“She thinks of him and so she dresses in black, and though he’ll never come back, she’s dressed in black Oh dear, what can I do? Baby’s in black and I’m feeling <g data-gr-id="48">blue ,</g> tell me, oh what can I do?”
There was a huge line at the Delhi Comic-Con. This was when Comic-Con was still at Dilli Haat, and the amount of people flooding in, and trickling out, was akin to the Spartan monstrosity that is Rajiv Chowk metro station. Inside, there were several booths selling all sorts of paraphernalia, that I had no way of affording. As I found myself sifting through early works by Grant Morrison’s, leafing through the pages, all the while, people passing by all around me, my eyes found a book – a graphic novel – lying on top of the main desk of the booth I was in.
It was a dark cover, which felt like it had been drawn with charcoal, with two figures, a man, and a woman, <g data-gr-id="63">staring</g> out in opposite directions, with large, bold white letters hemming them in from below. I went to the lady at the desk asking her for the price, at which point having forgotten my ATM card, I had to spend another hour before I could come back to the book. She looked at me once, panting and out of breath, handed me the book, and asked me one question: “will you love it?” to which I replied: “with all my heart.”
This is how I encountered Baby’s in Black: The Story of Astrid <g data-gr-id="47">Kirscherr</g> & Stuart Sutcliffe.
Arne <g data-gr-id="71">Bellstorf</g> takes a particular moment in the early sixties in <g data-gr-id="81">Hamburg,</g> and spreads it across the pages of this book in black and white. On the <g data-gr-id="80">surface</g> this is a story about two things. On the one hand, this is a biographical sketch of The Beatles, a bunch of (then) five unruly boys playing in the dingiest clubs in and around Hamburg, and trying to make it big, while on the other hand it’s also a documentation of the love that existed between Astrid Kirchherr (the pop modernist photographer) and Stuart Sutcliffe (the artist, and former band member). The book uses these two plot lines as layers for one another, through which several other important expositions are made, namely of the German Art World in the early sixties, along with the influence of the French Existentialist philosophers on the youth of the time (whom John Lennon goes on to call the “Hamburg <g data-gr-id="72">Exis</g>”), as well as the club culture of Hamburg at the time. The eventual explosion of The Beatles’ popularity, and the escalation of the Cold War, would change the shape of everything that this book has tried to record, and in that sense this book could also be seen as an important historical document.
But in another sense, in a hauntingly beautiful sense, this book is a testament to love, a love lost.
Astrid and Stuart meet during one of the band’s nightly performances at a club at the Reeperbahn. From the first moment, they fall for each other, and as these things tend to work, find in each other <g data-gr-id="68">a space,</g> where both could exist within one another. While they do not understand each other’s languages, Astrid speaking in broken English, and Stuart in broken German, they don’t need to. Astrid’s dreams of walking through forests, are no longer solitary, and she finds Stuart there, in those nighttime phantasms, keeping her company, with Elvis Presley’s Love me Tender, as the only background score. She photographs The Beatles several times during the course of her interactions with them in these early years, these photographs going on to become classics in any true fan’s visual vocabulary of their <g data-gr-id="66">favourite</g> band.
But she also begins to photograph him. Stuart, who till then had tired of the hectic hours devoted to playing in the club, begins to find solace in her, and she opens up possibilities for him to be able to explore his artistic sensibilities. He soon finds prominence in the <g data-gr-id="70">burstling</g> German art scene of the <g data-gr-id="61">time,</g> and is offered a spot in Paolozzi’s (the German artist) classes at the Lerschenfeld Art School in Hamburg. Her photographs in the meantime have begun to gain popularity. They function as artists in their own right, while their love for one another transforms their art.
It is around this time, that George Harrison is sent back to Liverpool for being a minor. He was never allowed to play past ten in the clubs anyway. The Beatles eventually land a record deal for a single with Tony Sheridan under the name of The Beat Boys, since the producers hated their band’s name. They soon come back to Hamburg, where Stuart had remained, only to get engaged to Astrid, with plans of living in Paris, to encounter tragedy having struck. Stuart and Astrid had always been for me, one of those iconic couples in black and white who survived the vestiges of time in The Beatles’ historiography. But this book led me by the hand into their lives, and Stuart and Astrid are no longer simply names, for they have become a testament to a possibility of, and for, a kind of love that exists beyond the annals of popular musician’s historians.
More than just the band, the reader is affected by Stuart’s eventual demise. Astrid dreams again, but this time, all she encounters in the forest, is her own self-portraiture. This book is equal parts <g data-gr-id="56">exciting,</g> while also being heart wrenchingly beautiful. The charcoal like <g data-gr-id="53">quality</g> of the illustrations made by <g data-gr-id="50">Bellstorf</g> <g data-gr-id="54">himself,</g> <g data-gr-id="51">rends</g> the imageries in the book with an almost eerie quality. Though no sound escapes the turning of the pages, the songs by The Beatles, Tony Sheridan, and of course Elvis Presley play throughout one’s course of reading it, and Stuart and Astrid live on.