Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Rich Fag Jew and the Cellar Full of Goys

No matter his status as fifth, sixth, or twelfth Beatle, pretty much all involved would later acknowledge Brian Epstein's August 1967 death as the beginning of the end for the Fabs. But unlike so many other things about the Beatles--meeting the Maharishi, Paul dying, screaming teenage girls, Yoko--Brian Epstein passed into rock and roll lore without ever transforming into archetype. He remains far too tragic a character from far too different a time. A bright young man from a late industrial age port city where being gay was illegal, John Lennon would forever brand him as the "rich, fag Jew," vaguely discernible (perhaps) in the final mix of "Baby You're A Rich Man" around the 2:47 mark, a slight irregularity in the outro harmonies.

In the pantheon of lyrics about the complicated and highly individual sexuality of pop music managers, it's not quite as poetic as Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris." But it's also accurate in its stinging concision, encapsulating much of what was difficult about Epstein's troubled life. But besides his efficient shepherding of the Beatles from Liverpool to everywhere, Brian Epstein's other greatest achievement--his most archetypal role, at that--is barely remembered at all, except as a footnote. He ran a really, really good record store. Long before "Baby You're A Rich Man," John Lennon knew Brian Epstein as "the man from NEMS."

Lennon's bitter epithet also neatly captures the way Epstein ended up there. The grandson of Lithuanian émigré and department store magnate Isaac Epstein, Brian grew up in upper class Jewish Liverpool, where his parents took over the North End Music Store in Whitechapel when I. Epstein and Sons expanded from next door, and soon took on the striking NEMS name and logo for their rapidly growing company. As it happened, their son Brian was a very closeted gay man with a penchant for rough sex. After several increasingly violent misadventures in pursuit of illicit encounters, including threats of blackmail, the ever-supportive Epsteins installed him on the ground floor of the chain's Charlotte Street outlet. His brother Clive took over the appliances, and Brian threw his life into the small nook that housed the store's record department.

While they sold sheet music and rented instruments, NEMS had started stocking records for the same reasons as the Matassa family at the J&M Appliance Store in New Orleans a decade-and-a-half earlier: record players were appliances, and there was no place else to acquire the peripherals that actually made the music. Where Cosimo Matassa would eventually open a recording studio in the back, Brian Epstein would achieve something quite different. Taking over in the spring of 1960, the 25-year old Brian poured himself into it, uncoiling his high-strung energy into the exacting management. He codified his meticulousness into store policy when he audaciously declared that the store would stock at least one copy of every record in print. He worked late hours, staying in touch with the Manchester-based distributors himself. 

Though Brian Epstein almost exclusively listened to classical music, the "every record in print" policy quite decisively included the slowly building wave of rock singles. By the end of the year, the department spilled out from its nook as the shop became a destination for local teens. With no airplay from the BBC, and no Liverpudlian publications covering the post-skiffle acts playing in the basement bars, NEMS was the only game in town for the emerging music scene. When Epstein suggested that promoters hang posters for shows in the record department of the three NEMS stores, he cemented the chain's place as a profound hub for local culture, all the more so when it became the primary distribution node for the first issues of Bill Harry's Mersey Beat zine, launched in April 1961. Epstein devoured each new issue and, before 1961 was out, found himself managing the Beatles and using his label contacts to get the band auditions. From NEMS came NEMS Enterprises, and a mini-empire that--much due to Epstein's careful architecture--gave way to Beatlemania and, eventually, Beatlemania.

NEMS itself would become part of the Rumbelows appliance chain in 1969, the same year Lennon immortalized another former NEMS record clerk in song--Peter Brown--in "The Ballad of John and Yoko." It was also the same year as the Stonewall Inn riots and the beginning of gay liberation in New York. Brian Epstein didn't make it. On the fabled night that Bob Dylan got the Beatles and their manager stoned at the Delmonico Hotel in August 1964, Epstein had looked into a mirror and pointed. "JEW!" he shrieked, to much hilarity. "It may not seem the least bit significant to anyone else, but in our circle, it was very liberating," McCartney later said. Just as it was nearly impossible for Epstein to be publicly gay, he found it nearly as much trouble to acknowledge his Judaism. When Epstein followed the band into their psychedelic phase a few years later, he told a bewildered Melody Maker that "I think LSD helped me to know myself better." But even that wasn't much use.

With his bent for amphetamines and violent turn-ons, there's an alternate universe where Epstein stumbled into Andy Warhol's Factory, found himself welcomed, and carried the Velvet Underground under NEMS's wing towards a vastly different pop horizon. But that wasn't to be, and pretty much everything escalated until his death in the late summer of 1967 by (probably) accidental overdose of sleeping pills, nothing resolved.

In a story arc from the Quarrymen to the roof of the Apple Corp. offices, Brian Epstein remains an extraordinarily complex character that--as in real life--doesn't easily fit. Leggy Mountbatten, his equivalent in the Rutles, would be attracted to the Pre-Fab Four's tight trousers, and parodied Epstein's A Cellarful of Noise with A Cellarful of Goys. But Terence Bayler's character was more a refugee from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks than any kind of commentary on the way Epstein's story became part of rock history. In that way, Brian Epstein would grow into a position even more singular, something of anti-archetype. Like the portable nothingness from Yellow Submarine's Sea of Holes, when Epstein is placed atop the Beatles' story, he turns it into something else -- something that becomes more intricate the deeper one looks, less beautiful, and more alive.


"Baby You're A Rich Man"
MONO mp3        
by The Beatles, 1967.
available on Magical Mystery Tour

All quotes, etc., via Bob Spitz's excellent The Beatles: The Biography (2005). 


Christian said...

I think the "rich fag Jew" thing is just a story. I wouldn't put it past Lennon's cruel, grotesque and scathing sense of humor or his love of word play. But if he ever used that phrasing it didn't end up on the released version of the song. Here's the acapella version. The slur clearly isn't there.

Anonymous said...

beautiful bit of writing there. so glad to see you're back.

drasil said...

I concur with anon above--thanks for this fitting tribute to a man who never gets his due, even with two (appalling) plays about him this year in england. also, yeh, the "fag jew" line's a myth.

ElComadreja777 said...

I've read that it's only audible on the original 45.

Anonymous said...

i thought lennon's joke was "cellarful of boys"