The Bee Gees were naturally heart-on-sleeve, but they had an even deeper emotional core in Robin Gibb. His death yesterday (20 May) at 62 reminds us of a great songwriting talent – who with his brothers could find a hook to crack any hardnut exterior – but also a singer whose quavering voice was the perfect vessel for open, fragile songs that admit big boys do cry after all.
Brother Barry usually took the lead of course, and hardly hid a trembling bottom lip himself, but his macho presence – even with the bouffant of Farrah Fawcett and vocal pitch of Minnie Riperton – didn’t betray the sort of brittleness Robin made his stock-in-trade. When Robin sang lead, or shared it with Barry, he shook on the verge of a breakdown, unaffected and honest.
It’s that kind of emotional freedom that has ensured the Bee Gees occupy an unusual place in pop’s pantheon. For every fan their music and lyrics speak to, there’s another who’s embarrassed by their candour, their image, their delivery. It’s not a fashionable approach for a band – and they were never really in fashion, even when they sprang to disco’s vanguard in the wake of Saturday Night Fever – but for anyone willing to drop their guard in tandem with the Gibbs, the Bee Gees spoke to the heart.
Even so, it’s remarkable how much of this was down to – or given over to – one man. On the yearning second verse to 1991 single ‘Secret Love’ when Barry steps aside, Robin sends it soaring: “Anyway you want me I’ll be standing by/ I don’t wanna lose the one I hunger for”. Hunger. There was something in his voice that was always reaching out, a sob matching melodies that appeared to be testing the exact vibratory frequency of your tear ducts.
And it was usually explicit. There can’t be many men who sang about crying so often. It’s Robin lamenting, “For you it’s goodbye/ For me it’s to cry/ For whom the bell tolls” on 1993’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ and he’s there again – “Now I’m crying” – on 1968 No.1 ‘I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You’. How about ‘I Started A Joke’ from the same year? “I started a joke/ Which started the whole world crying… I started to cry/ Which started the whole world laughing”. Or ‘Saved By The Bell’, his 1969 solo single during a brief hiatus from the band when he warred with Barry over band leadership: “I cried for you, I cried for you/ I cried for two, I lied for you”.
It’s too common for coincidence, too convincing to be glib. Robin even took the lead when they finally recorded their own ‘Islands In The Stream’ in 2001, but at least this time the tears are being banished as he promises, “The message is clear/ This could be the year for the real thing/ No more will you cry”.
But they’re still there even if they’re only implied – on 1969’s epic ‘Odessa (City On The Black Sea)’ as the iceberg melts, in the falling rain on 1971’s ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’, or when Robin counters Barry’s heroic “Midnight rider on a cloud of smoke” imagery with “Just the beat of a lonely heart/ And it’s mine” on 1997’s ‘Alone’.
Robin Gibb’s voice was raw; not a rough-hewn cut, more a tender wound. The Bee Gees’ music expressed that hurt, but Robin personified the ache the best – better than anyone, in fact. He started the whole world crying. But that’s OK.