Two years ago, my family was tasked with beginning to clean out my grandparents’ house. It had been left empty in the years following my grandfather’s death, only to be visited when my grandmother needed something. Following her death, it was even more abandoned.
As a result, it had suffered the damage that a house does when left unattended. This included the back porch becoming unusable because of the rotting wood planks, the air, thick inside (ventilation isn’t a concern in an uninhabited house), and the dishes, once clean, now covered in a layer of dust. One of the realities of life, the uncertainty of it, had set in once we were surrounded by the physical remains of someone else’s. While there had been several minor repairs in times of emergency, there was one major issue with lasting effects: a flood in the finished basement which had left most of the belongings to be consumed by mold.
It was time to determine what was salvageable and what wasn’t. The unsalvageable would be tossed into the back of a U-Haul truck and later discarded at the local dump by my brother and me. I had to put on a white filter mask as my mother, brother, and I descended into the basement that had once been the hide-and-go-seek haven of my childhood. Now, the space was bleak and tainted with disintegrating cardboard boxes full of the things which used to define my grandparents’ lives.
One of the first sets of boxes I opened contained what I had hoped to find: my grandfather’s record collection. I marveled for a minute, checking how many boxes there were full of different records, the corners worn and the covers faded. I dragged one of the boxes into the main storage area, which had always functioned as more of a multipurpose room. It was longer than it was wide, with a workbench, two extra fridges, and boxes piled. For as long as I could remember it had always been cluttered; now it just felt like a mess. The warmth that had once inhabited the space survived only by the objects waiting to be useful once again, never sure if they would be. One of these objects was a record player, connected to a receiver with a built in radio, hooked up to small speakers that lined some of the ceiling. My grandfather’s handiwork for sure. The corners of the weak box began collapsing inward as I dragged it, but it was too heavy for me to lift, and honestly, the records would’ve probably fallen through the bottom if I had tried.
I wasn’t sure if any of the electronics still worked, but I turned on the receiver and, sure enough, static came flooding through the speakers. Quickly, I turned down the volume and tuned the radio’s dial, trying to see if I could get signal. I managed to catch the faint sound of some local station.
I flipped through a few of the records, grabbing the first one I recognized, the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown, and carefully took out one of the two records stuffed into the jacket. I put it on the platter, uncertain that the turntable’s motor would work. It did, and as the record spun, I carefully placed the needle. Barely any sound came out, just the faint recognizable melody of the Bee Gees that I could hear if I put my ear right near where the needle was. My mother and I fiddled around at the back of the player, eventually fixing a loose wire which suddenly amplified Barry Gibb’s more than distinctive voice. The basement was flooded with his high falsetto confidently singing, “And now it's all right, it's okay…,” a weird sentiment and life given to this otherwise decrepit, musty space. I realized quickly that that song wasn’t on the album Spirits Having Flown, and checked the label on the record. It was album one of Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Sound Track. Album two was the accompanying record stuffed into one side of the jacket, both uncomfortably tight.
When I thought of writing about this album, I immediately thought about that day. Throughout my life I have known who the Bee Gees are and I could name a decent amount of their songs, but I wouldn’t say or would have ever said they’re what I listen to on a regular basis. But this record has been in my possession for two years now, and I still don’t know why I’ve kept it. It’s left me sitting here contemplating how it might be some weird need to be close to someone who doesn’t exist anymore. Did I take music from his collection in some attempt to get closer to him when there’s no other way anymore? Music is such a big part of my life and maybe I could figure out something about his from the music he had? Have I imposed some greater meaning on these albums that I took from his collection? Who knows. But I can’t help but think that to him they were just albums, and to me they have now become more than that. They were his albums, and some I didn’t expect.
I never really took him for a disco fan, but there he was, owner of Bee Gees records and the soundtrack to a movie I had only ever watched as part of an assignment for Intro to Cinema Studies. A movie that, while having a great soundtrack, is problematic as hell! (Why couldn’t it have just been a nice movie about a guy dancing at a Brooklyn discothèque?)
Instead of listening to the record, which has been sitting with the rest of my vinyl for almost two years, I downloaded it to my phone on Apple Music and have listened to it whenever I have had the chance for the past few months.
Six of the seventeen songs on the soundtrack are performed by the Bee Gees, hence their photograph in the center of the cover featuring a discoing John Travolta superimposed in the foreground.
