- Craig Graziano
Baby's in Black drops you into a smoke-filled club in Hamburg. Despite the German locale, the band on stage is wailing in English about doing the "hippy hippy shake". Everyone's moving except for the bassist, who looks cooler than James Dean.
The band has been playing for hours, and they will continue for several hours more, as per their contract. They pop pills to stay awake for that long. The group is the Beatles. The year is 1960. The bassist is Stu Sutcliffe.
There are about a dozen people who could qualify as "The Fifth Beatle." We have some stiff competition between drummer Pete Best, producer George Martin, manager Brian Epstein, and keyboardist Billy Preston. Only one candidate's tale reaches the loftiest heights of romantic tragedy. That would be the story of Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, photographer Astrid Kirchherr.
Arne Bellstorf's graphic novel visualizes Kirchherr's meeting of the Beatles and her relationship with Sutcliffe. Astrid studies artists such as Rembrandt in order to master lighting in her photographs. After a promotional photoshoot with the band, Sutcliffe mentions to her that he would much rather be a painter than a musician. The two set a date for another photoshoot...just she and Stu. They soon become engaged to marry, and Stu leaves the band to follow his dreams as an artist.
The Beatles were fine with Sutcliffe's choice, moving Paul to bass. Unfortunately the band gets deported due to accusations of arson in their hotel as well as the fact that young George Harrison was underage. Sutcliffe had left the band at the right time, and stays in Hamburg with Astrid.
But all is not well for the young couple. Despite Stu's burgeoning success with his paintings, he starts to complain of severe headaches and blinding flashes of light. Despite visits to the doctor and prescriptions, there is little Astrid can do to help him. Stu dies of a brain aneurysm soon after, leaving Astrid a widow.
This, obviously, is not the feel-good read of the year, but it is well-crafted and is as tasteful as it is heartbreaking. Astrid Kirchherr still lives in Hamburg, Germany, and contributed input for the book. The likenesses of the band are on point. Paul has that appropriately boyish quality while John looks like the sort of fellow you would not want to mess around with.
If you enjoyed the graphic novel aspect of this book, might I suggest the gorgeous biography, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness, by Reinhard Kleist. Like Bellstorf's book, it is printed in black and white. But the Cash book deals in a much starker contrasts of those colors, with little use of gray, reflecting the stoic nature of its subject. I earnestly recommend it.
For more information on the Beatles, you may want to try Magical Mystery Tours, by Tony Bramwell, a boyhood friend and employee of the Beatles. For more insight into another "Fifth Beatle," check out Let it Be by Steve Matteo, a book in the 33 1/3 series which shows how Billy Preston, a keyboardist for Little Richard, gave the group a much-needed morale boost during their argumentative "Get Back" sessions.
Baby's in Black tells a side of the Beatles' history that rarely is heard, making it a must-read for any fan.