Interview – Vivek Tiwary (The Fifth Beatle)
by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)
The Beatles are known as being a cosmic force when it comes to music and pop culture. They’ve cemented themselves as one of the greatest bands of all time and a lot of that can be attributed to one man: Brian Epstein. The relentless pursuit of improving the world was Brian’s main objective and he made The Beatles the powerhouse they were. The fact is though, that there’s not much about him in the way of biographical information, until now.
Dark Horse has published The Fifth Beatle and author Vivek Tiwary was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the book. Read on to find out about Brian’s love of The Beatles, the Valiant Entertainment reboot and Neil Gaiman.
JP: Your background is primarily in producing Broadway works. What ultimately inspired you to pursue the The Fifth Beatle? Why tell Brian Epstein’s story?
Vivek Tiwary: My background, well, the heart of my background is certainly in the theater space, but my company is called Tiwary Entertainment Group. And I gave it that vague name so that I could take on a number of projects in the arts and entertainment spectrum.
I grew up here in New York City and my parents were great lovers of the arts so I was very fortunate to grow up with it all. I grew up on 12th Street and my parents were constantly taking me uptown to opera, ballet, Times Square and Broadway and all that kind of stuff. As soon as I was allowed of the house on my own I was going downtown to places like CBGB, the old Ritz, La MaMa and other amazing experimental theater houses, where I was seeing punk rock shows and early Sonic Youth shows. I grew up loving both fine and experimental arts.
I always knew I wanted to work in the entertainment spectrum; it’s what I love. When I was in business school 21 years ago, I thought that if I’m going to work in entertainment then I should study the great entertainment visionaries. Thinking that Brian Epstein and The Beatles were the team who wrote and rewrote the rules of the pop music business, I thought I should study the life of Brian. I was stunned to discover a fact that remains to this day, in that there are no books in print about Brian Epstein. When The Fifth Beatle comes out it will be the only book—graphic novel or otherwise—about Brian.
That became a mystery to me. I thought, why is it so hard to find information about this guy? So I dove very deep into research, looking for a business story: how he got The Beatles the record deal when no one wanted to sign them; how he thought of the suits and the haircuts; how he convinced Ed Sullivan to book the band when a British band had never made an impact in the United States; comparing and contrasting the different styles between Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker and Brian. And that was what I was initially after, because I was a business school student.
That’s all in the book and it’s a fascinating Beatles story. I’m a huge Beatles fan myself and I think from a business standpoint that it’s a really interesting tale. A lot of elements of that story have never been told before and that’s all well and good; however, it was the human side of Brian’s story that I didn’t know anything about and wasn’t after when I began my research that really struck a chord with me. He was gay, Jewish and from Liverpool at a period where it was against the law to be gay, there was a lot of anti-Semitism and Liverpool was a town with no cultural influence. In a lot of ways, I think of Brian as being the ultimate outsider. He was really kind of a misfit in his chosen field.
I have not even remotely had the obstacles and struggles in my life that Brian dealt with and to say that our lives are comparative in terms of struggles and difficulties would be truly ungrateful of me. I’ve been very blessed compared to Brian; however, I could still really relate to the emotional beats of his life. Being a young person of Indian origin, making my way in the world of film and television, theater and graphic novels…you just don’t see a lot of people of my background doing that. I’m not the only one, but there aren’t many. It’s not a traditional field for folks of my ethnicity. I could relate to those struggles of Brian’s in a way, so the human side of Brian’s story was something that offered an incredibly inspiring tale. This gay, Jewish man running around Liverpool saying “I’ve found a local band who will be bigger than Elvis!” That was crazy! People laughed at him.
And he had this dream that the band would elevate pop music to an art form and they were going to spread a great message of love around the world. People thought he was nuts. It was a wonderful and worthy dream that he chased against a number of seemingly insurmountable personal obstacles and against the business that didn’t believe in it. And he was right! He brought The Beatles into the world and look at how much love was spread through that. To me, that was an incredibly, incredibly inspiring story. Not just an inspiring business story, but also an inspiring human story, which is what really attracted me to it.
