|A profile of Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, written for The Word, December 2010.
Two nude, muscular men stared out from every bus that idled in the busy road outside Epstein’s, a north Liverpool furniture shop. Neptune and Triton, Lords of the Deep, stood above a Latin motto on the Corporation coat-of-arms, emblazoned upon those big green tins of cloth-capped humanity, windows grey with dense cigarette smoke.
Did the bored teenage assistant ever return their gaze? Day in, day out, this elder son of the Epstein dynasty – they had traded here since grandfather Isaac arrived from Lithuania – performed his family duty. There were parlour pianos to sell (a Mr McCartney bought one for himself and his little boy Paul to practise upon) and bulky radio cabinets and horsehair sofas. The teenage Brian Epstein pondered his situation. He had recently been Britain’s least successful public schoolboy. He would shortly prove disastrous both as a soldier and a trainee actor.
And yet, some bright inner flame of ambition was never extinguished. He set about re-organising the Epstein shop and its annexe the North End Music Store (NEMS), and showed some flair in the process. Next his father Harry gave him a city centre branch to manage. And then, of course, Brian took the most reckless decision of his entire life. He walked across the street and discovered a pop group called The Beatles.
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of that fateful alliance and the beginning of a fabulous and partly tragic show business parable. Epstein was the manager who transformed his boys’ careers, the only man astute enough to translate what The Beatles had, into what the whole world wanted. During his short life Epstein straddled two very different worlds: provincial post-War Liverpool and in the 1960s so-called Swinging London. From running a record shop he went directly to the top of the mountain, negotiating his way through the cut-throat American music industry and overseeing his band’s triumphal progress from one continent to the next.
And The Beatles were only the headline act in Epstein’s stable of stars. Through them and his numerous other protégées, he dominated pop on a gigantic scale. All his predecessors and successors, from Colonel Tom Parker to Simon Cowell, are minor by comparison.
Nobody knows where he found the sheer gumption. “Brian,” marvelled his US colleague Nat Weiss, “was the emotional and psychological catalyst. He had the vision to say that The Beatles would be bigger than Elvis in 1961.” Yet, beneath the dazzling veneer of Epstein’s success, lies a story of much unhappiness. He was the Man Out Of Time, who helped to create the Swinging Sixties, but was never really of them. He became a little bit Swinging in his final year, but the experience helped to kill him. Impeccably well-spoken, invariably well-dressed, Epstein was a 1950s man, unable to live his allotted role in life and unable to escape it, either.
Perhaps he needed the social freedoms that the later 1960s ushered in. It’s just unfortunate that he did not survive to see them. He really was The Great Gatsby of that age. At the height of the amazing party he had brought about, Brian Epstein slipped away, unobtrusively. In the Summer of Love, 1967, they found him slumped across his bed in Belgravia, stone dead of an overdose.
Brian would write in his autobiography, A Cellarful Of Noise, that the older son of a Jewish family has an extra weight of expectation. He was born in Liverpool in 1934, his brother Clive two years later, and his four most famous associates in the six years after that. One of them, John, grew up in wide and leafy Menlove Avenue, adjacent to spacious Queen’s Drive, site of the Epsteins’ family home. But Brian was a misfit in his several hearty schools, a sensitive boy who spoke wistfully of becoming a dress designer. At the age of 16, he was unceremoniously placed in that out-of-town furniture shop, on a salary of five pounds per week.
The age difference between Epstein and John, Paul et al, looks modest, but it was really a generational gulf. Deepest of their divisions was that Brian had to perform National Service, which was abolished a whisker away from Lennon’s eligibility. Private Epstein was of course not destined for glory in the British Army. Legendarily, they arrested him one night for “impersonating an officer”: he had merely returned to Regents Park barracks in his immaculately correct evening clothes. Unlike most public schoolboys he was never made an officer cadet; instead they sent him to a string of psychiatrists and, within a year, kicked him out completely.
So in 1954 he was back in that dowdy shop, staring at the buses outside the window. Evenings, however, found him in town, where he cultivated friends in theatrical circles. There was, too, the overlapping world of Liverpool’s homosexual scene – still decidedly illegal and therefore ripe for blackmail. Being a sea-port the city had various specialist bars that catered to “gay” taste, though that term was more or less unknown. One such venue was the Bonaparte, whose name made more sense in the palare slang of sailors and homosexuals. It was Brian’s abiding difficulty that he favoured very rough boys, the sort of teddy boy “Dockyard Doris” who preyed on vulnerable men.
