They Saw Her Standing There
05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHENEVER THEY GET TO HAMBURG, Germany, Paul McCartney and George Harrison try to visit an old friend who lives alone in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. Astrid Kirchherr remains an indelible part of their lives, and in her old black-and-white photographs, taken more than a generation ago, the middle-aged millionaires can look back at themselves across the decades—to Hamburg in 1960, when the Beatles were just another rock band working the clubs in the red-light district of this gritty port city.
Kirchherr was a 21-year-old art student when she first saw the group that long-ago October. In the months that followed, she took their pictures, changed their look and fell in love with Stuart Sutcliffe, the brooding abstract artist who was the band's first bass player.
The story of the Beatles' Hamburg days—and of Kirchherr's romance with the doomed Sutcliffe—has come to the screen in BackBeat, a film by British director Iain Softley. Reluctant to exploit her friendship with the band, Kirchherr had turned down countless media approaches for her story over the years, she says, but Softley broke through by suggesting a film focusing on her onetime lover. "That was the first time anyone ever asked about Stuart," says Kirchherr, now 55. "Before it was just John, Paul and George." (Ringo Starr, a replacement for original drummer Pete Best, did not join the Beatles until 1962.)
Kirchherr, who provided background information and acted as a consultant on the film, still recalls the night she first descended into the Kaiserkeller, "this dirty-looking club, all dark, with funny-looking people. I heard this music," she says, "and it was just too much...it was all so strange. I was breathless, speechless. Five boys just standing there looking out on the world."
The five blue-collar boys from Liverpool—John Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, plus Best and Sutcliffe—were just as taken with the older, more sophisticated Kirchherr. "She was this great blond chick we'd never seen the likes of," McCartney said recently. "We all fancied her a bit, but Stu was really mad on her."
Soon after the couple's romance took hold, so did Kirchherr's influence on the Beatles. The young bandmates had cultivated a "teddy boy" greaser look complete with leather jackets and elaborate pompadours. Kirchherr persuaded Sutcliffe to adopt her own pilzen kopf, the floppy "mushroom-head" haircut favored by her arty, existentialist friends. George reluctantly followed suit, joined eventually by John and Paul. Then Sutcliffe's leather jacket was replaced with a less intimidating collarless coat, an innovation his bandmates would also adopt.
Many afternoons, when the young rockers awakened in their squalid quarters near a theater urinal, Kirchherr would take them out for photo sessions in local parks. She made dozens of black-and-white images, mainly for herself, but gave blowup prints to each of her subjects. "They had never seen anything like it," she says. "They only had very small pictures."
Sometimes the band visited her mother's home, where they would feast on bacon and eggs or kidney pie. Fame was a frequent topic of conversation. "George used to say, 'When I'm as famous as the Shadows, I'm going to buy myself that jacket,' " Astrid recounts. " 'No, no,' " she remembers Lennon arguing, " 'I want to be rich as Elvis.' " Some of their best times, she says, were spent in her mother's house, looking through books and listening to jazz. "I had the pleasure of meeting such wonderful people," Kirchherr says wistfully. "Everything was fun."
Within the band, however, things were less tranquil. Sutcliffe "was never the musician," says Kirchherr, but "more the painter" who caused several rows between Lennon and McCartney over his poor musicianship. He eventually left the Beatles to accept a scholarship at a German art school; by the lime the band left Germany later that year, Sutcliffe and Astrid had become engaged.
But two years later, at noon on April 10, 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed in Kirchherr's attic from a cerebral hemorrhage—the result, possibly, of injuries once suffered in a Liverpool street fight—and died in her arms during the ambulance ride to the hospital. Within months, "Love Me Do" was released in Great Britain, and the Beatles were on their way.
Because of pirating by bootleggers, Kirchherr collected few royalties from her famous oft-published Hamburg photos over the years. Tiring of photography, she worked as an interior designer and a photo stylist and even managed a bar. She married and divorced twice, but confesses that her loves "never had the same intensity, joy and happiness" as her affair with Sutcliffe.
Now employed by a German music publisher, Kirchherr is planning and compiling a photo book, due this fall, about Hamburg's early rock-and-roll scene. She has a manager now lo ensure she is no longer cheated out of royalties, and this month her pictures are on exhibit in a fashionable London gallery. In March, Kirchherr attended a Tokyo exhibition featuring Sutcliffe's now highly regarded abstract expressionist paintings. "I always thought Stuart deserved a little bit of fame," she says. "He was a gifted artist and a very wonderful person."
And in the eyes of the remaining Beatles, it seems, so too is Kirchherr. Last year, while in Hamburg, McCartney sent a car to lake her to a concert, and George Harrison recently turned up with tea when she came down with the flu. "They are my friends," says Kirchherr simply. "If they are the Beatles or the kings of China, it doesn't matter lo me. They are in my heart."
JOANNE FOWLER in Hamburg