JP: The term “fifth Beatle” has been used to refer to those who have—at one point—shared an association with the Beatles. The title has applied to both Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall, for instance, according to George Harrison. McCartney said it was Brian Epstein. Not to play favorites with the status, what makes Epstein the “true” Fifth Beatle?
Tiwary: I would guess that most popularly George Martin (their producer) is typically referred to as the Fifth Beatles. Aspinall ran their record label and was their van driver; he’s been called the Fifth Beatle. Pete Best has been called the Fifth Beatle. Stuart Sutcliffe was a Fifth Beatle when there were five members of the band. It’s one of those things where the term has certainly become a part of the lexicon. Paul McCartney did say if anyone was the Fifth Beatle it was Brian…I guess I’m willing to hang my hat on that in a little bit.
In my opinion—which is in the book a little bit—is that Brian played the business like his own instrument. He said The Beatles should focus on the art and he’ll focus on the business. And he did. He pushed the boundaries of the music industry to allow The Beatles to do what they did. Things like putting Indian instrumentation into their music. Starting off from the very beginning, pop bands didn’t write their own songs, so Brian really redefined the music business for The Beatles. In my mind, that’s like being another member of the band.
I think we see this a lot more today than we did in the 1960s, where today people are very interested in reality television and seeing behind the scenes. People are very curious about how things work and what makes things tick. We’re very conscious of marketing now; there are very few people would disagree when you say that making music and art is wonderful, but if you don’t have a marketing and business team to expose it to the world, no one will ever hear about it. In this day and age, there’s more opportunity for artists to do it themselves, but somebody has to do it. In my mind, the marketing/promotion/exposure side of things is the other element of the band. Of course, what Martin did for their music is incredibly important, but it’s not just the music. With Martin, they would’ve made beautiful music, but without Epstein no one would’ve heard it! To me, that’s like being another band member. I’m calling him the Fifth Beatle and I’m going to stick with it.
JP: The Beatles have had an impact on history and are still well remembered for all their contributions, musically or otherwise. You mentioned that having a marketing presence for bands today is important. Do you think Brian’s style of managing and marketing the Beatles changed the music management/marketing paradigm?
Tiwary: The short answer is yes, but I think it’s a little more complicated than yes or no. Obviously, the doors that The Beatles opened allowed a great number of bands to do what they did. Going back to the source, pop bands didn’t write their own music. The talent scouts at record labels were A&R people, an old-fashioned term that stands for Artists and Repertoire, who found the talent and picked the songs; artists didn’t do songs or films, didn’t get involved in cartoons or make fashion statements. They stayed away from politics. These are all things The Beatles did and things that their record company wasn’t thrilled about since it upset the apple cart.
Today, bands are expected to do these things. When there’s a large world tragedy, the bands are expected to make a statement or throw a benefit. In today’s day and age with the internet, Twitter and everything else, artists are expected to have opinions on everything. They’re expected to be fashion icons as much as they’re performers. These are doors that Brian opened and a great number of British bands walked through them with The Beatles. There would have been no Rolling Stones, The Who or Led Zeppelin if it wasn’t for what Brian did for The Beatles.
I absolutely think that Brian’s influence and what he did to the music industry started with the music industry, but branched out to pop culture, the influence of which is still being felt today. I also think that Brian was in a lot of ways a breed unto himself. He approached the field of artist management with a certain degree of grace, decorum and gentlemanly ways that I don’t think you see a lot of today. There’s the scene in the book with Colonel Parker, where Parker is the extreme example in the other direction. I think that there are a lot of artist managers who lean a little more Parker’s direction than Brian’s. They’re not considered to be as much sharks as Parker was, but I wouldn’t necessarily say the field of artist management and agents is considered by and large to be gentlemen.
