In which I celebrate an essential queer Virgo
Guys, gals, and nonbinary pals. May I introduce to you the one, the only, the Julius Caesar of his era—Brian Epstein.
I’d originally planned this post for September because his birthday is the day before mine. After all, it’s high time the rest of you accepted that Virgo is simply the superior sign. But then I decided Pride Month would be an equally, if not more, appropriate time.
Amazingly already the *third* Brian I have lauded on the blog (see here and here), this one discovered the Beatles and, from the sum of their parts, created the Fab Four. In managing them from 1962-7, he fashioned the impossibly clean-cut look that launched them to stardom, fooling the world into thinking they were respectable. He made them.
He was Jewish and gay, the latter illegal in the UK until the year he died, the former none too popular with Liverpool’s Irish-Catholic-transplant-descendant community. Although his story is melancholy, it also gives the impression of a shrewd and dedicated person who found a way to make an incredible impact on the world.
A Liverpool native, he grew up under the weight of the expectation that he would go to work for his family’s furniture shop; they were pretty well off because of it, and did not belong to the working class of the city’s most famous sons. By the time he was sixteen he wanted to study fashion and join the industry, but his father would have none of it. So he reluctantly fulfilled that expectation. Eventually the family branched out into music, and Brian’s management of their NEMS record shop made it a regionally popular establishment. It brought him into contact with another local, Peter Brown, who would be part of the Beatles’ circle for a long time. It also gave him the idea to go into business managing pop groups.
He encountered the band playing the Cavern Club in late 1961, jeans-and-leather-jacket-clad. Their stint in Hamburg had cemented a performance philosophy of being as outrageous and noisy as possible, but he saw promise. As an article from the London Review of Books notes in its coverage of three (!!!) new Beatles histories, Brian knew what it was like to live a coded life, and he knew his scrappy charges would have to learn to live one as well if they hoped for major success. To that end, he created the dress code that not only matched the pristine harmonies of their new self-written songs—and maybe smoothed over the rougher edges of their personalities—but influenced the entire roster of acts who constituted the British Invasion. It wouldn’t take long for his instincts to prove visionary.
His sexuality was an open secret among his friends. He kept different apartments, one of which he lent to John and Cynthia Lennon (at whose wedding he had served as best man) during her pregnancy. The band, and the tight-knit group forming around them, were very protective of Brian. They ribbed him affectionately about his lifestyle—John maybe a little more bitingly, which must surprise exactly no one—but homophobia was not tolerated, and any hanger-on who made a joke that could even be remotely cast in that light was promptly dismissed. Brian and John notoriously took a holiday to Barcelona in 1963, about which rumors of an affair continue to swirl. And while I could totally understand that happening, I think it’s more likely a suggestion blown out of proportion.
For obvious reasons, though, he hid his queerness from the public; it didn’t surface until quite a few years posthumously. He died in August 1967, aged thirty-two, from an overdose of barbiturates (a dangerously easy substance to abuse at the time, from all I’ve read) combined with alcohol. The title of this post comes from the Daily Mirror headline announcing his death. There is a lot of speculation that, in addition to other stressors on his life, he was troubled that the band whose live act he had helped create had dispensed with that live act, leaving him with no discernible purpose. His death affected them deeply, the emotional trauma compounding the other stressors that would plague them in the last portion of their joint career, as well as driving them to make some questionable financial decisions. They felt they had lost the glue that held them together, and in a way, they had.
I consider him as inspirational as ever. He lit on a good venue for his talents and made a difference—if not the one he’d dreamed of making in his youth, then certainly one that will ensure he is never forgotten. He was afforded certain opportunities that many LGBTQ+ people of that generation were denied, and he did not waste them. He was allowed to be more than a label, and he refused to let labels define him.
What I understand and try to emphasize more and more as I get older and my relationship to the Beatles deepens is this: Yes, the members themselves were extraordinary. But their place at the top of the pop-music pantheon—hell, their attaining a platform at all—is due just as much to the fact that they had the right people around them and with them. George Martin was one, growing in importance as his collaborators’ career progressed, his classical-influenced production sensibilities expanding their horizons. “Eppy,” whose presence was felt at a crucial level from the very beginning, was another.
That said, I’ve never understood the ‘fifth Beatle’ debate. Why do there need to be five? Is there some mystical fifth slot in every band demanding to be filled? Four is an even number, and the four of them are plenty!
Image: from The Guardian