Robin Gibb: Bee Gees, Night Fevers, Disco Apocalypse & Gone

It started with those swinging paint cans… the jaunty walk… the crease so sharp you could shave with it in the double knit pants… and a world I had no idea about. It all crested on foamy waves of glistening three part harmony, the top so high only dogs could truly appreciate it.
“You can tell… by the way… I use my walk… I’m a ladies man… no time to talk…”

“Jive Talking… telling me lies…”

“Blamin’ it all… on… the nights… on Broadway…”
“Night fever… night feverrrrrr…”

“More than a woman… to…. meeeeeeeee…”

And the near-threat of the sinister enjoinder, “You should be… (swoop swoop) daaaa-annnncin’….”

It was everywhere. If the earlier singles had been treacly and challenging of my young patience – I also hated Barry Manilow and that damn dog Mandy with an unholy fervor – this was inescapable. It was in TIME magazine. Parents were trying to learn to “do tha hustle…,” wearing gold medallions dangling overt their scandalously open rayon shirts.

This was not the pink and green suburbs, this was bridge and tunnel.crowd Kids aspiring to another world, or possibly even eschewing it in the name of their own euphoric, tantric golden-footed high. Because like music, dancing releases endorphins in a mighty way.

“Night fever… night fee-vurrrrrr….”

They wore white satin, tight pants, had perfectly coiffed hair. They were like Cyclops or unicorns, mythical beasts – unlike the Daddies where I grew up. My friends were crazy for them. Especially crazy for Barry, who’d once again don the white satin for his big duet with Barbra Streisand on the even foamier “Guilty,” not to mention the glaringly pop fondant of Kenny’n’Dolly romping through a Gibbs-penned  “Islands in the Stream.”

Sheesh, they were disco. In a way even Donna Summer, who passed last week at the far too young age of 63, wasn’t. Somehow, they managed to exude nightclub fabulosity without any suggestion of the seamy demi-monde that seemed so intriguing about too much of disco’s glory.

They were squeaky clean, not Warholian. The parents loved them. Heck, the ethnic kids all around Cleveland, Ohio could be seen everywhere in the sans-a-belt slacks and the rayon shirts, gloriously unbuttoned to reveal virgin skin.

None of them were testosteronic enough to actually have chest hair, something the BeeGess seemed to have in glorious abundance, all blown dry and back-combed. They were Ken Dolls, sexually non-threatening, yet somehow manly and desirable.

It was easy to write them off. Until you had a friend who knew something about music listen with you. They’d point out the swooping harmonies… They’d talk about the percussive dynamics, the grooves that would scoop you up… The way the melodies were almost aerodynamically constructed.

“So, you’re telling me…,” the argument would begin, “that these guys are musically sound?”
“Fraid so,” would come the reply. “Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot more Beachboys in here than you want to believe… And just because it’s not so clean and perky, don’t think that the musicality is any the less.”

I said a bad word. It started with “F.”

I had to reconsider everything. Everything.

Whirling like a disco ball with colored lights pointed every which way, the music just kept churning, turning asunder and rushing towards those hooks that glide up, higher, higher, higher. Lyle Lovett may’ve written about “An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy,” but this was the aural equivalent of an amyl nitrate capsule busted beneath your nose.

Not that I did whippets or whipping cream canisters. But I knew the sketchy kids, and they loved the stuff. Talking in that same falsetto squeal, sucking on helium and acting like outlaws.

Maybe the technical achievement warranted extra consideration. I just couldn’t tell anyone… I mean, really?

And, truth be told, it was thrilling to see John Travolta burn down the dance floor, all liquid and serpentine, snap movements and quick spins. Nine years of modern dance, a lifetime of “dancing school” to properly ballrioom and an odd addiction to the jitterbug with my friend John Griener who could flip, roll and slide me any number of gravity-defying ways.

Flesh covered poetry, melted like caramel maybe. Better than figure skating… and somehow libido-inducing, even for a kid whose hormones hadn’t kicked in yet.

It was a time: those thick harmonies of “How Deep Is Your Love.” Pillowy or downy. Like jumping into silky clouds or whipped cream mountains that you’d never hit the bottom of. Narcotic in a super-sweet way.

Play that stuff late enough at the Ground Floor’s subterranean lounge, and the quiana dresses would swirl as the gropping and steam began to rise. You could only hope melt into another, the forensics suggested to a kid with dinner plate-sized eyes, sitting in a banquette taking it all in. And take it in I did.

So, this was the suburban jungle – and the Bee Gees, if not the guide, were certainly the game caller. Effective. Technically excellent. A veritable trampoline of hormones and want to, blown dry to perfectly feathered hair, an Italian horn or coke spoon dangling down where the buttons found the holes and the heels always flashing, the soles and hips moving snap snap snap.