I think there are elements to Brian’s style that were very specific to him and I wouldn’t say he’s the only one, but there are certain things he did that no one else really has been able to quite mimic. And a lot of it got him in trouble! The merchandising deals were a great source of stress. He was the first to acknowledge that he was not a great businessman in the traditional sense of business. He was the guy who allowed the band to focus on their art.
JP: You bring up the Colonel Parker contrast. He was depicted as a gluttonous, greedy manager compared to Brian and it seems to the point of that was to show how different the two really were. What do you feel Brian’s motivations were for his role with The Beatles? Colonel Parker was clearly in it for the money. Brian seemed to enjoy the wealth, but it didn’t seem to be enough to make him happy per se.
Tiwary: It’s a complicated answer. There are a lot of things behind his motivation and I don’t think money really had anything to do with it. Brian wasn’t wealthy growing up—certainly not as wealthy as he became after he managed the band—but he was well off. That is a noteworthy comparison with Colonel Parker as Parker came from nothing. I can understand that Parker grew up wanting money because he didn’t have any. Brian came from a place where he had some money, so I think the money wasn’t that interesting to him at all.
Brian had a dream that The Beatles were guys who would inspire people all over the world. He was a person who was gay at a time when it was against the law. At the risk of being a little cheesy with my Beatles references, he was a guy who had to hide his own love away. The Beatles for him represented a chance to spread some love into the world. He couldn’t have a boyfriend, couldn’t get married and couldn’t have children, so The Beatles were all of those things to him. A lot has been made of the fact that he calls them his “boys” and many journalists have suggested that was because they were his boy toys and he was sexually attracted to them. I think it’s more beautiful than that. He thought of them as his children; the children he would never have. It’s a really important line in the book when he tells John Lennon it’s a lovely, lucky thing to have children. That’s something he was never going to have. What he was in it for was the dream of spreading some love into the world.
He was the ultimate outsider and for people who think they are outsiders in their chosen field (like myself), there’s a small or maybe not so small part of you that wants to achieve success to show all the people who told you that you couldn’t that you can. Brian wanted to show the world that this gay, Jewish man from Liverpool could change the world. I think he was trying to prove it to someone—and this is where it gets complicated—in who was he trying to prove it to. Maybe he was trying to prove it to himself. Maybe he thought he was proving it to his parents, but his parents loved him. I think that’s very human and humans aren’t black and white; we’re complicated creatures. His motivations were multiple: proving he could, reaching that dream of love and a whole host of other things. It was definitely not for the money.
JP: Brian was gay and used a lot of recreational drugs, lifestyle choices that seemed to be pretty rebellious at the time, yet he wanted to the Beatles to be squeaky-clean. How do you think he reconciled those two different personas?
Tiwary: I wouldn’t say it’s entirely accurate he wanted The Beatles to be squeaky-clean. I think he wanted them to start as being squeaky-clean, but he wasn’t opposed to them changing their image. As the 1960s went on, The Doors were appearing and the Beach Boys had released Pet Sounds. Brian wanted The Beatles to start that way because he felt that image would help them to be embraced by the entire world—girls, boys, parents, grandparents. Everyone.
When The Beatles came on the scene, pop bands weren’t writing their own material. By the time we got to 1967, The Doors were appearing in LA and there was a sea change. And Brian always wanted the Beatles to be one step ahead of that. Unlike the beginning days where he came up with the suits and said “put these suits on, try these haircuts, do these things,” in the later 60s he didn’t tell them what to do, but he encouraged them to do something. The band said they wanted to experiment with this or do that and Brian encouraged it. He said you do your thing; I’ll make sure the record labels are ok with it. And that was also around the same time they all started experimenting with recreational drugs.
