Continued from Part 1
By October 1961, Stuart Sutcliffe had left The Beatles, and was suffering from blinding headaches and dark mood swings, often coupled with aggressive bouts of unprovoked jealousy towards his fiancée. He was eventually persuaded to see a doctor who diagnosed nothing but a troublesome appendix and advised him to slow down, rest, and quit cigarettes and alcohol. Early in 1962, his health declined further and he began suffering seizures. He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from increased cranial pressure which was temporarily relieved by a treatment of cranial hydrotherapy. Sutcliffe and Kircherr then visited Liverpool in February 1962 where friends noted his alarming weight loss and pale complexion.
During this visit he met Brian Epstein, the new Beatles manager, and discussed a future role as an artistic director and designer for the band. Predictably, Epstein was drawn to Sutcliffe’s looks and later wrote to him in Hamburg that he “didn’t know anyone as lovely as you existed in Liverpool”. (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p. 262)
Upon his return to Hamburg, Sutcliffe’s seizures and mood swings escalated. He wrote home that “[his] head was compressed, and filled with such unbelievable pain”. (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p. 262) On April 10, 1962 he suffered an hour-long seizure at his home and fell into a coma. Despite being rushed to hospital by ambulance, Sutcliffe died during the journey, while resting in his fiancées arms. The next day, unaware of his death, The Beatles, minus George Harrison, flew out to Hamburg from Manchester to begin yet another engagement. They were greeted by a distraught Kircherr in the hall upon arrival, and her news sent Lennon into aggressive hysterics. Lennon was later criticised by the Sutcliffe family, however, for his lack of emotion over his friend’s death.
The show of emotion in Hamburg airport had evaporated – or been carefully withdrawn – by the time his friend’s mother arrived (from the same flight as Harrison and Epstein) the following day. Lennon, in his defence, was a mere 21, and those young years had already seen their fair share of trauma. Already aware that his father and mother had abandoned him, death had been a frequent caller to his door what with losing his surrogate father (Uncle George) at 15, his mother at 17, and now his best friend at 21. It’s little wonder that he developed an aggressive defence mechanism for bottling and hiding his emotions. There are enough clues throughout his life, however, to suggest that he was always haunted by the death of his best friend and perhaps his frequent cruel treatment of him in public. Kircherr felt his behaviour towards Sutcliffe was another of his defence mechanisms; “I’m thinking when he treated him badly, it was because he was afraid anyone might see how much he loved him”. (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p. 214)
Sutcliffe may have been the subject of the self-healing and melancholy Beatles song “There’s A Place”, composed the same year as Sutcliffe’s death. He was also certainly one of the central subjects in Lennon’s 1965 autobiographical “In My Life”, and his friend also ensured that Sutcliffe finally made it onto a Beatles album, standing among the greats of the 20th century on the cover of the group’s magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yoko Ono has also maintained that Lennon spoke of Sutcliffe every day throughout his life, so much so that she felt she had known him herself.
Controversy has surrounded Sutcliffe in death just as it has his deceased best friend. His death was deemed the result of a cerebral hemorrhage, but postmortem results pointed to a previous skull trauma, possibly the result of a blow or a kick. Beatles myths often have a tendency to grow into monsters and Sutcliffe’s death is no exception. Views on how Sutcliffe may have been injured differ enormously.
The famous story is that Sutcliffe was ambushed and violently kicked in the head by a group of youths following a gig at Lathom Hall. This is the story put forth by Philip Norman, author of Lennon – The Life. Norman states the incident occurred in early 1961. He also states that Sutcliffe’s mother found him that night, bleeding heavily from a head wound.
However, Bill Harry, Pete Best, and Neil Aspinall maintained that the incident had occurred on May 14, 1960, and that it involved a few punches and nothing at all as sinister as a kick to the head. Best recalled: “When people talk of Stu being beaten up, I think it stems from this incident. But I don’t remember Stu getting to the stage where he had his head kicked in, as some legends say, alleging that this caused his fatal brain hemorrhage”. (Mersey Beat Archives)
The trouble is, neither Pete Best nor Neil Aspinall worked with the group in May 1960. They were both with The Beatles by February 1961, however, the time the incident occurred according to Philip Norman, although their recollections seem to refute the viciousness of Norman’s description of events. Time has muddied the actual details it seems, but what probably occurred is that a minor fracas took place in February 1961, which involved no serious head injuries. Incidentally Sutcliffe only returned from Hamburg in late February 1961. So if he was with the group at this performance, it must have been one of his first engagements upon his return.
The Sutcliffe family have thrown further fuel on the fire in the debate. In her book The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club, Sutcliffe’s sister Pauline claims that on his final return to Liverpool, her brother told his mother how John Lennon had attacked him in a drunken rage, knocking him to the ground and kicking him repeatedly in the head. The incident was supposedly fueled by his jealousy of Stu, and his ever increasing frustrations with his musical abilities. Paul McCartney was cited as the sole witness, and it was allegedly he who carried a bleeding Sutcliffe back to his digs.
The incident was kept in the Sutcliffe family until 1984, thus denying Lennon a chance to comment on the allegation of any involvement in his friend’s death. Lennon was known to have a violent streak to be sure, and he was a famously mean drinker. However, the alleged attack is largely out of character with his documented relationship with Sutcliffe.
