Death of Golden Child
For a Few Shining Moments, Andy Gibb Seemed to Light Up the Sky; Then He Found a Potent Distraction
That world changed, but Gibb, a guileless boy, never did. "Andy was too sensitive, too delicate," says Freddie Gershon, an author and former president of RSO, Gibb's record label. "Superstars usually have a tough hide from having doors slammed in their face and hustling. Andy never built up those layers because he never had to. Andy grew older, but he didn't grow up. He froze in time at about age 17." So when the news came that Andy Gibb was dead at 30, it saddened but somehow did not surprise. It seemed the last echo of a long-forgotten naïveté, of a vanished sybaritic innocence.
He did not flame out in a fury of self-destruction at the height of his fame, like John Belushi, or implode like Elvis, sending out disturbing shock waves that seemed to reverberate through an epic career. Gibb's life ended quietly, on a hauntingly acquiescent note. Two days after his 30th birthday, on Monday, March 7, he had checked into John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, complaining of mysterious stomach pains. On March 10, at 8:30 a.m., his doctor walked in and told Gibb that more tests were needed. "Fine," Gibb said, but a few moments later he slumped into unconsciousness and within a few more moments was dead.
A Radcliffe Hospital spokesman, in a carefully worded statement, said later that an autopsy had shown Gibb "died of inflammation of the heart of the sort commonly caused by a virus. There is no evidence that his death was related to drink or drugs." Dr. William Shell, a Beverly Hills cardiologist who had treated Gibb for heart inflammation in 1985 and 1986, says he always believed the illness was "viral in nature." Yet it seemed all too possible that years of cocaine use had finally taken its toll on Gibb's heart. "Even small doses of cocaine can cause heart damage, and this damage may be permanent," says Dr. Mark Gold, director of research at Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, N.J., and founder of the National Cocaine Hotline. "When we hear about young people, otherwise healthy, having a heart attack, the most likely scenario involves drugs and drug use." Adds New York cardiologist Dr. George Ellis: "Long-term use of cocaine would cause enlargement of the heart."
And for all of his lightning-in-a-bottle success, Gibb was notorious for his cocaine habit. He was barely 19 and fresh from Australia in 1977 when his first single, I Just Want to Be Your Everything, hit the top of the charts. He was nominated for two Grammys that year and made nearly $2 million, adding more than $1 million the next. He is the only solo performer ever to have his first three singles—Everything, (Love Is) Thicker than Water and Shadow Dancing—top the charts, and he sold some 15 million records worldwide by the time he was 21. Then, as easily as the money came, it went—much of it surreptitiously, for cocaine.
Gibb had sought treatment in 1985 and by all accounts had finally put drugs behind him when he returned from L.A. to Miami—the adopted home of his older Bee Gee brothers—early in 1986. But by that time his fortune had gone, and last October he filed for bankruptcy. His debts totaled $1.5 million, including $1 million owed to his onetime manager Robert Stigwood.
Andy's brothers—Barry, now 40, and the twins Robin and Maurice, 39—had supported him emotionally for much of his life. Over the last two years they supported him financially as well, furnishing his apartment and giving him a $200-a-week living allowance. Last Christmas, Barry took Andy to meet executives of Island Records, and he signed his first record contract in 10 years. "This is an opportunity for me to make a fresh start," he said enthusiastically. "Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can lift your head up again and get back on the right track." Last January, hidden away on Robin's 16-acre estate, Prebendal, in Oxfordshire, he began writing songs for the comeback he yearned for. But those who knew him had heard it all before.
Born in the Isle of Man, he grew up in Brisbane, Australia, where his brothers began their career as the Bee Gees. Before he was in his teens, in the late '60s, the group had become so successful that Andy's parents—Barbara, a former big-band singer, and Hugh, an ex-drummer—moved to the Spanish pleasure island of Ibiza. There, Andy, who was picked up at school in a Rolls-Royce, found himself resented by his classmates. Bored, he quit school at 13 and, with a guitar given him by Barry, began playing in a local bar. He had always assumed he would become the fourth Bee Gee, he once said, but his voice was so appealing that in 1975 his family urged him to strike out on his own Down Under. After one hit in Australia, his brothers' manager, Stigwood, signed him on. The hits, some co-written with his brothers (whose 1977 sound track LP from Saturday Night Fever defined the disco era), began to roll. From the moment he exploded onto the world's stage, he was called the "baby Bee Gee," a label he disliked but could never shake.
Yet Andy remained in awe of his brothers and dubious of his own talents. "I feel I've done very little," he once said. "I know I've been lucky, and wouldn't have gotten as far as I have so quickly if it hadn't been for my family." Says Jeff Witjas, Gibb's agent from 1983 to 1985: "Sometimes I'd say, 'Andy, look in the mirror. You've got everything—good looks, talent. Women love you.' Men liked him too. But when he looked in the mirror, you always had the feeling he didn't see anything."
