MEMORY TRIGGER

‘The Bee Gees Cured My Writer’s Block’

Proust kickstarted his memory—and created a masterpiece—by snacking on a madeleine. Novelist Keith Lee Morris found his salvation in the Brothers Gibb.

01.24.16 5:15 AM ET

It’s been a rough month for those of us who grew up in the ’70s—we lost Bowie, our musical and cultural bellwether, and then Glenn Frey, which left us all feeling guilty because we’d made more jokes about the Eagles than they ever deserved (Henley and the  gang, you were sort of awesome, we admit it now, and dutifully apologize). Hell, even Grizzly Adams was a blow.

Less noted was the death of Robert Stigwood, who managed the Bee Gees and produced Saturday Night Fever, but the fact of his passing did not escape me. I’ve had a kind of secret stake in Mr. Stigwood’s doings for the past 40 years, going back roughly to the release of the Bee Gees’ album Main Course, which represented their first foray into disco, and which produced the No. 1 hits “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” the latter of which, as it so happens, might have saved my writing career. Therefore I feel a personal “thank you” to Mr. Stigwood and the Bee Gees is in order, along with an explanation.   

In my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho in 1978, there were three kinds of guys:

1) Guys who hated the Bee Gees.

2) Guys who secretly liked the Bee Gees but pretended to hate them.

3) Guys who got their ass kicked every day.

I was a lowly high school freshman that year, doing the same thing as the other freshmen—attempting to look cool while remaining as inconspicuous as possible. This seemed like the safest way to navigate freshman year. I was pretty firmly in category #2 above, though I lived in constant fear of somehow being found out and slipping disastrously into category #3.

Case in point. When Saturday Night Fever, with its predominately Bee Gees soundtrack, finally made it to our local movie theater, The Panida, a gang of us fourteen-year-old smartasses decided to go make fun of it. We weren’t old enough to drive, so we had to walk several blocks from my friend Bryan Czarapata’s house. The movie was released in December of ‘77, but it didn’t get to us until January, by which time we’d already heard all the songs on the radio and learned to hate them appropriately (see #2 above—and #3). Bryan’s mother had given him a red satin jacket for Christmas. This jacket introduced an element of risk; while disco fashions were not ridiculed with as much zest as disco itself—we all owned at least one pair of HASH jeans and at least one wide-collared polyester shirt—it was still safest to go with Levis 501s and a down vest or jacket. Bryan was living dangerously, in other words, and on the way to the theater, he was struck a devastating blow—his jacket, when seen under the streetlights, turned a shade that could only be called hot pink. So much scorn was heaped upon Bryan and his hot pink John Travolta disco jacket, as it quickly came to be called, that we had none left for the film. To this day, at every high school reunion, the story of the pink disco jacket is hauled out like an ax to chop my friend Bryan into tiny pieces that we feed to the trophy-size trout in Lake Pend Oreille.

The movie turned out to be great, of course. You could walk around the halls shouting “Hey, don’t hit the hair!” without fear of reprisal. But you still had to hate the Brothers Gibb—even more, in fact, when another one of them, Andy, seemingly materialized out of thin air, singing songs that only our little sisters could love. We were terrified by the thought that yet another, even younger Bee Gee might at any moment come staggering out of the Australian bush, warbling in falsetto.

Never mind that you caught yourself humming to “Night Fever” on KSPT, the local AM radio station, or that you got tears in your eyes as you danced with Tammi Evans, who was not only gorgeous but a senior, to “More Than a Woman” on the day they made everyone learn “the hustle” in gym class. In North Idaho, in 1978, the Bee Gees, and disco in general, still sucked—hating disco was a survival skill.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, thirty odd years later, Barry, Maurice, and Robin showed up to rescue the novel I was writing. I had made the mistake of trying to read Proust while I was working on it, and things had come to a screeching halt. There was a lot of Proust to wade through, and not a lot of writing getting done, and I eventually began to hope the book would simply write itself. There it sat day after day, all 60 or so pages of it, staring at me from the coffee table, a thin film of dust or possibly mildew accumulating on the title page. It sat there so long that my 14-year-old son, who never read anything, picked it up and gave it a go. He pronounced it not entirely bad and asked me when it would be finished. I was tempted to say never.

So then I was staying for a couple of days with a friend of mine, the writer John McNally. John had the coolest basement ever, with a jukebox and an old refrigerator stuffed with craft beers and about 15 cats that all managed to remain hidden somewhere. John had just purchased the jukebox and was in the process of stocking it with 45s. He was telling me some of the records he’d ordered, one of which was the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway,” which came out before we were required to hate disco in north Idaho, and which I had loved when I was 12 years old.

Since John didn’t have the 45 yet, he showed me a YouTube video of the Bee Gees singing “Nights” on The Midnight Special, which, for those not old enough to remember, was kind of a poor man’s MTV before MTV existed, with bands supposedly performing their latest hits “live,” though they were mostly lip-synced to the studio recordings.

