. I am one of the chosen few.
The quietest brother Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), a multi-instrumentalist who sang the high part of the Gibbs’ three-part harmony, passed away suddenly in 2003 from a heart attack during surgery. Robin – the brother who inevitably had his finger pressed to his ear while filling out the trio’s vocal blend – died in 2012 from cancer. The Bee Gees never performed again as such after Maurice’s death, though Barry began touring solo in 2013. And now comes “In The Now,” his long-awaited new album. What will it sound like? Can Barry Gibb recapture the soulful magic that earned him a listing by Guinness World Records as the second most successful songwriter in pop history (behind Paul McCartney)?
There’s certainly plenty of magic in the studios we are gathered in. Gold and platinum records line the halls like glittering wallpaper, with classic hits from The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Derek and the Dominos (“Layla” for chrissakes!), CSN, Fleetwood Mac and countless others representing. And once Barry greets us in his friendly but somewhat shy manner and exits, we are left to listen to “In The Now” with only co-producer John Merchant giving a track by track introduction and summation.
His sons and co-writers Stephen and Ashely Gibb pop in and out of the listening session on occasion, but we are essentially alone to take in this new work by a man who never has to work again, but has obviously been motivated to create for the present and express what he has kept to himself for so many years. After all, the final Bee Gees studio album was 2001’s “This Is Where I Came In” – 15 years ago, and light years in contemporary culture.
“In The Now” is a revelation in many ways. Rather than try to recreate The Bee Gees’ signature sounds (as contemporary bands like Broken Bells have – “Holding On For Life” anyone?), Gibb has crafted an album that is true to himself in 2016 (thus the album title). There are no guest stars on “In The Now,” Gibb’s trademark falsetto is used sparingly, there is a wide palette of styles employed including flat-out rockers, and lyrically this isn’t a grand confessional. His heart may not be on his sleeve, but this IS the sound of Barry Gibb mending his broken heart.
The title track has the hushed spookiness that infused earlier classics from The Bee Gees’ 1960s and 1970s heydays, while “Home Truth Song” sings of his fondness for his adopted hometown on the occasion of Miami Beach’s centennial. There are real strings and his own voice stacked on multiple tracks here…surprise touches like mariachi horns and a vaguely psychedelic French horn there. And some songs rise above the rest, like “Meaning Of The Word,” “Cross To Bear” and most notably “End Of The Rainbow” written for brother Robin.
“In The Now” is a family affair – as I mentioned all of the songs are composed with his sons – but the lyrics are, for the most part, vague enough to project your own experiences into. Gibb and his collaborators didn’t opt for the late-career confessional stripped-down approach (that worked so well for Johnny Cash). Instead they have made a wonderful album that can stand next to some of THE Bee Gee’s finest moments without aping them or playing on our emotions. It is a must listen for any fan – as well as for those who don’t exactly know this man by name but know his songs as the soundtrack to their lives.
After the playback we each got a private moment with Barry. I frankly told him what my favorite new songs were and a consensus seemed to be forming amongst us as to which were the standouts. Although I have been lucky enough to talk to many of my musical heroes over the years, standing and talking toe-to-toe with Barry Gibb was a little nerve-wracking, but his seeming ordinariness quelled that. I did have to ask though – did he understand when fans like me approached him giddily to talk about some single from 1970? In my case it was a record that I had on a yellow and white piece of vinyl, a 45 RPM 7 inch of “Lonely Days” that had been a bellwether throughout my life.
Turns out Barry Gibb could relate. Gibb offered up that he had recently been talking to Paul McCartney, and tried to convey how much The Beatles’ “If I Fell” meant to him. I asked him what Paul’s reaction was and Barry indicated that Paul didn’t have much of a reaction at all.
I didn’t mention to Barry that “If I Fell” was primarily a John Lennon song. What was the point? Barry Gibb has some of the same illusions about his heroes as we do about him. And that humanity makes this man, who has seen all of life’s ups and downs, and created some of our most cherished music, even more of a giant. In the now.