The Missing Beatle
Photograph by Peter Bruchmann of George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg
Stuart Sutcliffe (23 June 1940 – 10 April 1962) was a British painter and musician best known as the original bass guitarist for the Beatles. He died tragically due to an aneurysm in his brain’s right hemisphere (Wikipedia entry).
The following is an excerpt from the novel The Experiment by Tony Bove, which mixes history with fictional characters and imagined conversations.
Stu Sutcliffe and Johnny Lennon peeing against a wall. Stu says to Johnny, “Ever look at it? The mark you make on the wall? Mine’s like a mushroom cloud.”
“How gloombily,” mumbles Johnny. Both are quite drunk. “What’re ya gonna say, mate, that’s art?” They look so incongruous together, Johnny the unruly rocker with vestiges of the teddy boy look, Stu the stubbled beatnik wearing dark glasses at night.
“Why not,” Stu replies, shaking out the last of the drops. “Duchamp called a urinal ‘art’ and named it Fountain.”
“Fucking Duchampion nonsense. All that bloody crap Ballard and Burton go on about, all their hot air and shite, only good it does is warm the bloody classroom. You can’t just pee on the wall Stu. You’ve got talent and you’ve got to show it, mate. Fuck all that, trying to fit into a style. Do what you want! You already won an art show and made millions.”
“More than you’ll make in a month with that Höfner bass. You’re shite, you know!” Johnny’s grin belies the truth, which is, in fact, that Stu’s bass playing is not his best work, and Stu knows it. His style is elementary, mostly sticking to root notes, serviceable for rock ‘n’ roll but not good enough for Johnny or the other band mates.
Still, unruffled, Stu shoots back. “I get more applause than you or Paulie when I sing ‘Love Me Tender’ you sod.”
“The audience are fucking idiots, they applaud for cripples, they scream at Cliff Richard and they don’t even see the fat scab growth on his head.”
They both laugh at the idea of a crusty scab on the sweet-faced Richard that only they could see. In moments like these they feel close to each other as the only two fully realized human beings in the world. They can tell each other anything.
“Well,” says Stu, “it’s fine that you still believe in me.”
“That’s a curse,” growls John. “‘Cause everyone I’ve ever believed in are dead. My Uncle George, me mum and dad, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran. Or they’re dying, like Elvis in the Army singing ‘Love Me Fender’ or Chuck Berry in jail singing ‘You Can’t Scratch Me’.”
“You miss your mum.” Stu knows how to find John’s kind and gentle heart.
“Yes I miss her, I miss Julia. She wasn’t a mum at all, really, my Aunt Mimi is really that. Julia was my friend.” John pauses, then snarls in a disgusted tone to disguise his distress, “She taught me banjo chords, she meant well, but now I’ve got to unlearn ‘em to learn real guitar chords.”
Stu lets it go. “You know your dad’s not dead, or you would have heard. I feel differently about my dad, John, I don’t blame him. It’s what he does, it’s what he has to do.”
“That’s all well and good for you, Stu, your father’s a war hero and he sails home once in a while. Alf’s a drunken merchant seaman out shagging natives off the coast of Africa or somewhere.” John softens his tone. “My only memory of him really, is when he wanted me to go with him. I was four or five, and I remember we walked along the docks. And he goes and tells me about the fuckin’ slave trade! He tells me that all these big houses and docks, all of Liverpool really, was here because of slavery. The ships left here for Africa, took the slaves to America, and brought the money back here. What kind of fucking thing is that for a dad to tell his son?”
* * *
They shuffle along. In the embarrassing silence John has a vision of the ship Perseverance, brand new in 1723, and its owner the Liverpool merchant McNamity, watching it glide gracefully down the greased slipway stern-first, then wallow massively, unseemly, ducking her rear into the dark cold ‘Pool, then be pulled abruptly, herky-jerky, by a merciless tug. Her figurehead is the Duchess of Devonshire, re-imagined in long yellow hair flowing regally down the back of a royal blue gown, voluminous at the skirts but leaving her white shoulders and her great smooth breasts bare, her arms drawn back in a poignant pose, her brilliant crimson nipples pointing the way, not toward a prosperous journey but back again toward shore. A decrepit crew member in the bow, Alf “Freddie” Lennon, reaches down with raggedly sleeved arms to fondle the figurehead’s breasts, catching her crimson nipples in his filthy fingers. The sailor, his ship, and her figurehead, dissolve as captive giants in the gloom, awaiting masts to be fitted midstream. McNamity watches the duchess and her tormentor intently as the ship is tugged away from shore, yearning for rescue with each jagged pull. As the ship neatly disappears in the fog of the ‘Pool, the bare-breasted figurehead with Lennon’s fingers wrapped around them would be the last of her the ship’s owner would ever see.
* * *
“Fuck him,” John broke the silence. “Just like his bloody ancestors, all of ‘em called ‘Freddie’ and all of ‘em shite. I was forced to make a choice. Bloody hell, I went crying back to Julia. And then she went off with some twitchy, and handed me off to me Auntie. I always wanted Alf to come back home. But he wouldn’t, would he? Doesn’t even fucking remember me except in his bloody drunken nightmares.”
“How bloody awful,” Stu remarks in a comic tone, changing the subject, “about the Negroes, I mean. We took their bodies, now we steal their souls, singing Negro music. It’s like another outbreak of primitivism.” Their shared lectures in art history comes to the fore, with Stu as usual leading the discussion, drawing meaning from history. “The Europeans artists did it many times, revert to a primitive nature. In the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, the Dadaists took to a stage and sang Negro poems, just grunts and whoops to an improvised beat, ‘umbah-umbah’…”
“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-wop-bam-boo! Nothing’s changed,” says John. “We’re all primal beasties. But that’s Paul, he’s the one that wants to sound like Little Richard. Not me, I want me own sound. I want to be Elvis, and more. Bigger than Elvis. Bigger than Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis combined.”
“Ahh, Elvis. From the moment you hear him, every pop song that was ever done before him is suddenly, nothing! He blows them away like chaff. He just walks out on that stage, on the telly, and all he has to do is just stand there, just be Elvis! He’s got it, he’s Dada, assaulting the audience.”
