I am a dyed in the wool Beatles fan, and will be until the day I die.
When I was 15, I dug out my parents old Beatles records and started listening out of curiosity – was this band really the greatest band ever, as I had always heard? Answer: yes.
I took this new obsession to school with me and lo: my best friends transformed into the Beat Girls, all of us adopting a Beatle name (I was George) and listening to nothing but Beatles for the rest of my high school career. And wearing nothing but Beatles shirts. And watching Beatles movies every weekend. And falling in love and having my first kiss with a Beatles impersonator. (He was Paul).
And through all of this Beatles-ness, although we loved the Fab Four more than humanly possible, the one Beatle we all TRULY adored, myself especially, was Stuart Sutcliffe – the Beatle who never was.
I’m sure most of you know the story, so I won’t be long with it, but before the Beatles hit it big they played for several months in trashy nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany. (According to some, this is why the Beatles were so great, because they put in their “10,000 hours” of rehearsal time that it supposedly takes to become GREAT at a skill) John, Paul and George were there, but their drummer wasn’t Ringo, but a gentleman named Pete Best, who had the unfortunate fate to get booted from the band just before they hit it big. And Paul wasn’t playing bass, John’s best friend Stu Sutcliffe was.
Stu and John met in art college in Liverpool, and Stu was roped into joining the band at John’s cajoling. He was a painter, not a musician, but they were best friends and I imagine most young Englishmen wouldn’t turn down a free trip to Germany to play in an upgraded strip club with all the free beer they could drink!
By all accounts, Stuart was a pretty terrible bassist, but the thing he had that no one else did was STYLE. And he was COOL.
Soon after arriving, Stuart met Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer, and they fell madly in love. So in love, in fact, that Stuart became far more interested in spending time with her than he did in playing with the Beatles. But before he left, he and Astrid introduced the Beatles to their infamous mop top haircuts and Nehru suits – an important aspect of the look of the band, to be sure, then he quit the band, enrolled in the Hamburg Art Institute, asked Astrid to marry him – and died.
At age 21, Stuart Sutcliffe had a brain hemorrhage. The direct cause still isn’t known, although theories often point to a brawl in which he was savagely kicked to the head, or that he (and all of the other Beatles) were chowing down speed for months on end in able to play the 6 hour sets they were forced to play in Germany.
Stuart’s death affected the Beatles deeply, especially John, who was already struggling with getting over the death of his mother only a few years before. John believed that Stuart was a genius and looked up to him – HE was the cool, smart one – and so John felt forced to step into Stuart’s role. When you really look at all of the events leading up to the eventual reign of the Beatles as the THE BEATLES, its amazing to see how each one shaped them into what they would become.
In 1994, Iain Softley – after consulting long and hard with Stuart’s mother and sister and Astrid herself – wrote and directed a movie called Backbeat – all about Stuart’s story. Now its become a stage play, and I saw it last weekend. It’s a fantastic show, full of loud rock and young energy. (The older woman sitting next to me immediately put her hands over her ears when the music started). I was ecstatic to see it, and it blew me away. I was so happy to see Stu get the recognition he deserves, and the realization that his short life impacted so many people is really uplifting. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he would have lived. Would he have designed all of the Beatles album covers? Eventually rejoined the band? Had children? Become a famous artist? We will never know.
The show made me feel so lucky to know all that I know about the band. I got all of the inside jokes, recognized the hard work that went into the wardrobe and accents and music, knew every song by heart. I felt that my Beatles knowledge allowed me to get far more out of the show than anyone else there. I was part of the insiders club. And I knew all about Stuart. It made me feel so comforted.
But the Beatles are a never-failing source of comfort for me. I can play a particular tune, or watch a Hard Days Night, and suddenly I am ME again – and since the Beatles music never changes, it is a constant I can return to. I had a particularly rough end of 2007 – and what buoyed me up during that time? Seeing Across the Universe in the theater. A movie that, though flawed, took me in and gave me hope and made me smile. I saw it 12 times in the theater.
I had always thought, honestly, I would grow up and out of the Beatles. And while I may not listen to them every single day now, they are always in my heart. They are more than a band, they are my friends who understand me, and I feel like I understand them as well. I have a friend that I can always go to, and I know they will be there for me.
In 2010, I got my first tattoo – the strawberry that Jude paints in Across the Universe, along with the lyrics from Strawberry Fields Forever – “Nothing is real”. I love it even more today than I did when I got it. It gives me relief when it’s all too much, whatever is dragging me down isn’t real. And I think, in some strange way, that’s what Stuart knew too. Stuart has, since age 15, held an otherworldly appeal to me. I am fascinated by this man who lived so hard and accomplished so much, even when dying so young. I am an atheist and don’t subscribe to spirituality, but the way I feel about Stuart Sutcliffe is about the closest I come to it. I understand him, feel that he is an important part of MY life, even though I never met him. I take inspiration from him being able to see beyond fame and fortune and recognize that they weren’t real. They weren’t the most important thing to him. That’s something that took every other Beatle years and years to realize – that no matter how famous they were or how much money they had, that the thing they really wanted was true love.
For Stuart Sutcliffe, even at age 21, love was more important than anything – even the fucking Beatles. THAT is real.