Like the British Army before them, the Epstein family became aware of Brian’s propensity for night-walks on the wild side, with its attendant danger of hellish legal scrapes. He was accepted by RADA, Britain’s hallowed cradle of dramatic talent. But the pattern played out once more and he was arrested in Finchley (probably due to police entrapment) and charged at Marylebone Magistrates Court. (I don’t think this was generally known during the Beatles years. We can imagine poor Epstein’s dread of it ever surfacing.) He resigned from RADA and made his way back to Lime Street Station and, yes, the family furniture store.
But there was now a shiny new branch of NEMS, and it was all Brian’s. This time in the heart of town, it occupied a modernist block thrown up among the vast bomb-site designed by Adolf Hitler. About 200 yards away, in a surviving warren of 18th-century warehouses, was the Cavern Club and here he found The Beatles, his own purpose in life and the future of popular culture, all within a single lunch-hour.
Nobody around Epstein seems to have understood what Brian saw in the group. Musically, he preferred classical records, so The Beatles were not his thing. Their uncouth rock’n’roll, in any case, was on the verge of becoming old-fashioned. Perhaps he felt a sexual attraction for one or more of the larky, leather-jacketed Scouse boys. But there was nothing to be gained there, and it was not a business plan. Something else, that only Brian Epstein grasped, was at work. John Lennon had a vague idea of The Beatles’ potential, though it might have been his ego and desperation talking. Paul McCartney knew that he had enough ability to make some kind of living in music. Only Brian had this absurd vision of surpassing Elvis Presley.
In the meantime, while he booked them into their parish halls and blood-stained ballrooms, he continued to live as a dapper young businessman. He wore white Peter England shirts, narrow ties and dark bespoke suits. With friends he drove to country pubs for discreet dinners: the limited options of that time would have run to tinned tomato soup, chicken-and-potatoes, gateaux, bottled Bass and copious cigarettes. He took a small flat in town, away from his parents, and probably used it to entertain unsuitable young men. When John Lennon and his girlfriend Cynthia found she was pregnant, Brian let them live there instead. That was kind of him, and most agree that he was frequently kind. But he was above all a man on a mission.
Why? What had he seen? What had he heard? As yet there was scant evidence of Lennon & McCartney’s songwriting genius. Once again, the possibilities were all inside of Brian Epstein’s head.
No need here to re-iterate the familiar Beatles story. Just a few glimpses are interesting, however. We know about the rejections he received from the London music industry. Trying to get his boys signed, he must have felt again the corrosive sense of failure that dogged his formative years. And then it all changed. I was filming an interview with Paul McCartney a while ago. After a few takes, he turned to me and in a picturesque phrase said, “We’ll get it right now. We’ll move majestically to the end, like the steam train bringing Mr Epstein into Lime Street Station to tell us we had a record deal.”
Epstein himself recalled that happy day in his autobiography. That book, A Cellarful Of Noise, was ghost-written by The Beatles’ brilliant Liverpudlian press officer Derek Taylor, who told the tale with an elegance befitting its suave subject. Still, both men realised there was an awful lot they could not make public in 1964. Having taken his boys for a celebratory Coca-Cola, with biscuits, at a Lime Street milk bar, Brian reports that he went on to a night club. Here, in his elation, he fell out with girlfriend Rita Harris, who felt jealous of Brian’s new obsession.
Rita certainly had grounds for suspicion. As neither man was ever known to speak of the matter openly, it’s impossible to know if Brian and John had a physical relationship during their brief holiday. (My own understanding, through a mutual friend of both, was that John “obliged” to a small and strictly practical extent, more from curiosity than inclination.) It’s clear that Brian was transfixed, at least on some conceptual level, by the idea of The Beatles. At their urging, and that of their new producer George Martin, he was lumped with the ugly task of sacking Pete Best. Yet, seeing their first photos with Ringo, he was enchanted by the visual harmony. It was obviously not a question of straightforward beauty, but of some elusive chemistry.
Having dodged the fists and boots of angry Pete Best supporters, Brian dedicated himself to the presentation of his band, just as he had done with NEMS’ window displays. Paul McCartney has often observed that Brian was not so much The Beatles’ manager as their director. He conceived of them as a visual and stage phenomenon – he wisely left all questions of music up to the boys – and nurtured their look. He took them to local tailors, including his own favourite Walter Smith, and gave them a crisp, modern image for the 1960s. The notion of Epstein “neutering” the group by forcing them out of leathers is erroneous. That greasy 1950s look was by now obsolete. And (see Abbey Road, for example) The Beatles favoured suits long after Brian was around to nag them.
