REVIEWS

The Fifth Beatle

Cover BEATLEWhen Hunter Davies’ biography of the Beatles was nearing publication in 1968, its author had almost forgotten to clear the manuscript with the mother of Brian Epstein, the man who shepherded the Liverpool, England “guitar group” to interstellar wealth and popularity. Beatles manager Epstein put together the original contract that solidified Davies as band’s authorized biographer, and as Brian had died of an accidental drug overdose by then, Davies was obligated to show his draft to Mrs. Queenie Epstein. She objected to any mention of her son’s homosexuality in the book. Outside of a stray appearance of the then-ambiguous phrase “gay bachelor,” the biographer had to edit as directed.

“With Brian,” wrote Davies in his introduction to the expanded 1985 edition of The Beatles, “I think (Epstein’s sex life) did matter, and it was a vital clue to his personality, to his death, and also to the birth of his interest in the Beatles.” The United Kingdom was a bigoted, repressive, and dangerous environment for a homosexual back then; Epstein closely guarded his orientation. Even as The Fifth Beatle graphic novel is far from exhaustive, theatre producer Vivek J. Tiwary handles Brian’s secret with great care, tracing his under-reported ascension from managing the music department of his old man’s furniture store to the role that would dramatically alter every corner of his life.

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Brian Epstein glides about in artist Andrew C. Robinson’s era-appropriate composite of cinematic framing and psychedelic overtones, clad in conservative blue or brown pinstripe suits. Each panel’s impossible Valley of the Dolls-like gloss — occasionally dressed in an effect that reproduces a color camera filter — owes to Robinson’s paint-first, digital studio-second methodology. He sets Northern England in a striking rain-blanketed swirl of blues, mossy green, and unfriendly damp alleyways, and The Fifth Beatle’s first few pages unfurl near the River Mersey, where an early Beatles gig is cross-cut with a harrowing encounter along the Liverpool South Docks. Epstein approaches a young seaman under the misconception he’d been flirted with and is “beaten…badly,” as recounted in the novel. Robinson’s whirlwind of punches and sharp kicks comes to a head with Epstein limping away, bleeding all over a discarded issue of Mersey Beat. It mirrors closely his perilous late-night stop-offs in the early 1960s, and Epstein’s romantic entanglements in Tiwary’s script prove just as tragic. “(Brian) cruised in some terrible places,” Beatles affiliate Terry Doran told The Washington Post‘s Glenn Frankel in 2007. “[…] He was a glutton for punishment, really.” Epstein exhausted himself, too — Robinson’s widescreen depictions of tumbling pills in The Fifth Beatle follow exchanges with doctors who scribble prescriptions for fatigue as well as for his “intimate inclinations.”

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Not far from the menacing docks meet-ups, Epstein first experiences the Beatles at the Cavern Club (“…black as a deep grave, dank and damp and smelly,” reported Brian and ghostwriter Derek Taylor in Epstein’s autobiography A Cellarful of Noise). Robinson fits the then-unpolished, slender four-piece with slick black leather jackets and tousled long hair. The Beatles were a scrappy local band in 1961, and between drinking, smoking, and eating lunch onstage, they stormed through Little Richard and Buddy Holly covers for meager pay. Bored with his father’s store, Brian quickly secured a business relationship with the lads, shaping everything from merchandise and tour contracts (which he often bungled) to manners and haircuts. Helming the act’s business, promotion, and media affairs was a daunting, time-swallowing task for The Fifth Beatle‘s fastidiously attired Englishman, but Tiwary’s subject is driven and ambitious. “I think with my help these boys could be stars,” he says after the rowdy early show. The renderings of the initial Epstein-Beatles interactions are vibrant and funny, with Robinson locking down the small things like the familiar angular crest of John Lennon’s nose. While the plotting here recreates exactly the volley of banter we love in A Hard Day’s Night, it seems that getting the larger picture into The Fifth Beatle was a bit more difficult.

At a slim 130 pages (introspective back matter aside), Epstein’s launch of his Liverpool act gets a rush job in Vivek Tiwary’s final draft. Firing then-drummer Pete Best and replacing him with Ringo Starr was left to the uncomfortable new manager, for example, and it doesn’t make it into the book. The move yielded physical attacks from Best’s rabid fan base, and George Harrison earned a black eye. Later, The Fifth Beatle’s presentation of the band’s 1966 Philippines trip is handled curiously, too. It culminated in a return to the States only to find Beatles records being publicly burned due to John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” remark. But the episode moves at a breakneck pace here, and collaborating artist Kyle Baker resurrects the era’s Saturday morning cartoon Fabs to speedily tell the tale. The Manila visit actually turned frightening (and a bit violent) when Epstein unintentionally snubbed first lady Imelda Marcos by declining a breakfast invitation on behalf of his clients, so the choice to lighten it with Baker’s albeit lively pen work and florid pastels is a puzzling one. And while Tiwary’s work emphasizes the string of tender relationships that Epstein fostered during his adult life, the death of Brian’s father – just weeks before Epstein passed – didn’t make it through The Fifth Beatle’s editing stage either.

