Published in Xtra! West on August 21, 1997
By Daniel Gawthrop
He was a brilliant over-achiever whose creative vision and marketing savvy turned a Liverpool guitar band into the world’s biggest pop cultural phenomenon of the 1960s.
He was a conflicted homosexual who never found a long-term lover and whose autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise, was once cheekily referred to by John Lennon as A Cellarful of Boys.
He was a relentless control queen and pill popping workaholic whose frequent depressions and temper tantrums confounded friends and colleagues until he finally flamed out for good.
For all this dramatic material, it’s hard to believe that no movie has ever been made about the life and legacy of Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager and guiding light from 1961 to 1967. This is a shame, since Epstein—who died 30 years ago this month from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills— was one of the most intriguing figures in the “British Invasion” that redefined pop music. This is partly because his discovery of the Beatles—and decision to manage them, despite having no experience in music promotion—was motivated as much by sexual attraction as any honest assessment of musical talent.
In the fall of 1961, the Beatles were playing to enthusiastic crowds at the Cavern, a popular basement club not far from the family furniture store where Epstein, the middle class son of a Jewish businessman, ran the record department. He’d read of the group’s progress in Mersey Beat magazine but didn’t bother to attend a performance until a pimply-faced youth asked him for a copy of “My Bonnie”. When he finally saw the Beatles, the 27-year-old conservative homosexual was struck by the sight of four brash young men wearing leather.
To Epstein, the Beatles were the embodiment of youthful male exuberance and cocky bravado, nicely packaged with tuneful harmonies and catchy, two-chord rhythms. They were a band with still raw talent, recently returned from Hamburg, a permissive German city whose all night jam sessions and available women had expanded both their musical and sexual horizons.
Then Epstein got the group a recording contract with EMI when no one else wanted them. He set up a tour and promotion schedule throughout Britain and Europe to coincide with each record release—thus building momentum for both ticket and record sales, prompting the famous term “Beatlemania”. Epstein booked live appearances on the BBC and a concert before the Royal Family. He travelled to the US and chose the song (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) that would guarantee them a Number One hit on the Billboard charts—which would guarantee an appearance on the widely broadcast Ed Sullivan Show.
Once they conquered America, he brokered movie deals, TV shows and product licensing agreements. He established a worldwide touring precedent that culminated with the Shea Stadium concert—at 55,000, then the largest rock audience ever. He achieved so much that it seemed almost a snub when Queen Elizabeth failed to include Epstein as a Member of the British Empire (MBE) when the Beatles were awarded that honour in 1965.
This is why a movie about Epstein in the late 1990s would be so compelling: He achieved all these things in the pressure cooker of 1960s Britain where, despite all the talk of “peace and love” in swinging London, gay men could be jailed for as little as a nod and a wink.
It was easy for working class radicals like the playwright Joe Orton to dismiss him as a self loathing, “thoroughly weak flaccid type.” But Epstein—the most influential promoter of his time—had far more to lose than the relatively unknown Orton. The slightest indiscretion could have landed him in jail, destroying his life and career and tarnishing the Beatles’ squeaky-clean image in the process.
The Beatles understood this. They knew their manager was queer but kept their distance while a procession of vacuous pretty boys and fly-by-night hustlers tried to rip him off. (Opening Epstein’s front door one night to a stranger, John Lennon quipped: “Have you come to blackmail him? If not, you’re the only bugger in London who hasn’t.”)
Lennon’s tender, conflicted relationship with Epstein has been the source of much speculation over the years. The smart Beatle’s acid wit could be hurtful at times (his song “Baby You’re a Rich Man, Too”, he once called Baby You’re a Rich Fag Jew when Epstein walked by) and Lennon’s affection for his manager was tempered by fears that he himself could be perceived as gay.
Following the two men’s trip to Barcelona in the spring of 1963 (fictionalized in a sympathetic 1991 film, The Hours and Times), Lennon’s buddies couldn’t stop needling him about it. At Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday a few weeks later, he finally snapped, beating up the Cavern’s DJ, Bob Wooler, in an assault so brutal that Wooler had to be hospitalized. “He called me a bloody queer so I bashed his ribs in,” Lennon said at the time.
Internalized homophobia? No doubt. But it is interesting to note that Lennon named Epstein godfather to his son Julian, spent a great deal of time at Epstein’s apartment, and reduced his manager to tears by sending him flowers and a get well card (“You know I love you and I really mean it, love John”) while Epstein was recovering from exhaustion in the spring of 1967.
By mid-August, Epstein’s intake of sleeping pills had built up his resistance to their effects. On August 27, he swallowed enough capsules of Carbrital—nine according to the autopsy —to poison his blood stream.
His shocking death—one month shy of his 33rd birthday—was noted on the front page of the London Times. But it seemed to have no emotional impact on the Beatles. Returning from a weekend of meditation with the Maharishi, they responded with Hindu platitudes about Epstein’s living “spirit”. Soon they were on to other things, all but forgetting the man who’d made them superstars. Even now, writes biographer Ray Coleman, “the [remaining] Beatles hardly ever mention Epstein’s name …. As individuals and as a group, they have given scant recognition to the man who devoted six years of his life to their careers, their creative freedom and their personal happiness.”
Perhaps on August 27, 1997, Sir Paul McCartney will formally devote his MBE to Brian Epstein’s memory. But don’t bet on it.
Daniel Gawthrop entered nursery school the week after Brian Epstein’s death. Further reading: Ray Coleman’s Brian Epstein: The Man Who Made the Beatles (Penguin, 1990).