Brian Epstein helped make the Beatles a phenomenon. Forty years after his death, why is his contribution forgotten?
Published Sunday, August 26, 2007
THE OLD WAREHOUSE DISTRICT AROUND MATHEW STREET IN CENTRAL LIVERPOOL IS AS SACRED TO BEATLES FANS AS THE VIA DOLOROSA IS TO CHRISTIANS. At one end is the Cavern, the rebuilt but authentically dank former vegetable cellar where the band played 274 times in the early 1960s. Nearby is the Wall of Fame, where bronze disks commemorate each of Liverpool's No. 1 hit records; the statue of the early John Lennon in trademark leather jacket; and the plaques outside the Grapes and the White Star, the blue-collar pubs where the boys and their mates hoisted many a cheap pint. But there's nothing to mark the nondescript storefront on Whitechapel Street that was once the North End Music Store, known as NEMS, a record shop and appliance emporium owned by Harry Epstein and his wife, Queenie.
It was from this shop that their first-born son, Brian, set out just before noon on November 9, 1961, to catch the lunch-hour show at the Cavern a few hundred yards away. He made his way past a queue of teenage girls in beehives and boys in skin-tight drain-pipe trousers, and down 18 damp stone steps into the catacombs to check out four sweaty young men playing guitars and drums. What he saw and heard that day, and what he decided to do about it, forever changed their lives and his -- and ours, as well. Virtually every place in Liverpool where the Beatles lived, went to school or played music has been enshrined with a plaque, a statue or a stop on the tourist trail known as the Magical Mystery Tour. But the missing name at almost every Beatles site is that of the man who played such an essential role in their improbable rise.
The 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' masterpiece album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in June set off a predictable round of appreciation of the Beatles, their art and legacy. But few will linger over another milestone tomorrow -- the 40th anniversary of Brian Epstein's death, three weeks before he would have turned 33, from what a coroner's inquest ruled was an accidental overdose of barbiturates.
"I think Brian's one of the forgotten people," Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife, told me when we met last year. "It's almost as if he's been written out of the story. I don't think they'd have got anywhere without Brian."
Maybe he meant to kill himself that day in August 1967, and maybe he didn't. But the circumstances of Brian's death have overshadowed his life. He comes across in most accounts of the Beatles as a self-destructive and pathetic figure. He was a gay man in an era when homosexuality was illegal, and he led a classic double life, lying about his sexuality even while pursuing men, gay and straight, with reckless abandon. He left no wife or children to protect his legacy or promote his name. The Beatles themselves, after Brian's death, grew increasingly critical of his management. A handful of devoted friends have mounted a campaign in recent years to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- so far to no avail.
Sex is never simple, and in Brian's case it was freighted with additional layers of guilt, frustration, secrets and lies. But sex helps explain why Brian believed so completely in the band and committed himself so deeply to its cause. It's widely claimed that John Lennon had Brian in mind when he wrote "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." But Brian Epstein's love for the Beatles was hidden in plain sight.
THE EPSTEIN FAMILY WAS A PILLAR OF BOURGEOIS RESPECTABILITY. Queenie was the daughter of a wealthy furniture manufacturer. Harry's father, Isaac, was a Polish immigrant who opened I. Epstein and Sons, a furniture store, on Walton Road in Liverpool at the turn of the last century. By the 1930s, Isaac and Harry had expanded the business by buying NEMS, the record and music shop at the end of the block. Coddled from birth, Brian, a beautiful child with delicate features, curly brown hair and full, moody lips, was his parents' pride and joy, and their great despair. He attended seven private schools by the time he was 15. He often blamed the fact that he couldn't fit in on anti-Semitism. But he himself had little use for the small, prosperous but insular Jewish world he grew up in.
