Filth & Longing at the Crossroads: Hamburg
This then, was the bargain — their souls in exchange for the exclusive licence to make the noise the world couldn't seem to make for itself.
This is an excerpt from “A Complicated Passion,” a memoir-in-progress of my pilgrimage to Liverpool, London & Hamburg.
“... empty, like a huge pair of dirty wet underpants waiting for the right tool to pour it, rich semen through the ugly distorted slit provided in order that man may piss away the badness from his twenty-four feet long coil of intestines.” — original Beatles bass player Stu Sutcliffe, describing the Reeperbahn in a letter to a friend, November 1960.
HAMBURG, GERMANY ~ March 19, 2023
When I think back on it now, I remember hard sun and a spent cigarette skittering across an empty street and the brittle heat that presages a summer storm. But Hamburg was none of those things. It was March, cold and grey, and while there was no shortage of discarded cigarettes, the storm that had once gathered its strength here had long since departed for wider skies.
It’s a reminder of the unreliability of memory, that I have such a vivid recollection of something that didn’t happen. Then again, maybe memory is less about what happened and more about how we feel about what happened.
I’ve come to Hamburg because there’s no understanding this story and this music without understanding Hamburg, and more specifically, the Reeperbahn — the blast furnace of sex and filth and desire and decadence where the passions of four boys from Liverpool were forged into the sound that remade the world. In the periodic table of elements from which their music was built, the base metals were strip-mined in Hamburg.
The Reeperbahn is where the “Silver Beatles” rose to the occasion of their destiny, where they learned to mach schau with bleeding fingers and aching bodies and broken hearts at the world's first and most consequential rock and roll boot camp, playing for dock workers and mobsters and GIs who came to get drunk, get laid and hear some “American” rock and roll and ended up witnessing history.
Hamburg is where they became a real band and where they almost fell apart entirely, where fault lines of love and loyalty and jealousy and ambition blew apart and reassembled into what they would become. Hamburg is where, as John said later, they grew up.
I’ve come to Hamburg because there is no understanding their story and their music without it. But so far, things aren’t going very well. For one thing, I have a fucking head cold.
It’s not entirely unexpected. Spending most of the year living next door to nowhere, my immune system is for shite at fending off the germs of strangers on airplanes, and this bug I’ve picked up is particularly obnoxious. The head cold makes everything seem faded and far away, which is fine for spiritual contemplation, but exactly the wrong way to be on the Reeperbahn, which exists to be a descent out of head and into the more primal territory of groin and gut.
To understand their time on the Reeperbahn, I should be sinking into the lush transgressiveness of Club SM, or grinding up against a stranger on a dance floor and at least flirting with a zipless fuck in a back alley. That was — very loosely speaking — the plan, but I’m in no way up for making any of that happen.
It’s not helping that I’m mostly limited to going out during the day, which is also exactly the wrong way to be here. The Reeperbahn really only exists after dark, but at night there’s too much, well, too much everything... noise, lights, people, activity... for my stuffed-up head to handle.
Still, I am here and I need to do something more than sit in my scruffy little hotel room waiting for the cold medicine to kick in, which, spoiler, it never does. I don’t know what “paracetamol” is, but it seems to be the only cold medicine in Hamburg and I might as well be taking sugar pills for all the good it’s doing.
With extreme reluctance, I resort to an online guidebook 😕 that lists the addresses of Beatles locations in and around the Reeperbahn. I go through the motions, knocking off the list like a cruise ship passenger with an afternoon’s shore leave — the Indra, the Bambi Kino, the Kaiserkeller, the Top Ten and Star Club, the diner where they ate cornflakes, the church where John (allegedly) pissed on the altar, the police station where Paul and Pete were jailed before being deported, the Field of the Holy Spirit where Astrid Kirchherr created those extraordinary photographs of them, the first modern imagery of the first modern rock band.
I don’t do much at any of these places except stare bleary-eyed at the buildings, most of which are either closed during the day or closed to the public entirely. Unlike Liverpool, Hamburg does not put out the welcome mat for Beatles pilgrims, and I’m nowhere near clear-headed enough to do the detective and diplomatic work required to gain access.
All of this defeats the point of pilgrimage. If I’m just going to be a tourist, I may as well not be here at all.
I came to Hamburg to understand their story, but mostly what I feel is a hollow, isolating sadness that I don’t completely understand the source of. After the transcendence of St. Peter’s and the ecstasy of the Cavern, this isn’t how I want this journey to end. But for the first time in all of this, I just want to go home.