“Nights on Broadway” is one of the show’s most fascinating actual live performances. Bee Gees fans will note the absence of the soaring falsetto line of the studio version—since Barry sang both the lead and the falsetto on the record, Maurice had to take a crack at it live, singing both his own harmony vocals from the record and occasionally venturing into Barry’s impossibly high and clear range, with mixed results. Robin’s performance is touchingly earnest: as usual, he sings with one hand cupped over his right ear, as if to hear his own voice better, and, during the instrumental break, diligently executes what must certainly be the most awkward set of dance moves of the entire disco era.

I became a sucker for the song all over again. I ventured out to the local record store in search of the Bee Gees and came home with (gulp) the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Standing there at the turntable, I hesitated. This was the Moby Dick of disco, the great white whale we, my friends and I, had been intent once on hunting down and slaughtering. “Staying Alive”—that unmistakably horrifying and supremely indelible opening beat, the retina-searing image of John Travolta strutting down that Brooklyn avenue, paint can in hand. “How Deep Is Your Love.” “If I Can’t Have You.” Disco balls and strobe-lit dance floors and pink satin jackets.

I closed my eyes, dropped the needle, and promptly got my ass kicked. Every song was a perfect little gem. If Side 1 wasn’t the best album side of the entire decade, it was pretty damn close. To reject this stuff, you had to reject the entire genre, the entire movement—which of course, I realized, was exactly what we’d done, a bunch of teenage guys in Idaho, four wheeling in somebody’s pickup truck, our first beer cans clutched in our fists. Disco belonged to someone else, somewhere far away, the music of a suspect big city culture of discotheques and designer drugs and trendy fashions, sexually ambiguous and mysteriously multicultural, which we watched with disdain every Saturday morning on American Bandstand and no doubt keenly envied.

It was winter in South Carolina where I live now, and it was nighttime, and my family had gone to bed, and I stood at the window listening to “More Than a Woman,” and, I admit, I got all teary-eyed in the same way I had in gym class on that day long ago when I danced with Tammi Evans.

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In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator unlocks a flood of memories when he bites into a madeleine, the flavor reminding him of childhood days when he had eaten the same treat at his family’s cottage in the French countryside. A two thousand-page novel ensues. I wasn’t going that far. But I had found my madeleine. 

During the day, fueled by my newly discovered nostalgia for disco, the pages of the novel accumulated rapidly. In the early morning or late at night, when I had the house to myself, I read Proust with the record player on. While Proust described the girls on the beach at Balbec, Alicia Bridges sang about how much she loved the night life. While the fictional Marcel schemed to hold the elusive Albertine captive in his Paris apartment, Anita Ward reminded me that I could always ring her bell. The music—the same music that I had pretended to hate and tried to ignore and left behind forgotten—now not only seemed appealing and fresh to me, but threw open windows on my past, so that I could feel again, even if only for a moment, like I did when I was assigned the perfect dance partner that day in gym class. And in recapturing those moments I gained entry into those same feelings on the part of my characters, an emotional level that I wasn’t reaching before. Characters have past joys and regrets just like real people do, and discovering them sometimes means reliving your own past—not the incidents, so much, but the feelings evoked by them.

My oldest son is a musician—he creates electronic music and makes hip-hop beats—and I was discussing with him recently, in very general terms, the difference between the music “now” and the music “then.” I mentioned how he and my younger son would listen to a song for a day or two and then I would never hear it again. I lamented the fact that all the new music seemed disposable—existing in the ether for only a nanosecond, never even achieving a physical form like the albums I could pick up and put on the record player, much less the enduring form of memories. He said, basically, that I was old and I was missing the point—the music was supposed to be disposable. There was so much out there that you could always move on to something new. Why listen to the same thing over and over again? I had been fooled by the Western musical tradition into believing there was such a thing as a “timeless classic.”

Touche, I said, and cued up a Hot Chocolate album I’d just found in the dollar bin, the one featuring “You Sexy Thing,” and I disappeared, in a swirling fog of dry ice, into 1978.

David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Robert Stigwood—they’re all gone now, and the ’70s were a long time ago, but for me and others of my generation they stay vivid and near. Maybe memory is our best compensation for growing old. I’m past the half-century mark now, and I know a thing or two about getting older, although as my father, who also passed away recently, used to tell me, there are a few things I don’t know yet. I might not be in tune to everything new, but I’ve got a lifetime of memories to draw on when I need a boost. Maybe that’s what art is all about: it offers something sustaining and, yes, permanent—at least in the mind of the one who stores it up and treasures it—that we carry with us as our lives move forward. Our time grows shorter, but our memories are long.

In other words, the Bee Gees have my back. Maybe there’s a version of them for all of us, waiting there in the wings of our memory, in some hidden corner of our past, earnest and hopeful and eager to please, ready to come to our rescue if we’ll only let them.

Keith Lee Morris is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Travelers Rest. A Barnes and Noble Discover author and the winner of the Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction, he lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing at Clemson University.