“But he doesn’t play an instrument, not like Jerry Lee Lewis who can bang the shite out of a piano. There’s nothing out there that has improved on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’. He sings like there’s nothing out there in the world that can challenge him. And that’s how I sing, mate.” John glares at Stu. “I must be a genius but nobody’s noticed. Or mad, which is it? If there is such a thing as genius, which is just… what? What the fuck is it? Well I am one, and so are you, unless there isn’t any such thing, and then I don’t care.”
And that seems to be that. “Yeah, well… ‘I love ya, Johnny, the Beetles love ya, we all love ya,’” Stuart mimics Lee Marvin, the leader of the rival Beetles motorcycle gang that gave Marlon Brando a tough time in The Wild One. “‘I’ve been looking for ya in every ditch from here ta Fresno, hopin’ you was dead.’”
John cracks up. Stuart goes on to imitate the small-town daughter in the movie, asking the moody Brando character, “‘Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’”
“‘Whaddaya got?’” John spits back, trying but failing to imitate Brando with his gum-chewing, eye-popping grin.
. . .
A power defying time, a power growing with each passing year, blazed lightning across the predawn Liverpool sky and bellowed peals of thunder. John Lennon had wailed at the semi-conscious Stu Sutcliffe until a mysterious man in a black cloak had appeared, gathered them up, and got them back to Stu’s Gambier Terrace bedsit. That was all Lennon could remember later that morning as he limped with a bandaged Stu into the Jacaranda on Slater Street, a coffee bar famous for its bacon butties, just a few blocks from Liverpool Art College, and downstairs into its basement world of heat, sweat, and loud conversation. Immediately they ran into Allan Williams, the café’s owner, a Welsh-born hustler burly with oversized ambition and a bit unconventional, a jack of all trades and master of none, who kept a jaundiced eye on everything.
Williams lightly punched Lennon in the chest. “What happened to you? And why are you still looking like a ted?” He ran his fingers through Lennon’s duckbill. “A bit late with that Elvis bit, aren’t you? You’re fucking middle-class, a ted pretender.”
“Lay off,” Lennon sneered back, but not too harshly, because Allan Williams was the only connected man in town for gigs. “It makes me look tough so I don’t have to get into any more fights,” he grinned. “I’m a bloody coward you know. So Al, what have you got lined up for us next? Come on, Al, we need the money.”
Williams grinned, always more comfortable in the company of layabouts and dreamers. A few months earlier he’d been knocked out by the reaction of the teenagers at Liverpool Empire’s show with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, goggle-eyed in an erotic spell as he watched girls caress their inner thighs and moon over these scruffy performers, all of them only about ten years younger than him. A potpourri of young pussy! He could smell the money. He’d come away with a half-baked plan; anyone with a telephone could be an agent, but Williams had a telephone and a Jaguar, and that made him a potential manager for these sputtering groups busking in the Liverpool 8 cellars for cigarette money.
Stuart Sutcliffe was special to him because Stu had helped with the floats for the Mersey Arts Ball, so Allan had hired Stu to paint the ladies’ lavatory at the Jacaranda. Stu brought his friends and they went on to paint elaborate voodoo-themed murals on the downstairs walls. Williams gave Lennon credit for having a good friend in Stu, but he also gave him credit for acting the part of the performer. Of all of them, only Lennon had it in him to make it, and Williams could see that. Lennon knew just what to do, how to get the the right effect. When Williams sent that photographer around from The People to Sutcliffe’s flat to promote the new Liverpool groups, Lennon laid flat on the floor amidst the debris for the photo, inspiring the editor to title the article “The Beatnik Horror.” Williams had tacked the article from the paper on the wall in his tiny office.
The flat, Stu’s Gambier Terrace bedsit that John frequented with his girlfriend Cyn, was a horror of filth. Dust and dirt found its way into everything, their paintings, their records, their lovemaking. Stu heard the sound of dust and grit in Elvis’ early records. Country music from the States was all over Liverpool at the time, brought in by droves of American servicemen, serving the entire community, rich and poor, cutting across lines of age and class. The country songs taught Liverpool sons about the heartaches and heartbreaks of American parents, of anyone’s parents — the father who couldn’t feed his family, the wife who lost her husband to a Saturday night honky-tonk angel or the bottle, or the family that lost everything in harsh economic winters. Most of all, Stu heard the promises his parents could never keep.
John heard the horror of loneliness in a world vastly populated with fools. The country music of Elvis’ childhood was steeped in Southern fundamentalist tradition. That honky-tonk energy of Saturday night was dragged down on Sunday morning by songs of fear and resignation.
Stu agreed, but also recognized that this atonement for Saturday night was false. Elvis demonstrated that Saturday night could be the whole show. That’s the kind of show they should put on, that’s what Allan Williams really meant by “make a show.” Not these noontime folk sessions, but Saturday night full throttle all night long.
John, leader and founder, knew about making a show, knew it instinctively, knew it when he started the group three years ago. On guitar, and singing lead, Lennon was all brusque attitude and sheer confidence, wavering on the line of talent.
But it was Paul McCartney who actually showed Lennon how to tune his guitar properly, and Paul who had something like a photographic memory about music and lyrics. John had doubts about his guitar playing, but deflected criticism by pointing out that Stu was worse, that he couldn’t keep the beat. It was such a contradictory thing to say, because it was Lennon’s idea that Stu should remain in the group. When Paul began to echo the same sentiments about Stu, John’s gut reaction was to defend Stu. Round and round they would go, with Stu alternating as scapegoat and Svengali, and somehow remaining necessary to John to stroke the algorithms of his ambitions.
Back in Allan Williams’ cramped office at the Jac, Lennon winced at pictures of other Merseyside “beat” groups that Allan had booked in cellar clubs around Liverpool. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Derry and the Seniors, Gerry and the Pacemakers… so many groups trying to make it, and such a crowded island, how is he ever to rise above all this?
“You need work then?” Allan snickered. “I have just the job for you punters. Come along.” Ever alert for business opportunities, Williams had wanted to open Liverpool’s first strip joint in the midst of its shebeens and hidden brothels, after visiting a successful one in Manchester. He had teamed up with a colorful character from Trinidad who called himself Lord Woodbine after the brand of cigarette that always dangled from his puffy lower lip. As the founder of the Royal Caribbean Steel Band, Allan’s regular act at the Jacaranda, and as a prominent resident of Liverpool’s Toxteth black community, Lord Woodbine knew everybody in the Liverpool 8 district.
