(Paul Sexton, Sunday Times, November 6 2004)

Posted by Anne Marie

With a new Bee Gees album in the Top 10 Robin Gibb tells Paul Sexton he’s still haunted by his brother’s death.

Staying alive has long been a challenge for rockers: they either suffer dramatic drug-induced deaths in swimming pools or they lazily fade away in the rock-broker belt to chart suicide.

The Bee Gees are the exception. They have remained one of the world’s most successful bands since they first warbled onto the wireless back in 1967 — surviving, in the melodramatic word of one of their greatest hits, tragedy, followed by more tragedy: first in 1988 the drug-related death of their younger brother Andy, then last year’s death of Maurice after intestinal surgery went fatally wrong.

It seemed that would be the end of a group that, in their 1970s pomp, contrived to make excessive chest hair, medallions and falsetto voices almost cool. But the boys who sounded as if their manhoods were being mangled in a garlic crusher are back. A greatest hits album called Number Ones (yep, not a modest title, but few rivals could fill a CD with 19 top-selling singles) has boogied into the top 10, a tribute concert to Maurice is planned and there is talk of a collection of new songs. The fever might have cooled since those John Travolta disco days, but the band’s two surviving brothers are still prepared to sweat to maintain the success that has shifted 110m records.

Rather heroic though all this vitality is, Robin Gibb clearly struggles to accept the death of his twin brother Maurice, which he blames on the "neglect" of a Miami hospital. Indeed, Robin, 55, discloses that he and brother Barry are being frustrated in their attempts to sue Mount Sinai Medical Centre: "Barry and I are not legally allowed to be involved in a suit before the wife, and I’m not sure if a settlement is reached by the wife whether we’re allowed to sue, even though he’s part of the Bee Gees."

A whiff of Yoko-esque resentments, here: Yvonne Gibb, Maurice’s Mrs for nearly 30 years, is never referred to by name. Under Maurice’s 1991 will, she inherited his £24m fortune, which included six homes and copyright of her hubby’s share of Bee Gees’ ditties.

"Maurice’s death was so incomprehensible, given the illness he had," says Robin. "He walked into hospital (with a stomach blockage) and was in a coma the following day. His death was absolute neglect. That’s something the lawyers are sorting out."

Except no lawyer can really "sort out" the death of a brother. With more money than a medium-sized bank, it would hardly help the Bee Gees to win compensation; still, the desire to see the alleged mistake acknowledged is understandable.

"He was in a hospital without the medical facilities that could have helped him, and he had an illness that could have been corrected by routine procedure. If you leave anything unattended it has the potential to kill, including flu. They say Mo died through heart failure. Well, all deaths are caused by heart failure eventually, if unattended. It’s not that he had a heart attack." Pause. "Those were the circumstances we had to come to terms with — a death that could have been prevented." Ouch.

Just when you think it is going to be too painful for Robin to continue, he suddenly displays that famous determination: "I don’t have any emotions talking about Maurice any more, because death is a fact of life," he says glibly.

"Mo wasn’t old and he was never ill, it just happened out of the blue. It feels like it’s happening only to you, but the idea that you’re alone in this is ridiculous. I’m very philosophical."

So he has not sought refuge, in time-honoured rocker fashion, in a designer religion: "Far from becoming more spiritual, it’s more that we have to live for every day. It’s too depressing to dwell."

True to his words Robin has been touring Germany, belting out Bee Gee hits with the Frankfurt Philharmonic. A tribute concert to Maurice was mooted with Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Travolta, but "it’s cancelled", says Robin firmly. "There will be a tribute concert put together by Barry and myself only, at a time when Barry chooses." Hmm.

He is deeply protective of his twin’s memory. A few weeks after Maurice died, when Graham Norton made a typically toe-curling joke about him, Robin called Norton "scum" and said he would "rip his head off": a bantam-weight contest if ever there was one.

We are talking in a cosy living room at Robin’s inevitably huge estate in Oxfordshire where, as I arrive, as if to enhance the image of the country idyll, the church clock really does stand at ten to three. Gibb, small and wiry, is cautious but ultimately warm. He may have outed himself as bald last year, but now a rich auburn weave sprouts with enough gusto to make Sir Elton John jealous; although softly spoken, he seems content with the place in pop history that the new retrospective underlines.

Only monster hit-makers such as the Beatles and Elvis Presley could boast such a collection of number ones. As Robin says: "There aren’t many people who’ve had those kind of albums." The new Number Ones CD sleeve notes contain a simplistic but heartfelt poem called O Mo: "There’s a lot of ‘in memorial’ to Maurice about this album. We feel he’s still here, so it’s a way of paying our respects to him as a musician and songwriter, as well as a brother."

It is clear how much they went through when Robin says that Saturday Night Fever "burnt almost white-hot, to a point where nobody was in control, not even us". The teenage Gibbs stepped off the boat in Southampton from Australia in January 1967 without any money, but somehow it seemed things would always turn gold for them.

By May they were in the British charts: "We’d only been in England a few weeks, we didn’t realise how much competition there was or how lucky we were."

Gibb’s profile was boosted last year when he became tutor on the BBC’s Fame Academy and then recorded with Alistair Griffin, the runner-up. Impressively, they remain friends after Griffin’s 15 minutes expired. Otherwise, Gibb’s solo success has been limited: "I don’t really like being a solo artist, it’s pretty lonely. When you’re on stage on your own, the pressure’s all on you. Being part of something together; that’s what we ’ve had with the Bee Gees. I’m not talking financially, but we’re an equal part of our achievements. When you’re solo, you really only have your lawyer to share that with."

What of that reunion? "We’ll see what happens: me and Barry definitely want to record in the future." Which sounds like a gentle nudge to his remaining bro’ to leave the lawyers to their litigations and get back into the studio.

For the Bee Gees, it really is all about staying alive.

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