Ray Coleman is a respected name in rock journalism and his Brian Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles was the first biography about the Beatles’ manager, written in 1989. It was one of many books about the Beatles that I have had in my collection, just sitting on my bookshelves, unread, for over twenty years. At 482 pages, Brian Epstein was an intelligent read which relied on the author’s personal anecdotes since Coleman was an insider who had interviewed Epstein as well as the members of the Beatles on numerous occasions for his music journals. Coleman also had access to intimates in Epstein’s family, and interviewed Brian’s mother Queenie, who was still living when this biography was published. Since Epstein lived at a time in Great Britain when homosexuality was still on the books as a criminal offence, he lived his private life truly in secret. Coleman did not resort to hearsay or dramatics to share revelations about Epstein’s closeted gay life. He spoke with Epstein’s closest friends and those with whom they shared acquaintance. Although Epstein lived a very secretive private life I was pleased nonetheless to read so much about it. While this book was written over twenty-five years ago and by a British author, I still found the use of the term “homosexual” off-putting. Coleman used it to excess, and as it was also far too clinical a term, only served to distance Epstein from the author and even the reader whenever his private life was discussed. I suppose “gay” wasn’t the preferred term for British journalists in the late eighties, yet coming to the book in the year 2015, “homosexual” dates it, and not in a good way.
Coleman spent the first part of the book covering Epstein’s early years transferring from school to school, forever in his attempt to find a place to fit in. He found his calling in retail, working in his family’s furniture business. From there the story becomes legendary: bored with furniture sales, Epstein is moved to his father’s new music store where he exceeds all expectations. He created the leading record store in northern England, where it became the place for all the cool young people of Liverpool to hang out. While always extremely well-dressed and polite and mature beyond his years, Epstein was admired by his clientele for his store’s extensive stock, for providing the utmost degree of customer service and for promising to acquire any recording anyone asked for. Thus he was well grounded within the music industry in Liverpool and always heard about the newest and hottest trends–such as the Beatles.
What drove Epstein from school to school and from his family’s furniture store to the music business was his overwhelming sense of boredom. He was never satisfied with himself, even if what he had achieved was a success. As if managing the Beatles at the height of their fame wasn’t enough, Epstein took on far too many other groups and singers to stifle his nagging ennui. The immediate result of having far too many acts to manage was that some of them started to feel neglected and resent Epstein. Yet he couldn’t cut back adding new artistes to his roster, and spent extra hours doped on speed to find the time to get all the work done. Coleman stated repeatedly that Epstein was too protective of his acts and too possessive of them ever to delegate the duties of managing them. A consequence of this obsession was a growing addiction to uppers–and then downers–just to get through the day. He was thus a control freak, taking an obsessive sense of ownership over all but in particular three of his star acts: the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Cilla Black:
“The dichotomy of Epstein’s make-up produced a man at once avuncular and warm yet cool, distant, imperious. He berated the author for approaching Lennon and McCartney directly, without seeking his authority for interviews, and then immediately defused the row with an invitation to lunch or a letter of apology for rudeness.”
These letters of apology were typical of Epstein; Coleman told of numerous examples–and they were indeed plentiful–where employees were suddenly terminated and then rehired by Epstein only days later. He always wrote a letter of apology and some of them were included in this book. Interviews with those who worked for Epstein and who rubbed shoulders with the Beatles on a daily basis didn’t feel especially privileged. The working environment was a stressful 24 hours of always being on call. Personal assistants, secretaries and other office personnel were called day and night, weekends and on holidays, always expected to jump whenever Epstein commanded. No wonder so many of his staff quit, yet they were always wooed back by Epstein.
Eager to find ways to fit in, even when the rest of the world felt he was the ultimate insider having the Beatles as best friends, Epstein experimented with drugs and adopted a hipper fashion sense. For those who knew him in the early days of Beatlemania, the change from a prim and proper gentleman, who was also named one of the best-dressed men in Britain, to a flowery-shirted stoned pill-popper by 1967 must have come as a huge surprise. Who was the manager they were now dealing with? Epstein would not have even recognized himself. His colossal workload which he was unwilling to share or divest led to his tragic downfall. Confusing prescriptions and taking sleeping pills with alcohol took Epstein in his sleep by an accidental drug overdose during the summer of love, 1967.
The reputation Coleman has in rock journalism is unmatched. Thus I was shocked to find two sloppy errors. The first was a reference to Marianne Faithfull’s first single, which is “As Tears Go By” and not, as Coleman writes, “As Time Goes By”. Also, the monthly Beatles fan magazine was entitled The Beatles Book or The Beatles Book Monthly and not The Beatles Monthly Book.