the seventh tape of the Beatles' video Anthology,
the inexorable ticking of Chronos comes to the fateful
events in late August 1967, that holiday weekend
during which the Beatles went away with the Maharishi
to North Wales and Brian Epstein died alone. For
a brief moment, the interview/clip format is suspended
for a montage of Epstein footage—soundtracked
by "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"—an
epitaph as terse as it is accurate.
the Beatles and Brian Epstein insisted on the primacy
of feeling, and this insistence had all the force
of a revolution in post-Victorian Britain and post-Kennedy
America. Few songs in the Beatles' catalogue capture
Epstein's emotional perplexity as well as this haunted
Lennon creation, with its self-hatred verging on
paranoia, its elegance, passion and almost unbearable
yearning. Brian Epstein had had to hide his love
away for so many years: When he died, homosexuality
had been legal in England for exactly one month.
all the mediation surrounding the Beatles—a
vast edifice of scholarship, memorabilia, minutiae,
nostalgia, gossip, claim and counterclaim—Brian
Epstein remains an occluded figure. He has been
ill served by Beatles biographers, most notably
Albert Goldman, who have all too often exploited
his early disappearance from the story to plant
homophobic sleaze—after all, their subject
isn't around to sue. Yet Epstein's role in the Beatles'
success was central and his friendship with them
deep. As Paul McCartney says, "If anyone was
the fifth Beatle, it was Brian, you know."
image is nevertheless fixed: Jewish, smart, homosexual,
doomed—as if all four are inextricably interlinked.
But who was he? Epstein catalyzed
and directed the entertainment sensation of the
century yet passes as a tragic cipher. You could
say that he had everything, except for the freedom
to be who he really was.
partial invisibility was necessary for protection
but bad for posterity. Even Epstein's autobiography,
A Cellarful of Noise, glosses over
the essentials. Not that Epstein wasn't privately
honest, as his ghostwriter Derek Taylor remembers:
"I set about taping in a very large five-star
hotel in Torquay (a resort in the southwest of England).
In the first lunch hour he said, 'I'm going to have
to tell you now, did you know that I'm queer?' 'No,'
I said. 'I didn't.' 'Does it make any difference?'
'No,' I said. 'It does not make any difference.
It'll make it a lot easier, so you mustn't worry
any more. I won't ever let you down.'"
in the summer of 1964, A Cellarful of Noise
is a mixture of Beatles crackerbarrel (already in
place), Beatles fanaticism, showbiz vernacular,
plain speaking and unexpected insights, not least
into the mind of its author. The mode of a showbiz
biography was (and remains, with added therapeutic
language) chattily confessional, yet, as Epstein
says at one point, "God gave us tongues to
conceal our thoughts"—a shattering epigram
from the eye of the media hurricane, hinting at
stormy depths beneath the carefully manicured surface.
Epstein was born to a prosperous Liverpool merchant
family on the nineteenth of September, 1934: Yom
Kippur, the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar.
His Virgo temperament can be detected in his perfectionism,
communication skills, visionary abstraction, vile
tempers, mercurial disposition, self-consciousness
in the limelight, sex obsession and curious innocence.
His schooling was interrupted by the war—Liverpool
was bombed badly, and many children were evacuated—and
never recovered thereafter. It's fair to say that
some anti-Semitism was involved; despite its image
as pop Mecca, Liverpool was not and is not a city
noted for its racial and sexual tolerance.
school at sixteen with minimal qualifications, Epstein
went to work, as the elder son, in the family furniture
and, later, electrical goods business, at the same
time harboring ambitions to be a dress designer
or an actor. The Epstein family was close and provided
support when the outside world got too much, as
it did in the mid '50s when Brian's stint at the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts—RADA, then
the leading theater school in the United Kingdom—was
brought to an end after his prosecution for "persistent
importuning," approaching an undercover policeman
for sex in a public toilet.
document relating to this case still exists, written
in Epstein's rushed and shaking hand. Notes for
his lawyer which become an impassioned rant, it
functions both as an apologia—for his lawyer
to use as a clemency appeal—and as a testament.