They set up business in a dim, cramped cellar with a tiny stage, an even tinier bar, a sticky floor littered with cigarette butts, an unused coatrack, and the grand name of New Cabaret Artistes Club. The local hookers were not buff-shop bait, so Williams contacted a stripmeister in Manchester who sent over a candidate. Shirley descended into the dank, urine-smelling basement and swiftly removed her gear for Allan’s approval. “Her tits stuck out like train buffers,” Allan would tell his friends, “no spaniel ears here!”
But Shirley demanded a live band, and Allan’s arguments turned feeble in the face of her heaving breasts and musky aroma as she grew more adamant. A band it would be, even if they had no drummer. With her equipment the audience would never even notice the band.
“All it is, twice a night, twenty minutes a pop, and ten bob for each.”
John was disgusted, Paul was upset. Stu pointedly asked Allan to raise the ante to a quid each, for the bloody indignity of it all.
The next night found them playing in matching lilac jackets in front of a mangy curtain that served as Shirley’s dressing room, for the original ten bob each. Shirley nonchalantly handed them the sheet music for “Sabre Dance” and Lennon, without further ado, stuffed it in the waste basket. They played, repeatedly, “Moonglow”, “Ramrod”, “September Song” and “The Harry Lime Theme” as she wantonly shook her booties for the geezers and lurkers in raincoats.
They all got a laugh over it, though Stu acted moody, you’ve seen one nude, you’ve seen ‘em all. John and Stu had sketched and painted with a nude model at college and had acted like it was no big deal. Paul was a bit disdainful, as if his girlfriend might see him leering at Shirley. Cyn and the other girlfriends were not allowed, obviously. They’d be waiting for the boys back at the Jac, talking condescendingly about their “boys’ night out” and other rubbish.
John had a theory about all this. Love is wonderful, warm and fuzzy, but this relationship business brought it all down to the level of boredom. If you think you’re settled with someone, you stop trying so hard to please them, and it all goes zip. Then you’re just leaning on each other, protecting each other from the storms. You close yourself off to everything and end up in a cottage somewhere, going to work every day and drinking gin every night with no hope of doing anything else. And why doesn’t everyone see this? I must really be sick, he thought, because I’m the only one who sees it. Drop a few pounds here, smooth over a few wrinkles there, and Shirley could become Brigitte Bardot. Do it the other way, and she becomes the Hag of Spinster. It’s whatever attitude they have at the time that changes them, that turns one into a sexy stripper and the other into one of those old women with fat growths under their armpits.
At one point John gave Shirley the raised eyebrow, but she ignored him. Truth is, she fancied the youngest member, the gangly flop-eared Georgie Harrison, all teeth and flashing eyebrows, who couldn’t conceal the delight growing in his pants.
Nothing to do to save his life, call a pint in. Lennon sidled up to the bar during a break, light-years away from Cyn, from Mendips, from everything in his formal world. He was thinking hard about what he was doing. He couldn’t sit around and wait for lightning to strike, playing the bleeding piss cellars the rest of his life.
Just then, lightning struck, not far away, illuminating through the tiny window above the bar everything inside and outside the club in a shattering electric-blue incandescence. Everything just as suddenly disappeared into deep blackness, and then the lights flickered back on and thunder rolled across the area. Now that was startling, thought Lennon. Did I think it up or did it just occur naturally?
Lord Woodbine, impeccably dressed in a black turtleneck and silk suit that lent a sheen to his panther-black skin, appeared behind the bar brandishing an ornate cutlass no doubt stolen from an East London antique shop. He looked menacing enough but everyone who knew him called him Woody; he had a soft touch for the beat groups, and would often cajole Lennon into joining him on one of his lordly bouts in the local brothel. “The storm brings good luck. Your friend Geoff will be here presently.” Woody grinned, demonstrating some of that cheap clairvoyance he was known for.
“Yeah, well, how ‘bout it, mate? It’s just an ordinary day, nothing unusual about a naked lady outstanley on the stage, grumbling to the tune of the sour mash, everything’s quite navel, i’n’it? How ‘bout a lucky pint for a sore loser. My dad’s gone, my mummy’s dead, I failed lettering and they chucked me out of college.”
“Ah, but your name is Lennon, you already have the luck of the Irish.” Lord Woodbine’s lilting, singsong West Indian accent was a narcotic, a stepping stone to something exotic. In another flash of lightning Lennon could see through the grimy window out across the street to the second-story window of a flat occupied by an extended Japanese family living quietly, in cultural isolation. It looked like they were preparing something in a bowl and passing it around. A scene from an absolute elsewhere. Could these things really be going on right under our noses? Are we sleepwalking through this life, while all around us are signs that more powerful forces are at work?
“The chado,” said Woody quietly under the rumble of faraway thunder, with reverence, as he followed John’s gaze out through the high window. “A way of preparing and drinking tea. It is a moment that must be fully experienced and appreciated. It demands complete attention, helps you focus the mind to achieve a kind of super-awareness.”
As in super-wakefulness, if we could only awake from this reality. Lennon’s trancelike state dissolved into puddles of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Nothing outside of this world could be happening in a crappy striptease club, now could it? “I’m super-aware, all right. That I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stu and I, were both fucking geniuses and we just don’t fit in, they chuck us out of their mental institutions they call college.”
“There are other ways you can be a genius, John.”
Just then Geoff Mohammed, his college friend who’d always skip out and wile away the afternoons drinking and joking around at Ye Cracke, materialized at the door of the club as if conjured by some voodoo magic. Lennon shot Woody an incredulous look.
Lord Woodbine shrugged. “You see, man, even I can be a genius. I have a gift, I don’t know how to use it properly, y’know, I can’t predict the future, man, I just see what is happening, just tune right into it, y’know.”
“I know what he’s talking about,” warbled Geoff with a half-Indian, half-Italian accent. “People can make coincidences happen. They can create their own realities.” He brought out his right hand. “The unique patterns of lines and signs in the hand are a direct result of the way we think, that’s why palmistry works. The gypsy fortune teller can read these lines to know how you think, and from that, predict your future.”
“Right, pull the other one,” snickered Lennon, “It’s got bells on.”
“I’m serious!” laughed Geoff. “Palmistry goes back thousands of years, my Hindu ancestors practiced it. They studied hands to judge people and their relationships. It’s written in the earliest sacred writings. The lines never lie. They are the blueprint of your experience in this reality.”
