Telegraph 13 july 2008
Robin Gibb, co-creator of the most gloriously shallow pop ever, now wears several deeply serious hats: guardian of British heritage, confidante of world leaders, and 21st century Mozart. He talks to Olga Craig. Portrait by Eva Vermandel
Robin Gibb is gazing at a bear at the bottom of his garden. Glinting in the afternoon sunshine, the 6ft grizzly is upright, poised motionless on muscular hind legs, left paw outstretched menacingly. Just as well, then, that it is sculpted in stone.
'It was a birthday present from my wife, Dwina,' Gibb says, sipping from a mug, decorated, appropriately enough, with festive robins. 'I like the sort of juxtaposition, the mix of the modern with the historic,' he says, pouring more tea from a cream Delft teapot that has got to hold a gallon of liquid at least.
The 'modern' is an array of huge stone statues, from bunnies to birds, that litter the magnificent 100-acre fairytale garden of his Oxfordshire home. The 'historic' is his manor house itself, a 12th-century former monastery that he has spent 20 years restoring.
'The Bishops decided Joan of Arc's fate in the chapel here. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed here in 1533 on one of their progresses. Oh, and Baroness Sophie Wenham conducted her affair with William IV here,' he rhymes off. 'There's a very old set of stone steps outside that the Baroness used to climb into her carriage. She was short. Dwina uses them now to climb into the Range Rover. I like that kind of continuity, too: the melding of the old and the new.'
History, you see, is one of Gibb's passions. In fact that was what clinched his deal on the manor in the first place.
Mick Jagger saw it first, Dwina confides. He wanted it desperately. The then owner said no rock stars and their raucous parties, thank you very much. But Gibb wasn't prepared to give up. So impressive was his knowledge of the era and his love of the house's history that the owner accepted his offer. (He is now president of the Heritage Foundation.)
Inside is like a dimly lit Aladdin's cave: think Harry Potter meets medieval sorcery. Tapestries and tarot-card tiles adorn the walls, snarling stone griffins guard the doorway, suits of armour stand in the stairway, Buddhas beckon you into the great hall, which is stuffed with mystic artifacts that festoon the ornate, 16th-century wood panelling. Cheek by jowl, without a hint of embarrassment, sits the 21st century: DVDs of Men Behaving Badly, The Cinder Path and Eddie Murphy movies.
Houses are very important to Gibb. So much so that the title of his forthcoming solo album is '50 St Catherine's Drive', the address of one of the Gibb family's earliest homes on the Isle of Man. Then, the brothers, who were to go on to have more than 50 Top 10 hits worldwide and define disco, didn't - as Gibb says matter of factly - 'have a pot to piss in'.
He went back recently to view the two-up, two-down terrace house of which the family could afford to furnish only one floor. 'It seemed so small, as though it had shrunk,' he says. 'The old school building opposite was still there. That's my earliest memory, standing in my cot at night looking out of the window and that was the view.'
Yet Gibb couldn't bring himself to go inside. 'I didn't want to, I was nervous about seeing it again,' he says self-consciously, fiddling with his blue-tinted glasses, sliding them down his nose then pushing them firmly back in place. Gibb, 58, doesn't like much to be without his own armour, the specs behind which, one suspects, he hides. (Not forgetting the auburn weave under which he conceals his balding pate.) 'I wanted those memories intact. I didn't want to spoil them.'
Gibb smiles, all toothy grin. 'My mother, bless her - 88 this year - would be dying with shame if she was here. She is mortified if I talk about how poor we were. To her generation that was something shameful, not to be mentioned. Things have changed,' he shrugs.