Brian realized at an early age that he was "different." At 15, he announced that he wanted to leave boarding school to become a dress designer. His father and his teachers agreed that this was unacceptable. "There was, to their minds, nothing less manly," Brian later said in his ghostwritten 1964 autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise. He came home to work in the family business, got called up to the British army, served a year before being discharged on unspecified "medical grounds," then returned to NEMS. His brief period in the army, Brian would write, exposed him to "the strange homosexual life in London," but he insisted he never had a sexual encounter until he returned to Liverpool. After that, "my life became a succession of mental illnesses and sordid, unhappy events bringing great sorrow to my family," he wrote in a private memoir unearthed by a BBC-TV documentary team in 1997. Brian never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. In the 19-page, handwritten "Background and History" that the BBC uncovered, he doesn't specify what those "sordid, unhappy events" were, but friends say he had a number of encounters in which he was beaten and robbed and, on one occasion, blackmailed. "My loneliness throughout has been acute," he wrote.
In 1956, he persuaded his parents to finance a course of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He dropped out after a year, not long after he was arrested by a plainclothes police officer for "persistent importuning" outside the men's toilet at the Swiss Cottage underground station in London. His parents reacted with concern, disapproval and a good lawyer. Brian got off with a suspended two-year sentence upon the condition that he seek medical care for his "disease." But he was tortured by his feelings of guilt, shame and anger, his exposure before the authorities and his parents, and his own abiding sense of inferiority.
"Through the wreckage of my life by society," he wrote, "my being will stain and bring the deepest distress to all my devoted family and few friends. The damage, the lying criminal methods of the police in importuning me and consequently capturing me leaves me cold, stunned and finished."
A DEFEATED BRIAN RETREATED TO LIVERPOOL AND THE FAMILY BUSINESS. There, to everyone's surprise, he excelled. In 1957, NEMS opened a new shop on Great Charlotte Street in the city center, and Brian, just 23, took over the small record department. He stocked its shelves with the latest in classical and pop music, built an inventory system that guaranteed that the bestselling discs were always available, and created eye-catching window displays of the latest hits. His delighted parents gave him a new shop on Whitechapel in 1959. Queenie and Harry believed Brian was finally settling down. Indeed he was, but in the private world he built for himself and with the gay friends he was making. He became close to Peter Brown, a handsome and ambitious young man who ran the records section at Lewis's department store, a NEMS rival. Brown recalled that they met at a mutual friend's birthday party. Brian and his younger brother, Clive, arrived in their dinner jackets, having come from attending their parents' 25th wedding anniversary celebration. Brown says Brian wore tailored suits and smelled of Old Spice, and he had exquisite manners and a way of dominating every room he entered.
"I thought he was an amazing person," Brown recalls. "We instantly became good friends." Brian eventually persuaded Brown to come work for NEMS, and Brown modeled himself -- his clothing, his style, even his speech patterns -- after Brian. "We called them piss-elegant, how they spoke and sounded," recalls Terry Doran, a car salesman who became another of Brian's new pals.
Then there was Joe Flannery, a soft-spoken shop owner and band manager who was three years older than Brian. Flannery says they shared their secrets, their sexuality and their love of the theater. He recalls going with Brian to see Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Liverpool Playhouse, sitting in one of the front rows for a week of performances. On a Friday night, Brian had to attend Shabbat dinner with his family. As she was taking her curtain call, Leigh noticed that Brian was missing. "And where's your friend tonight?" she called out to Flannery.
Brian spent long, solitary holidays in places such as Amsterdam and Barcelona. On weekends, he would take his friends on drives to country inns or to Manchester, 30 miles east, a city with a more open and less anxious gay quarter. By contrast, the gay scene in Liverpool in the late 1950s was quiet and cautious. There were several gay bars, but the biggest draw was the Magic Clock, across the road from the Royal Court Theatre. The Clock's male waiters went by the names of female singers and dressed in wigs, skirts and makeup. Still, before they left for the evening, the waiters would change back to street clothes and wipe the rouge from their faces. "You wouldn't walk alone, in case you got tapped," recalls Eddie Porter, who used to drink there as a young man. "If you told the police you'd been beaten up by a man, they'd throw you in the van and arrest you for importuning."