Listed in the guidebook as housing a collection of John’s drawings, the Erotic Art Museum has been closed every time I've trudged past it. This time, though, I find it open.
The Erotic Art Museum isn’t actually a museum at all, mostly because pretty much everything in it is for sale. More outsider art gallery than museum, the single-ish small room is defined by an oversized pop art painting of a dark-haired madonna, her lace blouse pulled aside to reveal swelling breasts, her gloved hands between her spread thighs.
“Domenica,” a voice says in thickly accented English.
I turn to see a man, tall and silver-haired, black turtleneck and snug-fitting jeans. He reminds me of Steve Jobs, if Jobs had chosen to peddle sex instead of technology.
“Hamburg’s most famous prostitute,” he adds.
I nod. It’s a nice painting, but I’m only vaguely interested. I don’t have much energy left, and if there are John Lennon drawings here, that’s what I came to see.
There aren’t, though, I’m told when I ask. The guidebook, like everything else on the Reeperbahn, is a bit outdated.
“The Reverend,” as he introduces himself to me, is a combination of solicitous and austere, as I suppose befits a reverend. Part magician, part monk, part carnival barker, he plays the “museum” like an instrument — turning a Virgin Mary figurine to reveal that the back side of it is a phallus, then folding open a vintage sex catalogue to offer a brief history of vibrators, and finally drawing back a curtain to reveal the original door to the Star Club, where on New Year’s Eve 1962, the Beatles gave their final Hamburg performance prior to their ascension into immortality.
The Star Club door is an interesting curio, and I’m not at all surprised to find the Fabs featured in a museum dedicated to sex. But this door is still just a door, no different from the many other doors I’ve stood in front of since I’ve been here, except there’s nothing behind this one but a wall. The metaphor’s not lost on me, even with my stuffy head.
The Reverend seems to read the longing on my face, which also isn’t surprising given longing is arguably the currency of the Reeperbahn. With a glimmer in his eyes suggesting darker powers not previously on show, he disappears into the back room and returns a few minutes later with a wooden box. He clears a space on a table, sets the box down and beckons me over.
The box is filled with photographs, most of them black and white.
I’m expecting Beatles photographs, but the image on top of the stack is of a woman. Older and well past the flush of her beauty, her ample breasts spilling over her corset, she sits behind a window on the Herbertstraße, the Reeperbahn’s “red light” street, and talks with a potential customer standing outside. Light streams through the glass. On the floor, a man with a drawing pad sketches her. The scene is tender and holy and sexy as all hell, and it’s one of my lingering regrets that I didn’t bring this photograph home with me, from this museum where almost everything is for sale.
“Domenica,” I say, recognising the woman from the portrait on the wall.
The Reverend nods. He seems pleased that I’ve made the connection.
I set the photograph aside, reluctantly, and lift out the next one. It’s the same couple, muse and artist, waltzing together in a sunlit courtyard, both of them laughing and obviously in love. I wonder when the affair started, if it was before or after he sketched her in the window.
There are more — Domenica and her artist lover on a rumpled bed, his fingertip between her lips as they gaze at one another, and what looks for all the world like a discarded strait jacket on the windowsill behind them. Domenica on another bed — alone this time — a pillow with the words “Sleep well” embroidered in German beside her and a painting of the (Catholic) Madonna on the wall. Domenica sitting at an upright piano, dressed in lace and a single black glove on her left hand.
The box contains photographs of them, too, but none are from their original time here — no lost photos of sweaty baby Fabs in Hamburg leather, nothing unexpected or personal or sexy in any sense of the word. Just press conference snaps from the ‘66 tour, when their triumphant return to Hamburg sparked clashes between the Polizei and hundreds of German teenagers desperate for sold-out concert tickets.
The photographs are faded, the paper is brittle, the images are mildly interesting, but... unsettling. Holding them, I understand, finally, the reason for my sadness here. For the first time ever, I’m experiencing them as something that happened a long time ago.
I pull my hand away from the box and curl my fingernails hard into my palm. The Reeperbahn is not the place to cry in front of a stranger. But the physical pain doesn’t distract from the greater existential pain, now that I recognise it for what it is.
The Beatles’ music is ageless, of course, so far ahead of its time I doubt we’ll ever completely catch up. But their story is very much of its time, and here in Hamburg, it’s impossible to escape the reality that all of this happened over half a century prior.
I know this is partly because of my head cold. But mostly, I think it’s because of Hamburg itself. In Liverpool, the Beatles are a living presence. In Hamburg, they’re ghosts.