“And what do the calluses tell you?”
“That you’ll never make it as a guitar player, you poof!” Geoff turned his wrist limp and swiped it at John, who in turn pulled the face of a spastic, with arms akimbo, bent over like a cripple. With shouts and giggles the other boys came off the stage to spill some beer and join in the fun, leaving Shirley fuming in the middle of unwinding a fur boa.
Suddenly the club door opened and lightning flared across the room, transforming bodies into bluish skeletons. The thunderstorm, rare for these parts, had whipped up a steady downpour, and out of this torrent came a tall silhouette in a gray raincoat and homburg. He removed both as the lightning flare dropped off, revealing an ageless black man in a three-piece suit. Like magic, a black cane with a gold fish head for a handle appeared in his hand, and he tapped it against his black shiny oxfords, one at a time, to knock off the rainwater. Only after doing this did he look up and smile at the bar patrons, flashing gold molars and a gold front tooth.
“Cornell!” Woody was beside himself with glee. “It has been such a long time!” He grabbed a bottle of rum and sprinkled drops before the man leading up to the bar, like some kind of welcoming carpet.
“Yes, my friend,” Cornell spoke thickly in a deep baritone, and turned to the boys at the bar. “I am Cornell Woodrow, and this…” He gripped his cane with one hand, and held out the palm of his other hand that held a wet stone, gray like lead. “This is a thunder-stone. It dropped out of the sky, and it belongs to someone here. The Yoruba believe these stones have special powers.” The man looked deeply into Paul’s eyes, then Stu’s, and then George’s, before turning his attention to Geoff and John. He then placed the stone on the bar in front of John. He grinned again, revealing the fish head icon embossed on his gold front tooth.
They were all speechless, except John. “Is it good luck, then?”
Cornell grinned at Lord Woodbine and leaned against the bar. “From ancient times, well before history was written, stones that fell from the sky were collected and consecrated with songs, sacrifices, prayers, words of blessing and power. Each stone is blessed for a single person and carries his ancestors, who help him focus his spiritual energy to achieve great things.”
“Right here in Liddypool?” John relished an argument. “Talk Hall is very hysterical with old things wot are fakes!”
“Looks like some kind of prehistoric writing,” said Stu, once again trying to defuse the situation, pointing to chalky inscriptions of geometric designs that appeared on the stone as it dried.
“Watch it now,” Lennon reverted to humor, made a snarky face. “Anything you can say can be used in Everton against you.”
Paul stepped in, introducing himself as Paul Ramon. “But what kind of trick is this?”
“No trick,” spoke the confident black man, his gold-toothed grin now plastered into everyone’s minds. He turned his attention back to the scruffy ted with courageous eyes and a sarcastic mouth. “Lennon. That’s your name, right? The stone is for you. It connects you with your ancestors, who sailed the Atlantic and traded in African slaves to make their fortunes in sugar. You know, of course, that around the time of the American revolution, half of Liverpool’s sailors were engaged in the slave trade. The legends speak of an Irish-born seaman named Lennon, whose descendants are cursed to travel the seas all their lives, lose their loved ones without mercy, and never feel at home in the world.”
John flushed, momentarily speechless, then hotly arrogant. “Did you know my dad then? Go too far with him, did you, to the infernal ends of the earth? Did you imigrateful from some little slum in Jamaicaland and then land yourself a cozy job over ‘ere as coachman?”
Stu and Paul looked on, embarrassed by John’s racist remarks. But Cornell was not fazed. “It holds a power that defies the erosion of time, that connects you with your ancestors to give you a measure of control over the cosmic forces. With this power you can truly see through the veil of space and time. Some can predict their destinies,” he nodded at Woody, “ and some can turn base metals into gold,” he said, pointing at his tooth. “Some can play music that can cause women to weep and moan, and others can compose a song that can stir masses of people into a patriotic fervor, or a revolt. It is a power that acts like a rocket, propelling your spirit to the highest level of your abilities, ambitions, hopes, and fears. It offers immortality, but only to those who are worthy enough, confident enough, and focused enough to wield it.”
Paul was gaining strength and having none of it. “He’s just a wind-up merchant, John.”
“As false as his wallies,” murmured John out of the side of his mouth. But still, he picked up the stone and hefted it. “Let’s all go have a wank with our ancestors.”
“Wait.” Stu snatched it from John. “Let me have a closer look.”
John regarded Stu’s keen interest. “If only it could help us get more work. Maybe improve our playing, somehow. Something that would take us to the top.”
“The top?” asked Cornell. “Where’s that?”
“The toppermost of the poppermost!” John shouted, and the others giggled and knocked their heads together like stooges.
“You’re a pop group, then,” Cornell spoke thickly, with eyes narrowed in a hint of disapproval.
“Yes, we do rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry, man. Elvis, Eddie Cochran. But a lot of it is rubbish, really, ‘cause we’re not Americans. We can’t go on imitating Americans and make a living out of it.”
Paul leaned in with a let-me-explain-it smile. “The basis of our beat is off-beat, accompanied by a faint on-beat. It’s like the four in the bar of traditional jazz.”
“No, no,” protested John, “we’re anti-jazz. I think it’s all shite. All those educated jazz followers, students in Marks and Spencer pullovers. Jazz never gets anywhere, never does anything. It’s always the same and all they do is drink pints.” He punctuated this remark by guzzling his own pint.
Cornell was not impressed. “You’re not inspired by jazz? How about the blues?”
“It’s your fucking music, what do you think?” John challenged him. “How do you like having English blokes like me sing ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’?”
“No, no, my man!” Lord Woodbine, ever the ambassador, sought to bridge the culture gap. “Music is universal, it belongs to no one! You make it with whatever is at hand, in whatever style they want,” pointing at the meager audience sitting on their hands waiting for Shirley to return to the stage. “My steel band, we start at the junk pile. This is our history. The British take away our drums, so we find abandoned gas drums and oil tins, we cut them down to make our steelpans. And we play music you might think is out of character for us, Beethoven, Toselli, Schubert. But the audience loves it! And when we want to cut loose, we do the Soja Man.”
“Ah, the Soja Man!” Cornell bowed with respect.
