Interview: Barry's secret Tragedy; Bee Gee Barry Gibb talks for the first time about living with the crippling pain of arthritis which once threatened to end his career. By David Wigg.
Singing superstar Barry Gibb stands tall, tanned, relaxed and with a welcoming smile on his face beside the porchway of his palatial Buckinghamshire mansion, set in 90 acres of stunning countryside. Rich, famous and happily married, seemingly without a care in the world, you could never imagine there was anything wrong with him. But looks can be deceptive.
For years, Barry, a guest on tonight's Parkinson, has been secretly battling a crippling pain which threatened to destroy his successful career with The Bee Gees. At one point, he was afraid he might never be able to play the guitar again.
"I suffer from extensive arthritis, so it's pretty much everywhere," says Barry, talking for the first time of the pain he has been living with. "You can see it in my hands. This thumb is out of its socket. There's already a knuckle gone. But I have to deal with it."
The trouble started 15 years ago and doctors blame it on too much tennis and too many gruelling tours.
"I love tennis, but I didn't start playing until I was about 33, and that's too late," says Barry, 54. "The joints really start to suffer then. Unknown to myself, I damaged all my joints. There were times about five years ago when I literally couldn't get out of bed. I was living in pain.
"My lower back problems really began in 1989 on the One For All tour, which was agony for me. I got through it and then there was another tour, and we did Europe. I was supposed to do America after that, but the pain was unbearable. I went to hospital and said to the doctor, `If it doesn't look right, fix it. It's killing me'. Back surgery isn't a pleasant experience. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone and I think my back surgery aggravated the arthritis.
"Sometimes it can be my knee or my hands, although my real problem is my left shoulder. I can't completely lift my left arm," adds Barry, who refuses to take painkillers for fear of damaging the lining of his stomach. "Fortunately I can still play the guitar, but I have to strap my wrists up to give them support. It's the twisting of the wrist that causes the pain, so it's OK.
"Then, during the last six months, my body took a turn for the better. I feel 100 per cent better than I did five years ago. Back then I didn't know how I was going to go on."
While he was struggling to cope with arthritis, Barry also suffered a heart scare.
"Everything came at the same time," he says. "I think it was connected to stress. I was stressed over the idea of doing another tour when I was in so much pain and, mentally, I just caved in. It wasn't a heart attack, but I had palpitations. At hospital they found that my blood pressure was up. They did a scan and discovered that I had an abnormality of some form - as if the heart was not contracting the way it ought to.
"They assured me it was not life-threatening, but it can make you feel pretty bad. I couldn't get up without feeling dizzy. At rehearsals I'd sit on a stool to play, but when I stood up to sing I thought, `I don't think I can do this'. It was scary. And you have this horrible guilt because you feel you are letting everyone else down.
"I think I'm all right now. I've changed my lifestyle and diet. I don't eat red meat and I've cut out dairy products. I swim an awful lot, too, which I'm told is good for you. I've never had a heated pool before so I've boiled up the pool!"
Despite the pain, Barry is confident of doing another world tour next year.
"The next tour will be well spaced as I can't handle performing night after night like it might have been in 1989, when I had to drag myself out to play," he says. "I've no desire to repeat that."
The Bee Gees are currently all in Britain for their impressive new album, This Is Where I Came In, which is out on April 2. The title track is released as a single on Monday. Tonight the brothers guest on Parkinson, and next Saturday they are broadcasting a BBC Radio 2 concert before an audience.
All 14 tracks on This Is Where I Came In are new, and Barry, Robin and Maurice all contributed to the songs. The album was a year in the making and was recorded at Middle Ear Studios in Florida. It marks a return to their rock, soul and ballad roots, yet retains a contemporary edge. The Gibbs recorded many of the vocals standing around a single mike, as they did when they first started in the 1960s. They have also ditched the falsetto harmonies which were a trademark of their Night Fever days.
"I was just tired of that sound," says Barry. "While I liked the idea of doing that at 25, 35 or even 45, I get the horrors of doing it at 55! Of course, there's no argument about all that putting food on the table."
