Join Date: Aug 14, 2003
Location: Here, There, and Everywhere
A DEFEATED BRIAN RETREATED TO LIVERPOOL AND THE FAMILY BUSINESS. There, to everyone's surprise, he excelled. In 1957, NEMS opened a new shop on Great Charlotte Street in the city center, and Brian, just 23, took over the small record department. He stocked its shelves with the latest in classical and pop music, built an inventory system that guaranteed that the bestselling discs were always available, and created eye-catching window displays of the latest hits. His delighted parents gave him a new shop on Whitechapel in 1959. Queenie and Harry believed Brian was finally settling down. Indeed he was, but in the private world he built for himself and with the gay friends he was making. He became close to Peter Brown, a handsome and ambitious young man who ran the records section at Lewis's department store, a NEMS rival. Brown recalled that they met at a mutual friend's birthday party. Brian and his younger brother, Clive, arrived in their dinner jackets, having come from attending their parents' 25th wedding anniversary celebration. Brown says Brian wore tailored suits and smelled of Old Spice, and he had exquisite manners and a way of dominating every room he entered.
"I thought he was an amazing person," Brown recalls. "We instantly became good friends." Brian eventually persuaded Brown to come work for NEMS, and Brown modeled himself -- his clothing, his style, even his speech patterns -- after Brian. "We called them piss-elegant, how they spoke and sounded," recalls Terry Doran, a car salesman who became another of Brian's new pals.
Then there was Joe Flannery, a soft-spoken shop owner and band manager who was three years older than Brian. Flannery says they shared their secrets, their sexuality and their love of the theater. He recalls going with Brian to see Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Liverpool Playhouse, sitting in one of the front rows for a week of performances. On a Friday night, Brian had to attend Shabbat dinner with his family. As she was taking her curtain call, Leigh noticed that Brian was missing. "And where's your friend tonight?" she called out to Flannery.
Brian spent long, solitary holidays in places such as Amsterdam and Barcelona. On weekends, he would take his friends on drives to country inns or to Manchester, 30 miles east, a city with a more open and less anxious gay quarter. By contrast, the gay scene in Liverpool in the late 1950s was quiet and cautious. There were several gay bars, but the biggest draw was the Magic Clock, across the road from the Royal Court Theatre. The Clock's male waiters went by the names of female singers and dressed in wigs, skirts and makeup. Still, before they left for the evening, the waiters would change back to street clothes and wipe the rouge from their faces. "You wouldn't walk alone, in case you got tapped," recalls Eddie Porter, who used to drink there as a young man. "If you told the police you'd been beaten up by a man, they'd throw you in the van and arrest you for importuning."
These days, Porter specializes in Beatles nostalgia memories and sardonic repartee as a guide on the Magical Mystery Tour bus. Back then, he was a good-looking blue-collar lad who waited tables at the old Exchange Hotel. He enjoyed mixing with actors, musicians and businessmen at the Magic Clock. One of the people he met there one evening was the well-dressed man from NEMS.
"I was wearing my dicky bow, coat and tie, and Brian came over to me and said, 'Are you with the orchestra from the Royal Court?'" I said, 'No, sir. But you're the manager of the record shop.' And he said, 'No, I'm the owner.'"
After that first evening, they would meet regularly. Brian took him to see Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" when it played the Royal Court, noting that there was a scene in which two men kiss. They watched in rapt silence, Porter recalls. "With Brian, it was never mentioned. Even at the Magic Clock, no one ever said it. In drink, in his company, he never said, 'Look at him across there; he's a nice fellow.' And I never did. It just wasn't done."
Brian was a generous and entertaining friend, but the price of admission was tolerance of his savage mood swings. He could be the sophisticated gentleman one moment and the petulant, spoiled child the next. "Living on the edge as he did, Brian was always a contradiction," recalled Tony Bramwell, one of the Beatles' buddies, in his recent memoir, Magical Mystery Tours. "He was a fiercely loyal and honorable friend to those he loved, and ruthless toward those he despised. He was shy to the point of blushing and stammering, and theatrical to the point of ranting and frothing at the mouth."