As if on cue, Bones, a member of the Lord’s steel band, blew in from the storm carrying his steelpan. He set it up near the stage and came over to stand behind the bar, saying nothing but nodding at Cornell. Lennon could see some kind of invisible message passed between them, a query and an acknowledgement.
Lord Woodbine turned back to Lennon. “You have no drummer, man, how you expect to make it with no drummer?”
“We make it fine,” Lennon shot back in a mocking Jamaican accent, “just pour us another pint if you please.”
“We don’t need one,” said Paul as a matter of fact. “The rhythm’s in our guitars.”
“But there’s not enough bottom,” pointed out Woody, and Paul and John both stole a glance at Stu, who held the stone at eye level the way a painter holds his brush to point at the canvas.
“In the African tradition, drumming and dancing are inseparable components of the same activity,” lectured Cornell. “Dance-drumming is like having a personal conversation with your wise ancestor. It is magical, to describe it in your terms. Dance-drumming puts our bodies on display, it boasts of our achievements. It is the drama of our people performing well in our lives. The smithy beats out the rhythm of the universe, and dancing becomes the new world order.”
“Yes, yes,” added Woody quickly, to get to the point. “But really, without drumming, you don’t have that magic, you can’t penetrate a woman’s body to capture her heart.”
Geoff snorted a laugh, spurting beer through his dark lips. “I thought it was about music.”
Woody ignored him. “You can’t go on like this, pulling drummers here and there. You need a drummer that provides a structure for your sound. Why don’t you talk to the drummer in the Hurricanes? The one who wears all those rings.”
“Oh, Ringo?” John perked up. “He’s a professional, why would he want to put up with us? Anyway Johnny Hutch is a better drummer. The Cassanovas have that powerful drum thing.”
“No, I’ve heard him,” said Woody. “Too strong for your sound. You should try Ringo.”
Stu gave out an exasperated sigh as he put down the stone. “I think he’s right, John.” He looked over at Lennon with a sly grin. “Maybe I should have taken up drums rather than bass.” He grinned sheepishly. “Look, I’m not feeling well, this headache’s come on.”
“So go on, then.”
“George or Paul can use my bass, give whichever one my ten bob.”
“You give up too easily, Stu.”
“I’m not giving up,” he shrugged. Paul watched Stu leave, and turned to look at George, who muttered that he wasn’t going to give up lead guitar to play bass. Paul looked at him incredulously. Wot, not even here, in this dingy strip club where no one’s listening anyway?
John picked up the stone to avoid looking at either of them, and tried to see right through it. Solid rock. My group is disintegrating without Stu. What am I supposed to be?
Cornell had been watching Lennon with interest. “You need to see it for yourself, this power? Let me show you. Gather your group, and let’s hear you play. But first, take the stone, rub it gently, and put it in your pocket.”
“A-and play pocket billiards wi’it?”
Cornell smiled. “A cheap shot, yes. But let Bones sit in with you, and watch the girl as she dances.”
“Our bass player’s gone,” said Paul. “I wouldn’t mind playing bass but I’m left-handed…”
Cornell strolled over to Stu’s bass, took it out of its battered case, and brought it over to Paul. “Flip it upside down,” he said as he handed it to Paul. “And spread your fingers over the frets spatially opposite, low to high to note. It’s like learning to drive in America, on the right side, rather than the left side. You just reverse your polarity.”
Bemused, Paul began to practice playing the right-handed bass upside down. Once again they took the stage, with Bones pitter-pattering a rhythm on his steelpan appropriate for “Ramrod” as Shirley meandered out and started going through the motions. Dispirited, bored, even disgusted with Shirley’s nonchalant business-as-usual approach, Lennon shot hard glances at Cornell, who seemed to be mustering his energy to do something, concentrating hard on the dancer. The thought occurred right then to Lennon that something more was called for, some kind of truth. What is Shirley really dancing for? What is her final purpose?
Of course! John started to bang out a rudimentary version of a recent hit called “Money (That’s What I Want)”. He could see Paul grinning, appreciating this bit of humor that ran deeper than typical wanker jokes.
So with Paul on Stu’s bass leading the way, Lennon started grinding out the opening blues riff with George hanging on behind him, right on up to the stressed, suspended plateau, and down into the canyon of the first verse, which Lennon belted out in a renewed ferocity. “The best things in life are free,” and he strummed the backbeat chord savagely. “But you can give ‘em to the birds and bees, I want money.”
The others joined in, “Money, money.” Lennon returned the favor: “That’s what I want.” He glanced at Shirley, who was starting to move seductively. “That’s what I wah-ah-ah-ant oh yeah,” John sang, finding his meaty voice in the lower registers and driving that masculinity straight home to her quim. “That’s what I want.”
Cornell’s somber face cracked into a watermelon smile as he gazed at Shirley. Lennon felt suddenly that the room, the entire club, floated on a cloud in something unreal. Time didn’t stand still but started to wave, like ripples in a river, and as he concentrated on his grinding blues riff, the timing of his strumming matched these ripples.
The riff began to infect and then possess Shirley. She gathered her body in a rush of euphoria and flung her arms to the ceiling, her breasts bouncing as if the stage were a trampoline. In sync with the rhythm, she twisted her body in jerks and spasms, forming a spiral as she hunkered down, thighs wide, vagina aimed at the stage floor. With a single thumb she snapped the G-string, squatted, and pressed her naked pussy’s lips to the wood. The crowd roared. They’d never seen anything like it. Lennon could feel the power of his strumming move her body, trigger her to gyrate and thrust, to squirm and grind.
The ecstatic display shattered the mind of a middle-aged man in a raincoat and bowler hat standing near the stage. Groping at invisible phantoms he made his way to the stage and flung himself at her lower torso, face and mouth open, arms flailing, bowler hat rolling around at the band’s feet. Shirley was amused and leaned back to give him a whiff, but Lord Woodbine across the room was not; brandishing his cutlass, he strode with quick purpose through the crowd to the stage and threatened to cut off the man’s head. Lennon kept on grinding the chords behind all this, grinning idiotically, giving the hat a kick, and thinking that he was manipulating this scene and they were all his puppets.
