JOHN LENNON: Barefoot in Nutopia

An insider’s story of his last years

by Mike Tree


Nutopia     Mike Tree     The Occult     Bermuda     Studio Sessions     Helter Skelter     Silent Vigil     AfterwordNutopia.htmlMike_Tree.htmlThe_Occult.htmlStudio_Sessions.htmlSilent_Vigil.htmlAfterword.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0shapeimage_1_link_1shapeimage_1_link_2shapeimage_1_link_3shapeimage_1_link_4shapeimage_1_link_5shapeimage_1_link_6shapeimage_1_link_7
I first learned about John’s plans to return to the recording studio in July 1980, when I visited him in Bermuda. From the air, the island hardly seemed big enough to have a runway for the jumbo jet. Once on the ground, customs was a breeze. 

In my sense of self-importance, I expected John to meet me at the airport, but I came down to earth when someone else called out my name from the waiting crowd. From the airport, a car service took me to Pembroke on the opposite end of the island. Brightly colored flowers and trees bloomed everywhere. 

The station wagon eventually turned off the main road and headed down a twisting, private road. First, the ocean came into view, then a large pale-yellow stucco house surrounded by pink Oleander shrubs. The driver took me and my luggage to a guest cottage located on the sprawling oceanfront estate John rented.

When I went to the main house, eager to see John, the only one there was the Japanese housekeeper, who told me he was out swimming and pointed toward the ocean.

A short distance from the house, I found him sitting on a red brick terrace, smoking a cigarette, while pensively studying the ocean and late afternoon sky. As I approached, he squinted to see me, and then flashed a broad smile. 

“Well, look who’s here,” John greeted me. We embraced, slapping each other on the back. 

“You’ve lost some weight,” I said. “You look great. You always were a bit chubby as aaah . . . in those days. You’re getting better looking with age.”

“Thank you, thank you. I know what you mean. ‘Those days’ I was so insecure, I kept stuffing me face.” 

He seemed very happy. During the years I’d known him, I had never seen him this energetic and relaxed. He must have lost twenty pounds, and was now as thin as when I first came to work at the Dakota.

“Get your trunks on,” John said. “We’ll have a swim before supper.”

After a short swim we sat in aluminum lawn chairs, drying ourselves off in the late-afternoon sun. We had been sitting on the terrace for about ten minutes, when the housekeeper called from the house, “Dinner ready!” 

After changing, I entered the kitchen through a side door, where I joined Helen, Sean and John at a large round kitchen table. The housekeeper served us fish, stir-fried vegetables and large portions of brown rice.

“They told me in Studio One [the office] that you sailed here from Newport, Rhode Island,” I said with a mouthful of food. “Where’s the sailboat? I’d love to go sailing.”

“The boat was rented,” he replied. “It’s already gone back.” John suddenly got up from his chair, left the kitchen, and quickly returning with a photo album. “I took the Polaroid camera with me. Here’s the boat,” he pointed to one of the photos. Pictures of the small sailboat, the crew and John filled the pages of the album. Taken from every angle, most of the the photos showed more sky than subject.

“This is me at the helm,” he said, pointed to one photo. “I took it meself.”

The photo showed him dressed in a yellow raincoat with the hood down. His long hair hung in wet strands around his unshaven, grinning face.

“Soon after leaving Newport, we got hit by a bad storm and everyone got seasick. So Captain Hank had me man the wheel by himself. At first I was afraid, but I knew he wouldn’t let me do anything stupid. The ol’ salts would sing sea shanties to keep from being afraid. But I didn’t know any. I sang me own songs; Beatles songs. Soon, I lost my fear and began to shout at the storm!”

As he talked about the trip, his Liverpool accent became stronger. I rarely heard him use the vernacular “me,” but now he used it in almost every sentence.

When we finished dinner, John kissed Sean, wished all of us a good night, and disappeared into the house. I didn’t see John the next morning, and ate breakfast by myself, while I chatted with the Japanese housekeeper.

