23-Nov, 06:58

01:36, October 17 118 0

2017-10-17 01:36:03
The Gay Architects of Classic Rock

One of the 20th century’s most powerful creations was the rock star: the preening, erotic god of guitar-fired defiance. But those who embodied that character didn’t spring from nowhere. Managers groomed them and shaped them, and in the classic rock era those managers were often gay men.

For decades, the close relationships between the managers and the predominantly straight musicians they advised was not discussed much. Lately, however, it has become a point of pride and celebration.

“The Fifth Beatle,” a recent graphic novel that focuses on the personal life of the Fab Four’s gay manager, Brian Epstein, was a New York Times best seller and is now in development as a six-part mini-series, with the approval of the Beatles’ estate. And the documentary film “Lambert & Stamp” made clear the important role played by Kit Lambert, the gay co-manager of the Who, in shaping the band’s identity.

Another image maker of the classic-rock era, Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, is the subject of a new biography by Joe Hagan, “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine,” which stresses the role his sexuality played in his presentations of male rock stars throughout the magazine’s history. (Mr. Wenner did not come out to the press until the mid-1990s).

“Being gay gave me a finer appreciation of the sexuality of the guys up there,” Mr. Wenner says in the book. “I could understand that in a way others didn’t.”

That understanding played out in memorable Rolling Stone images like David Cassidy showing off his naked torso down to his pubic hair, in a Playboy-style centerfold, and Jim Morrison smoldering next to the cover line “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, He’s Dead.”

Jock McLean, who worked as an assistant to George Harrison 50 years ago, noticed the depth of the relationship between the Beatles and Mr. Epstein one August day not long before the manager’s death. Mr. McLean’s job was to pick up the singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, a promising new artist in those days, and drive him to a meeting with Mr. Harrison at the house he was renting on Blue Jay Way in the Hollywood Hills, Calif.

There was talk of Mr. Nilsson perhaps joining the Beatles nascent company. That’s when things went sour, Mr. McLean said.

“George was talking about how wonderful the whole thing was going to be, trying to convince Harry to join the company,” Mr. McLean recalled. “It was all great until Harry said, ‘The only thing is, I don’t think I could be managed by a gay man.’” (Mr. Epstein’s sexuality was known by many in the industry at the time.)

Incensed, Mr. Harrison gave his assistant a nod.

“In a heartbeat, Harry was out of the house,” Mr. McLean said. “George, like all the Beatles, was extremely supportive of Brian. To them, Brian was the man.” (After Mr. Epstein died, Mr. Nilsson had a rapprochement with the band and worked closely with John Lennon.)

Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of the Who, had a similar respect for Mr. Lambert, who had an upper-class background at a time when those of his tier rarely interacted with working-class ruffians like Mr. Daltrey.

“Kit was the only ‘posh’ guy I ever met who wouldn’t talk down to me,” Mr. Daltrey said in “Lambert & Stamp.” “Kit had this fearless quality.”

At the time, men like Mr. Lambert had to. Up until 1967, being gay was illegal in Britain, and long after that law changed, gay men remained a target of police entrapment, blackmail and beatings. Mr. Epstein was assaulted and was the target of blackmail before he died in 1967 from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.

At the same time, many of these men had great power within their circle. As managers of some of the era’s most potent British rock bands, they stood at the forefront of sounds, sensibilities and styles that would demolish and remake pop culture.

The gay managers of that era were forthright about their sexuality, if only among friends and colleagues. Besides Mr. Epstein and Mr. Lambert, those men included Robert Stigwood (manager of Cream and the Bee Gees), Simon Napier-Bell (the Yardbirds, Marc Bolan), Billy Gaff (Rod Stewart), Ken Pitt (David Bowie), Barry Krost (Cat Stevens) and Larry Parnes (who molded pre-Beatles British rockers, including Tommy Steele to Billy Fury).

Their sexual orientation was mirrored by Americans including Nat Weiss (who oversaw the Beatles’ business interests and later managed James Taylor), Danny Fields (who managed Iggy Pop and the Stooges and, later, the Ramones), as well as music moguls including David Geffen and Clive Davis (who identifies as bisexual).

According to Mr. Napier-Bell, part of the reason British gay men of his era gravitated to the music business was because it was one of the few areas “where you could be out amongst yourselves. It was like a private club,” he said. “It was such a good life. You’d go to Robert Stigwood’s house and it was like a gay pub.”

Jim Fouratt, who has worked in the music industry since the 1960s, believes the men in Mr. Napier-Bell’s circle brought to the emerging rock scene a special understanding of image. “As gay men, we have to remake ourselves in order to survive,” he said. “That matches perfectly with the masquerade of rock ’n’ roll, with the fantasy.”

Martin Aston, the author of “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Became Gay,” said the connection between rock’s gay managers and image molding stems from the fact that “gay men at the time would be judged almost entirely on how they looked. It wasn’t like there were lots of nice places to go and have lovely conversations. It was all communicated through cruising.”

As a result, Mr. Aston said, gay men developed a comfort with the art of being seen, “as opposed to straight men, who, before the phenomenon of the ‘metrosexual,’ were threatened by the notion of being looked at, of becoming an object.”