To be fair, Hamburg’s apparent disinterest in its extraordinary musical heritage gives the story a raw authenticity often lacking in Liverpool. They’re neglected here, yes, but they’re also not tidied up for tourist dollars. Unlike Liverpool (and London) where it often takes considerable imagination to superimpose the past onto the present, the Reeperbahn in 2023 looks pretty much the same as it did sixty years ago. Even the garbage looks like it’s been here since 1960 — if you told me some of those cigarette butts in the gutter were smoked by Paul McCartney, I’d be tempted to believe you.
You'd think that would be a good thing, but it isn’t. The authenticity isn’t translating into any kind of emotional connection, it just feels faded and tired. The distance between then and now — between them and me — has never felt more uncrossable, more inescapably history, and that’s the opposite of what I’m here for.
“Is there anything else?” I ask, aware of the pleading in my voice. It’s not an attractive quality, but I’m nearing the limits of... a lot of things.
The Reverend lays a quiet hand on one of the photographs. It feels like a benediction, or perhaps a summoning.
“If you want the Beatles,” he tells me, “you must talk with Rosi.”
When I find Rosi, she’s standing in front of the Kaiserkeller, wearing a long black overcoat and fitting a cigarette into a long black holder.
It’s Monday morning and the Kaiserkeller, along with most everything else, is closed. The Große Freiheit is deserted, save for myself, Rosi, and a small film crew.
Rosi lights her cigarette and blows out the smoke, waiting patiently as a cameraman sets his levels. She’s here to be interviewed for the 60th anniversary of Please Please Me, the Beatles’ debut album, and she seems accustomed to, and a little... pleased... with the attention.
Like Domenica, Rosi is Reeperbahn royalty, and by some standards, minor Beatles royalty, too. During the fall and winter of 1960, Rosi worked behind the bar at the Kaiserkeller for all fifty-six nights the “Silver Beatles” played here. She’s one of the few remaining who hold the memories firsthand.
The cameras roll and Rosi begins her interview. Down the street, a man in the doorway of a strip club watches the proceedings. He’s holding a handful of flyers, but there’s no one to give them to. On a Monday morning, no one is on the Reeperbahn for sex.
When the interview concludes, Rosi’s friend and translator, an effervescent woman in a matching black coat and a bright red scarf who makes me think immediately of Snow White, invites me to join them inside the Kaiskerkeller. I accept, of course, happy and grateful to finally be walking through a door instead of staring at it from the outside.
It’s silent as we descend the steps into the club, but it’s not the sacred silence of St. Peter’s Church Hall. It’s the unnatural silence of an empty place intended to be full of noise. I can’t help feeling that the club itself is taunting me with a reminder of what’s been lost and how far in the past it is, how stubbornly out of reach.
My German’s not great, but from what I can pick up listening to Rosi talk with the camera crew, the Kaiskerkeller’s layout is largely unchanged from when she worked behind the bar in 1960. Decor-wise, though, it’s entirely different. In 1960, the Kaiserkeller had a nautical theme to attract sailors, but the fishing nets and fake seaweed are long gone. The whole club is painted floor-to-ceiling in cliché-black, unimaginative but appropriate in this place of eternal darkness.
Unlike the Cavern, almost no effort’s been made to leverage the Beatles connection. There are a few photos on the stairs, and at the entrance, there’s a partly-burned replica of their contract with the then-owner of the club (featured in the collage at the top of this chapter). No memorabilia, no souvenirs for sale, no advertisements for a house “Beatles” band. If I didn’t know what happened here, this would look like just a nondescript, down-at-heel nightclub.
But I do know what happened here. This is where they made their deal with the devil at the crossroads.
A deal with the devil is not, of course, a literal thing. Except that it very much is. It's the bargain demanded of any artist who longs to become immortal. The terms are always the same — encounter, without flinching or judging or turning away, the most primal, most repressed and rejected sludge of the human experience, in exchange for the power to shape it into a masterpiece. As always, the devil gets his due in the fine print. The art lives forever, but a crossroads deal inevitably ends with the art destroying the artist.
Crossroads bargains are not for the faint of heart. They require a willingness to go where lesser artists are (rightly) afraid to go, and few who make a visit to the crossroads have the courage to make good on the terms. Still fewer have the genius required to pull forth a masterpiece from the truths they encounter if they do.
Other bands played the Reeperbahn, but only the Beatles had the genius, and the courage... or perhaps the desperation... to alchemize the filth and decadence and longing they found here into immortal works of art.
It’s as synchronistic as almost everything else in their story that post-war Hamburg is where they struck their devil's bargain. The Reeperbahn might be the only place it could have happened as it did.
