“I was an 11-year-old stalker”: Discovering the Genius of the Bee Gees
The manner in which I first discovered the Bee Gees is honestly somewhat unsettling though I prefer to just call it “weird” because it makes me feel better about it. I was 11 years old at the time. I’d like to say I’d seen them on TV and they’d blown my mind…or that I’d heard “Nights on Broadway” on the radio ( one of their then-recent hits ), loved it instantly, and begged my Mom to get me to the record store asap but alas, no. The sole reason I bought the Bee Gees 2 LP live album Here at Last was that the object of a supremely misguided childhood crush had it in his collection. That crush categorization is not an exaggeration sadly for the object of my affection was not in fact an adolescent peer but a newly and happily married grown-ass man over the age of 30 with a beard.
I’m uncertain of exactly when my infatuation started but once it did, look out y’all, it became the absolute center of my daily existence. He lived across the street from my family and was just one of those people who had a natural rapport with kids. He never spoke down to me and unlike most adults seemed to truly appreciate my sarcastic sense of humor. He indulged my endless rambling about Paul McCartney and baseball and we would make fun of each other relentlessly. Anyway, I just thought he was the coolest person ever and I wanted to be around him every hour of every day.
Once summer arrived that year, he told me he was embarking on a major weekend project wherein he was going to paint his entire 2 story white stucco house a nice beige with dark brown trim. This sounded amazing for it meant he would be outside and “available” to me for as many hours as it took him to paint every Saturday and Sunday over summer vacation.
All-day, every weekend I would sit at the foot of whatever side of the house he was working on and stare up at him on his ladder as he chipped and scraped all the old paint off in preparation for the new coat. I’d like to describe it poetically and say the white paint chips fell like summer snow around me as the chirping song of the cicadas filled the air…but mostly it was me sitting there perspiring in the sweltering sun, in my baseball cap and shorts as WCBS Oldies radio blared, trying to think of “cute” things to say that would impress him and make him fall in love with me ( whatever that meant to my immature brain at the time).
As if that weren’t enough to make my intent clear, every weekday morning I made sure to walk my dog at the exact time he left for work, just so I could wave to him as he pulled around the corner in his white Volvo.
Basically, I was an 11-year-old stalker. There’s no nice way to put it.
But he and his wife, who was also supremely sweet to me, thought I was a good kid…so good that when they went on vacation to France that year they asked if I wanted to feed their cat, an irritable guy named Bunky, and bring in their mail while they were away for the week.
It was as if they had bestowed upon me a precious gift, for this assignment would offer me ample opportunity to, you know, look at stuff in their house, undisturbed, at my leisure. I’d been inside before but not without supervision so the prospect of this was nothing less than thrilling. Now don’t get me wrong, I also wanted to do the best job ever, with them arriving home after their long journey to witness Bunky happier and healthier than when they’d left him and the mail piled as neatly as if it were a museum exhibit on the table, thereby scoring maximum “love points” which I naively assumed I could.
And all in all, I did a good job and behaved…well okay, I did take the opportunity to rummage through their old photo albums and swoon over photos of him as if they were pin-ups in a teen magazine. And I may possibly have buried my face in a shirt hanging in the closet to catch a scent or something. But beyond that, I totally did my job. And honestly, the activity that excited me more than either of those things was of a far less salacious nature, namely getting to rumble through his record collection which was located in a cabinet in the dining room.
There were about 200 or so albums within it including multiple titles by the Bee Gees. Hmmm, he seemed to like the Bee Gees a lot. It was clear what needed to happen. I too had to like the Bee Gees. Which meant I had to buy an actual Bee Gees album. Being young and solely obsessed with the outward appearance of material things ( toys, cars, animals, etc.) it made sense that the album I gravitated toward was the one with the fattest spine ( 2 LPs), the coolest cover, and the most songs. It was Here At Last…Bee Gees…Live. That was the one I would get.
I can’t quite recall when I bought it, I think it was a few days after I’d first seen it there. All I know is that once I made the hefty purchase, which took every nickel of my meager savings, I instantly felt closer to him. Even though he didn’t know it yet, we now officially shared something.
“It’s great to be in Los Angeles”
(Barry Gibb greeting the crowd at the end of “Love So Right”)
Now to be clear, I was familiar with the Bee Gees, I knew they were 3 brothers, for example, Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, I’d just never owned any of their records. And not only was this my first album of theirs, but it was also the first “live” album I ever owned. While it employs some of the fabulous tropes of live albums of the day like the occasionally irritating horn section and crowd exhortations of “Everyone come on!”, it’s mostly all business, the brothers offering up one song after another in assembly-line fashion.
Yet it was a curious listening experience for the Bee Gees were going through an extreme sonic identity crisis at the time it was recorded (and were soon to land hard on planet disco). It features baroque and esoteric ’60s pop, lowly ’70s pub rock, and proto-soul disco all stuffed into the same show. And as it was spread over 2 records aka 4 sides, my juvenile attention span just wasn’t up to the challenge of listening to the whole thing (despite my wanting it solely because it was BIG). Thus it wasn’t long before I became completely fixated on a singular side of the album which I found myself playing endlessly to the exclusion of all others.
To translate in vinyl speak, it was all about Side 2. The tracklisting is as follows:
1-New York Mining Disaster 1941
2-Medley (Run To Me / World)
3-Medley (Holiday, I Can’t See Nobody, I Started A Joke, Massachusetts)
4-How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
5-To Love Somebody
The side consisted solely of singles from earlier in the band’s career all dating back to the late ’60s and early ’70s. There are 2 medleys and each song is performed in proto-unplugged style with the brothers Gibb harmonizing around a single microphone for the majority (with Barry strumming his acoustic guitar).
