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     Afterword

On the first day John showed me around his    apartment, I expected to meet Yoko. Her reputation as a stern, unsmiling woman had me intimidated even before we met, so I felt relieved she wasn’t home.

She and I met a week later on my second visit to the apartment. When the Japanese woman I had seen on my previous visit opened the back door, Yoko was seated at the kitchen table with her back to the window. Dressed entirely in black, she was diminutive, almost frail looking and barefoot. Her long dark hair hung loosely about her shoulders and face. The photos I had seen didn’t do her justice. In person, she was much prettier.

“You must be Michael,” she said, smiling easily. “Come and sit down.”

I joined her at the kitchen table, feeling very nervous.

“Can you come every Monday morning at seven-thirty?” she asked.

She spoke in a deep smoky voice with a strong accent that surprised me.

“Yes,” I said, trying not to show my trepidation.

Yoko told me I must not talk to people about her or John. She made this point in an almost casual way. But her meaning was very clear: Gossip, and I would be out of a job. I was surprised that she didn’t ask how much I charged for my services. That impressed me, though I’m sure it was calculated to let me know I was a mere triviality.

“What is your date of birth?” she asked. “You were born in New York, right? Do you know what time?”

Yoko’s questions puzzled me, and I felt threatened by her directness. But I was not about to ask her why she wanted to know.

“Yes,” I said. “I was born on October 14, 1938 at 9:20 PM.”

She gave me a gentle smile; I’d like to believe because I was a Libra, the same zodiac sign as John. Then she turned away and said something to the housekeeper in Japanese. That concluded my first meeting with Yoko.

The housekeeper looked over at me and gestured with her hand to follow her. She showed me a large closed alcove in the kitchen, containing a washing machine and clothes dryer, and said this is where I should leave my gardening equipment, coat, and shoes, when I came to the apartment.

After that first meeting with Yoko, her dragon-lady image faded, though our relationship remained complicated. When I arrived at the apartment early each morning, she would often be dressed in a silk nightgown, her long dark hair hanging loosely about her face, and barefoot. Her ample breasts shook as she walked. She emitted a powerful sexual energy that made me feel excited and uneasy, both at the same time.

One morning, while I cared for the Ming tree in the master bedroom, Yoko swept into the room and bounced onto the bed, letting out a giggle. Though in her forties, she had an almost girlish quality. A shy man, I smiled at her, but said nothing. She didn’t say anything either, and I left the room flustered.

Our encounters seemed like déjà vu; I had been married to a Japanese-American woman. The similarities between my ex-wife and Yoko were striking. Both were about the same height, weight, and had long dark hair, and both preferred black clothes.

During one of my morning visits, Yoko stopped me in the corridor and asked me to get a Ming tree for the White Room. She also said I could buy any plants that I wanted for the apartment.

While searching at the plant market for the tree she had requested, I found a beautiful eight-foot-high Ficus tree, which I also bought for the White Room. It gave me a thrill to buy any plant I wanted without any consideration as to its cost.

When the trees were delivered, I mounted the Ficus in a white decorative container, added ferns to the top soil, and positioned it several feet from the windows. John moved an armchair next to the tree, and often sat under its spreading foliage, reading or gazing out the window.

One day, I walked into the room while he entertained a guest. My sudden appearance took him by surprised. But rather than sending me away, John introduced us.

“Michael, this is Doug.”

I shifted my watering can and shook hands with him. About six feet tall, with thinning gray hair, probably in his mid to late-sixties, he had a rugged, handsome look.

“Doug, this is Michael . . .” John said and went blank. My Portuguese family name always confused him. He gave me a sly look and blurted out, “This is Michael Tree.”

After that meeting, I used my nickname as an alias for official Lennono business. But whenever I used my it with Yoko, she would wince. To her chagrin, or perhaps to stick it to her, I would sign my notes to her with Michael and the Japanese character for tree. Though I initially worked as the apartment gardener, my responsibilities were soon expanded to include archivist, in-house sound recordist and a personal assistant.

When I arrived at the apartment each morning, I would often find John sitting at the kitchen table reading a newspaper, a cup of coffee and a cigarette nearby. But one morning, I found him at the far end of the kitchen, bending over Sean, who lay on the couch.

“Pee poop adieu, I’m changing you,” he cooed, removing his diapers. “Bebop a dee, you're changing me.”

I always considered the “househusband” thing a publicity gimmick. But here he was doing the nanny’s job. When he had finished, he handed Sean to his nanny, who had just entered the room, and then motioned for me to follow him to the kitchen table.

“Sit down and have some tea with me,” he said. “I’ve finished with my househusband chores.”

As he put the kettle on the stove and peeled open packets of English breakfast teabags, two for each cup; he told me he had been on the phone earlier, talking to his Aunt Mimi.

“Talking with her always leaves me with my shoulders up around my ears. Mimi has this idea that one day I'll come crawling back to her on my hands and knees, asking for a place to stay.”

He went to the refrigerator, retrieved a quart of milk and put it on the table with the steaming cups of tea.

“Did you ever want to play music when you were a kid?” he asked, sitting down in one of the white director-style chairs that surrounded the butcher-block style kitchen table. “Your horoscope says you’re supposed to be some kind of musical genius.”

His comment dumbfounded me.

“I’ve loved jazz and classical music since I was about ten years old,” I said, “but that doesn’t make me a genius. My parents were pretty threatened by my interest in music, especially since I didn’t hear jazz or classical music at home.”

“Well, did you ever want to play music when you were a kid?” he repeated.

“Yes, I did. In junior high school I played trombone, cello and bass. Then when the folk revival came along in the early sixties, I taught myself how to play the five-string banjo. But my parents discouraged me, and I gave it up after about a year.”

“Why don’t you do it now? No one’s stopping you.”

“I guess the time has passed. There’s so much else to do.”

“Fuckin’ hell—don’t give me that shit! I thought you wanted to play the banjo!”

His sudden anger scared me. But just as quickly, he beamed a warm smile. “The banjo was the first instrument I learned, too. My mother taught me.”

“Your mother played the banjo!”

“Well . . . not really. She just banged around on it, brushing the strings with the back of her nails.”

He talked about his teenage interest in American folk music, and probed me for details about my own early musical interests. John seemed envious when I told him I had grown up listening to blues and folk music. He said he loved the music, too, but there was little to be heard in Liverpool during his youth.

“Have you ever heard of ‘The Rock Island Line?’” he asked.

“Of course I have. It’s by Leadbelly.”

“Lonnie Donegan recorded it in England, when I was a teenager. All the kids formed their own skiffle bands. That’s how I started the Quarrymen.”

The skiffle band evolved in the poor rural American South, where musicians would use any odd assortment of instruments they could make or assemble to form a band: guitar, a one-string bass fashioned from a wooden box or large washtub, kazoos, and a washboard played with thimble-tipped fingers.

The Quarrymen played all of Donegan’s songs [the Scotsman also played the banjo]. John, however, wanted to play Elvis’s songs, which were just beginning to filter into England.

“When I started playing guitar,” he said, “I used banjo chords my Mum taught me. I didn't know anything else. I would tune it anyway that sounded good to me. I was playing the guitar that way, when I first met Paul. He said to me, ‘Don't you know how to play that thing, mate?’ Paul taught me all the guitar I know. I used to drive Mimi crazy with my practicing. When I bought her a house, I put a plaque on it quoting her: ‘The guitar’s all very well, John, but you'll never make a living at it.’”

Self-portrait by John Lennon used with claim of fair use.

The memorabilia on this page are courtesy of the author. 

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