Tattoo Boulevard

THE ROCK N’ ROLL ARTISTRY OF STUART SUTCLIFFE

Actor Stephen Dorff once said that one day he would look back at his list of film credits, and though he didn’t know if there’d be many blockbusters, he knew they’d be cool. The quote was taken from an interview in the early nineties when his film career was just beginning and he was giddy with the excitement of completing two movies that definitely fall under the category of “cool” in SFW and Backbeat.  Both performances were memorable, but playing original Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, in Backbeat is still his crowning glory(although he is currently garnering rave reviews for his performance in Sophia Coppolla’s Somewhere). The film was a snapshot of the Beatles early days in England and Germany which primarily focused on Stuart Sutcliff and his love of music and art, as well as his relationships with Astrid Kircherr and John Lennon.

Sutcliff was the Beatles original bassist and was blessed with a rare talent for both art and music.  He had a close friendship with John Lennon and both are credited for coming up with the band’s name that would become one of the most famous ever. Music wasn’t his only passion however, and after playing with the Beatles in Hamburg, he left the band and enrolled in the Hamburg College of Art. It was in Hamburg that he met Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer he later became engaged to.

The heart of Stuart Sutcliff’s story begins in the Liverpool College of Art, where he was one of the best painters in class.  John Lennon always spoke highly of Sutcliffe’s art portfolio, and  while in Liverpool,  Lennon and Paul McCartney persuaded Stuart to purchase a 500/5 model bass guitar.  This was not Stuarts first run in with music, as he was part of the local choir as a child, and on his mother’s insistence, took up piano lessons.

 He also played a bit of bugle in the Air Training Corps and some free hand guitar his father had taught him.  In May of 1960, Sutcliffe joined Paul, John, George and Pete Best to form the original group, the “Silver Beatles”,  and acted as their booking agent for the early part of their career.  Unfortunately, Sutcliffe’s playing style was a bit rudimentary, as he had a habit of sticking with root notes of chords instead of the full chords.  An old art friend, Bill Harry, approached Sutcliffe and said he should concentrate on art. 

Tension in the band began to mount when  Lennon started to criticize Stuart’s ability to play.  Both Harrison and McCartney were sent back to England, leaving Lennon and Sutcliffe in Hamburg.  Lennon then took the train back, while Stuart stayed behind.   Eight months after meeting Kirchherr, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band and return to studying painting in July of 1961.  His talent was undeniable and his early works were perceived as aggressive, often being dark with moody colors.  It may have been his quirky style that caused him to be turned down when he applied for a teaching degree at Liverpool Art College. 

The few works that have survived show influence from British and European abstract artists.  Sutcliffe can be compared to have some resemblance to works of John Hoyland and Nicolas de Stael.  Most of the later works were untitled and constructed from heavy slabs of pigment overlaid with scratched linear elements. 

 One of the most memorable scenes in Backbeat occurs near the end of the film when he and Astrid are watching the Beatles perform from the back of a small club.  Noticing the look of wonder in his eyes, she tells him that they can have him for one more night, after which he eagerly makes his way through the crowd to the front of the stage. It was this exhuberance and joy for life that helped make Stuart Sutcliff such a charismatic and memerable character in the worlds of both music and art.

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Posted in Uncategorized by tattoo on January 7th, 2011 at 2:34 am.

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