Book Review: The Fifth Beatle by Vivek Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson

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The Fifth Beatle

Vivek Tiwary, writer

Andrew C. Robinson, illustrator

M Press (a division of Dark Horse Comics)

 

 

One of the first recordings that exists of me is a 4-year old Jen singing “Nowhere Man” into an old reel-to-reel recording device. I was smitten by The Beatles early on, obviously, maybe even fed their music through the umbilical cord, and so it was little wonder that as soon as I was allowed to walk there alone and was able to handle chapter books, I would start scouring the shelves of my local library for any information on the four British marvels who were such an imperative part of my life from the very beginning. It never occurred to me at that age that others were also aware of the Fab Four, that I wasn’t alone in my hero worship, but when you’re young, the world revolves solely around you, doesn’t it? To me, I was the only one who loved The Beatles enough to learn the words to all of their songs, to fall asleep with my Walkman going, and to get ready for school in the morning bopping along to Abbey Road.

While my friends were immersed in the happenings at Sweet Valley High or reveling in the highs and lows of the friends who formed The Babysitters’ Club, I was staying up late with a flashlight illuminating the literary land that existed under my covers, aiding me in my quest for knowledge about Paul, John, George, and Ringo, and everyone who was connected to them in any way, shape, or musical form. Thus it was that while tackling the academics and social realities of 5th grade, I first learned of Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles.  At the time I wasn’t savvy with the world of sexuality and was attending a Roman Catholic grade school which made sure all of us impressionable youths learned the way of The Bible and went to church once a month.  Even with the conservative messages we were receiving from the pulpit, however, the fact that Brian was gay and that I learned that fact around 2 a.m. one winter morning from the comfort of my blanketed “study” didn’t phase me for more than a few minutes. We didn’t really talk about being gay at my school (this was the 1980’s), though. I think the idea on the part of the nuns teaching us was that if we didn’t discuss it, it didn’t exist. Sex wasn’t really brought up in my classes, either.

Once I remembered what being gay meant, I thought, “Huh…so…he’s gay…”.  I didn’t really know how to respond, to be honest. I vaguely knew that it was supposed to be wrong, at least according to what I’d heard in classes, but I’d never met or heard of anyone who was gay. In some ways Brian Epstein was my first homosexual friend.  Ironic considering that Brian had to remain closeted throughout his life given that homosexuality was illegal in England when he was alive. When I continued reading and learned the travails and torments he went through because of his sexuality, I could feel something inside of me shifting. It was the first time I really questioned my religion, if everything in The Bible should actually be taken as fact. As I write this some 25 years later, I have to chuckle a wee bit. The Beatles were a part in some way of most of the formative events of my life, and Brian Epstein was the first cobblestone in my road to atheism. I just didn’t know it at the time.

In any case, this long narrative is my way of saying that Brian Epstein was someone I admired even as a kid, and the fact that it was nearly impossible to find information on him at my local library, in Beatle books, or anywhere else, really, was disheartening. Someone who had such a vital role in the fame of one of the most important music groups in the past 50 years (if not more) surely deserved some attention, or at least some accurate information written about him. Seriously, look up what is written about Brian in Beatle books and notice how the “facts” about his life are often contradictory.

 

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For this reason, you can only imagine my sheer joy at hearing that Brian was going to be the subject of his own book, The Fifth Beatle, in 2013.  The fact that Brian would be immortalized in a graphic novel of all things only made me even more excited. You don’t grow up a geeky girl without enjoying comic books.  It’s practically a prerequisite when you’re given your official nerd membership card. However, The Fifth Beatle isn’t some campy comic with “Shazam!” or “Pow!” every other panel. This is not a book that takes any leads from the 1960’s Batman series.

It is obvious when you read through the first few pages that Vivek Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson (writer and illustrator, respectively) have taken care to give Brian the respect he deserves. It’s also evident that despite the high regard Tiwary holds Brian in (and when you speak with Tiwary, it’s obvious that Brian is someone he cares deeply for), he has chosen to talk about Brian in a “warts and all” way, not shying from the fact that Brian was known to pick up young men, the rougher around the edges, the better, or that later he turned to drugs to deal with the pressure of managing the most popular group in the world, not to mention the demons he himself was facing.