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Harry Epstein died while anxiety and severe loneliness was wearing his son into the ground. Brian was cycling through anti-depressants and sedatives for insomnia while he tended to his grieving mother. “Drugs became his crutch,” writes Beatles historian Paul Du Noyer of the younger Epstein’s struggles in 1967. When Beatles touring was halted late in the year previous, a shift toward studio experimentation and away from humming day calendars effectively condensed their manager’s role and their communication with him. Unlikely as it seems, Epstein had become unraveled by loneliness. The dark days that followed would produce temper tantrums, suicide attempts, and deep-seated feelings of abandonment. There, at the flowering center of post-Beatlemania, the fifth Beatle was an outsider. This graphic telling doesn’t much delve into the period, opting for a weightless, intangible treatment that involves ambling conversations and strange visits with a bed-stricken Brian. It’s a whitewashing that’s ultimately preferable to the truth: A police report detailing the recovery of 17 pill bottles in Brian’s home and a probe that attributed his accidental death to a toxic brew of anti-depressants, barbiturates, and sleeping pills. When his housekeeper found him dead in August of 1967, Brian Epstein was 32.

“I think Brian’s one of the forgotten people,” Lennon’s first wife Cynthia told the The Washington Post‘s Frankel. “It’s almost as if he’s been written out of the story. I don’t think they’d have got anywhere without Brian.”

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6 Responses to The Fifth Beatle

  1. Art Walker says:

    The Beatles were successful in spite of Brian, not because of him.
    Sir George Martin was the true Fifth Beatle.

  2. R. Haining says:

    To debate who, if anyone, most deserves the title of the Fifth Beatle is pointless. However, I must take issue with the assertion that, “The Beatles were successful in spite of Brian, not because of him.” Whatever his conscious or subconscious motivations, Brian Epstein saw the potential of the Beatles long before anyone else did and he invested time and effort in them when there was little chance of success. Without Brian Epstein’s faith in them, I doubt if they would have wound up in the recording studio with George Martin.

    If, in his efforts to make the Beatles popular, Brian Epstein sanitized them too much is subject to debate. However, I would say he imposed a discipline on them without which they would not have achieved their success. Keep in mind that the first project they really worked on after Brian’s death was the Magical Mystery Tour television special which was a critical failure. This was followed by Apple, which was subject to a series of problems that have been well chronicled. I don’t think Brian Epstein had complete control over the Beatles, but I do believe they respected him in matters outside of the recording studio enough that his input may have been enough to prevent or lessen the effect of some of their excesses.

    Of course George Martin had the most direct impact on the lasting part of the Beatles legacy: their music.
    But Brian Epstein played a role in making that legacy possible. And his contribution should be acknowledged.

  3. Thanks so much for this article, Dominic! It’s refreshing to have my book reviewed by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. With that in mind, I thought you’d appreciate a few updates and notes:

    First of all, your comments about Pete Best’s firing and Harry Epstein’s passing are spot-on! I wanted the book to be “slim” as you pointed out, and editing was a daunting task. But we’re also shooting a “Fifth Beatle” feature film next year (produced by Bruce Cohen who also produced “Milk”, “American Beauty”, etc) that will complement the book moreso than adapt it. In other words, there’s a lot of sequences in the film that aren’t in the book (and vice-versa). I’ve penned the screenplay myself—and Pete Best and Harry Epstein get their due there, where we delve deep into how they impacted Brian’s life, much as you suggest.

    Second—I wanted to touch on Brian’s passing a bit more. You mention “the truth: a police report detailing the recovery of 17 pill bottles in Brian’s home and a probe that attributed his accidental death to a toxic brew of anti-depressants, barbiturates, and sleeping pills.” I’d read that supposed fact as well, and it never quite sat right with me. It never gelled with the portrait of Brian that I was slowly uncovering over the course of my research (I’ve been researching the Brian Epstein story for 21 years). So I delved deep on this point—and I can report with certainty that that supposed “truth” is really a piece of sensational misinformation. I’ve had lengthy conversations with the woman who was there when they broke down the door to find Brian dead in his bedroom, the woman who was there when the police searched the room for signs of foul play. I’ve read the actual coroners’ report. And I’ve spoken to one of the people who actually performed Brian’s autopsy. The truth is that Brian died of a gradual overdose of 3 prescription pills. “Gradual overdose” means that he had been taking too many of these 3 pills over the course of several months, slowing and unwittingly poisoning himself—as opposed to having one fatal night of a 17-pill toxic mix and binge. It’s a less dramatic truth—though just as tragic.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful and thought-provoking review!

    Vivek J. Tiwary (writer, “The Fifth Beatle”)

  4. Charlie In The Box says:

    Why does Epstein look completely WASPed in these illustrations?

    Brian Epstein had dark eyes – this character’s eyes are blue – and Epstein had a notorious rounded Semitic nose – this guy looks like he had a nose job.

    Epstein’s Jewishness, and the tight-assed British world’s reaction to it as well as his closeted homosexuality, played a big part in his emotional makeup.

    Sorry – fail.

  5. from one who knows says:

    “Charlie In The Box” — Honey, Brian’s eyes were a medium green, sometimes looked blue depending on the light. Don’t put in your 2-cents-worth if you’re in debt of personal knowledge.

    Also, his nose was not “notorious rounded Semitic.” If you actually look at his face (as I have for the past 50+ years) you will realize it appears more of a Rudolph Valentino variety.

    It’s not nice to apply rigid stereotypes to the Jewish people. Or any people, for that matter.
    Shame on you.

  6. I’ve been listening to the making of St Pepper, and it was really interesting.

    What great music they made………so sad these two boys have passed…

    eddy

    http://www.youtube.com/onlinelondon

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