A shrewd observer, both of the music business and the gay ciiques of Swinging London, is the rock manager Simon Napier-Bell. He believes The Beatles were, for Brian, less about money than the opportunity to dress up four life-sized dolls in his own desired image. Once in London he led them to showbiz parties and encouraged their artistic leanings. At the same time, Napier-Bell recalls being told by Epstein how he’d once stood at the back of an American Beatles concert, screaming wildly with all the girls. It was, said Brian, something he’d been dying to do for ages.
“One begins to feel like a goldfish,” wrote Brian (or Derek Taylor) of the Beatlemania years, “swimming round and round simply to help other people relax.” In addition to The Beatles he had taken on a whole raft of acts including Cilla Black and Gerry & The Pacemakers. The remainder, mostly “Merseybeat” groups, are not well remembered now, but they monopolised pop music for a few years, until The Beatles, the Stones and Dylan effected a revolution that changed the game. Cilla and Gerry survived by entering mainstream show business. The others sank into supper-club obscurity. Though remorseful, Brian could not really help them: he had taken on too much, too quickly.
It’s easily shown that Brian made some major mistakes. The Beatles’ first record contract was poor, if more or less standard for the times. He under-estimated the value of their song publishing and lost a colossal source of revenue from merchandising. He recognised all this, and blamed himself severely. And yet, we look at footage of Brian in New York, handling The Beatles’ historic debut visit, and he is quite astonishing. With the aplomb of a British aristocrat, with charm and intelligence, he glides right through the global mayhem with only a secretary to help. He’d never done more than run a provincial record shop. He made some quite judicious deals, too, such as the Ed Sullivan TV season. It’s incredible, now, how much was achieved through type-written letters and primitive phone systems, without a fax or an email in sight. I’ve covered smaller tours of the USA, in recent years, where a crew of 100 is considered a tight ship.
Epstein’s was now a world without signposts. Nobody had ever faced the sort of decisions he did, because The Beatles were re-inventing the very nature of things, on a scale unimagined. In his personal life he fashioned a hybrid style of traditional British taste, to which he had always aspired, and the multi-coloured anarchy of emergent psychedelia. He acquired a handsome townhouse in Belgravia, next to Buckingham Palace. The Evening Standard took a look and admired his “coloured manservant”. There were several impressive cars, which he tended to crash, and long nights at the gaming tables of Knightsbridge. He was Jewish and homosexual, and therefore a semi-outsider in Establishment terms. But the entertainment hierarchies of London and New York were themselves largely Jewish and not infrequently homosexual. In those respects Brian was, for the first time in his life, a real insider.
But it wasn’t enough. The strain of what turned out to be The Beatles’ final tour, in 1966, was nearly unbearable. Among its several nightmares was John’s “bigger than Jesus” furore and Brian, Jewish Brian, had to calm the situation as best he could. He was mostly alone, though his younger brother Clive became a valued colleague. His confidantes were NEMS men like Peter Brown and Geoffrey Ellis, refined Merseysiders who once accompanied him to the country pubs. Epstein was in no sense a “Scouser”, but just like The Beatles he kept a Praetorian Guard of Liverpudlians to surround him in London. Unlike The Beatles, who at least had one another, Brian was a solo act, as lost and lonely as Elvis Presley.
His isolation was unimproved by liaisons with predatory young men. Geoffrey Ellis noted a correlation between Brian’s reckless gambling at élite casinos and his unwise sexual dalliances – but also his daring commitment to The Beatles when they were thought a hopeless folly. And Peter Brown made the point that while observers are always thinking of an act’s last hit, the act themselves are worrying about the next one. Brian certainly worried, in ways that John and Paul did not. Perhaps they instinctively knew they had a Revolver or Hey Jude, as yet unborn, somewhere inside them. Brian could not know. To relieve the stress he made the mistake of using drugs to help him cope, then of using new drugs to cope with the old ones. Drugs were suddenly everywhere, and considered rather smart. It was 1967.
