Plenty of people are into art. A good many adore artists. Occasionally, tribute is paid to someone (frequently a spouse or lover) who inspires an artist, the “muse” figure. So far, so chic. But does anyone ever celebrate the people who brought the artists coffee, or the ones who kept the house livable? Not significant enough? Fair enough, even if I disagree. But it would be hard to say that about someone who paid the bills, or someone who took care of the daily logistics, making it possible for the artist to focus on creation. Unfortunately, most people are happy to enjoy finished artistic products without sparing so much as a thought for those who devote their lives to aiding and encouraging the often difficult creators of those products. When it comes to collaborative forms like cinema, music, and theater, this attitude becomes fairly preposterous. A theater buff I know once scoffed at the idea that theaters needed money to stay afloat when a beloved local troupe asked for donations. Another time, I told a movie lover something I’d read about the agent and producer Paul Kohner, a man who quietly helped guide and shape numerous brilliant careers in Hollywood. Kohner’s decades of work on behalf of filmmakers was sneeringly dismissed as “business stuff.”
To some extent, this makes a brutal kind of sense. Most of these unsung figures are genuinely passionate about the art they support, so they accept anonymity, and even abuse, with good enough grace. In the early twentieth century, the music loving banker Otto Kahn helped push the Metropolitan Opera to new heights as chairman of its board. Despite his achievements, Kahn, being a Jew, was forbidden from owning a boxed seat in the opera house he loved and led. Kahn was content, fulfilled by his work and cheerfully enjoying the show with the rest of the audience in the orchestra seats. I guess I’m not as big a man because I find this kind of thing, and the attitude I described earlier, nauseating. It may be inevitable that people like Kahn and Kohner are ignored but that doesn’t mean it’s right. That is why I was so taken by The Fifth Beatle, despite my lack of any particular interest in the Fab Four. This fascinating (and often gorgeous) graphic novel attempts to shine a light on one of these shadowy artist’s aides, the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.
Whatever one thinks of their music, it cannot be denied that the Beatles were extraordinarily talented and a cultural phenomenon, changing the face of music forever. It could be argued that ever since the Beatles, pop culture has been engaged in a futile attempt to replicate the band’s glory. For better or worse, that’s really something. And a good deal of that might never have been without Epstein. The Beatles were local celebrities in Liverpool where Epstein managed his family’s chain of music stores. After seeing them perform, he was captivated and determined to help them get where he believed they were destined to go. Many of the iconic moments in the band’s early years of global fame were orchestrated by Epstein and the Beatles did not long survive his sudden death in 1967. One of the intriguing things about behind the scenes figures like Epstein is that they often lived lives as dramatic as the artists they served. Epstein was no exception and, unfortunately, his life was a tragedy. He was a deeply closeted gay man and, like far too many LGBT people of his day, ended up emotionally crippled. To make matters worse, Epstein’s family was Jewish and he constantly faced the ingrained anti-semitism of British society. All of this ultimately broke him, and he self-medicated to keep his pain at bay, dying of an overdose at the shockingly young age of 32.
Readers of this book should be aware that, as my summary above indicates, Epstein is the focus, not his legendary clients. Anyone looking for Beatles trivia is going to be sorely disappointed. In a gutsy move, the authors of The Fifth Beatle make some of the most famous musicians of all time background figures in the narrative. John Lennon could be called a major supporting player, and Paul McCartney has some important moments but, otherwise, the focus is squarely on Brian Epstein. And yet even that does not adequately explain the strange, at times perplexing, choices made in this book. The focus is not just on Epstein, but on his inner life. Numerous events he was involved in, and even central to, are ignored or barely touched upon. For example, Epstein was responsible for the (in)famous firing of Pete Best, but that is not even covered in The Fifth Beatle. Ringo Starr simply appears at one point. I can only assume that, while he cared about these moments, Epstein was not emotionally entangled in them. While some readers might be baffled, I felt this made the book far fresher than a standard bio could ever hope to be. Tiwary’s pared down but eloquent text, Robinson’s evocative paintings, and Baker’s eye-popping cartoons (the trip to the Philippines is quite a treat) combine to put us inside Epstein’s gifted, troubled mind. It took real courage to go this (potentially less accessible) route, and the authors pull it off wonderfully.