These days, Porter specializes in Beatles nostalgia memories and sardonic repartee as a guide on the Magical Mystery Tour bus. Back then, he was a good-looking blue-collar lad who waited tables at the old Exchange Hotel. He enjoyed mixing with actors, musicians and businessmen at the Magic Clock. One of the people he met there one evening was the well-dressed man from NEMS.
"I was wearing my dicky bow, coat and tie, and Brian came over to me and said, 'Are you with the orchestra from the Royal Court?'" I said, 'No, sir. But you're the manager of the record shop.' And he said, 'No, I'm the owner.'"
After that first evening, they would meet regularly. Brian took him to see Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" when it played the Royal Court, noting that there was a scene in which two men kiss. They watched in rapt silence, Porter recalls. "With Brian, it was never mentioned. Even at the Magic Clock, no one ever said it. In drink, in his company, he never said, 'Look at him across there; he's a nice fellow.' And I never did. It just wasn't done."
Brian was a generous and entertaining friend, but the price of admission was tolerance of his savage mood swings. He could be the sophisticated gentleman one moment and the petulant, spoiled child the next. "Living on the edge as he did, Brian was always a contradiction," recalled Tony Bramwell, one of the Beatles' buddies, in his recent memoir, Magical Mystery Tours. "He was a fiercely loyal and honorable friend to those he loved, and ruthless toward those he despised. He was shy to the point of blushing and stammering, and theatrical to the point of ranting and frothing at the mouth."
Despite a lively coterie of friends and lovers, Brian still liked it rough. After he dropped off his respectable companions in the evening, he often went cruising. There were the docks, the little beach resorts to the north and the public toilets in Sefton Park to the south, all of them filled with sailors, working-class lads and other species of men on the make. "He cruised in some terrible places," recalls Terry Doran. "He liked it. Occasionally, he'd show up bruised. And he'd go to those places again. He was a glutton for punishment, really."
One night, Flannery recalls, Brian frantically knocked on his door. "He had left me about an hour earlier. He had on this most beautiful Peter England shirt, and it was red with blood. Somebody who knew he was Brian Epstein got into his car and made him open the store and open the safe." Flannery washed Brian's faced and got him a fresh shirt.
Frustrated, bored and uneasy after five years of success at NEMS, Brian was still searching for something new. What he was looking for, it turned out, was a few hundred yards away.
BILL HARRY WAS A FORMER ART SCHOOL BUDDY OF JOHN LENNON AND STUART SUTCLIFFE, who were struggling to get a foothold in Liverpool's booming music scene. Harry and his wife, Virginia, came up with Mersey Beat, a bimonthly music magazine. With a pile of the opening issues to distribute, one of his first stops was the NEMS shop on Whitechapel. When he walked in, Harry remembers, he was greeted by a supercilious young man in an impeccable suit. Brian was skeptical about Mersey Beat, but he reluctantly agreed to put a dozen copies on the counter. When they sold out almost immediately, he rang up Harry and demanded several dozen more. He also became curious about the music scene that the newspaper depicted. "Is this actually happening in Liverpool?" Brian asked, according to Harry.
Liverpool was in the throes of a music explosion. Once the British empire's largest seaport, Liverpool had long been a gateway for Irish and Welsh migrants, Jamaicans, freed slaves and their music. There was a steady flow of American jazz, country and rhythm and blues imported by the "Cunard Yanks," British seamen who returned from the United States with phonograph records crammed into their trunks. By the late 1950s, the postwar baby boom -- known in Britain as the "Bulge" -- the end of conscription and the rise of rock-and-roll had produced a new generation of Liverpudlians with time on their hands, disposable income and an obsession with pop music. "We were the first teenagers," says Colin Hanton, then a young furniture upholsterer, who played drums in the Quarrymen, John Lennon's first band.
The Beatles in the late 1950s were just one of hundreds of bands -- and far from the best. John and Stuart had dropped out of art school, while the younger Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended a grammar school in the same complex. After many early personnel changes, they added a competent drummer, Pete Best.
