The Fifth Beatle
By Jon Savage

From Gadfly June 1999


In 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.

Both 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.

For 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."

The 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.

This 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.'"

Published 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.

Brian 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.

Leaving 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.

A 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."

The 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 kind.

Epstein 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.

Epstein's 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.

What 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."

The 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.

This 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.

Yet 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."

After 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.

Despite 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 from them.