To not know is frustrating, but somehow sweet.

Sitting here, thinking Robin Gibb had been the miracle we all needed to believe in, I wish I didn’t understand. I wish – with all the death that’s been tumbling since Steve Popovich checked out last spring – that this pinwheel of untimely deaths could… just… STOP.

62, 63 is young. Too young. And these are not deaths by misadventure. Too many good times coming home to roost; the eternal Russian roulette of high living, fast cars and the disco inferno of random coupling in a bathroom or balcony beyond the falling starlight of a refracted mirror ball.

No, this is cancer. The thing we’ve been trying to cure fo decades– but that is taking more, not fewer lives as chemo barns and dialysis centers become profit centers. It’s what no one wants to say…

And like my innocence, it lays slaughtered if undiscussed before me.

But we’re getting to the point where whistling by the graveyard isn’t working any more. It’s too hard to pretend all these hands aren’t getting folded, one after another, every week it seems. Heck, every day if you’re really paying attention.

Earl Scruggs so profound a passing, no one mourned Doug Dillard, who dieded last week. Or Robert Nix, the drummer from Atlanta Rhythm Section, who found his way to the next realm at 4 a.m. on Sunday; I only know from Georgia Satellite Dan Baird’s Facebook page, where a sucker-punched gap-toothed rocker posted from the precipice of his own disblief...

Dillard, obviously, because of both his stamp on Southern California country rock from the Eagles to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as being one of “Those Darlings” on “The Beverly Hillbillies” has a certain amount of roots traction, but what about a guy whose band’s greatest claim to fame may be turning the turntable from 33 1/3 RPMs to 45 RPMs when playing the single “Imaginary Lover” yielded a performance that was oddly similar to Stevie Nicks during Fleetwood Mac’s witchiest success?

They are falling like dominos. It’s getting to where every day you expect to hear about the next one. You won’t know why, or how… Just that we’re hemorrhaging these artists, these forces of music back when music really, really meant something.

Even the stuff you didn’t really like: it stamped you in ways that defined you.

Each one who passes, like rhinestones on a Nudie Suit or sequins on a disco tube top: enough go and you feel moth-eaten, shabby, bare. More like a welfare motel than a place like the Chelsea once was. Not squalid chic, just broke down like a hooker who’s turned too many tricks and can’t remember the Johns names any more.

“Baby, right/” you say, too numb to even engage, too disoriented for anything more than getting through it.

Worst part is, I never got jaded. Some hit me harder than others, but they all gut me in different ways. These deaths all tell me things about the passing of time, bony fingers tugging at my wrist, papery whispers echoing in my ear about inevitability.

Wasn’t it all supposed to be gay and fey and shining? A miracle of tempos, white people finding the beat, tossing their Well Balsom’ed manes as the blocks of dance floor light up beneath their feet.

Isn’t that how I remembered it? Isn’t that how it was? So how does it all end like this?

Ronnie Dunn won the CMA Song of the Year for a rafter-clearing gospel ballad called “Believe,” It contains the lines: “I can’t quote the book, the chapter or the verse/
But you can’t tell me it all ends… with a slow ride in a hearse…”

It’s hard to believe these days. What to think, heck what to know.

Everything you ever thought is shifting. Even as the rhythms rise up, wave after wave of harmonies breaking all around you, the memories flooding back.

It’s the end of another day, another star has twinkled that last time, surged bright than black. There’s a void where the light once shone, and my eyes sting from the tears and the squinting.

This is more than vulnerable, teetering here on the abyss of gone, gone and more gone.  What was once an object of parental torture, watching adults do things incredibly embarrassing, while telling you “hey, I’m hip…” That was agonizing and laughable. Ironically, now that I’ve attained the age of reason and knowing, it’s just agonizing – and I’m not, as Todd Rundgren sang, sure what to feel.

I can put on my disco slippers, slide into the night, turn a couple New York Hustle steps, raise a glass of champagne and think about “Auntie Mame.” She the lose-it-all-and-laugh broad who declared, “Life is a banquet, and most of you sonspfbitches are starving.”

Yeah, maybe that’s the post-disco-decadence-apocalypse battle cry.

Live now. Live deep. Live real. Live out loud.

Take it all in. Taste and savor. Touch and exult in the texture of skin, salt, loss, velvet, satin, burlap, canvas, but especially love.

I find myself – a person chronically closing phone calls with “I love you” anyway – making sure people really know. Because we don’t know. Anything more than right now, anything more than here we are. Maybe that’s enough, maybe that’s all there is.

Maybe we should just throw our hands in the air, and enjoy the ride. After all, there’s no money back and it is what we – like Robin Gibb – make it.