"They were just kids, starved rats, always hungry and puffing on the bedraggled remains of their ciggies," remembered Allan Williams, a local club owner, in his memoir. Williams, despite his doubts, did the lads one enormous favor. In early 1960, he dispatched them to Hamburg, to a club gig where they spent months refining their performing skills. They came home in November 1960 with tight leather outfits, an even tighter sound and a new sense of showmanship.
While most of the bands had a front man and a single, narrow focus, the Beatles featured soaring harmonies, two fledgling songwriters and one superb all-around performer -- Paul. They could shift from "Long Tall Sally" to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a heartbeat. By the fall of 1961, they were nearing the top of the pack but had no place to go.
Big-time agents, managers and record labels in London saw Liverpool as a backwater. They had no interest in the scene. The Beatles could feel themselves stagnating. Stuart dropped out to pursue his art career in Hamburg. John talked about working on an ocean liner as his dad, Freddy, had done; Paul's family wanted him to become a teacher. George visited his older sister Louise in the United States and considered emigrating.
Among locals, the debate never ends over when and how Brian first heard of the Beatles. Harry insists he first told Brian about the band and that Brian would have had to have been blind not to have read about them in Mersey Beat. But Brian, in A Cellarful of Noise, says he hadn't heard of them until a teenager named Raymond Jones came into the Whitechapel shop in late October 1961 asking for "My Bonnie," a 45 that Polydor had recorded and released in Germany with the "Beat Brothers" backing British singer Tony Sheridan. What's not in dispute is that in early November, Brian and his chief assistant, Alastair Taylor, made their way to the Cavern to check out the group.
"Inside the club, it was as black as a deep grave, dank and smelly," according to A Cellarful of Noise. The two men, dressed in business suits, sat near the back. They were hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. Taylor said he couldn't wait to get out of there. Brian, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of the four sexy young men in tight leather jackets and pants, sweat pouring down their faces as they gyrated around the tiny stage. "They gave a captivating and honest show, and they had very considerable magnetism," his book recalled.
After Taylor finally extracted his boss from the club, the men went for lunch at the Peacock, one of Brian's favorite eateries. He sat down, ordered and looked Taylor in the eye. "What do you think about me managing them?"
BRIAN SET OUT ON A PREMEDITATED SEDUCTION. First, he spoke to those who best knew the group: Cavern emcee Bob Wooler, Allan Williams and Sam Leach, a local promoter who was an ardent fan. He paid a visit to the Blue Angel, Williams's club, told Williams he was planning to manage the Beatles and asked if he had any advice. "I said, 'Yes, don't touch them with a [expletive] barge pole. They'll let you down.'"
Nonetheless, Brian invited the Beatles over to NEMS one evening in early December. He told them he could double their fee for performances, extricate them from their recording contract with Polydor and get them a record deal with a London company. The Beatles needed little persuading.
"We all looked up to him," recalled Cynthia Lennon. "He was pinstriped suits; he was a businessman; and we were all students and scruffy. But there was something very magnetic about Brian. And he was a true gentleman."
John, the putative leader, was quick to seal the deal. "Right then, Brian, manage us now," he declared. "Where's the contract? I'll sign it." In need of a lawyer, Brian turned to David Harris. "One day, out of the blue, I got this phone call," Harris says. " 'David, it's Brian. I'm interested in managing a pop group called the Beatles.' He needed a contract. Oh, yes, I don't think I laughed. But, I felt, this is a Brian thing."