For the Gibbs they certainly have. The Bee Gees (Robin, his late twin, Maurice, and older brother, Barry) are custodians of an almost unrivalled catalogue of hit songs - Saturday Night Fever, Tragedy, Stayin' Alive, and the song with which Robin will be forever associated, the nasal, melancholic Massachusetts - and Gibb's personal fortune is estimated at �0?million. Next year it will only get bigger, thanks to a planned Mamma Mia!-type Bee Gees stage show. But to be a Gibb is also to walk hand-in-hand with loss and guilt: over the respective deaths of Maurice, in 2003, and younger brother Andy, 20 years ago. Andy died from heart failure in Gibb's mansion at just 30 after a long relationship with booze and drugs. 'When Andy died my dad just crumbled,' Gibb says. 'He was a tough man and I saw a side of him that I'd never seen before. He gave up, lost all faith in life. He died four years later, consumed by guilt that he hadn't been there on the day for Andy. He couldn't have done a thing, but that guilt ate him up. He felt that if he had been here he could somehow have stopped what happened.'
It is the same guilt Gibb himself feels when he reflects on the death of his twin. Maurice went into a Miami hospital with what should have been a treatable intestine problem. Twenty-four hours later he was dead.
Gibb says, 'There is part of me that thinks if I had been involved, if someone had told me, if Maurice had told me, I could have stopped it. There are always a lot of "what ifs" in a tragic early death, where you think you might have made a difference.
'No one told me he was in hospital. I got a phone call from his assistant saying he was in a coma. I was like: "What do you mean? When did he go into hospital?" I was in shock. How could this have happened?'
His grief is ever present, he admits. 'I think about Maurice at unpredictable times. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about him. One is a twin for life. I can be sitting here talking normally about how he is dead and then I can be sitting in the bath and it hits me. And I find it incredible that he's no longer alive. I'm forever see-sawing between the two realities: one that it happened and that other that it didn't have to.'
Yet then the brothers were always close. Their father, Hugh, had little work. By night he was a drummer in a band, by day he did a variety of low-paid jobs. The indebted family lived first in Manchester, before moving to the Isle of Man, and then eventually becoming '� Poms' and emigrating to Australia.
'I can remember my dad sitting under a 40-watt bulb counting pennies, trying to make them last until Friday. The evening meal was a six-penny bag of chips divided among us all for chip butties. We had bread soaked in milk and sprinkled with sugar for cereal. But kids don't question that. We didn't think we were poor then. We only knew we were poor later.'
For the brothers, music was an escape. They would listen to bands on the radio and pretend to write hits for the singers. 'It was a bonding experience,' he says. They learnt harmonies and practised in the echoey depths of the gents' lavatories in John Lewis. 'Even up sewerage pipes, anywhere the acoustics were good,' Gibb grins. He hums for a moment. Though heavily lined, his face, for an instant, looks youthful - boyish even. He shakes his head ruefully.
Gibb, cadaverously thin and dressed top to toe in black, balks at the suggestion that his father saw Australia as a last-ditch attempt to keep his wayward sons on the straight and narrow (although it is on record that they all dabbled in a bit of petty burglary and arson) and waves a hand dismissively. 'Maurice and I were only eight; it was breaking milk bottles, that sort of thing. Australia was another world. First time I saw a ship, first time I saw the sea.'
The Bee Gees were born in Brisbane, but, after their first hit single in 1967, they returned to England. Hit followed hit and with the release in 1977 of 'Saturday Night Fever' - the best-selling soundtrack album of all time - came the revival of disco. Along the way, though, they became casualties of the usual celebrity addictions: Gibb took to amphetamines, for Maurice it was the bottle. Before long the constant touring took its toll on Gibb's marriage to his first wife, Molly Hullis, with whom he had two children, Spencer, 30, and Melissa, 28. Divorce was inevitable and Molly was granted custody of the children when they were six and four. She forbade him to see them. Gibb fought a lengthy, but ultimately unsuccessful, court battle and didn't see his children for six years.
'It was akin to bereavement,' he says, 18 years after he and his children were eventually reunited. 'I felt as though I was on the verge of madness. There was no response to my calls, no acknowledgement of my gifts, no letters. Nobody would tell me anything. All the professional achievements, they mean nothing if your kids are taken away. Life is empty. Emotionally, mentally and spiritually I felt abandoned. There were moments of pure misery.'
