It takes a certain kind of brother to stand toward the back of the stage so that the other two get more light, and who seemingly accepts his fate to not sing lead on any of the hits. His older brother, Barry, was the given leader of the Bee Gees, the polyester lion in disco's zoo. His twin brother, Robin, was the trouble-toothed dandy, who got so mad once, in the early days, that he stormed out and recorded his own album.
Then there was Maurice Ernest Gibb. (Let me help you: the bald one.)
The family that suffers being the punch line of every joke about the 1970s together stays together. As Maurice lay dying Sunday, at age 53, Robin was racing on a plane from England to Miami to be by his brother's side. According to the New York Post, Robin made it just hours before Maurice was gone. (Maurice died after surgery for an intestinal blockage.)
Honoring a departed Bee Gee is easier than you think, for the pure and simple ideals of trio, brotherhood, falsetto, glitter and the time you stood in the back yard and practiced your moves. We're past the '70s now, having lived through them once and revived them twice, and the Bee Gees supplied the music each time. It's funny how it sounds more classic, not less: A scratched-up 45 single of "Jive Talkin'," their 1975 hit, sounds like jazz.
They perfected a fad (disco), and their 1977 soundtrack for "Saturday Night Fever" sold 40 million copies. It is still, nostalgic or otherwise, an influence -- a soundtrack in the truest sense of the word, aural shorthand for getting ready to go somewhere on a Saturday night.
What seems far more ridiculous than the Brothers Gibb's tight pants and jet engine vocals is the memory of how suddenly despised they were: A low point in American pop culture is not "More Than a Woman" or "How Deep Is Your Love?" but the news footage of all those knuckle-draggers burning heaps of disco albums -- the Bee Gees' included -- in a riot at a Chicago White Sox game at Comiskey Park in 1979. That vaguely fascistic, homophobic and racist event was supposed to signal the death of disco, only it wasn't, but it sent the Bee Gees and others into artistic exile.
The brothers went cheerfully because they were a showbiz family, and showbiz families always show both rows of teeth. In this brood, Maurice was the entertainer -- the funny one, the self-aware one, and the one who gave the best quote when all those reflective rockumentaries came calling 20 years later.
In interviews, it was Maurice who seemed least insulted by the Bee Gees' fate, who seemed to have the keenest awareness of a good Bee Gees joke. He told funny stories about fame and egos and temper tantrums, about the millions of dollars lost to sports cars and frivolity, about his first marriage, to the pop singer Lulu. He spoke frankly about the drug-related congestive heart failure and 1988 death of his younger brother, Andy Gibb, a teen idol with a cocaine addiction. He was circumspect about the Bee Gees' perseverance, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2001, after they'd recorded a reunion album:
"This is what we love to do. If you're a writer and you win the Pulitzer Prize, you don't stop writing. If you're a scientist and you win the Nobel Prize, you don't say, 'Now I don't have to do science anymore.' It's born in us, we've done it all our lives."
Still, the disdain for them recalled an early hit for the group:
I started a joke which started the whole world crying
But I didn't see that the joke was on me, oh no.
I started to cry which started the whole world laughing
Oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me.
The Bee Gees had sinned, to an extent: They seized upon soul dance grooves in 1974 as a way to plug into the decade, since people were no longer buying their quaint Aussie Brit-pop sound of the late '60s. (They got their start wearing neckties and singing folk songs as preteens on an Australian variety show.)
By the time disco faded, the Bee Gees' transgressions not only included their platinum success but also the fact that they rerecorded "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" for a doomed movie version co-starring that other million-selling casualty, Peter Frampton. (Maurice Gibb's star turn in that one was to pillage John Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.")
Time heals all, even what happened at Comiskey Park. The Bee Gees were beatified by VH1 documentaries and then canonized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Nobody gets too much Heaven no more / It's much harder to come by, / I'm waiting in line," goes one of their songs, as if anyone can get too much Heaven. Maybe the Bee Gees got there, in the collective conscious, in terms of posters on bedroom walls, in terms of kids dancing around the room with giant headphones on. Forty million "Saturday Night Fever" records, in the end, are a nice balm. Bee Gees fans are so loyal -- and so legion -- that Bee Gees Web sites have already gone somber, with black background screens and reverent stanzas from the Bee Gees oeuvre. "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" appears to be a favorite.
Almost as heartbreaking as the death of 50 percent of a duet is the death of 33.3 percent of a trio. Layer on our eternal fascination for the relationships between twins, and other siblings, and it's not at all hard to hear a ballad in the death of Maurice Gibb the Bee Gee. It's the kind of song you'd hear piped into hair salons or convenience stores, the kind of song that leaves space in the middle for the oldest brother to explore the outer limits of his vocal range (dogs flinch), while the quiet brother supplies workmanlike harmony.