It’s late 1960 and the world is on the cusp of change.
In the cellar bars of the St Pauli district of Hamburg, five young Liverpudlians live out their rock and roll dream. In another part of the same city a young artist is going through the slow disintegration of her relationship with her boyfriend.
The five young men were the early incarnation of the Beatles and the young artist was Astrid Kirchherr, who is generally regarded as the creator of the iconic early Beatles look.
Her influence on the history of the band went far deeper, however, than haircuts and black polo necks.
The history of The Beatles is well documented, as you would expect of the most influential artists of all popular music. It’s always fascinating to understand the formative years of icons and to see if we understand the forces that influenced their later years.
The story of the fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, has been the subject of much interest. This was the man who turned his back on a level of fame and fortune that he could barely have imagined was possible when he told his band mates that he was staying in Berlin. The rest of the band returned to the UK and the rest, as they say is history.
Sutcliffe stayed with the woman he loved. That woman was Astrid Kirchner and the story was not to have a happy ending.
The tragic story of Stuart and Astrid has been told before, most notably in the 1994 film Backbeat, which concentrated on the choice that Sutcliffe made between his best friend John Lennon and his new found love, Astrid.
So while Baby’s in Black may at first seem to tell a familiar story, it actually tells that story from a different and unique perspective – that of Astrid. Writer and artist Bellstorf created his story after a series of interviews with Astrid Kirchherr herself. It’s this, personal and intimate insight that gives Baby’s in Black such poignancy.
The story begins in October 1960. Astrid is woken in the middle of the night by the fervent knocking at her door of her boyfriend, Klaus Voormann. The relationship between them may have disintegrating, but they still shared common ground. Both were artists with interests in the existentialists of Paris. They dressed in black polo necks bought in the flea markets of the French Capital, and they listened together to Juliette Greco records.
It wasn’t that strange then, that when Klaus stumbled across something new that made a huge impression on him, that he would go straight to Astrid to share it with her. That discovery was of course, The Beatles, who he stumbled across in the basement of a club in the Reeperbahn, the Bambo Kino.
Voormann’s enthusiasm persuaded Astrid to visit the club with him and when she saw the band play, she too was won over. Especially when the bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe turned around. Astrid’s own words describe just how she felt, ‘He had exactly what I had been looking for in Klaus and that certain something, which I immediately recognised…and which I couldn’t believe I had found.’
Klaus and Astrid became regulars at the club and eventually became friends with the band. Klaus’s relationship with Astrid died out slowly and he recognised and approved of the burgeoning feelings between his ex-girlfriend and the bass player from Liverpool.
The relationship grew, through adventure and misadventure with the band. They recorded a record together – ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean’ – survived accusations of arson and George Harrison was deported for being under age. All of this provided the backdrop to the sweet and natural love story of Stuart and Astrid.
Astrid’s recollections as told by Bellstorf, concentrate, of course on that love story. If there is a wistfulness to the story, and perhaps the spectre of impending doom looming large over that story, then that is to be understood. Astrid lost the love of her life and on looking back it would be difficult for her not to think of what-ifs.
The Beatles in general are in the background here with only Lennon’s character given more than a few anecdotal lines. Understandable, as he was Sutcliffe’s best friend and the one who persuaded him to give up art school and take up guitar. John, according to Astrid’s recollections was never anything less than supportive of Stuart’s eventual decision to leave the band and return to his first love art, and stay with his true love Astrid.
It’s not all sadness though; Baby’s in Black catches the palpable sense of possibilities that were opening up to the world in the sixties. The Beatles record a record and Sutcliffe gets a scholarship to study under the great Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi.
Bellstorf catches the spirit of the age with effective style. His bold black and white, simple lines capture the monochrome angst of the existentialists and of Hamburg in the sixties to perfection. He recounts Astrid’s story touchingly and with a deep feeling. He allows us to watch, from a discreet distance, as the pair grow deeper and deeper in love.
Astrid and Sutcliffe’s happiness with their life seems complete when tragedy strikes. If the rest of the book is moving, then the last few pages, told without words, will break your heart. A series of images of the world Stuart left behind it is a perfect example of how powerful the graphic novel medium can be.
A short coda, where The Beatles return to Hamburg and meet Astrid and ask her where Stuart is serves to remind us that it was not only Astrid who lost someone she loved. Perhaps the most famous part of Astrid and Stuart’s love affair is the series of photographs that Astrid took of The Beatles not long after she first met them in that dark cellar. The pictures are iconic and are a moment caught in time, before fame, fortune and tragedy struck them all.
Perhaps it’s a little fanciful to see in that frozen moment in time just what made Astrid fall in love with Stuart Sutcliffe. If you can, however romantic that notion may be, see something there, then Baby’s in Black is the narrative to that picture.
It’s a love story, pure and simple and beautifully told.