“You see John,” she said. “He changed—very happy. John talk to me about how lonely he was,” the housekeeper said. “Life in Dakota is like living in jail; worst than jail; no human life. Sean call it ghost house.” 

After our chat I went out to the oceanfront terrace, where I met Helen and Sean. As I talked with her about the lushness of the British colony, Sean interrupted, insisting we watch him dive into the water. He had taken swimming lessons when he was three years old, and now swam like a fish.

“Doesn’t John look great,” Helen said. “He’s all tan and happy. He’s been talking about sailing for years. Now he’s finally done it. 

I told Helen I would see her later, and went off exploring the estate grounds. To my delight, I found a small-dissembled sailboat in a shed, and impulsively carried the hull down the hill and put it in the water. I started rigging the sailboat, then had second thoughts—I should first ask John. 

I met him the next day. “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya’!” he greeted me as I sat in the kitchen, eating breakfast. “Where did the sailboat come from?”

“I found it in a shed behind the house. I’d love to go sailing, but thought I should first ask you.” After breakfast we went out onto the terrace, where I finished rigging the sailboat, while John and Sean watched. 

About thirty minutes later, John and I set out in the small craft with me at the helm. I hadn’t sailed in years, and was tentative as I headed it into the onshore wind.

“Let me do that,” John said, pushing past me to grab the tiller. “I know what I’m doing.”

We sailed only a few hundred yards from shore, so music from a radio on land could clearly be heard. Suddenly, the Beatles singing “Lovely Rita” came drifting over the water. John sang along with animated pleasure. 

“Boy, does that sound bad,” he said, when the song had ended.

“Are you kidding? It’s a classic.”

“Yes, I know, but it sounds like shit. There’s a lot of noise and distortion. He was squeezing all this stuff onto just four tracks; then he would put them into one. Later, he’d put those tracks into another. It sounded like shit!”

I didn’t ask whom “he” was, assuming John referred to producer George Martin.

“The Beatles gave everything they had to become the Beatles,” John said. “That took our lives. When everyone else was goofing off, we were working eight days a week. Towards the end, we were always high. We’d come into the studio the next day and listen to the takes; they’d all sound like shit. We couldn’t make good music when we were high. But when it came to the mix, you’d need drugs just to listen to the song one more time. It began to hurt.”

Once back on land, he went into the house, leaving me to secure the sailboat. Afterward, I went to sun bathe on the manicured lawn next to the house. A little while later, John came out to where I was doing yoga. 

“I’ve been watching you,” he said. “You’re pretty good. Come in the house. There’s something I want to show you.”

I followed him onto the New Orleans-style veranda, through a set of French doors and into a large living room that smelled of cigarettes. Heavy floral-patterned drapes darkened the air-conditioned room. Newspapers and magazines lay strewn on the sofa and Oriental rug. I followed him down a hallway and into his bedroom. This room, too, was cluttered with newspapers, magazines and books. Everywhere clothes lay in piles. A boom box sat on top of the tall dresser, where he sorted through a stack of audiocassettes.

“We’re going to make an album,” he announced and slipped a cassette into the boom box.

The sounds of crickets and the high trill of peepers [tree toads] came from the speakers. Then, abruptly, John’s voice, half-talking, half-singing . . . “This here’s the story of a househusband, who, you know, just has to get out . . . he’s been watching Sesame Street for days and days . . . I’m stepping out . . .”

“What do you think?” he asked when the song ended. 

“John, it’s fantastic. I like the song.”

“Not bad for a first take?” he said, grinning. “I can’t wait to play it for Mother.”

When the song ended, I asked for another. But he refused.

“Now be off,” he said, looking satisfied. “Let’s go to the Botanical Garden tomorrow. They have a good restaurant; we’ll have lunch.”