The most recognizable track from the band and the whole soundtrack is the first, “Stayin’ Alive.” An upbeat melody that leaves one with no choice but to dance, masking lyrics that I just can’t help but sympathize with. As a college student on the brink of graduation, the repetitive refrain
Life goin' nowhere, somebody help me
almost feels like Barry, Robin, and Maurice stole my thoughts and travelled back nearly 20 years to write a song about the one and only thing we really have to do in life, which is stay alive. The coexistence of these qualities is what gives this song its timelessness. A prime example of this is the main line, a phrase jokingly repurposed constantly, most recently by a friend as we walked through the aisles of Michael’s, the craft store, and saw a calendar which had a section for “priorities”. My friend pointed at it before she began mimicking Barry Gibb: “ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive.” The most important priority of all.
The second track on the album is by, big surprise here, the Bee Gees. This song however, takes a more comforting and confident tone. The love song, “How Deep Is Your Love,” is less disco than the former track, but still just as Bee Gee-esque. The questioning of a lover, the intimacy that somehow exists within the generalized statements. It’s nothing short of lyrical genius.
I believe in you.
Barry Gibb believes in me? Crazy how songs can convey such profound duality between a songwriter trying to communicate to that one special person while also connecting to greater human truths at the same time. Anyway, its chorus would, honestly, be a great Instagram caption accompanying a photo of that couple that got married in high school:
Cause were living in a world of fools,
Breaking us down,
When they all should let us be.
We belong to you and me.
The sentiment overall is sweet, as the chorus fades out to nothing. Fuck everyone else, how deep is your love?
There are two versions of “More Than a Woman” on this album. The Bee Gees version, which precedes the other, is melodically similar to the song it immediately follows on the soundtrack, “Night Fever.” I initially thought the song had repeated, since the chord progressions are either the same or indistinguishably different. The second version, which is the Tavares rendition, is faster paced. It has flute accents and a drum beat that makes it feel more energetic and celebratory than the sincerer Bee Gees version.
The second half of the album is mostly instrumental filler from the movie. It’s just as disco and upbeat, with a clear pacing that anyone could strut down the street to, imitating John Travolta circa 1977. If you want to feel cool while walking with headphones, take my word for it, these are the songs for you.
My favorite song on the album and the last I will comment on, is the fifth song: “If I Can’t Have You.” The drama, the commitment, the desperation—it’s all there as Yvonne Elliman insists:
If I can't have you
I don't want nobody baby
This ballad is beautifully underscored by a horn echoing the melody line throughout; like all the songs on the soundtrack, it’s a multilayered accompaniment with distinct vocal. Elliman offers such a human, lovesick take:
I gave it up
To you my love
To dreams that never will come true.
When I sat down to write, I had the album sitting next to me on my kitchen table, even though the only way I’ve listened to the whole thing is digitally. I pulled out the record, hoping it would impart on me some profound wisdom, and instead was met with a record titled Spirits Having Flown. Panic set in. I rushed into my living room, grabbed the electric orange plastic milk crate I keep all of my vinyl in, and fetched the leather brown case that some of the more damaged records from my grandfather’s collection live in, rushing in a way that startled my roommate. She asked for an explanation of what was happening, to which I had no response. I didn’t know how to explain to her the feeling in my chest that this record wasn’t here. Had I not had it all this time?
For the weeks and weeks that I had thought about writing this, I had been sure that the record was here, sitting in my living room, untouched for over two years, happily existing. But suddenly, maybe it wasn’t. I sorted out the twenty or so records that I’d pinched from those moldy boxes and searched through all of them. From the Beatles to Carly Simon, I hoped one of these jackets contained the record that I would have bet money that I had. After pulling record after record out of their dust sleeves, comparing the labels to the covers, I was losing hope; they were all in the right places. I got to a Bee Gees record jacket: Spirits Having Flown, and immediately remembered that day, in the basement, the two records shoved into one space, as they were now. I feel like a bad record owner for never having switched them, but now I have.
Every song on this album makes you want to dance. So listen to it and embrace the melancholy words. Feel the disco beat, layered with strings and synths, and dance. Have an existential crisis, love someone so much you don’t ever want anyone else, put on your “Boogie Shoes,” be as dramatic, as passionate, and as cheesy as these songs are. This record is indicative of how life really is: bittersweet. Just keep proving to yourself that you’re stayin’ alive.