Monday, March 31, 2014

Tin Cup whiskey, plus The Bee Gees

The newest thing. (One prides oneself.) Tin Cup whiskey, from Colorado. Yes, the little "tin cup" cap is a perfect jigger.

And, very delicious -- do we detect more than a hint of sweetness? -- in a whiskey sour.

We here at Pluot like to do more than just eat and drink. We like to tell stories, too, or perhaps relate a little something about what books lie stacked on our bedside table. At the moment our reading is not anything culinary or serious, but rather a biography of The Bee Gees by David N.Meyer (Da Capo, 2013). Though much of the book's length comes from old newspaper and fanzine articles quoted verbatim (harrumph, we could do that), still it moves along well, is often insightful and always passionately done. Here is an author who knows something about modern music-making, and who for example, for the sake of fleshing out minor characters just as a novelist would do, has actually bothered to research subjects like Victoria Principal's career in agenting circa 1975. You'll remember she had a late-'70s fling with the ill fated youngest Gibb brother, Andy.

Condensed version of The Bee Gees: Barry Gibb, force of nature, "centaur," drags his less than prepossessing brothers along into a multimillionaire's career in pop music, not a one of them being able to read a score or hardly play an instrument, but Barry having a sort of medieval stonecutter's vocation for making the sounds in his head become art. He also had that glossy mane, those "shining equine eyes and Roman nose with its great horsey nostrils," a description which seems to me exactly right  A primal, mythic animal.

I'm just at the chapter now where the Bee Gees' popularity has reached such a level -- circa 1979 -- that entire prime-time television specials, hosted by the serious David Frost no less, were devoted to them. These, I vow, I can remember watching when I was thirteen. I think I can even remember some of the long quotes from the fanzines. Barry told People he had tried coke only just the once, and that his nose felt like "a block of stone for a week." David Meyer sums up the band's strange place in pop music, mocked and hooted, but absurdly successful and embedded now in every grocery store's Muzak tape and every person's head. "Nobody moved more product," and nobody but Barry wrote more "purpose-built #1 hits for other people." Think "To Love Somebody," or "Islands in the Stream."   
"No wonder Barry was so driven and so resentful. His band -- his blood kin -- could not catch a break. The Bee Gees invented a new recording technology [the drum loop], defined the zeitgeist, converted a nation to their sound, broke every sales record there ever was and filled the charts with original material. Then the New York Times, hardly a cultural trend spotter, derides them as herd followers [the Times had just accused them, in 1979, of hopping on the disco bandwagon]." 
The Bee Gees is one of those fun to read, 'pop' books -- what other word suffices? -- that entertain and inform even while rather shocking the soul with a more than vigorous, with a sort of shotgun-blast prose. During the Gibb brothers' heyday, I was a freshman in an all-girls Catholic high school, slogging through a really superb mandatory writing program called Stack the Deck. I resented the program mightily at the time, but its strictures have stood me in good stead. To be obeyed: the following -- and we are not necessarily crabbing here that Meyer does not obey: we are, to use the pop term, just sayin': No four sentences in succession shall begin with the same word or phrase. There shall be no use of "I" in a formal paper. We shall write no contractions, certainly not "it's" or "what's," which author Meyer does use frequently. (Aside: a long time ago I was tempted nearly to throw With Malice Toward None across the room, because in that book author Stephen B.Oates actually contracted "Lincoln had" to "Lincoln'd." Many times. I wished I were Oates' editor, because if I was, I would have -- pardon me, I'd've -- gone through every single sentence of his manuscript and I'd've changed every single instance when he did spell out his little verbs correctly, so as to render them all uniformly sloppy, folksy, talky, and casual. I wonder what Oates'd've thunk.) We are permitted only three auxiliary verbs such as "am" or "was" -- or "did" -- in any six-to-ten page paper, the rest to be "action verbs." Teachers counted it all to make sure, bless them. Adjust those proportions for a 318 page biography and you will still see with how much imagination you must hunt for good verbs. 

True, sometimes the hunt can be a little too successful. It can bring down a thrashing, impossible beast. Stack the Deck would never have allowed us to write "Robin gacked himself daily" while indulging an amphetamine habit. We would have said he induced vomiting. One avoids colloquialisms. One also doesn't say that a certain producer or mogul "went batshit" when one means to say, he became angry. The sloppy "got" would have been another severely rationed auxiliary verb ....

Still. Of the three books I borrowed from the library two weeks ago, this is the one I finished. Among the shotgun blast prose and the sins against formal, tasteful writing circa 1979, there is also, I said, insight and passion. What follows is I think Meyer showing those traits at his best; he is chronicling the Gibbs' first appearance on stage. They were grade school children, getting ready to mime to a record that they had brought with them to a small movie house's weekly amateur hour. Barry accidentally dropped the record and smashed it. They decided to go on anyway and just sing. The pop biographer deconstructs.
"As every great origin myth must, this tale features the perfect Jungian symbolic moment. Barry, the eldest, the Alpha, the most ambitious, the one with the guitar, bears the precious object -- the record. But that precious object also contains falsity -- under the spell of that falsity, the boys will deny their gifts and only pretend to sing. When Barry enters the temple -- the Gaumont Theatre -- in a moment of apostasy, he drops the sacred object; he smashes it to the floor. With that 'accident,' Barry frees himself and his brothers from imitation, from false performance ... from living a lie in front of the congregation."
Bravo. Stack the Deck did not forbid referencing Jung.

As I write this I am listening to Here At Last ... Bee Gees ... Live for the first time probably in thirty-five years, courtesy of remarkable YouTube. Every single minute is ingrained in my memory, to the last scream and handclap. Even the men yell "Go for it!" to the centaur Barry. Partly I marvel how my parents put up with this music, so much of it dull, creamy stuff, and partly I marvel that a lot of it is pretty damn good. Here, when it comes to the Alpha material, the actual music of the Bee Gees, author Meyer and I part company. He seems to have listened to their whole corpus in order to give thoughtful consideration to it all, Spirits Having Flown, "glossiness," production values, Still Waters, the famed "drum loop." I like "Fanny be Tender" and "How Deep is Your Love" best of all their songs, but Meyer says they both may have been snide jokes at homosexuals and "the less said of them the better."

Ohhh-kayy, as we moderns say now. By the way, we've come a long way from our taste of Tin Cup whiskey, haven't we? It really was very good. The Bee Gees once made an album called Life in a Tin Can. Mentioning that feels as though we have closed the circle, formally.

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