Robin Gibb and the Soundtrack to My Life

Robin Gibb has died of cancer at 62. According to the New York Times,

Mr. Gibb was the second Bee Gee and third Gibb brother to die. His fraternal twin and fellow Bee Gee, Maurice Gibb, died of complications of a twisted intestine in 2003 at 53. The youngest brother, Andy, who had a successful solo career... was 30 when he died of heart failure, in 1988.

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was a revelation to me in the eighth grade. I remember hearing it in my head as I walked the gauntlet of the middle school hall to my locker. I can see the dimly-lit hall, some doors open, allowing yellow light to spill out onto the floor, some doors closed, and the wall of lockers ahead of me. I am focusing on getting straight to my locker with the least amount of eye contact and humiliation possible. Now I switch to a view of myself: my feathered hair that took hours to perfect each morning, my long sleeve white T-shirt with a silver heart on the breast, my tight cords making a whoosh-ing sound as I walk. I am back in my 13-year-old body, feeling like the whole world is staring at me. But the secret soundtrack in my mind is giving me confidence to make it to my locker with my head held high. "Well you can tell by the way I use my walk..." I feel an electric charge, like I am John Travolta walking down that hall, not a scared 13-year-old girl. I make it to my locker with a little smile on my face, and start twirling the combination to the lock. "I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm Stayin' Alive."

I read obituaries every day. I find them an interesting review of my fellow humans' lives -- some lived well, some full of mistakes and tragedy. Sometimes, I regret that I didn't know more about the person while they were still alive. Sometimes, I am really sad that a bright light has gone out too soon. I notice that some deaths hit me personally, and especially the deaths of musicians who seemed to speak to me directly. I think we may be more attached to singers because music is such a personal experience. Unlike other art forms, we actually feel it in our bodies. It makes us move. Most of us have a soundtrack to our lives and can recall precisely where we were and what was happening when we were listening to that song long ago.

Dr. Petr Janata of the the UC Davis Psychology Department and Center for the Mind and Brain calls this phenomenon "music-evoked biographical memories." It's very similar to the way Proust was transported to his youth by the taste of a madeleine -- same effect, just a different sensory input. Dr. Janata has studied the brains of people listening to music that evokes strong memories for them. He sees two brain networks being activated at the same time: one part of the brain that we use to pay attention to our external environment and another part of the brain that that we use to pay attention to ourselves. Janata theorizes that the power of music may lie in these two networks being integrated simultaneously.

I am thankful to the Bee Gees for making the trip to my locker as an eighth grader better and memorable. As I grew older, and moved on to Elvis Costello, The Clash, Morrisey... I never lost the ability to be transported back to being 13 whenever a Bee Gees song came on the radio. Luckily the music lives on forever, and I will still be able to time travel back to my youth, even as I get older.

I am sad we have lost another part of the harmony that was the Bee Gees. And my heart goes out to the Gibb family. They've had more than their fair share of early death. It turns out Stayin' Alive can be really hard. But we still hear you, Robin.