Brian Epstein was The Beatles’ manager. The Beatles are considered the greatest band in rock and roll. That makes Brian Epstein the greatest manager in rock and roll. Right up there with Colonel Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager or I guess the guy who manages Miley Cyrus and used to manage Britney. Epstein saw raw talent in a smoky club, covered the rough edges in Pierre Cardin suits and sold it to the world.
Brian Epstein is not an unsung hero, the Lennon-McCartney song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is as much about Brian Epstein as it is about John Lennon. The early sixties wasn’t a happy time to be gay and Brian spent his life in the closet. Coming out was a felony in England at the time. Epstein died in 1967. Right after The Beatles released what was the pinnacle of their artistic heights Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and right before the band slipped off to India for two months of meditation and relaxation. When Epstein died, Lennon predicted that The Beatles “fucking had it.” They didn’t, of course, but Epstein is in danger of becoming a mere footnote in the history of pop music.
Dark Horse Comics’ The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story can change all that. The team of Vivek J. Tiwari’s words, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker’s artwork, and Steve Dutro’s lettering put together a loving look at a flawed and complicated man. Brian was a mess by the end, anyone who read Beatle biographies knows, but they’d never have made it out of North Britain without him. The comic opens with a few quotes before launching into Epstein’s story, the first is from John Lennon: “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. [When Brian died] I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.’”
Brian Epstein didn’t just manage the Beatles, he had a stable of artists like Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and The Dakotas, whose Billy J. Kramer writes in the intro “I am baffled by the fact that Brian Epstein has not been posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Non-Performer category. His name should be up in lights.”
Andrew Loog Oldham was the Brian Epstein of the Rolling Stones, he started out as an assistant in NEMS (North End Music Stores), Epstein’s company. Oldham also contributed to the introduction, reminding us that “we were not there when an A&R man, after turning down the band, chased Brian out onto the street and told him that for a hundred quid he could knock The Beatles into shape for another audition. The humiliation, the pain. Brian already had at least two social marks against him—he was jewish and gay. Christ, you know it ain’t easy. Dusty Springfield was Catholic and gay but she was able to sing her way through it. Brian had to stand in the wings and watch his lads twist and shout.”
The comic novel is as artistic and beautiful as the streets of Liverpool the young Brian prowls at night. The opening alternates between “rough trade” gay pickups and The Beatles on a small sweaty stage all in leather. All that leather and no bloody nose for his troubles. Brian is all stuffed shirt and buttoned down hair at work, where he exudes ennui on the store floor for his father. His dull drollery is shattered by shop talk about a new local band’s album that’s not in the record bin. The record is by The Beat Brothers, but the band is The Beatles and they’re playing locally at a local club called The Cavern and Epstein sees them and is smitten. Hires a personal assistant. Calls his record people. Sets up a meeting with the band.
He promises the Beatles the moon and the stars and an Aston Martin, if he can remake them. Vivek J. Tiwari captures the musicians’ humor through countless shared recollections. Brian really thinks he can make them international stars and live out his dream of being a dressmaker. He’d washed out as a fashion designer and was kinky booted out of the army for being mistaken for an officer. It’s enough to drive you to Mother’s Little Helpers, which ultimately Brian swallows by the handful.
Brian buys the Beatles’ way onto the charts and lectures Lennon that he’s got to get married, even if Beatles shouldn’t marry, because, you know, they’re good lads, decent types. Anyway, they can’t risk bad press so early in their careers, “Please Please Me” had just reached number 9. Number 9? Number 9. Well, turn me on deadman, it’s gonna hit the toppermost of the poppermost. Fifth Beatle buries song references like so many cranberries. That’s an in-joke. Everything is an in-joke in this book and that makes it more fun for the non-casual Beatle aficionado.
The rumored affair between Epstein and John Lennon is left to the imagination. Lennon is drawn with a come-hither look, but the panel ends with him proclaiming his hetero creds. The Beatles conquer America as a mourning cure after the JFK assassination. Brian also finds America, or New York anyway, to be more accepting of those homosexual proclivities that his doctor thinks pills can curb. In New York, Brian can have his cake “and eat (him) too.”
The Fifth Beatle leaves Pete Best entirely out of the pictures. Ringo just kind of walks in as the ultimate working class Liverpudlian and the band stutters forward and pulls with it rest of Epstein’s cellarful of boys, like the aforementioned Billy J. Kramer and Gerry with or without his pacemaker. I got a little spooked by Fifth Beatles’ “Then we submit, defenseless before your strategiconfidence” repetitions, but – hey it’s a comic novel. Between that and the spooky ventriloquist doll at the Ed Sullivan Show negotiations, I half-expected it to turn into a horror comic. But then it turned real horror into a 60s Beatles cartoon.
It’s not just for Beatle fans. Fans of music history will also like the skewered take on Col. Parker. The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story is funny and sad, poignant and playful, and fun.