"I felt I knew Stuart because hardly a day went by that John did not speak about him." –Yoko Ono
On April 10, 1962, Stuart Sutcliffe was rushed by ambulance to the hospital in Hamburg, Germany. By his side was his fiance, painter Astrid Kirchherr. Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage before reaching the hospital. He was 21 years old–and one of the founding members of The Beatles.
Stuart Sutcliffe's tenure with the Beatles was short, yet his impact should not be overlooked. He is better remembered for his artwork than for any musical contribution to The Beatles. He first met John Lennon whilst they were both students at the Liverpool College of Art. John was in awe of Sutcliffe. His artistic talent coupled with his mop of wild hair and dark sunglasses dazzled Lennon. Stu already had the aura of stardom; John Lennon was determined that they must become friends.
Lennon convinced Sutcliffe to join the band he was forming with Paul McCartney, although Stu had no musical talent at all. When his first painting, sold as a student went for a record 65 pounds, Lennon convinced him to buy a bass guitar with the proceeds. He became John Lennon's best friend and flatmate, often putting him at odds with McCartney who admitted to his jealousy over their bond in The Beatles Anthology. They had a connection that most, including McCartney, could not fathom. The connection of artists, rather than musicians, they understood one another on a level that transversed written or spoken word. That connection would only be rivaled by the love the two men had for their women, Yoko Ono and Astrid Kirchherr, both of whom were artists as well.
Lennon often defended Stu's musicianship, but The Beatles, and Stu himself, have always admitted that playing was not his forte. George Harrison said in The Beatles Anthology that they first taught Stu to play 'Thirty Days' by Chuck Berry, "He wasn't really a very good musician". Together they made several trips to Germany playing cover songs and working as a back-up band to get practice performing live. They had trouble getting gigs in Liverpool.
It was on one of these trips that Sutcliffe met fellow artist and photographer Astrid Kirchherr. She took the first studio photos of the early Beatles, focusing on Sutcliffe who the locals had nicknamed "The James Dean of Hamburg." The deep love that grew between them led him to leave The Beatles and return to his first passion, painting. He enrolled in the Hamburg State School of Art, got engaged to Kirchherr, and told his best friend Lennon that he would meet him when The Beatles returned in a few months for another tour in Germany. Sutcliffe died before Lennon arrived; he was met at the airport instead by Kirchherr with the devastating news. Sutcliffe's remains were flown home to his family and he was buried at Huyton Cemetery in Liverpool.
The reason for Sutcliffe's death, caused by cerebral paralysis due to bleeding on the brain, has never been determined. Some have mentioned a fight which took place after a gig when Sutcliffe was jumped, and Sutcliffe's sister Pauline even puts John Lennon under suspicion in the documentary Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle (2005) when she says that Lennon repeatedly kicked Sutcliffe in the head during a fight over Sutcliffe's decision to leave the band. Although Lennon has spoken of his feelings of guilt over this last violent fight with his friend, there is no evidence that either of these events caused the severe headaches and eventual hemorrhage that killed Sutcliffe.
Medical specialists agree that these events, which took place at least four months prior to his death, might have been a contributing injury, but there had to be a more immediate event that brought on the debilitating headaches in the weeks leading to his death. Most speculate that it could have been caused by a congenital defect considering the lack of evidence of any injury or tumor in the X-rays taken the same week that he died.
Although Sutcliffe was only with The Beatles for fifteen months, and the band had yet to begin writing their own songs, he is credited with some very significant contributions. The band's name for example–and its intentional misspelling, The Beatles, hated by fans and promoters alike, was the brainchild of Sutcliffe and Lennon. The Beatles mop-top hairstyle was originally created for Stu by then girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. It was quickly adopted by all of the band members and became a Beatles' trademark.
Upon his departure from the band Sutcliffe lent his bass guitar to Paul McCartney with a promise on McCartney's part that he would not re-string it into a left-hander–forcing McCartney not only to move from rhythm guitar to bass, but to learn to play upside down. McCartney would not be the only left-handed musician to play his instrument upside down, but he would be the first to play it upside down and with the strings in backward order.
During his short life Stuart Sutcliffe was a passionate artist. His estate is now run by his sister Pauline. She has been instrumental in keeping his legacy and artwork alive. Astrid Kirchherr's photographs are still offered for sale, exclusively printed under her supervision from the original negatives. Copies of her rare limited edition Beatles photobooks sometimes come available as well, Liverpool Days for $756, When We Was Fab $856 (new) $1,468 (used), and Hamburg Days for the whopping price of approximately $599 (new) $1,500 (used).