But George stopped playing, and then Paul, both taken aback by the cutlass in Woody’s hand gleaming brightly in the stage lights. Bones pitter-pattered a soft flutter on the bongos and stopped. A hush fell over the audience; the show had knocked the wind out of them. As Woody firmly escorted Shirley’s assailant out of the club with his cutlass held high, Lennon stopped his manic strumming and Shirley slid back on her haunches in exhaustion. The audience cleared their throats, fingered their wallets, checked their timepieces and collected their coats, mystified by it all and quite ready to forget it had ever happened.
“Was that the demonstration, then?” John snapped at Cornell as he came off the stage, his guitar slung over his back and his aggression barely under control.
Cornell met John’s stance squarely, but with a smile and a twinkle of his eye. “You’ll know it when you feel it.” Perhaps this English boy is a white Stagger Lee. Turning to Lord Woodbine as he put on his coat, he placed his hand over Woody’s on the cutlass handle. “I must leave now, my friend, and take Bones with me. We’re off to Hamburg. Something is starting up there, along the Reeperbahn. A mixed crowd, gun-runners, gangsters, black American G.I.s. There may be… opportunities.” He spoke the word as a talisman in his deep, dark voice. Then he turned back to the room, still holding Woody’s hand-on-cutlass, and, still in a dark voice, said, “And I leave you all with this.” And with a swirl of his overcoat and a smile as large as the room, he began to sing, loudly…
A pirate, history relates
Was scuffling with some of his mates
When he slipped on a cutlass
Which rendered him nut-less
And practically useless on dates!”
And with that, belly-laughing, Cornell Woodrow swirled out the door and was absorbed into the abating rainstorm.
Well, that was something. Lennon had felt something new, something unpredictable. Now that he possessed this stone, whatever it was, he had a choice of whether to believe in it or not. And yet he understood that he could do both: believe in it as something to concentrate on, to better his skills; and disbelieve it, treat it as simply a lucky piece, and don’t expect anything from it. Either way there was an unexpected demand that he must now obey new laws of nature, laws he’d never known before. New laws for a new universe, parallel to this one, into which this club had been transported. And as he thought this, the room, the street outside, Liverpool, all of it grew increasingly insubstantial, like sand castles dissolving in the relentless waves of an ocean from another universe.
He knew that a true miracle had just occurred, a small one, but then all great things seem small and insignificant at first. But it was not the thunder-stone, that was just a bit of fake magic to disrupt your usual thoughts and point you in the right direction. No, the power came from concentrating on the rhythm of the music, on finding the meat in his voice and singing from his stomach, on overcoming fear and just laying it out there, for all to see. His rhythm had meshed with Paul’s bass in a way he’d never heard before. Their different guitars, rhythm and bass, were somehow linked on another plane of experience. This is it, he thought, something to be taken seriously, for the first time in his life. He’d heard it tonight. Everything started to click.
Everything started to click with Paul on bass.
John couldn’t talk to Stu about this. Stu wanted to impress John with his bass playing and would do anything to continue with the group. John didn’t know how to let Stu down easily. He could talk to Paul about it, because Paul knew how important it was to get the music and the rhythm right. Paul knew how to hide his feelings; Paul had also lost his mother and seems to understand how important it is to make it, to make a business of it, to live the life of it.
It turned out that John didn’t have to talk about how the music clicked; Paul wouldn’t stop talking about it as Stu quietly sulked. Paul had tasted the magic of the bass guitar, and thought it no coincidence at all that Richard Starkey, a.k.a. Ringo from the Hurricanes, had showed up at the Jac the next day during the Silver Beetles gig. Ringo showed up at just the right moment, as if conjured by voodoo, that Paul had stepped in on bass while Stu took lead vocals. Ringo sat in for a while on congas that were lying around, and the rhythm grew as perfect as John’s smile.
Paul talked to Ringo afterward, but Ringo couldn’t be bothered with joining this primitive group; he was keenly aware that there were over a hundred groups in this province alone and practically none of them had a chance of ever being heard in London, let alone the rest of the world. Except perhaps the Hurricanes and another group, Denny and the Seniors, which were preparing to bypass London and go to Hamburg.
* * *
Allan Williams sensed a change in the air. As the other members of the Royal Caribbean Steel Band slipped away to Hamburg, he recognized that something this unpredictable must be pointing the way to new opportunities. He’d heard some stories about Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. British teenage girls swooning at the feet of someone as ugly as Gene Vincent was one thing; adult women in Europe carrying on with wild abandon to Caribbean steel music was something else entirely.
His connection with Larry Parnes guaranteed that even more groups in the area would be at his disposal to manage. The Parnes tour packages, and the ever-growing club scene in Liverpool and now Hamburg, all seemed to Williams to be plum pickings. With the steel band gone, he could afford to give more time to the Silver Beetles, and even suggested a drummer. “I’ll see what I can do to arrange an audition for Parnes, but John, you really need a proper drummer. Why don’t you give Tommy Moore a go?”
“The fork-lift driver? He’s too thick for us.”
“Aw, give ‘em a go, and I’ll arrange something with Parnes. He’s coming to the Wyvern, mate, just a week from now.”
“Ol’ Parnes, Shillings, and Pence?” It was a quid pro quo, no doubt. Lennon was, as usual, suspicious of Allan’s motives, always helping them, and for what? Allan will give Parnes an arse-licking for sure, but did the man also owe Moore a favor? It seems that to get anywhere, you have to put up with these cripples.
At the Wyvern Club audition for Parnes, Paul’s impatience with Stu came to the surface. An American bass player, about the same age as the rest of them, popped backstage amidst the clatter and confusion to give them a hand with their gear. He called himself Johnny B, from New Jersey, played bass with the Ancestors, a rhythm and blues group out of the Cheltenham-Tewkesbury area that only recently started playing matinees at London jazz clubs. He also worked part-time for Larry Parnes as a road tech. Lennon caught a whiff of the underclass about him, a street kid, glaring and inquisitive. Not at all what he’d thought an American teenager was like. Turns out he not only knew about that Cornell Woodrow character, but he also knew Lennon’s friend Geoff.
“You know Geoff, then,” Lennon broke the ice wryly.
“Yeah, he told me to look you up.”
“Did he tell you all about India and his father, his ancestors? All that bloody nonsense about sorcerers and holy men and the healing power of the Ganges?”
“Yeah, he’s a wild one,” Johnny B answered matter-of-factly.
“He’s a practicing maniac,” retorted Lennon.