When Paul's father, Jim, expressed doubts about signing up with a Jewish record shop owner with no real show business experience, Brian paid visits to each family. He charmed Jim, John's starchy Aunt Mimi and Pete's mother, Mona, who had been their de facto manager. One of his first acts was to persuade Ray McFall, owner of the Cavern, to double their pay to 15 pounds per show, and he got them an extra 10 pounds a week for their next gig in Hamburg. He also paid off their debt of 200 pounds at Hessy's music store for their instruments. Then the grooming began. First, he persuaded the boys to scrap the tight leather suits and took them to a men's shop across the River Mersey for gray mohair suits. He had their hair styled at Horne Brothers, his personal barbers. He also imposed a set of rules for performances: No more eating and smoking on stage; no taking requests; and no swearing. Some of the Beatles' contemporaries despised the result. Ted Taylor, a former butcher's apprentice who fronted his own hard-driving band, Kingsize Taylor & the Dominoes, felt Brian effectively neutered the Beatles, sapping the raw energy that had made them exciting.
"As far as I'm concerned, Brian Epstein was the man who destroyed Mersey Beat," he says. "He made London groups out of Liverpool bands. When you see the Beatles, their first TV appearance, all dressed up like tailors, well that wasn't Liverpool." Others were more sympathetic. "The whole of British popular culture at the time was controlled by people more than a generation older than us," says Bill Harry. "And, quite frankly, the Beatles as they were, the black leather and rough look, would never have made it in Britain. What he was doing was processing them and making them conform to the establishment." John, the self-styled rebel, performed with the top button of his dress shirt unfastened and his tie loosened as a protest.
Still, John went along with the process. "We respected his views," he later told an interviewer. "We paid a lot more attention to what we were doing, did our best to be on time, and we smartened up." His attitude: "Yeah, man, all right, I'll wear a suit. I'll wear a bloody balloon if somebody's going to pay me."
But while Brian transformed the group's appearance and stagecraft, he never messed with their music. The professional managers of that era, had they been interested at all, would almost certainly have required the Beatles to choose a front man and limit their repertoire to the bland, pre-packaged pop music that made acts like Cliff Richard so successful in Britain -- and so uninspired. Whether because he was a total amateur or because he saw something that others didn't, Brian loved the Beatles' sound, encouraged them to write their own songs and cherished their originality.
He was also possessive. Like a jealous suitor, Brian ruthlessly eliminated potential competitors for the Beatles' affections. He broke a performance deal with Leach over a petty matter. He insisted that Harry print only what Brian himself authorized about the group. When the Beatles decided to fire Pete as drummer and replace him with Ringo Starr, Brian lied to Harry, telling him that the parting was amicable and mutual. "It showed me that Brian was very manipulative," Harry recalls. "With us, he changed over time. He became more and more demanding. And then he discarded us like a box of tissues."
Soon, other managers noticed, the Beatles answered only to Brian. "If you said to George, 'What are you doing next Saturday?' He'd say, 'Don't know; talk to Brian,'" recalls Jim Turner, a young promoter who looked up to Brian. "Whatever he said, they did." Brian repaid their loyalty with his own. "His enthusiasm was amazing," Turner says. "It was almost like a father talking about a son who'd passed his university exams. It was deeply emotional. He would talk for two hours on the phone about it. It was so much a part of him. It wasn't about the money."
FROM THE BEGINNING, THE BEATLES HAD BEEN TIPPED OFF BY FRIENDS THAT BRIAN WAS GAY. His first reaction was to deny it. Ian Sharp, one of John's old art school friends, asked him and Paul, "Which one of you does he fancy?" When Brian found out, he had a lawyer send Sharp a letter demanding a written apology and an undertaking never to repeat the slur. Still, Brian couldn't hide his lust. In his memoir, Pete Best said Brian took him for a drive one evening to Blackpool, the seaside resort town north of Liverpool, and declared his "very fond admiration" for Pete. "Would you find it embarrassing if I ask you to stay in a hotel overnight?" Brian asked. Pete said he had no interest, and that was the end of it. "We both carefully forgot about the journey to Blackpool," he wrote.
But the Beatle whom Brian was most intrigued with was the most brilliant and most troubled. Brian could see early on that, to get things done, he had to convince John. They spent many hours talking about the band, the strategy and the future. Although John's family was the most affluent, John was the darkest, angriest and most prone to abusing those around him. He mercilessly prodded and exploited his wealthy new patron. Tony Sheridan recalls John pouring beer over Brian's head during a visit to Hamburg. "Brian reacted with mild shock: How can you do this to me? I'm wearing a suit. I'm Brian from a nice family, and people don't do this to me.