Americans have never had patience for history, and in America in 1960, World War II had already faded into history — a glorious and romantic war fought and won an ocean away and a generation prior. But in 1960 in Europe and the UK, World War II wasn’t glorious or romantic, and it wasn’t (and still isn’t) history. In Liverpool, a generation of kids had come of age in the literal and psychic bombed-out rubble of the Blitz. In Hamburg, a generation of kids had grown up struggling to understand how their parents could have stood by and let it all happen — or worse, actively participated.
In the Kaiserkeller, the two sides met face-to-face. Teenage war babies from a city devastated by Nazi bombs screamed their wounding out at the children of the Third Reich, who screamed back their own wounding along with their shame at the atrocities their country had perpetrated, and out of this collision-collusion was born the noise the post-war world desperately needed but couldn't make for itself.1
This is the noise the Beatles will bring back from Hamburg to the Cavern and then — with its sharper edges blunted for safety — to the world. It wasn’t Merseybeat, which developed largely in their absence, and it wasn’t American rock and roll, although it took its inspiration from American rock and roll along with, of course, American rhythm and blues.
Post-war America couldn't have produced a noise like the one the Beatles made in Hamburg. It wasn’t the noise of the conquering and triumphant (and smug) victors. It was the noise of angry, defiant teenagers who’d suffered the sins of their fathers, screamed over three deafening electric guitar chords and a vicious, unrelenting backbeat in an underground club filled with smoke and brutality and lust in the heart of arguably the raunchiest red-light district in post-war Europe, and by virtually all accounts, no one had ever heard anything like it before.
When the noise gets rediscovered twenty years later, it’ll get itself named ‘punk rock,’ but it first slithered into our world here in the Kaiserkeller, amid the fake seaweed and fishing nets, forced up out of the collective unconscious in all its filthy, violent, transgressive power.
It's hard to understand today, how profoundly filthy their Hamburg sound was, because we’ll probably never get to hear it. It’s one of the few notable omissions in their catalogue that (so far) we have no recordings of their pre-Fab Hamburg noise. By the time we have Hamburg recordings, it's December 1962 and they’ve already recorded “Love Me Do” and they’ve toned down their noise and their persona sufficiently to be booked into respectable places. Less than a year after that, they’ll play for the Queen.
But in 1960, the Hamburg “Silver Beatles” were, according to those who were there, as filthy as the dank, airless porn theater storeroom where they slept and puked and wanked and fucked. The noise they made in their Hamburg days was filthy enough to set them apart from other bands, even on the Reeperbahn. And certainly it set them apart in Liverpool, where the Merseybeat bands laboured under a more dignified working-class filth.
This then, was the bargain — their souls (or as George once put it, their nervous systems) in exchange for the exclusive licence to make the noise that would reshape our world. It would prove such a brutal and unforgiving bargain that George and John would attempt to renege almost exactly a decade later. But bargains made at the crossroads don’t come with an exit-clause. Not even death voids the contract.
Rosi finishes her interview and we ascend the stairs back into the daylight. The Reeperbahn is still deserted, save for the man at the entrance to the strip club, who still has no takers. The film crew packs their gear and exchanges wrap-up chatter with Rosi and her friend. I wait nearby, uncertain if I’m also meant to leave now, reluctant to be turned out again into the bleak landscape of closed doors and outsider status.
But Rosi tucks my arm into hers with the presumptive intimacy possessed only by mothers and goddesses, and in this moment, Rosi is a bit of both. I smile, relieved and grateful, and she smiles back. Rosi’s been on the Reeperbahn for over half a century. She understands longing.
We walk together down the Große Freiheit to where her taxi waits, and it’s here, I think, that my sense memory of the spent cigarette and the heat comes from, because I can smell the smoke on Rosi’s long black coat and her arm is warm against mine, and it feels like the first real warmth of any kind I’ve felt in days. This is the first time since coming to Hamburg that I’ve felt included in the story, rather than shut out of it.
This is what we all want, of course — those of us who chase this story across the globe, borrowing memories so we can be part of it, if only for a moment. Most of all, we long to be time travellers, and most of us want at least one of those trips to take us back to Hamburg in the late fall of 1960, and today Rosi is my ticket to ride.
As we walk, she begins to talk, her voice plump with tenderness, and then — at last — there they are, coaxed out of hiding by her soft attention.