The next afternoon we took a car service to the gardens. When it arrived, John said he wanted to explore them before going to lunch. But we had been dropped us off on the opposite side of the road. We waited for a break in the steady line of cars, but John became impatient and suddenly stepped into the flow of traffic, feigning a stiff leg and muttering something about a war injury. I quickly followed him as cars in both directions came to a screeching halt.

Once across the road, we wondered around the neat, well-tended gardens, a mix of green-houses, formal plantings and groves of sub-tropical trees. Walking among the all greenery, John stood out like a snowball. He wore a white shirt, white suit and white straw fedora.

About half an hour later, we entered the restaurant, a one-story rustic wood-shingled building surrounded by old cedar trees and picture windows on all sides. Our lunch consisted of fish, vegetables and red wine. During lunch, John talked about his experience in Primal Therapy.

“Before therapy I wasn’t feeling anything. I was blocking my feelings. When painful feelings come through, you cry. You need therapy, too. You’re all blocked because your parents didn’t love you.”

“My parents loved me,” I protested.

“Your parents didn’t love you,” he insisted. “You said they didn’t support anything you did. You wanted to play a musical instrument, but they wouldn’t let you. Your father called you a coward when you avoided the draft. That’s not love. You were unwanted—a mistake!”

I felt hurt by his onslaught, especially since he fueled his attack with information he had elicited over the years. “My parents were working-class people,” I said, offering a feeble defense. “They wanted me to do well in school, so I could get a good job. That’s their generation. They thought I wasted my time learning to play the banjo instead of studying.”

“Look at you,” he said. “Your long neck means you think too much. You can’t feel the pain of being rejected by your parents. You’re all blocked, like I was.”

He was hardly drunk, but the alcohol brought out his cruel side. Over the years that I had worked for him, I had over-heard John’s barbs directed at Yoko, and I was familiar with his harsh wisecracks from the Beatle years, but this was the first time I encountered his sharp tongue. 

After his verbal assault, I became sullen and withdrawn. We left the restaurant a short while later and returned to Pembroke. Neither John nor I spoke on the drive back to the house. I sat in the backseat, while he, sitting in front, couldn’t see the tears now streaming down my face.

Though I didn’t want to face it, I knew deep down that he was right. But my tears had nothing to do with any realization; I shed them out of self-pity. I felt belittled by his reproach. It recalled my hypercritical father and my feelings of worthlessness after his verbal assaults.

When we arrived at the house, he got out of the car first. As I got out I tried to conceal my face. But he noticed my tears, and put his left arm around my shoulders, cocking his head to look into my eyes.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m your friend.”

Yet again, as he had so often done during the last four years, John expressed a caring that both flattered and confounded me. I felt ashamed that I had failed his test. The next afternoon, we again went out sailing with him at the rudder.

“When I was a kid,” he said, “I would go to the Liverpool docks and watch the ships, wondering if my father was on one of them.”

His admission was tinged with sadness. He was rich and famous, a superstar, yet the longing for a father who wasn’t there still lingered. A wave of melancholy washed over me. John’s recollection evoked my own yearning for a loving, supportive father. 

“I would daydream,” he continued, “about being a Viking discovering exotic places. After a bad row with Mimi, I would go to the docks, determined to stow away on one of those ships. But I was afraid.”

When we returned to the house about an hour later, he disappeared into his room. Later, when I joined everyone for dinner, John sat at the kitchen table, playing his favorite Ovation guitar.

“You’ve go to serve yourself because no one’s gonna’ do it for you,” he sang, while waiting for the house-keeper to put the food on the table. Sean sang along and danced around the kitchen. Helen looked on with twinkling eyes and a beatific smile. Everyone was in a good mood except me; the next day I would return to New York.

Photographs from the top: 1st & 5th, travel magazine; 2nd & 4th, © 1980 Michael Medeiros;
 3rd & 5th © 1980 Helen Seaman; 6th © 1980 George Bourne.
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