Sunday, August 26, 2007

Nowhere Man


Brian Epstein helped make the Beatles a phenomenon. Forty years after his death, why is his contribution forgotten?

THE OLD WAREHOUSE DISTRICT AROUND MATHEW STREET IN CENTRAL LIVERPOOL IS AS SACRED TO BEATLES FANS AS THE VIA DOLOROSA IS TO CHRISTIANS. At one end is the Cavern, the rebuilt but authentically dank former vegetable cellar where the band played 274 times in the early 1960s. Nearby is the Wall of Fame, where bronze disks commemorate each of Liverpool's No. 1 hit records; the statue of the early John Lennon in trademark leather jacket; and the plaques outside the Grapes and the White Star, the blue-collar pubs where the boys and their mates hoisted many a cheap pint. But there's nothing to mark the nondescript storefront on Whitechapel Street that was once the North End Music Store, known as NEMS, a record shop and appliance emporium owned by Harry Epstein and his wife, Queenie.

It was from this shop that their first-born son, Brian, set out just before noon on November 9, 1961, to catch the lunch-hour show at the Cavern a few hundred yards away. He made his way past a queue of teenage girls in beehives and boys in skin-tight drain-pipe trousers, and down 18 damp stone steps into the catacombs to check out four sweaty young men playing guitars and drums. What he saw and heard that day, and what he decided to do about it, forever changed their lives and his -- and ours, as well. Virtually every place in Liverpool where the Beatles lived, went to school or played music has been enshrined with a plaque, a statue or a stop on the tourist trail known as the Magical Mystery Tour. But the missing name at almost every Beatles site is that of the man who played such an essential role in their improbable rise.

The 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' masterpiece album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in June set off a predictable round of appreciation of the Beatles, their art and legacy. But few will linger over another milestone tomorrow -- the 40th anniversary of Brian Epstein's death, three weeks before he would have turned 33, from what a coroner's inquest ruled was an accidental overdose of barbiturates.

"I think Brian's one of the forgotten people," Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife, told me when we met last year. "It's almost as if he's been written out of the story. I don't think they'd have got anywhere without Brian." (MORE)

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