Brian’s personal life was, in many ways, made for a graphic novel, filled with ups, downs, tragedies, and in his professional life, trail-blazing successes and epic mistakes. Choosing which to highlight for The Fifth Beatle and which to leave on the cutting room floor was no small feat, part of the reason the novel took Tiwary ten years of his life to research and organize. Of course, Tiwary was doing a few things in the meantime like producing a revival of A Raisin In The Sun with Sean P. Diddy Combs and Phylicia Rashad in the two key roles, plus Green Day’s American Idiot for the Broadway stage. However, tracking down and communicating with Brian’s family, friends, and associates took up a great deal of time, not just to pick their brains, but to earn their trust enough for them to share their memories and thoughts of their fallen friend. Doing justice to the man who brought The Beatles to the world, whose unflagging faith in the band in the face of constant rejection from record companies and producers, who then engineered their global takeover and had to maneuver untested waters in trying to broker deals that before The Beatles had never happened, well, Tiwary was in the same spot Brian was in during the early days of The Beatles. How do you capture the essence of someone who has obvious, yet unique, talent, and bring that to a mainstream audience?

Tiwary tells a mercifully-brief version of The Beatles’ story in the novel because, let’s face it, you could fill a room with books, movies, magazines, and graphic novels about The Beatles. We’ve all been there, done that, and indeed bought the t-shirts and programs. While The Beatles are an important start of Brian’s story and he a vital part of theirs, this is Brian’s story. The Beatles, for once, are cast in the background, and rightly so. It’s a nice change, to be honest, for a Beatles’ fan who has read dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the Fab Four.

When you get right down to it, The Fifth Beatle does an incredible job of presenting the life of Brian with humor, honestly, respect, and love. Aside from the incredible graphics that create a visually-pleasing novel (Kudos to Andrew C. Robinson for his sometimes-subtle yet gorgeous images!), the story is well-written, moves along at a good pace, and manages to create a sense of understanding in the reader as to what Brian was about. It is apparent that the man who could create order out of chaos when it came to the lives of four international superstars couldn’t manage to do the same for himself, and that might be the biggest tragedy of Brian’s too-brief life. He managed a band that sang about and gave so much love to the world, and yet Brian himself was doomed to never find it for himself. He loved The Beatles in a way that only a father could, even though he was as flawed and fallible as they themselves were. He gave them all of himself, and at the end of the day he had nothing left for himself. If he hadn’t committed so fully to the band, would he have had an easier time dealing with his own life? That’s a question we will never be able to answer, even if Brian himself may have wondered as well. If he did dwell on the query, though, he certainly didn’t make any adjustments to his life. Perhaps he considered himself an expendable part of the Beatle empire.  John Lennon’s quote about Brian’s death, though, illustrates just how vital Brian was to the group: “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. [When Brian died] I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.’”  Indeed, it wasn’t long after Brian’s demise that the group imploded.

I’ve always wondered why it takes someone’s absence for us to fully appreciate their presence, and Brian’s premature and accidental death in the midst of The Beatles’ phenomenal run certainly exposed the band to exactly what he had done for them behind the scenes and also in front of the curtain. Brian was the cog that made The Beatle machine run, and after his death, it limped along before grinding to a jarring halt.

Beatles’ fans have debated for decades who should bear the moniker of “The Fifth Beatle,” and Tiwary has made a stellar case for Brian Epstein.  Thankfully Tiwary isn’t just stopping at the excellent and must-have graphic novel about Brian’s life. A major motion picture is in the works, a biopic that I intend to be in attendance for opening weekend. If anyone’s story needs to be told, it is the man who happily took his place in the shadows of the biggest band the world has ever seen. It’s time Brian stepped into the limelight, and if there is anyone who I trust to give him an accurately- and lovingly-told story, it is Vivek Tiwary.

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~ by Jennifer Dodge on April 22, 2014.

One Response to “Book Review: The Fifth Beatle by Vivek Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson”

  1. When I first saw this book, it appeared to me to be a sort of campy comic book. I decided to buy it anyway, as yet another addition to my Beatles collection. When I finally read the book, the artwork inside was very good but the author’s portrayal of Brian Epstein really came to life. Brian is portrayed exactly the way he was, a kind, gentle yet tortured soul. No whitewashing and no sarcastic remarks concerning his private life. Just the facts laid bare and written with great empathy. This is a must have book for Beatles fans.

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