Johnny B had heard their audition. Like his own band mates in the Ancestors, these Brits were caricatures of the rock ‘n’ roll heroes back home. Even so, this bunch articulated themselves with panache. They were cheeky, they didn’t take themselves too seriously. How could they? Playing music from another country? But like most vulgar expressions of caricatures, these were overblown.
Paul wanted to know about his group, the Ancestors, how they thought up that name. “We’re Johnny and the Moondogs right now…”
“No we’re not,” snapped Lennon, thinking quickly how absurd the name would sound to a hip American. “We’re the Silver Beetles.”
“I dunno, Ancestors, it’s just a name,” Johnny B’s voice seemed to slither out through a rangy grin. “A friend of mine back home suggested it, before I came over here. I needed to get a group together, just to keep my sanity. But I’m sick about what’s happening back there, all this Frankie Avalon shit making it while the real music, the black music, is stuck in the clubs. All we have is our records, a-and my father, he’s a big distributor back there, but everything he distributes is shit. You got the same thing going on over here, this creeping commercial shit, Cliff Richard and all that, I’ve seen enough Elvis imitators to last a lifetime. Hell, I met Elvis, seen him perform. You got nothin’ like the real Elvis over here.”
“Fuck Elvis.” Lennon didn’t believe this Yank; he would have been just a kid when Elvis last toured.
“Yeah well, I played with the Hawk, Ronnie Hawkins, and his band, even helped him come over here to appear on that TV show back in December.”
“Yes, ‘Oh Boy!’, I saw it,” said Stu. “Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, too. We caught them at the Liverpool Empire in March.”
A moment of pause for Eddie Cochran, who’d died the previous month on tour in England, the same car accident that put Gene Vincent in the hospital. Then Lennon spoke sarcastically, “Another dead loser. Now he’s Something Else,” joking on the title of one of Cochran’s songs, “and Vincent’s a cripple, can’t dance to the bop no more.”
“Eddie was a genius,” countered Johnny B. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t play after hearing it once or twice. He wrote his own songs, he could play that Chet Atkins bass-melody picking style. Lemme show you.”
With a subdued chuckle, Johnny B demonstrated the bass line Eddie Cochran had employed on “Twenty Flight Rock”, a percussive slapping style pioneered by Bill Black on Elvis’ Sun recordings. The song was more or less a pastiche of early Elvis mannerisms, and McCartney knew it well, had in fact taught the song to Lennon, but he watched Johnny B’s playing closely. His timing was so perfect; Paul had never seen anything like this up close. All the Merseyside groups seem to rush through their songs, but Johnny B held on to the rhythm, reinforcing it with a laconic style. Johnny B suavely coasted through “C’mon Everybody”, “Something Else”, “Summertime Blues”, and then “Jeanie, Jeanie, Jeanie”, which clicked in Paul’s head, and it came to him how to play the bass part and change the arrangement for the newest Lennon-McCartney composition, “One After 909”.
Stu, meanwhile, had been watching and perfecting Johnny B’s sneer, and hadn’t even thought to grab his Höfner. Paul noticed and elbowed Stu. “You ought to take lessons from him, y’know.”
Stu reddened. Lennon pounced for the kill. “Sutcliffe, just turn your back to the audience, so they can’t see that you can’t play.”
Johnny B winced at the remark and felt some sympathy for Stu. These Northerners, as the English called people from the northern provinces that included Liverpool and Manchester, could be cruel to each other and to everybody else.
The audition call came just as Tommy Moore showed up direct from his forklift job, all rumpled and dirty, and they used up valuable audition time setting up his drums. Stu had time to think about Lennon’s remark and decided that he’d take a more aggressive stand, sneering under his Ray-Ban sunglasses and facing the audience solidly with the body of his Höfner bass centered against his chest. It was a pose Lennon would imitate, if only to embarrass Stu.
Larry Parnes was not so impressed with the drummer for the Silver Beetles who had arrived late, acted surly, and looked ages older than the rest of them. This Tommy Moore character would scare the teenagers if they got a good look at him. No way would he let this outfit back Billy Fury on an island-wide tour, not until they found a proper drummer. Until then, he could use them for the Johnny Gentle tour in the North. But he wanted to hear the group without the bass player. The two guitarists were fine, but he had another bass player in mind, and besides, Stu looked a bit too beatnik for his tastes.
The humbling experience of standing down hurt Stu worse than any other rejection of his life. He never regained his enthusiasm for the music. Stu had been experiencing, off and on since the kick to his head, severe headaches and acute sensitivity to light. At other times he suffered a fathomless hurt buried deep inside his head. The deeply ingrained pain brought drama to his dreams, and he had dreamed giant bass notes turning into the scaffolds of an executioner.
Scotland in May 1960 was cold and rainy, but Lennon was bursting with energy at each performance and actively engaging the other tour groups, exercising his dry wit by criticizing everything, especially Stu’s playing. John’s exuberance greatly increased with his inner feelings of failure. He was about to drop out of school, while Paul and George were going back to the Institute. Aunt Mimi wouldn’t stop scolding him with “You must think about getting a job instead of messing about with the guitar.” And Stu seemed more distant than ever.
To avoid the tension between John and Stu in the shared hotel rooms, Paul would grab Stu’s Höfner and visit the Ancestors’ room to learn a few things from Johnny B. The tutoring helped Paul to slow down his energy. Johnny B taught him to concentrate, to capture the timing by feel, and to tune his bass in a more accurate way to produce the right vibrations. Paul’s fingers were raw, sliced up from the piano strings Stu had bought for the bass to save money. Paul was in a hurry to learn and hadn’t developed proper calluses for bass strings.
* * *
Johnny B awoke in a supine position on a couch in the beautiful white-haired Dahlia’s bedroom in Paris, a copy of Dormant’s collage-book Situations on his lap. He vaguely remembered his fascination with the overall idea of the book as a slice of current life exploded to the point where every spot, drip, photo, comic-strip and blueprint image is pregnant with meaning. It was a meaning you had to make up yourself, make it up out of anything, out of everyday life situations.
Dahlia had flown somewhere. Dormant himself was snoring on a floor cushion in the living room. Franco was working on another French poster, translated into English as “Live without dead time, indulge untrammeled desire!”
