Peter Brown, one of the Beatles' closest confidants, tells all (again)
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Peter Brown, one of the Beatles' closest confidants, tells all (again)
Peter Brown at home in New York, March 20, 2024. Brown and the writer Steven Gaines are releasing a book, “All You Need Is Love: The Beatles in Their Own Words,” made up of interviews they conducted in 1980 and 1981 with the band and people close to it. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK, NY.- Peter Brown stood in his spacious Central Park West apartment, pointing first at the dining table and then through the window to the park outside, with Strawberry Fields just to the right.

“John sat at that table looking through here,” Brown said, “and he couldn’t take his eyes off the park.”

That’s John as in Lennon. And the story of the former Beatle coveting this living-room view in 1971 — and how Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, eventually got their own place one block down, at the Dakota — is just one of Brown’s countless nuggets of Fab Four lore. In the 1960s he was an assistant to Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, and then an officer at Apple Corps, the band’s company. A key figure in the Beatles’ secretive inner circle, Brown kept a red telephone on his desk whose number was known only to the four members.

And it was Brown who, in 1969, informed Lennon that he and Ono could quickly and quietly wed in a small British territory on the edge of the Mediterranean, a piece of advice immortalized in “The Ballad of John and Yoko”: “Peter Brown called to say, ‘You can make it OK/You can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain.’”

Next week, Brown and writer Steven Gaines are releasing a book, “All You Need Is Love: The Beatles in Their Own Words,” made up of interviews they conducted in 1980 and 1981 with the band and people close to it, including business representatives, lawyers, wives and ex-wives — the raw material that Brown and Gaines used for their earlier narrative biography of the band, “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles,” published in 1983.

Now 87, Brown is a polarizing figure in Beatles history. He was a witness to some of the band’s most important moments and was a trusted keeper of its secrets. “The only people left are Paul and Ringo and me,” he said.

On a tour of Brown’s apartment, the spoils of his access were everywhere. In his bedroom, Brown showed off an original image of the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” with background figures (like Gandhi) that didn’t make the final cut. In the dining room are binders and boxes stuffed with Beatle-related snapshots and correspondence.

But the publication of “The Love You Make” four decades ago also made him a kind of villain. According to Brown, the band agreed to interviews to set the record straight about its history. Yet the book — primarily written by Gaines, a journalist and biographer known for detailed, warts-and-all portraits — was seen as tawdry and sensational, preoccupied with sex lives and internecine conflicts, with music a secondary subject. Excerpts ran in National Enquirer.

To the band and many of those around them, it was seen as a betrayal. Paul McCartney accused Brown of misleading him by pitching it as a more general book about music in the 1960s. Linda McCartney said she and Paul burned it.

“That book was a shame,” Mark Lewisohn, the preeminent Beatles scholar, said in a recent interview.

“It’s almost like there are two different Peter Browns,” Lewisohn added. “There’s the Peter Brown I know, who is this upright, respectable, very successful businessman. And then the one who attached his name to this Steven Gaines book.”

Brown has heard all the criticism before, and waves it off. Sitting in a chair he inherited from Epstein — and dapper as always in a purple button-down shirt and charcoal slacks — Brown said the book stands as an accurate portrayal, and that the Beatles knew full well what they were getting into.

“There was never any effort on my part to make it negative,” Brown said in his unflappably gentle voice, as classical music wafted quietly through his home. “And nobody’s ever questioned that it was true.”

He also rejected McCartney’s version of events. “Paul imagines things,” Brown said. “Everything he does, he has his own way of remembering, and he’s crazy about it.”

Gaines, for his part, attributes the notoriety of the original book to his and Brown’s refusal to produce a sanitized hagiography, and their decision instead to publish controversial private details. Among those was a rumor that Lennon once had a sexual encounter with Epstein, which Brown and Gaines reported as fact, based on their research.

“Nobody had put something like that in a book,” Gaines said. That episode, on a trip to Spain in 1963, has been debated for years by Beatles commentators. Lennon denied having sex with Epstein, saying in an interview with Playboy: “It was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated.”

Brown and Gaines’ new book, “All You Need Is Love,” goes even deeper into Beatle lore than their first. It offers an extended transcript of Ono denying, not too persuasively, that she introduced Lennon to heroin, and includes various firsthand accounts of the threats and chaos the band faced on tour in Manila, Philippines, in 1966. Ron Kass, who led the Beatles’ Apple label, describes the impossibility of running a business with Lennon and McCartney as the bosses. One, he says, wanted the label design to be green, the other white; Kass decided to make each side a different color.

There are also startling comments from McCartney and George Harrison about Lennon, revealing the tension and raw feelings that were still present a decade after the band broke up, in interviews recorded just weeks before Lennon was killed in December 1980. Harrison calls his former bandmate “a piece of (expletive)” and wonders why he had “become so nasty.”

McCartney describes Lennon and Ono as “very suspicious people,” and portrays his relationship with them as a kind of power struggle.

“The way to get their friendship is to do everything the way they require it. To do anything else is how to not get their friendship,” McCartney says in the book. “I know that if I absolutely lie down on the ground and just do everything like they say and laugh at all their jokes and don’t expect my jokes to ever get laughed at,” he adds, “if I’m willing to do all that, then we can be friends.”

Lennon never got a chance to respond, Brown said. “I spoke to John, and said, ‘Listen, I’m coming to New York to do some of the recordings,’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Yes, fine. Looking forward to it.’ And that was the week before he was murdered.” Ono’s interview was done a few months later, in the spring of 1981.

As with many Beatles histories, there are plenty of contradictions, opposing perspectives and selective memories. Interviews with manager Allen Klein and lawyer John L. Eastman offer an icy tit-for-tat on the battle for business control during the band’s last days. And Alexis Mardas, aka Magic Alex, the supposed inventor who others in the book call a con man, gives his account — with skeptical footnotes added by Brown and Gaines — of the Beatles’ retreat in India in 1968.

When asked about finding the truth amid contrasting accounts in an oral history, Brown turned philosophical. “It depends on where you’re sitting,” he said.

There are even conflicting stories about the genesis of Brown and Gaines’ new book. According to Brown, it began when a New York Times reporter — me — asked him for comment three years ago about “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s exhaustive look at the band’s stormy recording sessions in early 1969. Brown realized then, he said, that he was one of the last remaining witnesses to important history.

But Gaines said that the origins of the project go back years before, to when he wondered what to do with the original interview tapes, which were languishing in his safe deposit box on Long Island. Gaines said he considered donating or selling them, but Brown demurred. They settled on a book of edited transcriptions, though they still squabble over details like ownership of the tapes. “It’s ‘Rashomon’ with Peter,” Gaines said.

After Brown quit his work with the Beatles on Dec. 31, 1970 — the day that McCartney filed a lawsuit to dissolve the band’s partnership — he came to the United States and worked with Robert Stigwood, the Australian-born entertainment mogul who had huge hits in the 1970s with the Bee Gees and the films “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” Then Brown founded a public relations firm, BLJ Worldwide, which in 2011 came under scrutiny for its work representing the families of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and of Bashar Assad in Syria. Brown declined to speak about that episode on the record.

But he remains most proud of his association with the Beatles, and said he viewed “All You Need Is Love” as a final gesture defining his legacy with the band.

“This is the end of it,” he said. “Hopefully we’re closing the door now.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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