Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. One of the mightiest myths and mysteries in John Lennon‘s legacy is whether he had same-sex encounters.
In an interview in GQ last week, Paul McCartney talked about just how close he and his band mate John Lennon really were. They played together with The Beatles, and they played around together.
“What it was, I was over at John’s house, and it was just a group of us. And instead of just getting roaring drunk and partying, I don’t even know if we were staying over or anything, we were all just in these chairs, and the lights were out, and somebody started masturbating, so we all did.”
McCartney has a slightly different account in his authorized biography, Many Years From Now (1998):
“We used to have wanking sessions when we were young at Nigel Whalley’s house in Woolton. We’d stay overnight and we’d all sit in armchairs and we’d put all the lights out and being teenage pubescent boys we’d all wank. What we used to do, someone would say, ‘Brigitte Bardot’. That would keep everyone on par, then somebody, probably John, would say, ‘Winston Churchill’, and it would completely ruin everyone’s concentration.”
Lennon refers to the jerk-off sessions in a sketch he wrote for the 1969 Off-Broadway musical Oh! Calcutta! (1969). It seems that Lennon had another almost-gay experience with The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein early in his career. Lennon:
“I was on holiday with Brian Epstein in Spain, where the rumors went around that he and I were having a love affair. Well, it was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship. It was my first experience with a homosexual that I was conscious was homosexual. He had admitted it to me. We had this holiday together because Cynthia was pregnant, and I went to Spain and there were lots of funny stories. We used to sit in a cafe in Torremolinos looking at all the boys and I’d say, ‘Do you like that one, do you like this one?’. I was rather enjoying the experience, thinking like a writer all the time: I am experiencing this, you know. Eppy just kept on and on at me, until one night, I finally just pulled me trousers down and said to him: ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Brian, here, just stick it up me fucking arse then!'”
“He said to me, ‘Actually, John, I don’t do that kind of thing. That’s not what I like to do’.’Well’ I said, ‘what is it you like to do?’’and he said, ‘I’d really just like to touch you, John’. and so I let him toss me off, and that was it… Yeah, so fucking what! He’s having a fucking hard time anyway. So what harm did it do, for fuck’s sake? No harm at all. The poor fucking bastard, he can’t help the way he is.”
This Spanish holiday was dramatized in the excellent film The Hours And Times (1991), with David Angus as Epstein and Ian Hart as Lennon.
In December 1961, Epstein started work at his most important job: Manager of The Beatles. After having seen the band play at a Liverpool club, young and hot in their leather jackets, smoking cigarettes and swearing on stage, he immediately decided the lads needed to change their image.
Reimagining The Beatles’ look and stage personas, Epstein purchased mod mohair suits for the boys, insisted on their signature haircuts and started to find them new gigs. He fired the drummer, Pete Best, so that he could be replaced by Richie Starkey. He pitched The Beatles to the various record labels, determined to get them signed to a recording contract. After being rejected by Decca, among other labels, he managed to get them signed with EMI and he lined up George Martin as their producer.
Initially, The Beatles weren’t completely confident or trustful of Epstein (they called him “Eppie”), but with his hard work and utter devotion he earned their respect and admiration.
It was no secret that Epstein was gay. In school he recalled being “ragged, nagged and bullied”. He dropped out when he turned 16-years-old. He was drafted into the British Army, but after 10 months he was discharged for being “mentally unfit” after being harassed and bullied again. Around this time, Epstein began enjoying the special company of other guys. In 1956, he was arrested for propositioning men in a subway lavatory, the victim of an undercover sting. Epstein pleaded guilty and was fined and released.
The Beatles always knew that Epstein was gay. Although he was professional and distinguished as a business man, his double life wasn’t always as private as he wanted it to be. There were relentless rumors that Epstein was in love with Lennon. Epstein was very attracted to Lennon’s talent, his wit and his good-looks. Lennon was completely aware of Epstein’s feelings and was sometimes teased by his mates about Epstein’s subtle attentions.
As Beatlemania reached a fever, Epstein became less involved in the routine daily operations of the band. The Beatles empire continued growing, but Epstein felt less secure about his future with them. His contract was due to expire, and he feared it would not be renewed (he would remain their manager until his death). He began a downward spiral, becoming depressed and driven by drug addiction. He was drinking, gambling, taking LSD and popping pills. Epstein’s life became more than he could handle.
When The Beatles went to India to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in August 1967, it was the first time they had gone anywhere without Epstein being in charge. He had seemed interested in what Maharishi had to offer, but it was a bank holiday weekend and he decided to spend it with friends. For The Beatles, the trip was like being kids allowed to play without adult supervision. Lennon:
“It was like going somewhere without your trousers on!”
In India, McCartney, John, George Harrison and Ringo Starr received word that Epstein had died, disillusioned and alone, from a drug overdose. He was just 32-years-old. All four Beatles were completely, utterly devastated. He had been their friend, their enabler, their hero. He was irreplaceable. Shocked and stunned, they asked the Maharishi for his advice and were told: “Being within the direct realm of the physical world, his death is not important”.
Shortly after Epstein’s death, The Beatles underlying tensions and resentments began to surface. Lennon said it was the beginning of the end. Lennon:
“He was in love with me. It’s interesting and will make a nice Hollywood Babylon story someday about Brian Epstein’s sex life, but it’s irrelevant, absolutely irrelevant.”
In an interview after Lennon’s murder, Yoko Ono wrote:
“John and I had a big talk about it, saying, basically, all of us must be bisexual. And we were sort of in a situation of thinking that we’re not bisexual because of society. So, we are hiding the other side of ourselves, which is less acceptable.”
“I used to say to him: ‘I think you’re a closet fag, you know’. Because after we started to live together, John would say to me: ‘Do you know why I like you? Because you look like a bloke in drag. You’re like a mate’.”
“I think he had a desire to have sex with other men, but I think he was too inhibited. He said: ‘I don’t mind if there’s an incredibly attractive guy’. It’s very difficult: ‘They would have to be not just physically attractive, but mentally very advanced too. And you can’t find people like that’.”
Male homosexual activity was illegal in Britain until September 1967, when it was decriminalized just one month after Epstein’s death. If things had been different and he had been able to be here today, probably having just barely survived the murder of Lennon in 1980, a fabulously wealthy and happily openly gay Sir Brian Epstein might be celebrating his 83rd birthday today with a nice quiet dinner, plus cake, at his home in San Francisco along with his longtime husband (a Lennon lookalike), Sean and Yoko, Julian, Paul, Ringo, and their children and grandchildren.