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Death Before Disco

The Ministry of Rock sends an apolitical star down the memory hole.

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The death of pop singer/songwriter and paintball enthusiast Maurice Gibb in mid-January received some notice, to be sure. He earned obituaries from The New York Times and Associated Press and a cover banner in our celebrity journal of record, People (guiding the reader to a mere two-page story on page 65).

This was respectable enough, but unenthusiastic and unwounded. And it could seem almost insulting to those with vivid personal memories of the late 1970s—particularly 1977 to '79, during which the Bee Gees (the musical act comprised of Maurice, his twin Robin, and his older brother Barry) copped six number one hits, topping the charts for 20 weeks. The galaxy of stardom the Bee Gees represented receded from us, in some mysterious astral anomaly, faster than light.

Beyond those three years when the pop earth was prostrate at their feet, Maurice and his brothers had a pop chart career that spanned three decades. They hit number one nine times, had more top 10s than a top 10 list could contain (15) and came scarily close to forming their very own Top 40, with 30 tunes charting there. Over 100 million total records sold. Not just fabulously successful pop songsmiths, Maurice and his siblings were also the very epitome (deservedly or not) of a pop cultural moment—disco—that has come to define a decade.

And still Maurice's death occasioned no more respect or love from the guardians of the public press than that of Sam Lewis (NYT obit the next day—he invented armadillo racing) or tinpot dictator Leopoldo Galtieri (Associated Press obit, same day—he helped bring us the Falklands War, not exactly a Greatest Hit by any standard). Nor is there much evidence that—although every entertainer has his special fans (and Maurice had one in me)—the public noticed anything amiss. Really, it seemed as if no one cared. Not as bad, perhaps, as finally dying and starting the whole world living. But it was obvious that our love for the Bee Gees was not, in the end, very deep.

It would be easy to ignore the meaning of this muted reaction to Gibb's passing. What happened to Maurice not only is eerily predictive of the rapidly-quickening Twilight of our Pop Gods (a wave of pop music deaths is clearly swelling on the horizon) but also says something important, if not necessarily pretty, about Americans' ability to integrate our pleasures and our sense of self.

Predictive? Ask not for whom the bell tolls, New Kids on the Block, Vanilla Ice, Hootie, Garth, and Mariah. As the Bee Gees' falsetto becomes a forgotten wail in the distance, so go the sounds you've given us. All these people sold more than ten, if not tens, of millions of albums. To us. Their dominance of their respective pop moments was staggering, all the more so for how quickly it disappeared. They dug deep into the pocketbooks and yes (lie if you must) the hearts of many millions of Americans, deeper than most of their peers. But even they will see their platinum albums decayed with rust. In fact, they already have. In some ways, their obituaries have already been written. Brief, professional, and barely a wet eye in the house. The harder they come, the harder they fall.

The Faustian bargain of stardom used to be that, sure, you'd irreparably compromise any hope of unstressed, easy normality in life and love. But you would win the grail of immortality. Nowadays, with worldly pop success, you still screw up life and love (look hard for an apparently happy life among our pop Olympians) but get gypped on the immortality.

But Maurice—and the now-faded megastars listed above—are just pop. As Bob Seger (than whom no one could be more immortal, I suppose) assured us, rock 'n' roll never forgets. Indeed, rock stars—most recently represented by Joe Strummer, and a little farther back Joey Ramone—can count on more thoughtful extended treatment upon their passing, a seemingly deeper public mourning. Strummer was still the subject of essays on his meaning and legacy in the big papers nearly two weeks after he died—an eternity in daily paper terms.

Our cultural understanding of popular music is funneled through a mostly rockist intelligentsia. This is a crew always more interested in words and sociology than they are in music. They will always have more room in their hearts and their histories for a Joe Strummer than a Maurice Gibb. Jeff Miers, writing in the Buffalo News, summed up the differences (though he wasn't thinking of Gibb, still alive when he wrote) thus: "Good pop is about craft, about the ability to create a hook, to reach the masses by creating musical dialogue within the vernacular. Rock 'n' roll needs to be good pop, but it is also something more. Pop is a product; rock 'n' roll, when it's done right, sprays blood on the tracks, offers a snapshot of deeply felt beliefs."