In it, he does not deny his homosexuality—indeed,
he remains stoic on the subject, saying: "I
am not sorry for myself"—but delivers
an impassioned rant against entrapment: "the
lying criminal methods of the police in importuning
me and consequently capturing me leaves me cold,
stunned and finished."
difference between then and now can be seen in the
reaction to George Michael's recent conviction—humiliation
turned into chat-show promotion and video storyline—and
Epstein's self-lacerating isolation. Yet, in one
remarkable passage, Epstein shows himself capable
of abstracting from his individual plight: "I
have always felt deeply for the persecuted, for
the Jews, the colored people, for the old and society's
misfits. When I made [sic] money I planned to devote
and give what I made to these people." There
was intention behind the social revolution that
seemed accidental: Epstein understood that freedom
for the Beatles could be freedom for everyone, perhaps
even himself and, as they were called then, his
first set eyes on the Beatles in performance—some
or all of them had come into his NEMS record store
without buying anything—on the ninth of November,
1961. He writes about their "vast engulfing
sound" and his sharp, irrational feeling that
he was "going to be permanently involved"
with this "eccentric group of boys." Within
a month, he was their manager, armed with nothing
but a total belief that "one day they will
be greater than Elvis Presley." When Epstein
told Decca Records this in early 1962, they rolled
their eyes and humored the madman. By 1965, it was
true and has remained true ever since.
interest in the Beatles has been put down to sexual
interest, pure and simple. That there was a frisson
is unquestionable. It would be simplistic, however,
to say that because he was gay he automatically
slept with one of the group, as the rumors surrounding
the Barcelona holiday that he took with John Lennon
in the spring of 1963 would suggest. As both parties
are dead, it is impossible to find out the truth,
but it is nevertheless quite possible for sexual
interest to be transmuted into the care and the
devotion with which Epstein looked after the Beatles
in general and John Lennon in particular.
Epstein brought to the Beatles in 1962 and 1963
was a conduit to the mainstream. According to Paul
McCartney, "We had been playing together a
little while, but we needed someone to push us and
give us a few clues as to how we might go further.
It became obvious that Brian was that person. He
had a theatrical flair, having gone to RADA. He
knew a lot of people. He was a great networker so
it became clear that he would be very good for us.
It is always very helpful having someone theatrical
out front; there's got to be someone out there who
says: 'That was really good.' 'When you moved over,
you, they lost you. Don't do that next time.' It's
a director: that's really what he was."
consequent story is familiar, but the statistics
are still staggering: Within just two years after
that first meeting with the Beatles, Brian Epstein's
acts—the Beatles, Gerry and the Peacemakers,
Billy J. Kramer—had spent over thirty of 1963's
fifty-two weeks at number one on the U.K. chart.
Four months later, the Beatles held the top five
places in the U.S. top forty, a hitherto unthinkable
feat for a British group and a coup not repeated
since. By 1966, the Beatles were a worldwide phenomenon.
They changed pop, the music industry and Western
moral codes and modes of perception.
is where Epstein's real achievement lies. Compared
to Colonel Tom Parker—whom he met and gambled
with in 1965—Epstein was a very different
kind of pop manager. Rather than dominate his principal
artists, he collaborated with them to further their
interests, which were at first financial, then artistic.
New to the music industry, Epstein made some famously
bad deals—most notably the 1964 "Seltaeb"
Beatles merchandising license, which rumbled on
in litigation until early 1967—but his lack
of preconceived ideas and his flexibility allowed
him to nurture their success in a creative and supportive
manner. He was the first major manager to sense
that pop groups could and should have creative control
over their output.
Epstein's place in this was and remains shadowy.
In the footage and photos, he is characteristically
on one side, lost in the crowd, pensive, conscious
not to intrude. The sheer volume of the Beatles'
success brought more than even this workaholic could
deal with. Added to the paranoia about business
deals gone bad was the syndrome he expresses in
A Cellarful of Noise: "Do people
want me or do they want the Beatles through me?"
His inability to sustain a successful relationship
can be attributed to this and other legitimate worries.
Epstein was rich, high profile, addicted to risk
and danger, subject to blackmail and theft. As Marianne
Faithfull says, "He was always very afraid
of being shot down in flames and unmasked. It was
all quite a combustible and dangerous mix."
the Beatles stopped touring in August 1966, they
took pop culture into uncharted waters. A visionary
rather than a business-oriented manager, Epstein
had little patience for the maintenance an established
act needs. Adrift, he began to unravel into a manic-depressive
cycle exacerbated by drugs like Carbrital (prescription
down) and LSD (illegal up). He yo-yoed from suicide
attempts to cosmic benevolence, making his downhill
slide—seemingly inevitable in light of subsequent
events—a more closely contested struggle than
has been thought.
rumors, Epstein's death was a product of sheer toxicity:
a Carbrital overdose, pure and simple. Its effect
on the Beatles was immediate. As John Lennon later
said, "I thought, 'we've fuckin' had it,'"
and the unraveling took many bitter years. Yet Brian
Epstein does not remain tragic. He, like his group,
came roaring out of nowhere to take over the world,
and they did. He remains an icon to all of us who
have benefited from his efforts to create a more
humane society. He lived to see the freedoms he
had prophesied for the Beatles and himself become
real, even if he was already too damaged to benefit