Brian Epstein: The Beatles' Real 'Nowhere Man' - An Appreciation

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Forty-five years ago this Monday, a tragic event occurred that would lead directly to the demise of the greatest pop music-culture phenomenon the modern world has ever known.

Brian Epstein, the man who discovered and managed the Beatles, the most influential rock group in history and one of the dominant pop culture entities of the 20th century, died of an apparent drug overdose at his elegant townhouse in Belgravia, London.

He was only 32 years old.

While Epstein had no musical talent of his own, nor did he any impart any influence on the Beatles' music, it is safe to assume that if he had not strolled into the dingy, dank Cavern Club in Liverpool one day in November 1961, the Beatles would have never been unveiled to the outside world and society as we know it today might be quite different.

Thus, it is not unreasonable to declare that Epstein was one of the key global figures of the post-World War II era.

Like his four famous protégés, Epstein himself was a fascinating, complex (but ultimately tragic) figure. He was a deeply troubled and insecure man who all of his life fought demons that ultimately crushed him.

Despite his comfortable upbringing, good looks and high intelligence, Epstein had two big strikes against him. First, he was Jewish (the descendant of immigrants from Russia) in a society rife with anti-Semitism. Although Jews in Britain did not face the kind of prejudice and violence they encountered in continental Europe, particularly France, anti-Semitism frequently reared its ugly head in the north of England -- and heavily Irish Catholic Liverpool was no exception.

Worse for Epstein, he was homosexual -- a criminal offense in England until September 1967 (just one month after his death).

As a lonely, sensitive and spoiled adolescent, Epstein longed to escape the dull, dowdy, decaying town of Liverpool to make his mark in the arts and theater in glamorous London. However, his enrollment in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts ended in failure and disappointment.

In 1957, while in London, he suffered the humiliation of an arrest for “importuning” (soliciting anonymous men for sex in public bathrooms). Though he avoided prison, he remained traumatized by the ordeal.

The military had also determined him physically and psychiatrically “unfit” to serve -- most likely due to his homosexuality.

Depressed by his failure to establish any kind of career in London, Epstein reluctantly returned to Liverpool to work at his family's furniture store and (most notably) their record and musical instrument store, North End Music Stores, or NEMS.

Epstein became a great success at running these establishments, using his theatrical gifts for presentation to his advantage. But bored and restless with life in provincial Liverpool, he ultimately found the answer to his hopes of making it big.

How exactly Epstein became of the aware of the Beatles has never been made clear. While the group was the hottest act in Liverpool by 1960, Epstein (who was at least six years older than any of the Beatles) lived in a different socio-economic and cultural sphere. He favored the finer arts like opera, theater and chamber music, not the simple, raucous rock 'n' roll that was sweeping across Britain at the time.

Legend has it that a Liverpool lad named Raymond Jones strolled into Epstein's NEMS store and asked for a record -- 'My Bonnie' by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers -- that he did not have in stock. Puzzled by this unexpected oversight, Epstein then tracked down the record and the artists behind it.

However, this tale is probably apocryphal, since, among other things, as a prominent shopkeeper in Liverpool, Epstein must have been tangentially aware of the Beatles. In addition, this Raymond Jones fellow has never stepped forward to claim his place in history.

What cannot be questioned is what happened next. Epstein strolled into the Cavern Club (a gloomy, sweaty, claustrophobic venue) and became instantly charmed and infatuated by what he saw on stage.

The young, pre-celebrity Beatles circa 1960 presented a vastly different image from their later, much more famous countenance. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best (later to be replaced by Ringo Starr), were rough-hewn, foul-mouthed, young "Teddy Boy" wanna-be thugs who smoked and drank on stage and chattered and joked with each other and the crowd (particularly, the young ladies). They also played fabulous, hard-driving rock 'n' roll -- quite an accomplished group after nearly two years of practicing their craft in the crucible of Hamburg, Germany's dangerous waterfront clubs.

Beatles’ biographers have speculated (not always convincingly) that what attracted Epstein to the group was not so much their music (since he had no interest in contemporary pop/rock), but rather to their physical beauty, masculinity and raw sexuality.

Epstein reportedly became instantly smitten with John Lennon -- an infatuation that would last till the end of his life.

Many of the top music managers in Britain at the time were indeed gay, including the notorious London impresario Larry Parnes, who combed clubs to find good-looking young men he could mold into pop stars with absurd, contrived names like Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride and Lance Fortune.

What may lend some credence to the hypothesis that Epstein wanted to sign the Beatles because of his sexual attraction to the boys was that, as a gay man, he favored “rough trade” -- that is, the prosperous and elegant Epstein liked to solicit tough, young, handsome, working-class men for sex -- truck drivers, soldiers, bartenders, dock-workers.

Epstein's predilection was extremely dangerous, to say the least, and frequently placed him at risk of arrest, violence and blackmail. As he grew wealthier and famous, Epstein's sexual proclivities would repeatedly endanger his life and livelihood.