Just to be physically busy is often our best remedy. But The Beatles had stopped touring and there were no more appearances on Sunday Night At The London Palladium to fuss about. Instead they holed up in studios for months on end, creating Sgt. Pepper, and Brian was redundant. He plunged into a range of replacement activities, opening theatres, trying to manage tight-trousered young bullfighters, but his central purpose was disappearing. The Beatles certainly needed a business manager – perhaps now, more than ever – but they no longer needed a “director”, who would dress them up and teach them how to bow to the Queen.
The final few months were messy. Brian’s friend, the composer Lionel Bart, reported seeing him in The Kings Road without a tie. This was a new Brian indeed. He was growing his hair a little, while watching it begin to disappear. He attempted some colourful shirts and bell-bottomed trousers. There would be nothing remotely odd about it now, but in 1967 one was middle-aged at 32. Drugs became his crutch. There were, increasingly, evenings spent in limousines that whisked him over Putney Bridge, to a discreet facility called The Priory. There was at least one suicide attempt, with notes left. The Beatles’ lawyer, David Jacobs (not to be confused with the urbane BBC DJ) was a flamboyant man, who openly wore make-up. Through Jacobs, Brian was more and more drawn into some very exclusive sets.
Like the affluent Londoner he was becoming, he bought a country pile in Sussex. One weekend he planned a party and travelled down there with Peter Brown and Geoffrey Ellis, the last of his Liverpool entourage. Brian, upset when other guests cancelled, drove back alone to London. He was “looking for some action”, thinks Paul McCartney. Rumours persist of rent boys, blackmail and upper class cabals. But at 3 in the morning, on 27 August 1967, Epstein was discovered dead in his bedroom. The coroner’s verdict was of an accidental overdose. A faint doubt will probably always linger. But everyone who was close to Brian seems to agree that it was not suicide. Nor was it murder. It was just Brian getting sloppy.
Hearing the news, at a retreat in Wales with their new guru the Maharishi, The Beatles were shaken. John concluded, pithily, that the group was “fucked”. Paul, in later years, dated their decline from that point. They were now vulnerable to outsiders, notably the aggressive American lawyer Allen Klein. Artistically, they were still brilliant but unfocussed. Their immediate concern was a confused TV film, Magical Mystery Tour, though it’s doubtful that Brian could have talked them out of it. What he might have done, perhaps, is kept their business differences on a civilised level. But on the night he died, John and Paul had already met Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman, who would soon become their partners and preoccupations. Brian’s influence was waning daily.
A symbolic film of 1967 was Smashing Time, which took a sardonic look at Swinging London. Brian Epstein was among those smashed by that smashing time. Brian Jones, fashion designer Ossie Clarke, playwright Joe Orton, Marianne Faithfull and gallery owner Robert Fraser were others of the circle who were also smashed, most of them fatally. A 1970 Jagger film, Performance, captures the darker side of the 1960s’ comedown, and seems a thousand years later than 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night.
We don’t know what did for Brian, in the end, except that drugs and guilt and creepy company were playing havoc with his mental equilibrium. But the world lost a talented man, and was immediately the poorer for it. We define the Epstein story by The Beatles, but in fact he knew them for less than one-fifth of his life. Unlike us, he never heard Hey Jude, the White Album or Abbey Road.
Personally I remember the Epsteins’ old shop very well. The Everton and Liverpool football grounds were to either side, and nearby was the looming hulk of a derelict music hall. As a toddler I lived up the hill behind the shop and still wince when I pass, remembering how hard it was to climb. The building has gone now and today’s Liverpool bus has neither Latin mottos nor figures from classical mythology: instead, in multi-coloured nursery lettering, it says “Cumfybus”.
But the city centre NEMS, where I bought my first LPs, has not been demolished [UPDATE: it has now], though its last occupant was an Ann Summers sex shop. The aged Beehive pub, down the street, still serves lunch as it did for Mr Epstein. Much as I liked The Beatles, I only ever aped their manager, especially the polka-dot silk scarves that so enchanted Cilla Black. I have my own suits made by that same Walter Smith of Liverpool. And I would erect a statue in Brian’s honour, whether it’s by the Cavern Club or the Bonaparte (“good party”) Bar.
His brother Clive once offered a very decent epitaph: “Brian Epstein changed the world but didn’t do it any harm. Isn’t that reason enough to remember him?” Aptly for such a mysterious fellow, Brian’s own view of life may have been ventriloquised by Derek Taylor. But in the last chapter of the autobiography is a convincing balance of nervous tension and blind faith: “Tomorrow,” he frowns, “is the cardinal problem and it must be tightly under my control… Tomorrow? I think the sun will shine tomorrow.”