The demise of Robin Gibb was noted with some sadness in The Mortal Bath. A few of the Bee Gees’ choicest records have been played, and I have marvelled as ever at the harmonised vocals, the often overlooked lyrical depths, the grooviness. The Gibbs sustained a remarkable career, as songwriters and performers. I hope -genuinely – that Barry keeps going.
The Bee Gees are of particular interest for their contribution to the development of a pop trope. It was one I had been aware of but that had drifted from my attention, until I re-listened to the amazing New York Mining Disaster 1941.
This was, you will note, years before their disco period, where they set the world a-boogie with impossible nut-cracking harmonies and sublime Saturday Night Feverish grooves. It is easy to acknowledge the foregrounding of sex in their music at that time. Yet, in this earlier era of the Swinging Sixties, they were one of the first bands to offer an examination of the everyman character “Mr Jones,” who (with various members of his family) recurs throughout pop history as a representative of human explorations of mind and sexuality.
“Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?” The Mr Jones in question here is a paradox. He is Jones the Spirit Guide, a pretext for the speaker keen to assert the reality of his surface life in the face of possible death, a chink of light through a fallen-in cluster of boulders, as the speaker laments his family. And he is Jones the Threat, paternalistic, overbearing, whose response is secretly feared, whose very voice is capable of initiating a seismic, calamitous end to the ruminations of the narrator and of course the rest of the trapped group.
It seems evident to suggest that the interment theme, and the danger implied in the threatening Jones, reflect insular, self-analytic preoccupations. “My wife” would in this case of course represent a version of the Jungian anima, a female aspect of the male narrator who, as emblematised in the mining accident imagery, is cut off from personal psychological understanding by a perceived inability to reconcile the differing parts of his own psyche. “Mr Jones,” then, represents the conscious, the ego of the nameless narrator, addressing the self in a solipsistic moment of emotional entrapment.
However, it could be further argued that the narrator is addressing not “Mr Jones” a fellow miner but another, nameless individual. In this reading, the lyric becomes a desperate plea about one person, “my wife, Mr Jones”, revealing a previously unexplored taboo-breaking stratum in the history of the Bee Gees. Given their androgynous voices and later synonymity with the ambiguous sexualities of the disco era, this should come as no real surprise.
A “woman’s man” indeed.
NYMD 1941 addressed a particular frustration for these “miners” that we turn to in Part Two of “Keeping (It) Up With The Joneses”. It is a frustration derived from the fact that as early as 1965 Bob Dylan had already established “Mr Jones” was in fact powerless to help. In “Ballad of a Thin Man”, Jones the Milking Cow represents a confusion of feelings of performance anxiety, and, obviously, a primal mammalian dependency – and fear – of the Udder.
Meanwhile, thanks again to the Bee Gees, and the late Robin, for their work. This poignant clip from a gig in 1971 shows Barry being introduced by Robin, who is comically reluctant to leave the stage.
It’s only words, and words are all I’ve got.