Eventually, when Spencer was 12 and Melissa 10, he was granted a meeting. He knew it would be a delicate balancing act. 'I was too nervous for tears,' he says. 'Re-establishing myself as their dad was slow and hard.' The turning point came when the children would ring up saying they wanted to come and see him. 'Then it got to the stage where they would just arrive unannounced, that was the best moment.'
In the meantime, Gibb married Dwina, who had already given birth to their son, John Robin, with whom Gibb has written several songs. His life, he says, has settled into a sane, domestic routine.
Gibb is a well-known Labour supporter (he is playing a gig for the Party next week) and close friends with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. When he noticed how haggard Blair had become after the Gulf war five years ago, he offered him a holiday in his �million, 10-bedroom house in Miami. The media had a field day. Had Blair paid? Then there was the matter of Dwina's somewhat unconventional background. (She is a druid and poet, and Gibb once claimed in a radio interview, which he now says was a joke, that they enjoyed three-in-a-bed romps with her girlfriends.)
Gibb sighs. 'Tony and Gordon are good friends, I like both of them,' he says. Blair, he insists, is a very proficient guitar player. 'We've jammed.' Brown, he says, is much more personable in private than he appears in public. 'Gordon has too many people telling him to be serious. In fact he is very contagious and infectious. He should show that side more often. People would respond.'
He is clearly uncomfortable with any criticism of either man and, changing the subject, returns to the subject of Britain's heritage: 'Too few have respect for it. We have a proud culture.' Is he, I wonder, thinking of his own contribution? Does it become tedious, forever being the butt of put-downs, forever being told that his music was cheesy and manufactured?
'Nope' he says cheerily. 'Take Mozart. No one these days ever says, "Oh, he is so 1780s."'
He has a point. After all, it isn't everyone who has composed a song that has been the subject of a question on an English Finals paper at Cambridge. 'I didn't actually know that,' Gibb says.
Students, I tell him, were asked to discuss the author's meaning in two lines from Tragedy. I warble: 'When you lost control and you've got no soul.' Are those the words, I ask?
'Dunno,' says Gibb. 'We've written so many songs. I forget a lot of the words now.'
A Bee Gee's ups and downs
Lawsuits, Druids - and striking the right note in Downing Street
1949 Born shortly before his twin brother, Maurice, to a poor family on the Isle of Man.
1958 The family move to Australia, where the brothers form the Bee Gees.
1966 Involved in a car accident with his father and brothers. Local radio stations report they have been killed and play their songs in tribute.
1967 Returns to England, where the band are signed by Robert Stigwood. They have their first British hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941.
1968 Marries secretary Molly Hullis. Both survived the Hither Green rail crash the previous year.
1977 The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever is released; goes on to sell more than 20 million copies.
1980 Robin and Molly divorce.
1980 The band files a $200 million lawsuit against Robert Stigwood. He calls it a 'cheap stunt' and they reconcile a few weeks later
1983 Robin's partner, Dwina Murphy, gives birth to his third child, Robin John, but they wait a year before announcing it.
1985 Marries Dwina.
1993 Jokes that Dwina is a bisexual Druid. Buys her a Jaguar with the numberplate DRUID by way of apology.
1994 Inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame.
1997 Walks off Clive Anderson's show when, after revealing the band were originally to be called Les Tosseurs, Anderson quipped, 'You'll always be tossers to me.'
2002 Is awarded a CBE.
2003 Maurice dies of heart failure, after a burst intestine.
2003 Robin boosts his profile as a judge on Fame Academy, where he describes the hopefuls as having 'international potential'.
2007 Faces criticism for allowing the Blairs to use his Miami house free of charge.
2008 Defends Gordon Brown when he is outed as a closet Bee Gees fan: 'Gordon likes us and I like Gordon. He listens to us every day'.