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Remembering Stu Sutcliffe

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"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.stu_sutcliffe_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.

kirchherr_sutcliffe_dead_crushIt 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).

Audio Interview with Astrid Kirchherr on The Beatles and Stuart Sutcliffe.
This Dead Crush was inspired by a tweet from @Lewisshepherd

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About A Geek Girl

  • Brian

    Excellent article –

  • This is a wonderful article.

    What I recall of Sutcliffe is that he had an artistic vision that John admired, and that probably did ruffle Paul’s feathers. There was a good deal of drama involved too between John and Stu, as well as Stu’s love for Astrid.

    We can only wonder what Stu would have accomplished as an artist; even more interesting, what would have been Sutcliffe’s influence on John long range after the Beatles became famous.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice article, I find the “what ifs?” about Stuart’s life endlessly fascinating.

  • Liz

    I think Stuart’s “influence” is waaayyy overstated. Yoko says this kind of baloney (1) to irritate Paul and (2) because it makes her look like she knows something about John’s early life, which she doesn’t.

    I think a lot of people tend to invest a lot of Beatle history with way too much drama.

  • A couple of years ago, I read a book, “The Gospel According to the Beatles” by Steve Turner. Turner spent a lot of time with the Fab Four, researched the book thoroughly, and supposedly had some inside info. He suggested that John and Stu may have been lovers……

  • STM

    Yeah, good call Liz … they were just a band who came along at the right time. There’s no doubt Stu Sutcliffe was “one of the boys”, if you like, and one of the original lads, and was an unusual character who chose to go his own way especially with his foray into art, but in the end, the Beatles were just a band in the right place at the right time and ended up having the perfect mix of talent – and I’ll include Ringo in that too since he was, contrary to popular belief, a competent drummer and just as popular with Beatles fans of the day as the others – and that perfect mix of talent means without Stu Sutcliffe.

    And since Yoko is largely if indirectly credited with the break-up of the band (I don’t believe in condemning her simply because she was in love with Lennon … you know, it was a very strange time too), are we that interested in what she says anyway??

  • I’m not a big Yoko Ono fan but to say she didn’t know anything about John’s early life is ridiculous. Maybe Liz doesn’t know anything about John and Yoko’s relationship…

    Great article, Trish! I put up a comment earlier (after Victor’s) about what a sad story this is, but it disappeared. –bob

  • This is a great piece AGG. It really does make you wonder about the ‘what ifs’.

  • A Geek Girl

    Brian, thanks so much for saying that.

  • Liz

    The idea that every day of his life John said “Stuart would have loved this song” or “Stuart used to say” … is ridiculous. And if it is true, which I highly doubt, then the only thing it’s evidence of is that John needed even more therapy than we all thought. But I think it’s a complete exaggeration on Yoko’s part.

    As I said, I a lot of people seem to need to make everything about the Beatles melodramatic. If it’s not John’s supposed heartbreak over Stu, it’s John’s supposed heartbreak over Brian Epstein, etc., etc. And Yoko contributes to this melodrama because it helps her sell Lennon’s music and memorabilia.

    I just think it’s all overstated, and people should just sit back and enjoy the darn music.

  • A Geek Girl

    Liz that makes more sense. I thought you meant I was trying to cause drama. I’d like to talk more about that, the whole Yoko thing, but I need to respond to the other comments first. Then we’ll have the floor, so to speak πŸ˜‰

  • A Geek Girl

    Victor, I know Stu was prolific as an artist. Considering how young he was when he died it’s amazing how many paintings he finished. John Lennon talked a lot about Stu, he seemed to carry that ghost with him as he did with his mother. He also carried that guilt.

    I suspect that if Stu had lived John might have gone back to art sooner. I can easily imagine a Sutcliffe Lennon Art Gallery in London and in New York.

    Lennon’s return to art before his death seemed to give him some peace that had been lacking, but I’m sure it made him miss Stu all the more. He probably felt that void acutely when his shows opened, that Stu should have been there.

    Although Yoko is prone to theatrics, I do believe that John probably talked about Stu a lot whilst he worked on his new art collections. I hope he made peace with the past, and with his guilt, before he died. I’m sure painting again was a catharsis for him, and a reconciliation.

    I’ve read, as FC said, that they had a volatile relationship, more like lovers than friends. If so, I have to say that I can’t blame either of them, but I think their love was more philiawanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own” than eros.

  • A Geek Girl

    STM, the Beatles never could have been what they became with Stu in the band, he just wasn’t a musician. He was, however, a very talented artist.

    He made some contribution to the band, that haircut alone seemed to drive the media into a frenzy, but this is a dead crush, not so much about the Beatles as about this kid who was taken too soon.

    He was extremely talented, magnetic, much loved, and an influence on those who knew him. I’ve known people like him… bright bursts of light who leave their mark on everyone whose lives they’ve touched. I consider myself lucky to have known them during their short visit on Earth, but it still makes me sad to think of what might have been…

    And that my friend is the true definition of a dead crush, not about romantic thoughts so much as the knowledge that a void has been left behind, a sadness that we’ll never have the corporeal experience of that person in our lifetime.

  • A Geek Girl

    Greg, thanks πŸ™‚ Coming from you that’s huge.

    What I said about dead crushes above… yeah. I have the same thoughts as you do. I always feel that void, but then I’m weird. Glad I’m not alone.

  • A Geek Girl

    FC, do you have that book? I want it. I’m broke. Send it?

    I’ve heard those speculations, and speculations that Stu might not have been the only one.

    The one thing about Lennon was that he was pretty forward thinking, he didn’t seem to care what others thought.

    The whole ‘Yoko wears the pants’ and criticism of his becoming a stay-at-home-dad and taking the role of ‘nurturer’ in the household always seemed pretty ridiculous, especially given his candor about his decisions.

    He pretty much just said ‘I do what I want because that’s what I want to do. It makes me happy. What do you care?’ I imagine he would have handled those questions about his relationship with Stu in much the same way. And probably been ticked off if people tried to muck up what he considered a beautiful thing.

    But that’s something we’ll never know for sure now.

    We’ll be dead crushing Lennon later on. I felt the Earth shudder on the day he died. I really did. Or maybe that was just my soul. I loved his spirit and his music so much. I miss him still.

  • STM

    You’re making lots of sense Geek Girl … Sutcliffe certainly was a key member of the band but I’m firmly of the belief – as are others – that it might have been a different story had he stayed on (and alive).

    My father was in the British Army Of The Rhine and and after the war, during the Allied occupation of Germany, went to a couple of clubs to watch them play. He said there were five band members (must have been Stu Sutcliffe) and a different drummer. Bizzarely, they were originally a skiffle band … but decided there was no future in it. How right they were!

    He and my mother had virtually every Beatles record ever pressed and used to play them all the time (and I do mean ALL the time when I was a very small child) on a great stereo system that my old man made himself.

    I have a lot of Beatles on my iPod, of course, although probably some of it after thwey went a bit hippie, and it always reminds of my mum and dad, who are now dead, every time I listen to them.

  • emil

    Great article on Stu. However, Pauls was NOT the first musician to play a right handed instrument upsidedown and backwards. Dick Dale, Otis Rush, and Albert King were doing it in the 50’s, as was Hendrix during his very early gigging days when he didn’t own a guitar. I’m sure people did it before them too. It was npt as uncommon as the article would make it seem. Paul broke alot of interesting ground, but he wasn’t the first person to do this.