If you look at the chronology, there wasn’t really a conflict. When they were starting to experiment with drugs it was also around the same time they were starting to experiment with fashion, which was also something Brian encouraged them to do. Unfortunately, that side of the Brian Epstein story is not in the book, but sit tight and you’ll see some of it in the film, which allows me to tell elements of the story that I couldn’t tell in the graphic novel; different stories, as I didn’t want the book and film to replicate each other. I want them to complement one another and in the film we get into it more about The Beatles changing.
I wanted the book to be a slim read so that people could pick it up and be excited for reading about Brian. I could’ve written a 400-page book about Brian that I would’ve loved and there would’ve been fanatics like me who’d get a kick out of it, but is a 400-page book about the guy who managed The Beatles really that fun for everyone? But flipping through a graphic novel and seeing this gorgeous art by Andrew Robinson and seeing that it’s only 128-pages long, I think there are probably some people who aren’t insane Beatles fans who will pick it up and read it.
JP: You mentioned the great art by Robinson. How did you get paired up with him and Kyle Baker for The Fifth Beatle?
Tiwary: I love comics. Grew up reading comics and lifelong comics fan. I’m actually on the Board of Directors at Valiant Entertainment so I do work in the comic space a little bit through that. I’m one of the early investors in the revamped Valiant. Through my love of comics I was aware of the great artists and through my connections at Valiant I was able to reach some of these guys. It was through Jason Kothari who was the then CEO of Valiant that I met Mark Irwin, who was then Robinson’s agent. Mark is very well connected to artists in general and he said he would help me find an artist, with his first suggestion being Andrew.
Andrew’s work speaks for itself…it’s gorgeous. He’s got that side of it down, but in meeting him we got along so well. He loved my script and working with Andrew proved to be incredibly collaborative which for me, because this was my first project, was very important. There were moments in the script where I was incredibly specific—I want three panels here, this camera angle, this color tone and this is exactly how I want it. Andrew was fine with that and may have had a suggestion or two, but he was happy to give me what I wanted. He’s talented enough where he could do that; really nail whatever it was that I really wanted.
There were also moments in the script where I had no idea how to do it. I said here’s the dialogue, here’s the emotions I want to convey and what’s going on in the character’s heads and lives, but I don’t know how to do it in artwork so what do you think. Andrew was willing to take over and let his art do the storytelling. It was really important to me to have a relationship with an artist that was going to be very collaborative and it was very clear from the very beginning that Andrew and I were going to have that. Andrew is also an incredibly meticulous artist, very big on photo reference and research. To me, being a hardcore Beatles fan myself I knew the Beatles community would really scrutinize this book and Andrew cared to get it right.
One tiny example. There’s a few pages where Moxie puts a Beatles record on the turntable and they begin dancing. I think it’s “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” If you look on those pages at the records they’re putting on, the serial numbers on those singles are actually the correct serial numbers from a first pressing of those records. Andrew and I both cared to get that right. I was thinking someone would notice and before the book is even out, we’re talking to some Asian companies and a Japanese company wrote and said “I believe you’ve gotten the serial number incorrect.” And I was able to write back and say “no, actually the serial number you’re referring to is the second printing. The first printing serial number is this one and here’s the photo to prove it.” Anyway, Andrew was that guy too. He equally wanted to work with me to make sure we got all the period elements right.
Kyle Baker is a New Yorker and I’m a New Yorker. We’ve known each other for years and I knew that for that sequence in the Philippines I wanted it to mirror the old Beatles cartoons from the 1960s. I knew that I wanted to work with a different artist. I wanted it to be such a radical shift that I wanted a cartoonist. I’ve long wanted to do something with Kyle (we’ve known each other for years and haven’t done anything together) and I had a feeling that he was a Beatles fan who grew up on those cartoons. I spoke to him about it and he was super excited. He did grow up watching those Beatles Cartoons and he loved the script.
I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to do this book with two incredible artists. It’s been a real joy working with both of them. They brought my words to vivid life as brilliantly as I could possibly have asked for.
JP: The art is very well done and fits the script perfectly. Another good fit is Dark Horse as the publisher. They do a great job with trades and licensed properties, making them a perfect fit for publishing The Fifth Beatle. How did that arrangement come about?