Dan Baird’s Homemade Sin

There is that left leg, pumping like electroshock set to quick-strike metronome. It's attached the black-headed, pork-pie hat wearing yowler who hurls himself at the mic without ever losing solid contact with the floor beneath his sneakers. This guy is a true believer, and he ain't afraid to let it rock. This man is Dan Baird, who's brought his new band Homemade Sin with Jason & the Scorchers guitarist Warner Hodges, to Nashville after extended European tours to let it fly, and see how it lands back home. It is an act of faith and an act of combustion, pure and simple. Hardcore three chord rock and roll with a steam engine back beat and Baird's drawlin' howl that's all the yowl of a mountain cat with its balls caught in barbed wire. No fuss, no muss. Just four grown men on a clean stage, walking out, plugging in and hitting the downstroke. Quick buzz, blur and straight into the Georgia Satellite's "I Dunno" with as much charge-load as anything the Replacements or the Ramones ever served up, lyrics flying, guitars whirling and a sense of thrilling release about finally getting it all out. It's a funny thing about the Satellites: for the people who got it, they were the real deal, throttle and exhilaration that touched on the great ones: Stones, Faces, Who, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly without ever dropping a plectrum. To the drive-by observers, they were one merely one more band punching it out in the bars, surfing a very lucky Warhol 15 by virtue of a novelty song that worked the oldest axiom mothers had plied on their daughters coming into puberty since the 50s. Ironically, for Baird – who sets it up with "I don't know… maybe you don't wanna hear the huggy-kissie song" — "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" has become its own blaring insurrection manifesto. Sure, it's been played in bars, on concert stages and frat houses every night for the past two decades, but in Homemade Sins' hands, the down-on-the-groove classic is almost a salacious confrontation. It's the rage against the assumptions, the dismissals and, of course, the unthinking denial of hormonal meltdown. Not that it was all full-rut blaring. When Baird slowed things down for the gut-ripping "All Over But The Crying," it was the attenuated moment of reckoning for a faithless girl who thinks she's smarter than the guy – only to realize, he's letting her play her game, because he's done. By dropping the pilot light to a slow quiet flex, single notes hitting the stage like stakes going through the floor, the intensity draws the room to a hush. That kind of a witness at a rock show is staggering. In some cases more staggering even than the ability to take late middle aged women who're well into their fade and return them to their former 20-something hottie glory, shaking their asses as if anyone still cared – or the paunchy guy well past his rock 'n' roll prime pawing his dates crotch right out in the open. But that's the alchemy: dissolving time and propriety, releasing the inner beast in the people. And that's Homemade Sin. Down on the dance floor, the normally reserved flung themselves at the stage, roiling and boiling like it was the second to last night of Spring Break and they couldn't believe life was so good. And it's not that life is so good. It's that Baird, Hodges, veteran bass player Keith Christopher and Satellites drummer Mauro Magellan haven't forgotten. Indeed, they recognize the power of Hodges' whipping Creedence's "Fortunate Son" into a frenzy, of the dumb kid ardor of Baird's solo semi-hit "I Love You, Period," of the jettison punch of why even bother with what went wrong "6 Years Gone" and the surging bolt of "Railroad Steel." Feel it. Put it all down. Spin it out with a couple Telecasters and a beat that'll topple the constraints that bind you. Do it with dignity. Do it tight. Do it hard. It's not about showing off – though Hodges can toss a guitar over his shoulder at rapid speed – but getting it done. Period. Perhaps for the true believers, there is a moment where the doubt rolls back, and the fact that all there is is a tweed amp and some reverb that'll save you, is the reason a band like Homemade Sin doesn't just matter: they're critical. Certainly "Younger Face" offers a heightened interpretation, but it's not about what was – staggering though that might be; no, it's about what is: the fact that new songs like "Leave Well Enough Alone" and "2 For Tuesday" bristles with the same static electricity that made the Satellites gap-toothed lightning that the Satellites struck with all those years ago. In a world where it's about marketing, demographics and what will the radio play, the argument could be made, this doesn't fit. But to a churning catharsis of too many people wondering "Where did all the music that hit hard with melodic thrust go?", in Nashville's legendary Exit/In, they're essential. Because in the end, there is no substitute. You can talk all you want, but you either rock or you don't. Without bands like this, though, it won't be long before people won't have any measure to judge the difference. That is perhaps even more important than a jam-packed 90 minutes that quoted from T. Rex ("Bang A Gong") and the Beach Boys ("Do You Wanna Dance?") on its way to a wind-up, wind-out of the revving "Railroad Steel" into the bawdy drawling tale of white trash heart throb "Dixie Beauderaunt." In times like these, it is bold men who lean into the reverb, throw caution to the wind and let it rock. Homemade Sin has that boldness in their veins and sustain, and they came to let it rock. Whew, thank God somebody remembers how. --Holly Gleason February 8, 2008
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