Friday, September 13, 2013

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary, Philip Simon (Editor), Andrew C. Robinson (Illustrations), Kyle Baker (Illustrations)

ARC received via NetGalley.

Buy the book at Amazon.com.

One thing I've noticed in what's become my scholarly study on The Beatles is that one can find a wealth of information on the band, the individual members, and their chronological history. I may know more about John Lennon than I do my current president, and yet information on their manager, Brian Epstein, remains scarce. Pretty much everything I know about Epstein came from Peter Brown's memoir, The Love You Make. I know I tend to hold up that book as the standard, but years and years after I've read it, the memory is fresh.

There are Epstein-centric books, though, none of which I have read: among them a ghostwritten autobiography published at the height of Beatlemania that is likely sanitized to appeal to young fans, and a more in-depth history from Lennon biographer Ray Coleman. One could guess the lack in reading material about Epstein corresponds to the short time he worked with the band and the fact he died so young. I see pictures of Epstein and imagine a man beyond his years - always mature and serious - when in fact he was only six years older than John.

We can imagine the stress of managing an extremely popular group aged him prematurely. Not only that, Epstein dealt with social prejudices that rendered him depressed and unable to sleep. A public figure comes out as homosexual today and it may not be a big deal, but in 1962 to be gay and Jewish in a tiny English port town equated to painting a large target on your head. The Fifth Beatle, a new graphic novel fictionalizing the life of Epstein, opens with the grim image of Epstein suffering a violent act in what appears to be a hustle gone wrong in a dank Liverpool alley. It's a specter of shame and unrequited feelings that follow him through his short life, terrors he seeks to replace with success.

Fans know the legend - Epstein had little to no talent management experience, but knew the music business through the family chain of record shops. He attends a live show at the Cavern after hearing of the Beatles, and you know the rest. The Fifth Beatle vividly recreates this and other key scenes in Epstein's relationship with The Beatles with sharp characterization and moody colors. Unlike another graphic novel reviewed here (Baby in Black), representations of main and supporting players take on appearances that match their personalities - genuine and assumed. Brian comes off as enthusiastic despite weary expressions, John is sharp and smirking, and Paul exudes a gee-whiz cuteness. Darker scenes position people like Colonel Tom Parker in a demonic setting and Ed Sullivan as wooden (you'll see it soon enough), and Yoko Ono in an eerie cameo.

All through the adventure, Brian has a right-hand woman named Moxie. Whether she existed as a composite of personnel assisting the band and Epstein or as a figment of the imagination (not unlike Jessica Lange's angel/confessor in All That Jazz) remains up for debate. Her role in the story serves to heighten one thing we've always known about Brian Epstein - he was lonely. He had friends and family, and while he may not have been the savviest of managers he had the respect of four lads from Liverpool for a time. Nonetheless, he had no partner with whom to share his success, and that knowledge makes this story all the more bittersweet. His premature death in 1967 is arguably the beginning of the end of The Beatles - that's something I've believed for a long time. We can blame Yoko, but the smoke ignited when the band found themselves without management and couldn't easily decide on a successor.

Anyway, I've followed the progress of The Fifth Beatle for the better part of a year and looked forward to reading it. Overall, I liked the story and the illustration. Fans will easily spot the lyrical Easter eggs in the dialogue, but I find things like that take me out of the story and make it a challenge to take seriously (Clockwork Angels had this same issue). I will admit, too, there are known scenes of Epstein's life that didn't make it to this book. George is barely represented here, Ringo even less, and Pete Best isn't on the radar...unless you count blurred background Cavern images. Also missing or downplayed are moments of John's cruel humor, anti-Semitic and anti-gay slurs that reportedly drove Epstein to tears.

The Fifth Beatle is a welcome tribute to a figure sometimes marginalized in Beatles history. Petitions to get Epstein inducted as a non-performer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continue to circulate, and perhaps a book like this will bring more attention to the cause.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of Killing the Kordovas, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo, and The Rock and Roll Mysteries. 

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) by Ken Sharp with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley

ARC received from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Get this book now. 

As I sit to write this review, KISS is scheduled to perform where I live. Being elsewhere at the moment, it appears the opportunity to see the band play live has eluded me once more. I will admit, though, (and not to slight Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer) if the day does come I hope I get to see the original lineup. It would take a miracle, I know, but such sentimentality keeps me from spending money on acts that have replaced key players. When Rush puts Darren Stephens in place of Alex Lifeson, I'll know it's the end.

On this blog you'll find reviews of both Ace and Peter's memoirs. Where these books cover the entire span of KISStory and beyond, Nothin' to Lose does as advertised: it's a lengthy eyewitness account of the band's birth told in the oral history fashion similar to Sharp's other effort, Starting Over (also reviewed here). While this method of storytelling brings many voices to the forefront, I find this style risks the loss of an objective point of view. The book's introduction about KISS reads like a gushing fan letter, which didn't irritate me but did leave me wondering if any unflattering remarks or anecdotes didn't make the cut under the watchful eyes of Gene and Paul.

Nothin' compiles the memories of a huge cast involved in the band's genesis as Wicked Lester through their early association with Casablanca Records. More than thirty years after his death, Neil Bogart represents an enthusiasm for KISS's showmanship and drive through archived interviews - you also hear from early fans (many relatives and close friends of the original members), early road crew, former managers, and other musicians. Yes, I do give them points for an extensive section on the Rush/KISS connection, the Bag Man story, and an amusing picture of Geddy Lee covered in whipped cream that a few people I know will want to see.

You might wonder, how are Peter and Ace represented here? They do have voices, though Peter's contribution to Nothin' isn't as large as Gene and Paul's, and Ace appears less frequently. Nothin' to Lose offers a view of the early days of KISS with little evidence of in-fighting - maybe a few vocal concerns about drug and alcohol, but otherwise everybody plays nice. This doesn't mean you won't find gossipy bits to enjoy; I came away from the book with the perfect Boogie Nights image in my head about Casablanca. Nobody can accuse the 70s of being boring, and despite the healthy size of the book I wanted to read more. 1975, where the book technically ends, marks the beginning of the golden age of KISS. Tales of the humble start, from the tiny clubs and an odd Seinfeld connection, provide a wealth of memories for fans - perhaps this book's success will inspire a second volume.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who still hasn't seen KISS live.