Tiwary: It’s a really wonderful story. We were in a great place with this. My background is primarily in theater production and with theater (unlike film) there aren’t studios that invest in a slate of shows. Each Broadway show is like its own business entity, so as a producer each show is like you’re little do-it-yourself experience. You raise the money and you put the show on, which is how I’m used to operating. Before I worked in theater (and for myself for 14 years) I worked in the music industry and even though I worked for major record labels, my advice to artists was always to do it yourself.
I grew up listening to punk rock, which was all DIY. That was my intention with Andrew and Kyle. We raised the money and we were going to make the book on our own before going to a publisher. I thought, let’s get it done. Let’s not wait for someone to pay us to do it. Let’s just do it, take it to a publisher and we’ll see who wants to put it out. That was our intention. We were about 20 pages in and word got out that Andrew and Kyle were working on this project related to The Beatles; anything Beatles related pricks ears. Having worked with Green Day and having produced The Addams Family, my name had some notoriety to it in certain circles. People knew who I was and that Vivek Tiwary was doing a book with two very famous comic book artists about The Beatles got attention.
We were in a wonderful situation where publishers started calling us. I don’t want to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, but everyone was interested in putting out the book. All the major comic companies were interested. All the companies I sat down with were wonderful and I was in a fantastic situation where I was choosing amongst great options, but Mike Richardson and Dark Horse were clearly the most passionate. If you go the FifthBeatle.com, you’ll see a little blurb written by Mike about why he wanted to do The Fifth Beatle. Coming from Mike as the founder and head of the company all the way down, everyone at Dark Horse was really just as passionate about this as I was. Or almost as passionate as I was—I don’t know if anyone was as crazy as me! They were clearly of the same heart with this and it was very clear that Dark Horse was the right publisher.
That was the main reason I went with them. I won’t lie though; the fanboy in me is pretty excited with being at the same company that puts out the Star Wars books. I’ve long been a fan of Dark Horse and I think they’re an amazing company. To have a book out wit them is an honor for me. In the Dark Horse single comics there’s a section called Horsepower where they have a guest columnist and I was chosen to be the columnist for this month. The fanboy geek in me was so excited about that. I have a Horsepower column! Dark Horse is amazing and I feel very honored to be able to put my book out with them.
JP: Image, Valiant and Dark Horse are kind of the new big three. Everything they’re putting out is great.
Tiwary: Valiant is awesome. Obviously, I’m an investor and on the board. If you’re familiar with the Valiant catalog and probably understand why I didn’t put The Fifth Beatle out with them. I love Valiant though. It’s not a universe the book fits into, but thanks for putting Valiant in that same breath. I obviously agree, as I think we’re doing some really wonderful stuff.
JP: Valiant has been awesome so far. Archer and Armstrong is one of my favorite books.
Tiwary: That’s so cool! Thank you! I’m really, really proud of the work we’re doing. Amazing art, amazing creators.
JP: Do you feel that The Beatles would have had as much success had Brian never entered their lives? And on the flipside, do you think they would’ve broken up so acrimoniously had he not died so early.
Tiwary: I typically don’t like trading in what if scenarios. Having said that, I don’t think the band would have made it out of Liverpool if it weren’t for Brian. I think they would’ve been a moderately successful Liverpool band, which is what they were when Brian discovered them. They were very, very popular, but there were a number of Liverpool bands. For example, Ringo’s band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was more popular than The Beatles. They had a small fanbase in Hamburg and Liverpool, but that’s where it would’ve ended. If you look at the facts, every record label (including EMI who would eventually sign them) passed on The Beatles. It was Brian’s insane determination to get them a record deal that made that happen. I don’t think the group would have ever remotely enjoyed the success that they had with Brian if it wasn’t for him.