Despite a lively coterie of friends and lovers, Brian still liked it rough. After he dropped off his respectable companions in the evening, he often went cruising. There were the docks, the little beach resorts to the north and the public toilets in Sefton Park to the south, all of them filled with sailors, working-class lads and other species of men on the make. "He cruised in some terrible places," recalls Terry Doran. "He liked it. Occasionally, he'd show up bruised. And he'd go to those places again. He was a glutton for punishment, really."
One night, Flannery recalls, Brian frantically knocked on his door. "He had left me about an hour earlier. He had on this most beautiful Peter England shirt, and it was red with blood. Somebody who knew he was Brian Epstein got into his car and made him open the store and open the safe." Flannery washed Brian's faced and got him a fresh shirt.
Frustrated, bored and uneasy after five years of success at NEMS, Brian was still searching for something new. What he was looking for, it turned out, was a few hundred yards away.
BILL HARRY WAS A FORMER ART SCHOOL BUDDY OF JOHN LENNON AND STUART SUTCLIFFE, who were struggling to get a foothold in Liverpool's booming music scene. Harry and his wife, Virginia, came up with Mersey Beat, a bimonthly music magazine. With a pile of the opening issues to distribute, one of his first stops was the NEMS shop on Whitechapel. When he walked in, Harry remembers, he was greeted by a supercilious young man in an impeccable suit. Brian was skeptical about Mersey Beat, but he reluctantly agreed to put a dozen copies on the counter. When they sold out almost immediately, he rang up Harry and demanded several dozen more. He also became curious about the music scene that the newspaper depicted. "Is this actually happening in Liverpool?" Brian asked, according to Harry.
Liverpool was in the throes of a music explosion. Once the British empire's largest seaport, Liverpool had long been a gateway for Irish and Welsh migrants, Jamaicans, freed slaves and their music. There was a steady flow of American jazz, country and rhythm and blues imported by the "Cunard Yanks," British seamen who returned from the United States with phonograph records crammed into their trunks. By the late 1950s, the postwar baby boom -- known in Britain as the "Bulge" -- the end of conscription and the rise of rock-and-roll had produced a new generation of Liverpudlians with time on their hands, disposable income and an obsession with pop music. "We were the first teenagers," says Colin Hanton, then a young furniture upholsterer, who played drums in the Quarrymen, John Lennon's first band.
The Beatles in the late 1950s were just one of hundreds of bands -- and far from the best. John and Stuart had dropped out of art school, while the younger Paul McCartney and George Harrison attended a grammar school in the same complex. After many early personnel changes, they added a competent drummer, Pete Best.
"They were just kids, starved rats, always hungry and puffing on the bedraggled remains of their ciggies," remembered Allan Williams, a local club owner, in his memoir. Williams, despite his doubts, did the lads one enormous favor. In early 1960, he dispatched them to Hamburg, to a club gig where they spent months refining their performing skills. They came home in November 1960 with tight leather outfits, an even tighter sound and a new sense of showmanship.
While most of the bands had a front man and a single, narrow focus, the Beatles featured soaring harmonies, two fledgling songwriters and one superb all-around performer -- Paul. They could shift from "Long Tall Sally" to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a heartbeat. By the fall of 1961, they were nearing the top of the pack but had no place to go.
Big-time agents, managers and record labels in London saw Liverpool as a backwater. They had no interest in the scene. The Beatles could feel themselves stagnating. Stuart dropped out to pursue his art career in Hamburg. John talked about working on an ocean liner as his dad, Freddy, had done; Paul's family wanted him to become a teacher. George visited his older sister Louise in the United States and considered emigrating.
Among locals, the debate never ends over when and how Brian first heard of the Beatles. Harry insists he first told Brian about the band and that Brian would have had to have been blind not to have read about them in Mersey Beat. But Brian, in A Cellarful of Noise, says he hadn't heard of them until a teenager named Raymond Jones came into the Whitechapel shop in late October 1961 asking for "My Bonnie," a 45 that Polydor had recorded and released in Germany with the "Beat Brothers" backing British singer Tony Sheridan. What's not in dispute is that in early November, Brian and his chief assistant, Alastair Taylor, made their way to the Cavern to check out the group.
"Excuse me, do you mind not farting while I'm saving the world?" -The 9th Doctor, DOCTOR WHO episode "World War Three"