The union of Epstein and the Beatles was puzzling in some other respects. For one thing, Epstein had no experience managing entertainers, nor did he have any contacts in the music industry.

But the Beatles were desperate for someone to help them with their careers -- they were the kings of Liverpool, yes, but they were stuck in the UK's Merseyside county.

In essence, Epstein and the group needed one another -- his eloquence, fine upper-class manners and wealth obviously impressed the Beatles (all of whom grew up in modest or working-class environments).

For Epstein, the Beatles offered a long-shot chance for fame and fortune, a quick exit out of Liverpool and an escape from his dull, humdrum repressed existence.

Of course, everyone knows what happened next. After cleaning up the Beatles' on-stage demeanor by putting them in suits and forbidding them to smoke, drink and eat while performing (much to Lennon's consternation and McCartney's approval), Epstein landed them an audition with Parlophone, a label under EMI, which led to the much-coveted recording contract.

Epstein also proved his managerial abilities by taking on the unpleasant task of firing Pete Best in favor of Starr (something the other Beatles dreaded doing themselves).

By the end of 1963, the Beatles were the hottest act in Britain, and, in the following year, they would become the most famous four people on the planet.

While he didn’t single-handedly invent rock management/promotion, Epstein clearly took the profession to hitherto unknown peaks, what with huge stadium concerts, global tours and publicizing his clients’ personalities, as well as their music.

Over the next three years, as the Beatles' fame and public adulation escalated to unprecedented heights, Epstein, not even 30, attained a level of affluence and power he could not possibly have ever dreamed of.

However, riches and celebrity failed to salve Epstein's fragile psyche.

Rather than enjoying his immense wealth and celebrity, Epstein sank deeper into substance abuse, a gambling addiction and depression. He also engaged in high-risk sexual activities with violent young hustlers that repeatedly threatened to destroy his life, as well as the Beatles' reputation.

By the summer of 1967, just after the release of the monumental “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club” album, Brian found himself in the direst of straits. With the group having given up touring the year before, Brian had much less to do in terms of managing the Beatles’ career.

Not only had his addiction to drugs, pills and alcohol reached epic proportions, but he lived in fear that the Beatles would choose not to extend his management contract, thereby severing Epstein from the only thing he truly loved and cared about.

In the intervening years, the Beatles (especially McCartney) realized Epstein was a poor businessman who had been exploited and taken advantage of by far shrewder sharks. For example, Epstein foolishly signed away merchandising and licensing deals to American businessmen for a pittance, thereby missing out on tens of millions (perhaps hundreds of millions) of dollars for his clients.

Epstein was also partially responsible for having lost control of the lucrative Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership royalties to impresario Dick James (who later sold them for a king’s ransom to Sir Lew Grade behind the Beatles’ backs).

Indeed, due largely to Epstein's lack of financial acumen, the Beatles were actually vastly underpaid relative to the revenues they generated around the world.

Firing Epstein was certainly a possibility, after years of such mismanagement.

On a personal basis, Epstein frequently suffered abuse and insults from his charges, especially from Lennon, who repeatedly made anti-Semitic and homophobic insults that deeply hurt and humiliated him. (Lennon may have been particularly aggrieved by "gay rumors" that arose in the wake of a mysterious 1963 holiday in Spain that he and his manager took by themselves).

Epstein's bizarre "magical mystery tour" life came to an end on Aug. 27, 1967, (as the Beatles were attending a lecture by their new mentor, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in Wales) when he was found dead in his London home.

The death itself remains a mystery -- did he simply die from a drug overdose? Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered?

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his sudden and shocking demise, the Beatles were gravely impacted. Lennon himself later told Rolling Stone magazine that Epstein's death spelled doom for the Beatles.

“After Brian died, we collapsed,” Lennon said in 1970.

“Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.”

Indeed, the group would only last for another two years in the wake of Epstein's passing. Amid the grief, McCartney took control of the group and drove them to even greater musical milestones (including the "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" singles and the immortal "White Album" and "Abbey Road" LPs).

But the rot had already set in. Lennon ensnared in his own devastating drug addiction, and, bored with his unhappy marriage with Cynthia, relinquished his leadership in the group to McCartney. His subsequent relationship and marriage to Yoko Ono further alienated him from his fan base and fellow Beatles.

One can only speculate how history might have been altered if Epstein had lived. Clearly, the band's breakup in 1970 would have devastated him (assuming his many vices hadn’t consumed him already).

In the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, Lennon discussed Epstein at length and revealed his complicated view of the man: “Brian was a not a good businessman,” Lennon said.

“He had a flair for presenting things; he was more theatrical than business. He was hyped a lot. He was advised by a gang of crooks, really. That’s what went on, and the battle is still going on for the Beatles rights.”

Epstein's legacy, of course, remains simply the Beatles, whose music continues to sell in the millions more than 40 years after their demise.

And none of it would have ever happened without him.

Ironically, it was McCartney (not the greatest admirer of Epstein) who once declared to the BBC: "If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian."

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