For as long as I can remember The Beatles have been a part of my life. My mother was a child of the 60s and 70s and when I was growing up this was the music she’d play for me and my sister. Chief among all the records, cassettes, and CDs played in our house was the music of The Beatles. I could devote entire articles to my favorite Beatles songs and what they mean to me as well as the history of the Fab Four themselves and never miss a beat. But like many people, the history or rather the story of one such member has never been fully revealed. We know about Pete Best’s break with the band, we know about George Martin’s brilliant instincts as a musical producer, but how many people really know, or paid attention to, Brian Epstein? Manager of The Beatles from 1961 until his death from an accidental overdose in 1967, Brian Epstein took an unknown and only mildly popular Liverpudlian band performing cover songs of black music and turned them into the artistic powerhouse of pop music and experimental rock we know today. It’s because of Brian Epstein that The Beatles are the standard instead of the exception. It’s because of Brian Epstein that The Beatles exceeded all expectations and took the world by storm. And it’s because of Vivek J. Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson, and Kyle Baker that Brian Epstein’s story can be told.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story is the mostly linear, slightly exaggerated, but predominantly emotional story of Brian Epstein. The manager of his family’s record store, North End Music Store (NEMS), in Liverpool, Brian is relatively well off but he’s, by all accounts, a stranger in a strange land. He’s Jewish in a time when Britain was very anti-Semitic, he’s a homosexual in a time when homosexuals were thrown in prison if they were caught, to say nothing of the violence and intolerance he received, and he’s a man with high cultural ambitions in a working class city. Only when his assistant, Moxie, takes him to the Cavern to see The Beatles perform does his life change. He sees in them something special, something that could change the world. He doesn’t just become their manager, he becomes their biggest fan, intent on making them, in his own words, “Bigger than Elvis!” in the eyes of the world. The toll this takes on him is enormous: anxiety, exhaustion, pills, and an abusive “relationship” left him feeling like a failure despite his success and unloved despite the supportive circle of friends and family. Brian Epstein was a flawed and tragic human being, but he was possessed of an overabundance of confidence and hope in the band he built from the ground up. He was instrumental to The Beatles’ rise yet he still remains a footnote in their history.
Tiwary, by his own admission, approaches Epstein’s story from a personal connection to The Beatles and Epstein himself. A first generation Indian-American in the film, media, and comic book industry, Tiwary found a kindred spirit in Epstein and approached his story from the perspective of the perpetual outsider. No matter what Brian does, he always feels as if he’s alone. The pressures he puts on himself to succeed and ensure that The Beatles succeed, as well as the continued trappings of his personal life, lead him to seek refuge in pills. But Tiwary also shows exactly how essential Brian was to propelling The Beatles into stardom. His hard work, his business savvy, and the risks he took at his own expense paid off in the long run. Everything we know about the early Beatles, what made the youth of Britain and America fall in love with them, comes from Epstein’s management of, as John Lennon says in the book, not just their gigs, but their digs as well. From their uniform clothing and haircuts to the emphasis on their Liverpudlian roots and humor, Epstein cultivated them into a package, but unlike Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker, who we see through Epstein’s eyes as a devilish figure of greed and gluttony, Epstein wanted what was best for his boys. He fought for them every step of the way and the continued references to the real and symbolic nature of bullfighting and matadors give credence to that fact.
Framing the story within the changing times of the 1960s also gives Tiwary and artists Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker an artistic avenue with which to get inside Epstein’s head without the hallucinatory or non-linear elements feeling out of place. Robinson is the predominant artistic presence and his illustrations are gorgeous. While this is Epstein’s story, it’s also the story of The Beatles and Robinson depicts the energetic pull of the band so beautifully that you can almost hear their music jumping off the page. When Brian sees and hears them we share in his experience. He also brings out the absurdity of Epstein’s position within the world of music and media. I mentioned the scene with Colonel Parker, but Epstein’s negotiations with Ed Sullivan to have The Beatles headline three shows with reduced pay is a thing of surreal beauty. Sullivan refers to The Beatles as a “novelty act” so Tiwary and Robinson choose to depict this discussion by way of Sullivan using a ventriloquist dummy. True or not, it’s a symbolic and dramatically ironic way of looking at the world from Epstein’s perspective. Robinson seems to understand Epstein’s struggles just as much as Tiwary, which affords him the ability to depict his pain and hope simultaneously without either emotion overshadowing the other. It’s fitting, then, that the book opens and closes on both notes. Kyle Baker’s solo work showing The Beatles’ tour of the Philippines and their actual harrowing experience is reminiscent of a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon with Brian desperately trying to fend off the bull that is Imelda Marcos and the Philippine regime. Though the style looks out of place, it actually works within the context of the story as Brian’s psyche takes on different forms.
Final Thoughts: If you’re a fan of The Beatles, then this is a definite read. It’s a story that needed to be told and thankfully Tiwary, Robinson, and Baker were the ones to do it. There’s also a movie on the way based on the book, so look for that in the future!