There are well-known stories of Lennon going on stage wearing a toilet seat, urinating from balconies, mugging sailors, and walking the streets in his underwear. So, surely a story of him administering a vicious beating to his best friend in public would be supported by someone who was there. Horst Fascher, the group’s unofficial bodyguard in Hamburg and a man for whom violence was a working tool, claims he never heard of such an incident. Sutcliffe himself, a man who wrote letters home frequently, never wrote of the incident, and neither Harrison nor Best has ever mentioned it. Astrid Kircherr claims that Lennon never raised his hands to Sutcliffe, dismissing the allegation as “rubbish”. (The Lost Beatle, BBC 4 Documentary)
McCartney, who supposedly witnessed the incident, has no recollection of it, although he admitted that John and Stuart could have had a drunken fight (Anthology). McCartney has always come off as a villain in Sutcliffe’s story. The one well documented on-stage punch-up involving Sutcliffe was with McCartney, supposedly the result of an unkind comment aimed at Kircherr. He made no bones of his opinion on Sutcliffe’s, and even Best’s musical abilities, once shouting at them both during a performance: “You may look like James Dean and you may look like Jeff Chandler, but you’re both crap”. (Norman, Lennon – The Life, p. 237)
McCartney has confessed that he was jealous of Sutcliffe, the older boy, and no doubt Sutcliffe’s image and artistic abilities intimidated him, as they had done Lennon. In Anthology, McCartney admits that his relationship with Sutcliffe grew particularly fraught, but Kircherr suggests it was more than that: “[W]hen Paul and Stu had a row, you could tell that Paul hated him”. (Norman, Shout!, p. 90)
McCartney has always maintained that he never wanted the job as bass player, that he somehow got lumped with the job by the refusal of the others to take up the role. Harrison contradicted this, recalling that “[McCartney] went for it [the bass role]”. (Anthology)
Regardless, it seems that McCartney viewed Sutcliffe’s departure as the best possible outcome for his and the band’s collective gain – he was probably correct in his assessment. In any case, they did have options. Upon Sutcliffe’s official departure from the group, Klaus Voorman, their Hamburg acquaintance who would design the cover of Revolver and play bass on numerous John Lennon solo albums, asked Lennon if he could take up the role as The Beatles bassist. Lennon turned him down telling him, “Sorry mate, Paul has already bought a bass … “. (Mojo, 10 Years, p. 35)
It seems the allegations of Lennon’s attack (as well as the predictable and highly irrelevant claims that Lennon and Sutcliffe had a homosexual relationship) are little but hearsay. But, they do sell books.
We will never know the true cause of Sutcliffe’s hemorrhage. Kircherr was convinced that Stuart had an underlying condition that was lying in waiting. That condition was possibly exacerbated by Sutcliffe’s 24-hour lifestyle which has been documented by all those who knew him: tutors, musicians, lovers and friends. He simply worked too hard, too long, too intensely, smoked too much and ate and slept too little. In his last letters home, he confessed how doctors had labelled him a nervous wreck.
But what of Sutcliffe’s musical legacy? Was he the terrible bassist some would have us believe?
Certainly, starting out in early 1960 he was limited and struggled his way through the Scottish tour. However, it’s been well documented how the group went to Hamburg a “banger” (jalopy) and came home a Rolls Royce – the relentless hours on stage turning them into a rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse. If Lennon, Best, Harrison, & McCartney progressed as musicians, shouldn’t it also follow that Sutcliffe did too? In 1960 Sutcliffe himself wrote home that the group had improved a thousand fold since their arrival in Hamburg. (Lost Beatle, BBC 4)
The surviving tapes that capture Sutcliffe on bass (Anthology 1) are too poor in quality to allow any real appreciation of his ability. So, we need to examine the recollections of those who were there. McCartney’s opinion has been well documented, but there were others and, contrary to the myth, many remember him as being highly competent on the instrument.
Voorman remembers Sutcliffe as being “[A] heavy rock ‘n’ roller. Rock ‘n’ roll is an art form, and Stuart had the feel and taste. They weren’t playing anything very complicated, and taken as a whole – feeling it and playing those few notes – Stuart was a really, really, good bass player”. (Mojo, 10 Years, p. 35)
Pete Best recalled how Sutcliffe was a decent musician with a good reputation among his Hamburg contemporaries, and Bill Harry (Merseybeat founder) recalls that he was quite good. Furthermore, Sutcliffe sometimes played bass in a combo with Howie Casey (of the Seniors) in the Kaiserkeller, and they seemed to have no issue with his competency. (Uncut, March 2012)
Sutcliffe and Best may have failed to make the grade when it came to The Beatles’ EMI career – in fact, Best fell at the first hurdle. However, in the case of both, it’s always been convenient to excuse their treatment by the group by highlighting their musical ineptitude (even though suspected personal dislikes have always haunted the history). The group closed ranks on Best once George Martin flagged him. Sutcliffe was a different story, however. He drifted out rather than having to be pushed. Sutcliffe had bigger fish to fry.
Some have argued that he wasn’t talented enough to be in The Beatles, but his artistic pedigree meant that he was far too talented to be in The Beatles.
John Lennon always claimed that the best work of The Beatles was never captured, referring to their wild, pre-EMI days. If that’s true, then he’s referring to a period when it was more important to just play, than what you played and who heard you. The rock ‘n’ roll played during this period was uncomplicated, and if Lennon’s opinion counted for anything – and it should since it was his band after all – then the proto-punk stage material of 1960-1962 suited the talents of Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe more than adequately.
Judging by the professional critique of his surviving work, Sutcliffe would have emerged as a major talent in the art world. In fact, had he never met John Lennon, nor joined The Beatles, Sutcliffe would possibly have become a renowned artist. The same is difficult to say for The Beatles, had they never met and become subjected to the influence of Stuart Sutcliffe.
His association with The Beatles would probably have catapulted him to the top of the artistic movements of the ‘60s, as he lived a celebrity life with his beautiful German wife which would have mirrored that of today’s Beckhams. Under his direction, many of the group’s album covers may have looked very different. In fact, he may even have played on a few of them.