To answer the latter part of the question about the break-up. Again, it’s really hard to say about what ifs. Would Brian have been able to keep the Beatles together? Who knows. If you look at the chronology and facts though, Brian’s death really marked a turning point for the group; it was after his death that the band started to have some failures. Magical Mystery Tour was a disaster; the record is wonderful but the film was a mess. Today, it has a certain charm to it, but when it came out it was critically drubbed and the first time The Beatles ever got criticized. Their whole experiment with the Apple boutique was a disaster. The Beatles were all of a sudden facing failures, which they had never faced before. I don’t know if Brian would have been able to keep them together as a band because there’s no question they were becoming strong personalities. George Harrison in particular was relegated to being a tertiary songwriter in the band, even though he was becoming a wonderful songwriter in his own right. I could see him saying he didn’t want to be behind Paul and John anymore. I suspect the band would have splintered regardless.
There is no way though—no way—that Brian would have allowed them to disband in such a public sea of hate. If you know your Beatles history, they were suing each other—it was ugly. Brian would’ve created a situation that you often see with the best-managed modern bands, which is “whatever happened to those guys.” They didn’t publicly break up; rather, they just stopped doing stuff. You would’ve seen Paul and John putting out solo records and Ringo would have started acting and George would have done solo work. All of a sudden, they’d be doing other things. But it wouldn’t be against the backdrop of the Beatles suing each other and disbanding in an ugly way.
The line is in the book: “The Beatles are like family.” My feeling is that Brian viewed the Beatles like his kids. As a father, you don’t split your family…you don’t let that happen. Brian would never have let The Beatles disband as publicly and hatefully as they did. Would they have disbanded anyway? Maybe, but it would have been much more graceful.
JP: What’s on your pull list right now?
Tiwary: You know, I’m a little bit late in my reading!
I just finished reading Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy, which I thought was genius. I’m a huge Locke and Key fan. I’ve been a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan since the Mirage days. I was a huge fan of the Mirage days and didn’t really care for anything outside of that. I’d even go so far as to say after issue 20-21 with IDW, it started to go off the rails for me a little bit. I loved the Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird TMNT most. I think the IDW books do a great job paying tribute to the spirit of the earlier books. I’ll pretty much read anything Star Wars. The new Star Wars series is quite wonderful. Those are probably the top of my list.
I’m also a huge Sandman fan. I’m very nervous about The Sandman: Overture, but I thought issue one was awesome. Whenever a creator comes back to something they worked on decades ago I worry if it’s going to be terrible, but Neil knocked it out of the park, so I’m super psyched for the rest of that.
JP: It’s hard for Neil Gaiman to do wrong.
Tiwary: That’s a good point. Even still, I’ll admit to being nervous, but my nervousness was unfounded. I’ll tell you a quick little Neil/The Fifth Beatle story. I don’t know how much he would remember, but this is a true story.
I accumulated all this knowledge about Brian Epstein and my initial plan was to go out and find a writer. He’s a great subject and I was positive I could get a great writer. My plan was always to do a graphic novel and a film and one of the first people I thought of was Neil. I had never met him before, but we had mutual friends in common. I got an introduction and had written a 40 to 50-page scriptment, which is a cross between a script and a treatment. In other words, it was how I thought the story should be told with a few pages of script to show the tone I was looking for. Neil wrote me back and said this is a wonderful project, but you write really well and you should take a crack at writing this yourself. I thought at the time if Neil Gaiman thinks I can do it, then I can do it! That was a big inspiration to me. In a lot of ways, it was Neil’s inspiration that gave me the confidence to go ahead and pursue it on my own.
JP: That’s about as good an endorsement you can get.
Tiwary: Right! I hope through the same mutual friends I can get him a copy of the book. I don’t know if he’ll remember that story, but it’s true. If it wasn’t for that, I may never have done this myself.
JP: Thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
Tiwary: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me! I’ve been working on the book for many, many years; it’s been a labor of love. It’s just so exciting to me that it’s coming out next week. It feels like a dream come true.