I don’t normally listen to anything presented by Matthew Parris. I was inoculated against him some years ago. But the other day by accident I came in for the last quarter of an hour of an edition of his programme Great Lives when the subject was Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles from 1961 until his death from a drugs overdose a few years later.
I have not experienced a more intense atmosphere of reverence since my visit to the Sistine Chapel in the 1990s. Odd, you might think, since the subject matter was only pop music. Ah, but things have changed and these days there is no such thing as pop music: and, while there used to be a distinction made between classical and pop, we have since abandoned any pretence of taste or discrimination, so that now there is only music. I don’t want to sound sniffy about pop, much of which provides a pleasant diversion. But to call it by the same word as, say The Well-tempered Clavier or Beethoven’s late quartets is a misuse of the English language. Worse than that, it’s just plain silly.
Nevertheless, Parris and the two devoted Epstein scholars in the studio with him throughout spoke of John, George, Paul and Ringo in the terms we once reserved for Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart.
How great do you have to be to feature on Great Lives? And what form, precisely, did Epstein’s greatness take? He managed a few pop musicians including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Tommy Quickly, Cilla Black and The Beatles and helped them become millionaires. If you are sceptical about whether his achievements in this activity qualify him for greatness, Parris and his duo of experts filled out Epstein’s candidateship with further details.
He was enthusiastically homosexual in an age when that practice was regarded as a perversion, rather than the badge of courage, virtue and honour it is today. He was assiduous in this practice – “known for it,” as they say. Epstein’s autobiography was titled A Cellar-full of Noise of which, Parris “quipped” John Lennon had said it should have been called A Cellar-full of Boys. He was in love with the nihilist John – “Imagine there’s no heaven, hell, countries, possessions, religion, nothing to die for” – Lennon. But Lennon claimed the affair was never “consummated.”
Epstein was devoted to what I think they call his “trade.” He even went so far as to commission a tailor to rig him out in an army officer’s uniform which he sported when he went “cruising.” He was cautioned for “persistent opportuning” outside a men’s lavatory in Swiss Cottage. He was a prolific user of illegal drugs, having been introduced to cannabis by that narcissist – who always sounds as if he has a peg on his nose – Bob Dylan in New York in 1964.
Thank you for your programme, Mr Parris. I now feel as if I have a clearer idea of what qualities amount to greatness.