Another great aspect of The Fifth Beatle is that it is emphatically not the story of the martyr Brian Epstein and the ungrateful Beatles. Epstein, the Beatles’ self-described number one fan, would probably cringe at such a thought. The Beatles are shown as loving and appreciative of “Eppy.” A charming moment early on suggests the group took up his offer to manage them to get their hands on free records from the Epstein store. The final, almost wordless image, of the band in India being informed of their manager’s death is heartbreaking. A cursory internet search will reveal far more negative things about the Beatles (especially Lennon) than what is found in this book. Also, while it not dwelt upon, Epstein’s unethical business practices are not whitewashed. It seems likely that Epstein was quite decent, especially by the standards of the music industry he moved in, but he was no angel. The Fifth Beatle is dedicated to illuminating and even celebrating his life, but there is no deification going on here. Again, I find this a commendably mature decision. It would have been easy to turn Epstein into some sort of pure knight in shining armor. That would probably have been more commercially viable. The fact that Tiwary, Robinson, and Baker refused to do so earns them tremendous credit in my book.
All the same, there are some things in this book that left me scratching my head in confusion and, sometimes, outright annoyance. While I respect the decision to limit the focus to Epstein’s emotional life, that does mean we miss out on others’ views of him. Some quick research revealed the fact that much of the band went through a period of mixed feelings about him. George Harrison and Paul McCartney would make sharply critical comments on Epstein. Both, especially McCartney, would later strongly reassert their affection for him. Lennon issued several statements, alternately glowing and dismissive. Understandable when one reads that Lennon also compared his friendship with Epstein to an unconsummated love affair! I was fascinated to find out that the one Beatle who has never had anything bad to say about Epstein is the frequently mocked Ringo Starr. The unkind might say that is because Starr was not intimately involved in the group’s inner workings. Others might wonder if Starr is just less arrogant than his former colleagues. (If I sounded catty there, I should explain that I have as much patience for “the one band member everyone hates” narratives as I have for ferocious sports rivalries: none.) Bottom line, all of this could have had a place in The Fifth Beatle but we get none of it. Starr barely has any dialogue and Harrison doesn’t have much more. At times this made the book just a bit too elliptical for its own good. In fact, a number of points needed further elaboration. In an afterward, Tiwary states that everything in the book is true, then cheekily implies otherwise. I found this most infuriating when it came to Epstein’s loyal secretary Moxie. Some online sources state that she is only partially based on a real person. Tiwary seems to hint at a deeper purpose in her presence, imagining that readers might wonder “who, or what” she is. Considering how central Moxie is to the narrative, how movingly her love for Epstein is depicted, this is a questionable place to be so ambiguous. Perhaps I’m just a little dense, but I wanted more detail. Epstein’s encounters with Ed Sullivan and Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s manager), were also sections that left me cold, to varying degrees. Parker (whose actual relationship with Epstein seems to be a matter of some dispute) is caricatured as some kind of bloodthirsty demon. From what I’ve read, Parker was a pretty dark figure, but the characterization seemed a bit simplistic. Sullivan is shown using a ventriloquist’s dummy to represent TV network executives during negotiations with Epstein, which Tiwary insists really happened in the afterward, only to undercut that statement in a footnote. To be frank, I didn’t get it. Are we to assume that Sullivan was incredibly influential? If so, that’s hardly a revelation, and it could have been established in a more subtle way. The authors also clearly see this meeting as sinister, but I couldn’t see what was so creepy about the network’s skepticism of the then untested Beatles. Smaller quibbles I had included the depiction of Epstein’s supportive family. They were lovingly portrayed early in the book, then largely vanished, despite Epstein having remained close to them to the end of his life. On that note, The Fifth Beatle begins just before Epstein first met the Beatles. A few pages about growing up Jewish and gay in Liverpool in the 1930s and 1940s might well have made powerful, albeit depressing, reading.
Honestly, while I really liked The Fifth Beatle, I often wished I could have the same enthusiasm for the music Epstein loved so much. But, as an avowed classical music fan who finds much of pop culture an annoying blight, I could only drum up so much excitement for the objects of Epstein’s affection. However, what makes this book so great is that it isn’t really about the objects, it’s about the affection. That was something I had no problem being enthralled by. The look on Brian Epstein’s face when he first sees the Beatles perform is something any lover of art should recognize and honor. That he managed to go beyond that look and, despite his tragically short life, put his love to work in service of the music that inspired him and gave him such joy, is simply miraculous. For this, in spite of the great pain he suffered, I found myself envying him. He’ll never be as big as the Beatles, nor should he be. He does, however, deserve a brief but hearty curtain call. Whatever its flaws (which are easily outweighed by its virtues), The Fifth Beatle goes a long way towards providing that. And for that, and on behalf of all those who ever faithfully waited backstage, I say “Bravo!”