Hamburgmania

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By William Triplett
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Thomas Stutzki wasn't the fifth Beatle, but in the early-morning hours in the sweaty, beer-sloshed heart of the Reeperbahn -- Hamburg's infamous red-light district, where some 40 years ago the world's most popular rock musicians earned their chops -- you'd be forgiven for thinking he might have been.

As co-owner of the Doll House, one of the more popular strip clubs around here, Stutzki doesn't look as if he has a lot of time for nostalgia. Tourists as well as locals usually pack his place, and tonight the house is jammed. Waitresses in spike heels, tight shorts and skimpy bras stuffed with cash serve throngs of men and women who've come to watch the dancers -- men and women alike, equally naked -- bump and grind to the stereophonically blasting strains of Madonna's "Express Yourself."

But ask Stutzki about the Beatles -- as I did when I was introduced to him, saying I had come to write about some of the group's old hangouts -- and he loses sight of everything else around him.

"I am their biggest fan!" he yells to me over the music. "I must give you the tour! Come!"

He leads me to the back of the club, through a doorway marked "private," directly through the dancers' dressing room to the rear exit door, which he opens, revealing a concrete patio and some trash cans. He points across the alley to what looks like an entry to some sort of pavilion.

"That," he says, with unabashed pride, "used to be the back entrance to the Star Club."

Oh. My. God. The Star Club is gone -- burned to a crisp 20 years ago -- but its legend lives on as the premier joint of 1960s Hamburg and a showcase for the Beatles when they finally started to play like a real band. The boys had certainly been performing in England before coming to Hamburg. But they were still just a bunch of wannabes then, far from fab and not even four yet: The original lineup was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe (on bass) and Pete Best (drums). The Star Club, the Kaiserkeller, the Indra, the Top Ten Club -- the Reeperbahn's toughest dives would teach them the hard way what it means to be pro, not to mention reduce their number by one and show them the right combination of personnel.

Like a lot of other boomers, my childhood was steeped in Beatlemania. But I never saw them perform live, nor visited anyplace they had lived. Work had brought me to Cologne, Germany, a few hours southwest of Hamburg by train. Chronic fan that I am, I wasn't about to let a chance go by to see some of the haunts that had played a crucial role in the band's development.

Stars of Grosse Freiheit

Hamburg, population about 1.8 million, is Germany's second-largest city, a port connected to the nearby North Sea via the Elbe River. Historically it's been the home of centuries-old German family fortunes and titles; architecturally it's a mixed bag, from the coldly industrial to the timelessly quaint. An aristocratically hip atmosphere predominates.

The city's spiritual center is the Alster, a lake surrounded by stately lawns and mansions on one part and the shopping district and cafes on another. Adjacent areas are full of museums, clubs, restaurants and performing arts venues. Serious nightlife, however, lies to the west, on the Reeperbahn, a four-lane street less than a half-mile long on the northern bank of the Elbe.

The Reeperbahn's neighborhood is properly known as St. Pauli, which takes its name from nearby St. Pauli Church, founded in 1682 by pious people who'd be horrified to know what their community has long since become. By the mid-19th century, whiskey bars and establishments for "purchasable love," as it was once called, had opened primarily for the benefit of sailors.

While the Reeperbahn sports plenty of neon lights trying to lure you into all manner of sex shops or bars or tattoo parlors, the main action lies along Grosse Freiheit, a perpendicular street whose name translates as Great Freedom.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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