Well, uh, sure. Not to disparage the Clash—a great band—but what this means is that Strummer offered something meaty for a word-based ideologist to bite into. At base, he stood for political and social ideals that the press loved. (Even the goofball nihilism of the Ramones was squeezed into a progressive politics by some pundits when Joey died.) It has always been hard for the priests of RockThink to deal with punk in any manner other than ideological; this is why the Sex Pistols go down in history as somehow more valuable than the Buzzcocks.) An almost unlistenable triple LP dedicated to a communist revolutionary government (The Clash's Sandinista!) means more to those who write the histories than an unspeakably gorgeous #1 pop song like "Too Much Heaven."

It is a strange yet undeniable phenomenon (doubtless connected in some ways with the heavy youth-skewing of many big stars of the moment, though I don't think it was kids buying 16 million Hootie and the Blowfish records) that the biggest pop sensations seem the most embarrassing and are the most quickly abandoned. But a Ramone or Strummer—who in their entire lives sold fewer albums than one LP by their ostensible acolytes Green Day—are guaranteed continued respect up to and past their deaths.

An obvious answer is that the Ramones and the Clash were great (which they were) while the megasellers sucked. But that's too easy. How and why is it that somewhere along the line "we" all seemed to decide that the Bee Gees, Vanilla Ice, New Kids on the Block, and Hootie were worthless? While Americans surely love their pleasures, we just as surely mistrust them and are quick to turn our backs on them. We see this with the current and looming fates of cigarettes and fatty foods in public policy and law. And if we don't hate our pleasures, we try to turn them into jokes. The seventies—a decade understood to be dedicated to a particularly decadent pleasure—cannot currently be dealt with as anything other than a kitschy joke in our culture.

And so we turn our backs on our own childhood and youth instead of integrating them—we deliberately alienate our cultural adulthood from the supposedly foolish enthusiasms and pleasures of our past. That's why Maurice had to be denied. The Bee Gees' lush, enfolding, perfect, and strange harmonies are pure pleasure, irrespective of meaning (which is not to say the Gibbs haven't written some fascinatingly bizarre lyrics in their time as well). At the height of their stardom, they took the music and leisure culture of urban blacks and gays and brought it to the suburbs (with the help of John Travolta, to be sure, but what's the dancer without the music?). No one thanked them for it, because its deeper cultural meanings were convincingly buried under a veneer of pure mindless hedonistic fun. Purists could snipe that they exploded and thus irreparably damaged urbanites' private fun; troglodytes led fascist death-to-disco record burns. They suffered the fate of the id smothered by the superego, the same fate MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice endured when they made it unmistakable that hip-hop was fated to dominate pop. Something difficult had been reduced to dumb fun.

The pundits may little note nor long remember what Maurice Gibb did here. But in a sense, Maurice has been consecrated far beyond their poor power to add or detract. Sociological and intellectual significance can be trodden on like scattered confetti by eagerly dancing feet. True immortality may come one human memory at a time. In which case, Maurice Gibb is already in the pantheon; and will be joined one day by Hootie, and even those guys from New Kids on the Block whose names we can't even remember. These clowns—sacrificed to our own misguided sense of shame over pure sonic pleasure—will remain, even if the are never publicly acknowledged, in tens of millions of memories.

The Hollies—quite equivalent to the Bee Gees in their time as quirky, lovely baroque popsters—sang of "King Midas in Reverse." Maurice's passing is more like Ozymandias on Fast Forward. It didn't take millennia of desert winds and sun to erode his gargantuan legacy to "the decay of [a] colossal wreck"—merely the embarrassment of age for youthful enthusiasms that cannot be connected convincingly to anything larger or more important. But sometimes, there is nothing more important than a song to sing or a beat to move you. Those are what sell tens of millions of records. And they deserve more respect than they get.