The emptiness seemed to eat at him. In Australia, Andy, 19, had met and married an 18-year-old receptionist named Kim Reeder, and in 1977 they moved into a small apartment in West Hollywood. "All of a sudden Andy wanted to go to the mountains by himself," Reeder recalled. "He became ensconced in the drug scene. Cocaine became his first love. He became depressed and paranoid. He wasn't the man I married." When Reeder became pregnant in 1978, she flew back to Australia, where she gave birth to a daughter, Peta, and divorced Gibb. In 1980 she and her 2-year-old child returned to L.A., where Andy gave Kim a gold bracelet inscribed, "With all my love—A.G." Neither she nor Peta ever saw him again.
By that time, disco was as dead as their marriage, and though no one could have known it then, there would be no more hit albums for the baby Bee Gee. Fresh opportunities knocked and knocked again, but Andy's response was always the same. In 1981 producer Brad Lachman signed him to co-host the syndicated TV show Solid Gold with Marilyn McCoo. "What I liked about him was that he was a very charming, vulnerable and charismatic performer," Lachman says. But the charm wore thin when Gibb began missing shows. "He really meant well," says Lachman. "He wasn't being difficult. He was going through problems he couldn't deal with. He wanted everyone to love him. He had so much going for him, and he just couldn't believe it." After repeated warnings, Gibb was fired.
One of his problems at that time was romantic. A year earlier, Andy, at 23, had met Victoria Principal, 31, and fallen hard. "If something wasn't going well between them," Lachman recalls, "he was devastated." Things often didn't go well, and after 13 months the relationship ended. When that happened, Gibb said, "I just fell apart and didn't care about anything. I started to do cocaine around the clock—about $1,000 a day. I stayed awake for two weeks locked in my bedroom. The producers kept calling up, sending cars for me, but I refused to go.... I really think the major reason I fell from stardom was my affair with Victoria."
Victoria saw it differently. "Our breakup was preceded and precipitated by Andy's use of drugs," she said. "I did everything I could to help him. But then I told him he would have to choose between me and his problem."
It was the sort of choice Andy never seemed able to make. In 1981 he was given a starring role opposite Pam Dawber in a Los Angeles production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, and he loved the glitter of opening night. "But after three weeks," says former RSO publicist Ronnie Lippin, "he called me and seemed lonesome. He wanted every night to be opening night." It wasn't long before he began missing shows. In 1982 Gibb was given a bigger chance—the starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream-coat on Broadway. He missed 12 performances in six weeks and was fired again. "When he started rehearsals his brothers were jumping up and down with excitement," recalls Zev Bufman, the show's producer. "His mom and dad came from England. He was always talking about it as a new start. But we'd lose him over long weekends. He'd come back on Tuesday, and he'd look beat. He was like a little puppy—so ashamed when he did something wrong. He was all heart, but he didn't have enough muscle to carry through."
Sometimes he still seemed dazed by the normal requirements of the workaday world—a child thrust too soon among demanding adults. "When we had lunch together," Dawber, a friend, said at the time, "he wasn't even sure how to use his MasterCard."
He knew how to spend, however, both on drugs and in countless other ways. "He blew millions," says Stigwood. "He got very paranoid. He couldn't fly on a public plane; he had to hire private planes." But he was on a bumpy downward spiral. "It was hard for him not having the royal treatment anymore," says Marc Gurvitz, who managed Andy from 1983 to 1985, after Stigwood left the music business. "Whenever he was depressed on tour, he wanted to cancel the engagement."
For years his family vainly tried to persuade Andy to face his cocaine problem. In 1985 he briefly entered the Betty Ford Center in California, but weeks of family conferences were required before he would commit himself to the full regimen. Even then, publicist Michael Sterling says that he had to put Andy on the phone with Elizabeth Taylor before he was finally convinced. Friends say that not until he went to another facility, in Santa Barbara in 1986, was he able to clean himself up.
According to bankruptcy papers Gibb filed last October, he earned $24,727 in 1985 and only $7,755 in 1986. He was living rent free in a luxurious Miami penthouse in exchange for promoting the development in which it was located, and he seemed a changed man. Friends say he dated fellow Miamian Donna Rice a couple of times before the Gary Hart affair broke, but he never became seriously involved with anyone after Principal. "He read a lot," says Dick Ashby, the Gibb family's Miami business manager. "He was quite a loner in a lot of ways." His few public appearances were at charity functions, where he would play backup to his brothers on a borrowed guitar. "He seemed fine," Stigwood says, "but he wasn't the young, lively person that I knew."
Then came the last chance, which would never be realized. In England early this year, getting ready for the album, Gibb usually rose at 9 a.m. and worked hard, only occasionally taking a break to walk his retriever, Sam, around his brother's lavish estate. His mother flew over from L.A. to look after him and cook his meals. The two of them celebrated his 30th birthday without guests, and he seldom visited the nearby town of Thame. Yet to those who did see him from time to time, he seemed cheerful, eager and healthy. Two months ago he even called his ex-wife Kim Reeder in Sydney to ask if she would let Peta, now 10, visit him. She said no, but agreed to let Andy come to Australia in September. Though they hadn't seen each other for eight years, he had called her regularly, sometimes talking for five hours.
When the final call came announcing Andy's death, Reeder wasn't surprised. "I always knew that one day I'd get a call with news like this," she said. "It was only a matter of time." They had had a curious relationship, so tenuously linked for so many years, but she thought she understood why Gibb had continued it. "I think," she says of herself and her daughter, "we were the only touch with reality he ever had."