Johnny sensed meaning in everything, but he was not so mystical about it. Cornell had taught him to be practical. Also, to not be impatient. “It took over seven generations for our people to awaken and begin to feed and celebrate its loa. Take your time, and feed it right.” Feed the musical serpent, as Johnny interpreted it. And he had some ideas for this Liverpool band, the Silver Beetles, that he’d met a month before, that was now cutting its eye teeth in Hamburg. They needed to break out, and in order to do that, they needed something new, a new image. He would start with a decent photographer.
Dormant had pointed him to a group of existentialist friends in Hamburg, “Sartre and Camus are their patron saints. They’re just students, going around wearing black clothes and looking moody.” The city was a northern port like Liverpool, and even on the same latitude, but twice its size and ten times its wickedness. The Reeperbahn main street had more strip clubs than any other street in the world. As a free port Hamburg harbored gun runners during the Algerian crisis and attracted foreign gangsters, who mingled with British and American servicemen. As the Berlin Wall went up, East German illegal immigrants fled to Hamburg to get drunk and conduct gang warfare in the clubs.
The exis included several artists and photographers, including Jürgen Vollmer and, as Dormant put it, “the Mata Hari of monochrome” Astrid Kirchherr. Dormant put Johnny B in touch with Astrid’s current boyfriend, an illustrator named Klaus Voormann.
As soon as Johnny B arrived in Hamburg, he brought Klaus to the Reeperbahn. The band now called themselves the Beatles, “Beatles with an ‘A’” as Lennon put it. They were playing the Indira club, named after India, which had a large elephant sign as its symbol. Klaus, whose student friends were more into jazz, had never been to a club like it before, all noisy and menacing. They sat at a beer-drenched table in the back with the Beatles on a break. Klaus was amazed at their black-and-white check jackets and long pointed shoes, and one of them, Stu, really looked the part of a rocker, with his hair piled back and high, and wearing those clip-on sunglasses all night. The waitress dropped by with their Prellys, and Johnny B couldn’t help but notice the label on the drug bottle — Preludin, the same pills he used to peddle for his dad back in Jersey.
Back on stage, the Beatles put on an energetic show of raucous, screaming vocals and driving rhythms. The music was so exciting for Klaus that he brought his girlfriend Astrid the following night, and promptly lost her, as she fell in love at first sight of the moody, inarticulate Stu, a James Dean replica right there in Hamburg.
Astrid felt motherly to Lennon and the others, despite their sexual overtures. John was clearly all for himself and his penis, boisterous and rowdy but inexperienced in sensual matters. Paul was a bit more sensitive and caring, but there was this rude side to him that didn’t really accept women on their own terms. George was too shy and prac-tically a virgin, and Pete the drummer, well, he was earthy and kind, but not as intelligent as the others. It was Stuart she was drawn to, overtly shy but capable of loving on an entirely different level. She knew he could pierce her veil and discover her secrets and she could almost feel him going down on her as he stood there, like a stone, playing his bass.
Johnny B persuaded Astrid to experiment with the Beatles, and she started with Stu, changing his hairstyle to be more like Klaus, bringing the hair forward, over his brow. Stu was thin enough and the same height as Astrid, so she gave him her leather pants and collarless jackets, over-sized shirts, and long scarves. The overall effect was feminine, but Stu could pull it off with his jutting masculine chin and dire, mysterious eyes. And despite their witty gibes at Stu about looking girlish or wearing his mother’s clothes, both John and Paul were jealous of the new look. Even Johnny B adopted it, and Astrid eventually gave them all the “moptop” look except Pete the drummer, who could sense already that he didn’t fit it.
With the coming of Astrid, Stu was ready to graduate from his great “wallow” in the gritty life of rock and roll. He was now ready to pursue realism, before prying open the escape hatch of abstract and surrealism. Stu had heard the call of the wild in the early works of Max Ernst, in the “kitchen sink realism” of John Bratby, in Eduardo Paolozzi’s “I was a Rich Man’s Plaything”, which — Johnny B had pointed out — was very popular among Dormant’s group in Paris.
This move to the primitive in his art was the same, he tried to explain to Lennon, as the latter’s pursuit for that raw feeling of rock and roll, the primitive music. But John, stung by his friend’s newfound interest in someone far more intellectual than him, told Stu on no uncertain terms to decide. Painting, or the band.
Astrid eased the tension by taking long early morning walks with John, sped up on Prellys after the shows. After a few embarrassing attempts at hitting on her, John stopped acting like a idiot and started talking to her. All he really cared about, he told her, was to get on with his rock and roll.
The next week Johnny B arrived with Ringo Starr from the Hurricanes, who were playing up the street. Stu had felt sick and stayed for a few days at Astrid’s house, so left-handed Paul had taken to playing Stu’s bass upside down, as Cornell had shown him. Johnny B took over on bass for a song, and Ringo took over from a moody Pete on drums, and they launched into the best version of “Some Other Guy” that they’d ever played, with Lennon beaming as he sang, using a stance borrowed from Stu with his guitar at his chest, his chin held up high, and his eyes in a squint so that he could see without glasses. His body faced the world without fear, as if overnight he had become the spokesman for all of rock and roll.
It was impressive work, and Johnny B was proud of his role as a talent scout and Cornell’s protégé. He’d hooked them up with an art crowd of sophisticated tastes, and he’d arranged a recording session for them in Hamburg, with Ringo in tow, to be the backing band for Tony Sheridan singing “My Bonnie”. He was taken by surprise when the authorities showed up to deport the Beatles. Had he been followed? Cornell had formidable enemies who could coerce the German police to raid the club. A pretext, some ridiculous shenanigans in the cubbyhole backstage involving a flaming curtain, had put Paul and Pete in the slammer, while George was summarily flown back to England for being a minor.
Lennon limped back to Liverpool without a cent, all contrite to his Aunt Mimi, but still optimistic. Ringo was going to join the band, and Johnny B had talked Bob Woolton into setting them up for regular noontime gigs at the Cavern club. Lennon wouldn’t die of starvation, but he also wouldn’t die of boredom.
Stu, however, would tragically die of a brain hemorrhage in Hamburg the following year, stemming from that kick in the head back in that Liverpool alley. He had been a trend-setting artist, the first of many to wear the hairstyles of the new hipsters. John Lennon would always think of him as a martyr for his pursuit of the primitive and his willingness to experiment in rock and roll.
The above is an excerpt from the novel The Experiment by Tony Bove, which mixes history with fictional characters and imagined conversations.