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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.