The success of The Bee Gees has meant Barry can give his family the best of everything. He is married to former Scots beauty queen Linda Grey and they have five children - musician Stephen, 27, songwriter Ashley, 25, Travis, 20, Michael, 16, and nine-year-old Alexandra.
"I'm very much a family person," he says. "I was married once to a girl named Maureen in Australia, which only lasted one year. I met Linda on the rebound from breaking up with Maureen. But I always wanted to get married and have a family even when I was 13.
"Of course, it wasn't feasible then," he adds with a laugh. "It's that feeling of being a family unit. Linda's parents live with us and have done for years. They've always been welcome to do so. To me, that's foundation and support.
"What's the secret of our marriage? There's a couple. The secret is to make sure your family comes before anything else, because no matter what you do you've got to come home. The other secret is that Linda and I are still in love. And being really in love doesn't go away. It's also about being friends. We can look at each other and know exactly what the other is thinking. It's complete understanding of each other and sharing. We have never stopped loving each other.
"I just love the feeling a close family gives you and I wouldn't change it for anything. I've never been into parties, premieres or night-clubbing. I much prefer staying at home with the wife and kids, watching TV or reading a book. I'm Mr Boring, not a party-goer at all."
Barry believes it is harder being a parent today. "We are living in a crowded society," he says. "Today, it's tough because of things such as Ecstasy. Even the kind of marijuana that exists now is unlike that which was around in the '60s - it is potent and crossbred.
"I tell my children, `Whatever you are doing, if I can't stop you doing it, do it at home. Don't tell me, but don't go somewhere dark and nasty to do things like that'. I'm totally opposed to it, but I know I can't stop it. They can always point at me and say, `Well, you did it!' I'd say, `Yes, but you've got your whole lives in front of you'. I'm saying things like my father said."
Five years ago, Barry's eldest son Stephen, who plays guitar in US heavy metal band The Black Label Society, had a bad drug problem. He paid for him to go into rehab in the States.
"Fortunately, Stephen's on top of his case now," he says with obvious relief. "At least, I think so. I pray that is the truth."
For Barry it was also a grim reminder of what happened to his younger brother Andy, who died in 1980, aged 30, after a heart attack brought on by drug abuse.
"I lost my best friend when I lost Andy," he recalls. "I believe the shock of losing him in that way is what killed my father, because he went downhill and later died from a heart attack.
"Mum and dad and I all tried to help Andy because we were the closest to him. My mother was with Andy when he died at Robin's house. She was watching Andy declining, the whole time feeling helpless. It's sad, but it's not uncommon. That's when you realise you've got to deal with it. And it's not just your family. You see it every day in the newspapers with the Ecstasy thing - a kid found dead."
With this tragedy behind him and his pain now more bearable, Barry is looking forward to doing more work both with and outside The Bee Gees, and is especially keen to work with Madonna, Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney.
No stranger to working with other superstars, Barry produced Guilty, the 1980 Grammy award-winning Barbra Streisand album. Then there was Dionne Warwick's 1982 Top Ten hit Heartbreaker, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers' Islands In The Stream in 1983, and Diana Ross's 1986 No 1, Chain Reaction.
"I have a huge ego and a huge inferiority complex at the same time," he says. "I've worked with a lot of people who are more famous than myself who are terribly insecure. Michael Jackson once asked me, `Do you think Prince is better than me?' Can you imagine that, after all he has achieved?
"And Barbra Streisand is particularly that way, too. There lies a massive ego in a good sense and a massive insecurity alongside of it. She once said to me, `Do you think the people still like me?' And I replied, `You're Barbra Streisand for goodness sake, what are you talking about, woman?' But then I suppose we all need reassuring all the time."
l Parkinson, Saturday, BBC1, 9.10pm.
SO IN LOVE: Barry and Linda at their luxurious Buckinghamshire home Picture: GARY GILBERT/REX; BROTHERS IN ARMS: Robin, Maurice and Barry
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 24, 2001|
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