There’s Paul screaming the opening of “Long Tall Sally” and John mocking the audience with his “sieg heils” and a toilet seat around his neck, and George obsessing over his guitar solos. There’s Pete’s heavy-handed 4/4 backbeat, and Stu’s wobbly bassline, steadier by the hour, but never quite “there.” The German kids, Astrid and Klaus and Jurgen, are at the front table with their cameras and sketch pads. They don’t fit in, but it’s okay, they’re with the band. And there’s Rosi, young and red-cheeked behind the bar, watching it all happen, not knowing, any more than anyone else did, that she’s helping to midwife the birth of a new world.
Rosi tells me about how she’d go out and get them food when they were hungry and exhausted and not allowed to leave the club before their shift was over. How Paul would insist on walking her home at the end of each night, ever the gentleman his father taught him to be, even on the Reeperbahn. She remembers how exquisite their harmonies were, right from the very first, John and Paul of course, and also John and Paul and George.
What I remember most, though, is when she tells me how John’s face would light up whenever he looked at Paul. Their story, too, is one of longing, these two brilliant, beautiful, heartbroken boys who found be-longing in one another, before the devil came to collect his fee and ripped them away from each other not once, but twice over.
This is how it is in Hamburg. They’re ghosts here, but they’re not gone. They’re tucked into the collective memory of the Reeperbahn, waiting for someone to long for them deeply enough to seduce them out of... or perhaps into... the dark. And for a few precious minutes, they’re in the gift of Rosi’s memories, and in the steady warmth of her arm against mine and the smoke of her cigarette blown out into the muted stillness of the afternoon.
We’re almost to the end of the street and her waiting taxi, but I’m not ready to let go. I have the mad sense that if we just keep walking, we can walk right back into that fall of 1960 when none of this was history, when it was all still just about to happen. I’m a little embarrassed by how much I want this, but I needn’t be. Rosi understands longing.
Rosi gets into the taxi and I’m yanked back into reality as the taxi drives over — and I literally mean it drives over — Hamburg’s only official commemoration of its part in this story.
Beatles-Platz was meant to be the first of multiple city projects honouring Hamburg’s singular place in music history, but well over a decade after its installation, it’s still the only one. Placed at the head of the Große Freiheit, the installation consists of a large circle paved with black bricks intended to look like a vinyl record. Around the circumference of the “record,” their song titles are engraved in the stone. Standing on the “record,” are steel silhouettes of the five Beatles (including Stu) with their instruments. In the centre is a tempered glass disc that’s meant to light up when it’s stepped (danced?) on.
Beatles-Platz was shiny and new in 2008, but today the bricks are — no surprise — filthy and faded from their original black to a dull grey. The steel silhouettes of the band itself are relatively decay-proof, but they, too, are anything but shiny and new. And the glass disc at the centre no longer lights up. It isn’t meant to be driven over, but that doesn’t stop the taxis from driving over it anyway, and they’ve broken the mechanism that operated the light.
After the vivid warmth of Rosi’s memories, the disrepair of Beatles-Platz is especially painful. Standing on the broken disc, my longing now has a specific and clearly defined focus. I want one place in all of Hamburg — Hamburg, for chrissake — that actually honours the legacy of what happened here.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for votive candles and hushed reverence. Nor do I want this all to become some kind of sanitised Beatles tourist destination. The Reeperbahn is filthy and faded and that’s its nature, and thank god and the deal-making devil it hasn’t been turned into Las Vegas or, heaven help us, Disneyland. But it doesn’t seem a tall order to ask for one place — and hey, how about this place that’s been specifically created for just that purpose? — where the story is actively and respectfully tended to. The city employs a “swan father” to care for the Alster Lake swans, one would think they could hire someone to maintain Beatles-Platz.
I linger on the broken disc for a few minutes, tapping a foot here and there on the glass to see if I can find some part that still lights up, but the disc remains stubbornly unlit. I came to Hamburg to better understand their music and their story, but in the end — as it usually is with pilgrimage — the whole experience is becoming more about understanding my relationship to this story than it is about the story itself.
The disrepair of Beatles-Platz is a reminder that if I want to stay intertwined with this particular passion — not that I have much of a choice, passion being what it is — I need to make my own side-deal with the devil. Loss and pain and grief are as much a part of this story as are love and lust and ecstasy, and I need to find a way to make my peace with that, to allow space for tragedy as well as transcendence.
I have zero interest in making this deal, of course, for the simple reason that it hurts too damned much. But it’s not like I get a choice about that, either. The devil always takes his cut.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this chapter, here are more excerpts from “A Complicated Passion” :
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Credit due here for the turn of phrase to the uncredited writer of a Dec 1963 Hamburg Star article about the British bands playing the Reeperbahn, “to give German youngsters a noise they don’t seem to be able to make themselves.”