"They were very grateful for the fact that this guy had turned up in their lives," Sheridan says by phone from his home in Germany. "On the other hand, the disdain was always there somewhere, a little lack of respect."
Despite John's frequent hostility, Brian ceaselessly tried to persuade John to go on vacation with him. Finally, on the day after Cynthia gave birth to a son, Julian, Brian and John took off for Barcelona. The Barcelona trip is a milepost in the Beatles legend. Why did John agree to go, and what did they do there? Only two men knew for sure, and both are long dead. Before they died, they gave varying and ambiguous accounts of what happened. "I watched Brian picking up boys, and I liked playing it a bit faggy -- it's enjoyable," John told Rolling Stone. Brian, he later told Playboy, "was in love with me." In Spain, "It was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated."
John wasn't so blasé at the time. When Bob Wooler teased him about the Barcelona trip at Paul's 21st birthday party, a drunken John punched him in the face, kicked him when he fell and hit him with a gardening tool, sending Wooler to the hospital. Brian wrote Wooler a check for 200 pounds and a letter of apology purportedly from John. John's great fear, he once confided to Brian, was that the Beatles were just a hobby that Brian would inevitably lose interest in. When Brian protested that he was just as committed to the band as the Beatles themselves, John laughed bitterly. As Brian later told Alastair Taylor: "John said rich bastards like me didn't know what it was to want to succeed. I had the family business to fall back on."
THE REST, AS EDDIE PORTER LIKES TO TELL TOURISTS ON THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR BUS, IS HISTORY. After countless train rides to London in which he failed to ignite the interest of the big record companies, Brian eventually persuaded George Martin, producer of EMI's obscure Parlophone label, to give the band an audition. Martin liked what he heard. As is so often the case in the story of the Beatles' rise, they came across a man of talent and creativity who helped them take the next step to fame.
Their second record, "Please Please Me," climbed quickly to No. 1 on the British charts. Brian worked the Beatles like beasts of burden, dispatching them on a seemingly endless tour of Britain and booking them on every available BBC program. Then he pulled the extraordinary feat of getting them a three-program starring gig on "The Ed Sullivan Show." They became the first British pop act to dominate the U.S. charts.
As soon as the money started rolling in, Brian moved the band and his entire operation to London. Success meant a townhouse in the posh Belgravia neighborhood, a Bentley and many other cars, sold to him by Terry Doran ("the man from the motor trade" in "She's Leaving Home"), whom he helped set up in business. There were gambling clubs, fine food, a butler, all the alcohol, drugs and young men he could buy, and enormous stress. The gifted amateur was in way over his head. And when the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, they stopped needing him.
After Brian's death, his mother and brother decided he should be buried in the Jewish cemetery on Long Lane. The hearse hauling his body back to Liverpool was delayed in traffic. "Leave it to Brian to be late for his own funeral," Peter Brown says.
The family asked that the Beatles not attend, fearing a huge, unseemly gaggle of squealing teenage girls outside the synagogue. The presiding rabbi, who had never met Brian, gave an incredibly callous eulogy, calling him "a symbol of the malaise of our generation." He was buried in the city he had long despised, among people he had little use for.
"Deeply mourned and sadly missed by his devoted mother, brother and all his family," reads the tombstone. No mention of the Beatles. Each of them, except Ringo, would later denounce Brian's management. They didn't like the recording, music publishing and merchandising deals he had forged early on. Most of all, as the years passed, they didn't like being Beatles anymore. They associated Brian with a life they wanted to leave behind. In the end, for Brian, at least, it wasn't about success or fortune or fame, although he craved all three. It was about love. Paul, who over the years has managed to be both Brian's biggest critic and an ardent admirer, seems to have understood it best.
"Brian," he told an interviewer 30 years after his manager's death, "would really be happy to hear how much we loved him."