Vivek Tiwary, the author of the “The Fifth Beatle,” argues that Mr. Epstein’s sexual orientation had a strong influence on the Beatles’ public image.

“Brian Epstein’s attraction to all of the Beatles, and in particular to John, allowed him to create an image for the band that was appealing not just to girls, but also to boys,” Mr. Tiwary said. “Brian knew what it was like to be a boy, as well as how to attract them. A straight manager might just think, ‘Here’s a bunch of cute boys that girls will love.’ He might make them so girl-friendly that they seem too weak for guys to get into them.”

One of Mr. Epstein’s pivotal decisions was to change the Beatles’ outfits, from denim and leather to natty suits. Using the best local tailors, he got the band into single-breasted, three-button mohair suits, with narrow labels and even narrower pants, according to Mark Lewisohn in his book on the band, “Tune In.”

By honing such looks, the managers did more than influence the presentation of musicians. They advanced the image of a new kind of man. As the ’60s progressed, androgyny became central to male display, with long hair, brightly colored clothing, and, in the case of the mods of the mid-’60s, flashy tailored suits.

“The mods loved nothing more than to be seen walking down the street, sharp dressed with sharkskin pants and makeup,” said James Cooper, the director of “Lambert & Stamp.” “These tough guys wore eyeliner.”

Mr. Fouratt thinks that much of the permission for the gender blurring came from the spreading drug culture. “Drugs allowed men and boys to discover their beauty and femininity,” he said. “The foppishness of rock stars is like the peacock, where the male is the beautiful one, not the female. That became the forefront in rock ’n’ roll, encouraged by the gay managers.”

It played out most clearly in a star like Mick Jagger, who adopted a campy and preening persona, affects shared by the Rolling Stones’ first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham.

“Mick was attractive for that preening,” Mr. Oldham said. “Many men might say to their mates, ‘Oh, he’s a poof!’ So they didn’t mind their wives or girlfriends enjoying him.”

Straight rock stars also found that appropriating the sensual awareness of gay men paid off in sexual opportunities. “David Bowie had to force the working-class guys in his band the Spiders from Mars to wear those glam clothes,” Mr. Aston said. “But as soon as they saw the impact it had on women, they were like, ‘Pass me the blush!’”

Still, given the vilification of homosexuality at the time, one might expect the rockers to have some discomfort with the gay men who advised them. In the case of the Who, Mr. Cooper believes the members bonded with Mr. Lambert not in spite of his sexual identity but in some ways because of it. The unlikeliness, and mutual risk, of the connection between Mr. Lambert (an upper-class, privileged gay man) and his partner in management, Chris Stamp (a straight street kid) impressed them deeply.

“The unconditional bond their managers had gave them an aura of invincibility,” Mr. Cooper said. “It also gave them a mystery: Who were these guys? If these guys were capable of bonding, they could be capable of anything.”

Mr. Lambert played that aspect up, stoking the Who’s budding interest in cultural disruption and advising the band’s leader, Pete Townshend. “Kit was telling the press that the Who were a new form of social crime,” Mr. Cooper said. “He told Pete, ‘When you give an interview, leave a wound. Oh, and by the way, smash your instruments.’”

Mr. Napier-Bell sees the entire notion of rock ’n’ roll rebellion as an extension of “gay anger.” “We were against the establishment, the government and the law, which was against us,” he said. “It was an attitude felt by the managers that was expressed through their groups.”

At the same time, many of the gay men came from more refined backgrounds than the rockers, an experience they transferred to their charges. “Brian came from a world of classical music and jazz,” Mr. Tiwary said. “He envisioned that the Beatles would be like the great classical composers and be remembered long after they were gone.”

Mr. Lambert, whose father was a prominent classical composer, pushed Mr. Townshend to write a rock opera, resulting in “Tommy.” “Kit molded me as a composer,” Mr. Townshend said in “Lambert & Stamp.”

If the young rockers benefited from the taste and ambition of their gay advisers, in turn the managers got a sense of connection they otherwise couldn’t achieve. “It’s not like a gay man at the time could marry or enjoy a family,” Mr. Cooper said. “With a band, there’s a sense of an extended family. They could raise and nurture the musicians and put all the complexity of their experience into something of worth.”

At the same time, the gay men involved with the bands found a route to power. “Where else could they get that feeling of being primary?” Mr. Cooper said. “It was a way to have impact and relevance.”

And in an era when gay sexual expression was brutally suppressed, the men were able to express themselves through the most influential sex symbols of the day, creating a kind of erotic ventriloquism.

“Whatever thoughts, feelings and longings they had in themselves could be played out in a band — and in front of an entire arena full of people,” Mr. Cooper said.

In the case of Mr. Epstein, Mr. Tiwary believes the message went beyond sex.

“It’s the great tragedy of the Brian Epstein story that he died lonely, never having a proper boyfriend,” Mr. Tiwary said. “I believe the fact that Brian couldn’t love openly made him dedicate himself to spreading a message of love with the Beatles. Through them, he had the chance to spread that love all over the world.”