I’d never heard any of these songs before and was completely enthralled…but not just by the songs themselves by the weird stuff that seemed to be going on around and within them. For starters, I wasn’t sure if Robin Gibb was a good singer or not, with his vocal tone more often than not resembling that of a bleating sheep. And what did “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “Massachusetts” even mean? And why was the audience screaming so much, what was happening that I couldn’t see? And why does Barry keep doing that breathy thing with his voice? The whole of Side 2 was a mystery that I needed to solve which meant playing it over and over to the point that when I finally heard the original, full-length studio versions of the songs represented I didn’t like them. I wanted the warm security blanket of the live, stripped-down, truncated, debatably weird versions filling my ears. I guess you could liken it to Nirvana fans who prefer the Unplugged versions of songs to their initial studio incarnations, marginally sacrilegious but love is love.
While the Bee Gees are obviously the stars of the album, the LA Forum audience also deliver an exceptional performance, offering consistently jarring full-body shrieks in response to every drawn-out syllable, breathy Barry delivery, dramatic Robin pause, and brotherly harmonic convergence throughout the album, especially during the tracks on Side 2. They never stop. They are endlessly losing their sh*t.
The show the album was recorded from was actually filmed but for some reason, the brothers didn’t like it and it was never released…and I’m okay with that. I think it would spoil the album’s charms, which has a lot to do with the aforementioned audience. Those moments of mystery where it’s clear something they are seeing as opposed to something they are hearing is making them scream, well, I don’t actually want that mystery to be solved. Whatever it is that seems to be happening during “I Can’t See Nobody”, I’d rather not know.
Thankfully I’ve come to appreciate the other 3 sides over the years ( or in streaming parlance, the other tracks) and remain staggered by the songwriting gift on display. How could they write so many amazing songs ??? It’s truly insane…okay “Boogie Child” is still bullsh*t but every show needs a bathroom break.
Back to our “love” story: Upon their return from France the neighbor couple presented me with a cool burgundy coin/ keychain with the Eiffel Tower on it that I used for years and wish to God I still had ( it got lost along the way). And though I don’t recollect the details, my older man crush and I did go on to have genuine Bee Gees-related discussions. Mission accomplished and one step closer…or so I thought.
After about a year or so of my passive-aggressive courting, fate intervened in the form of my Mother. One morning immediately following my daily dog walk-wave routine she confronted me about my behavior. She’d suddenly become concerned with the relentless fervor of my pursuit. She glared at me saying “this needs to stop” and “you are making everyone really uncomfortable”. This was a surprise. Huh? Who’s everyone? I remember feeling embarrassed that people actually knew…especially her. But come to think of it, the other kids did make little comments. I’d been the opposite of discreet. Yup, I was in love and it freakin’ showed every day I stepped out the door. And though my crush never said anything about it, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe he was “uncomfortable” too and didn’t want to embarrass me.
And so I stopped. Literally, from then on. It was abundantly clear from my Mom’s tone that she meant business and I didn’t fight her on it. I do remember crying right after she spoke to me but not much else. And as it happened, maybe because of this cold turkey approach, my feelings for him did start to fade soon after. For one thing Junior High was about to begin and I suddenly had more pressing concerns ( staying alive being the main one).
Still, while my crush was fading into the past, my love for the Bee Gees was growing exponentially. I actively began collecting all the LPs becoming especially fixated on 3 particular ones; Main Course, Children of the World, and this oddball oldie I’d found in the cut-out bin for $1.99 called Mr. Natural. They remain embedded in my heart in the way those albums are when you first came to know them in childhood. You know every inflection on them inside out, and the way they make you feel sets the standard for everything that comes after. And yes, of course, I bought Saturday Night Fever when it was released ( before the film itself was), I’d been primed. It was the first Bee Gees album I’d bought in real-time.
Beginning in the ’90s, like a lot of people, I started buying cd versions of my vinyl collection. I still loved the Bee Gees and so it was inevitable that I would get around to Here At Last. Though many years had passed since I’d first heard it, the instant I queued it up, I was transported back to my blue shag-carpeted bedroom. Even looking at the cover photo of the Gibb brothers awash in garish red light around the mike triggered memories of my not as secret as I’d ignorantly assumed obsession with my neighbor. Truth be told, deep down I was still actually a little embarrassed about the whole “affair”, the misguided contents of my 11-year-old heart so brazenly on display for everyone to see and all that…but it also made me laugh at how freakin’ weird I was and how I used the Bee Gees as this special love glue, this inroad to commonality and bonding.
One day around 2010 or so I absentmindedly googled my neighbor crush’s name for the first time ( seriously, I’d never done it before for some reason)…and the first thing that popped up was an obituary. It turned out he’d died back in 2007. He and his wife had moved a couple of years after the “summer of love” as did my own family and we’d organically lost contact over time. I think the last time I spoke to him was when I was around 13 or so, I honestly can’t remember.
But know what, I’ll always be grateful to him, not just because he was always so cool, kind, and tolerant of my crazy little ass but because he gave me something I still have to this day, this musical gift. Not just the fabulous Gibbs themselves of whom I own every album, but just the joy of talking about music with someone older who loved it, who knew stuff I didn’t, who could teach me things. I had no clue at that stage that nearly my whole adult life would see me involved in the music universe and that my burgeoning love for pop music would introduce me to the most amazing human beings I’ve ever known. He put a brick in that life foundation.
Listening to the album again as I’m writing this makes the memories of that summer come flooding back. Anyway, I just want to say thanks LS wherever you are, for letting me hang out with you all those days, being my pal, and giving me something amazing that I don’t know you were even aware you were giving to me. Gonna treasure it forever.
For more hyperbolic, humiliating pop tales, deep discography dives, and glistening playlists of the best new music, please visit my blog, Picking Up Rocks!