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John Lennon at 80… Looking Back on a Highland Connection and the Start to a Solo Career

  09 Oct '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

 ‘If you’re going to have a car crash, try to arrange for it to happen in the Highlands. The hospital there was just great.’

John Lennon, July 1969
On the date when John Lennon would have turned 80, we bring you an extract from And in The End: The Last Days of The Beatles by Ken McNab

By now, even he had realised the impracticality of driving all the way to Edinburgh and then a further three hundred-odd miles, including hazardous single-track roads, to Durness in a tiny Mini. So he summoned his chauffeur Les Anthony to drive to Liverpool with a newly bought Austin Maxi, one of the first off the production line, which the Lennons would then use to hit the high road across the border to Scotland.

After loading up the Maxi with suitcases on 29 June, they made their strained farewells – no kisses or hugs for Yoko – and headed in the direction of Scotland’s capital.

 Edinburgh was a city full of fond memories for Lennon. No least because it was where Stan lived. Both boys recalled lovingly how they would be taken to see the world-famous Edinburgh Tattoo, the skirl of the pipes leaving a lasting and nostalgic impression on the young Lennon. Also, it had always provided that brief stopover on his way to the Highland croft in Durness. Now Lennon was reliving that journey for the first time as an adult – and a driver.

The Parkes lived in Ormidale Terrace, a stone’s throw from Murrayfield Stadium that reflected the ostentatious standing of his aunt Mater and her second husband, a dentist named Bertie Sutherland. When the Lennons arrived, Mater was, coincidentally, in Durness, so they were greeted by Stan, who was six years John’s senior. Despite the age gap, the two men had always been close, more like brothers-in-arms than cousins as Stan helped Lennon navigate the tricky path of his fractured childhood. Yoko’s arrival, however, tested the bonds of their friendship. Stan readily admitted he could find nothing likeable about her.

‘I couldn’t see what he saw in her at all and I told him,’ recalled Stan, in a conversation we had before he passed away in 2016. ‘She hardly spoke to me. I got the impression she just wanted John for herself and she wanted to keep him away from his family. It was always about control. I couldn’t believe how he just seemed to do everything she said. I told him to stand up for himself more but he just laughed and said he knew what he was doing. But it was crazy to me. I didn’t like her from the start.’

Sensing which way the wind was blowing, John must have been disappointed not to have Stan in his corner. He was already resigned to the fact that Mater, arguably the most volatile of all the Stanley sisters, was queuing up to give her potty nephew a piece of her mind. To shovel salt into deep family wounds, he was also finding it tough to reconnect with Julian, who now only saw him as an absent dad who had fled the family home for another woman who clearly had little time for him. The perils of parenthood had never been clearer to both him and Yoko.

As the Maxi made its way north and west to Durness, once his idea of heaven on earth, he couldn’t escape the thought that the whole ‘fookin’ thing was turning into the fookin’ holiday from hell’. Twenty-four hours later, he would find himself on a Highland road to perdition.

*

Late was the hour when the phone rang in George Martin’s London home, an occurrence that was not unusual for a man used to unconventional working patterns. He picked up the receiver to hear a familiar Liverpool accent on the other end. Typically, Paul McCartney, after some brief social niceties, cut to the chase. ‘We want to make another album, and we want to do it the way we used to do it. Will you produce it?’

Martin let the request hang in the air for a brief moment, torn between curious contemplation and self-righteous indignation. In the space of a few seconds, bittersweet memories flitted into his mind’s eye. Memories of four streetwise but rough-hewn Liverpool lads giving him lip the first time they ventured into EMI Studios. Memories of the day he proudly told them they had just recorded their first number one single with ‘Please Please Me’. Memories of the groundbreaking music, from their debut LP to the White Album, they shaped together over the following six years. Memories of the shared moments incarcerated inside EMI’s Number Two studio until dawn that had turned them into an unlikely bond of brothers. Memories, now hurtful and sad, of how that bond had slowly splintered over the last eighteen months.

So it was by no means a straightforward case of yes or no. It meant stepping back onto a carousel that he firmly believed had come crashing off its moorings. It meant reconnecting fully with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to rediscover the alchemy that had transformed all their lives and redrawn the boundaries of popular music and culture.

Martin, moreover, still carried the scar tissue from being snubbed over ‘Get Back’. Now, five months down the line, McCartney was on the phone trying to reforge links in a familiar chain, using all his natural charm to persuade Martin to help them create that old Beatle magic once again. ‘An album like we used to . . .’ McCartney, repeating the same sales pitch he had made to Lennon a few days previously, made it sound so tempting: ‘We’ll put down the boxing gloves.’

Before committing himself, Martin was anxious to scan the small print. And in this case, that ensured securing the cooperation of Lennon, a man who had already made clear his distaste for Martin’s ability to turn The Beatles’ base metal into gold.

‘I didn’t think we would work again together after Let It Be and frankly I didn’t really want to. Let It Be was such an unhappy record and I thought that was the end of The Beatles and I thought I would never work with them again,’ recalled Martin. ‘And I thought it was such a shame to go out that way. So I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and said, “We want to make another record, would you like to produce it?” And my immediate answer was, “Only if you let me produce it the way we used to do it.”

‘And he said “We do want to do that.” I said, “John included?” And he said, “Honestly, yes.” And I said, “Well, if you really want to do that, let’s get together again.” ’

It spoke volumes for the trust he still had in McCartney’s ability to rally his bandmates and drag them out of the acrimonious quagmire that was ‘Get Back’. Perhaps he was influenced by the fact that a number of potential songs to form the spine of a new album were partly in the can, cold and unfinished leftovers from January and beyond. So he wasn’t looking at an epic six-month production like Pepper, more like six weeks. And then there was that lingering but unrealised ambition he had to ease The Beatles into a more symphonic-based terrain, to weave all their disparate song fragments into one long suite. An interesting proposition but could it be done?

 Surprisingly, Lennon, the incurable rock ’n’ roller, had already given the project a green light. McCartney, always open to new pathways, was already on board. Harrison was prepared to tie up loose ends, and Starr, as always, just wanted to play with the boys.

All in, it looked like they would be doing one more for the road . . . Abbey Road .

*

 The first day of July saw McCartney back at work doing what he had always done in a way, shaping The Beatles’ musical future for good or bad. In his mid-June conversations with Lennon he had notionally mentioned 1 July as a possible date to kickstart the sessions proper for a new album. McCartney, keen to dial back on the bossiness that had fractured the ‘Get Back’ sessions, made it clear that the plan was not laid down in stone. Which was just as well, because Lennon had no intention of pitching up at EMI Studios on that day. He was still enjoying taking time out with Yoko, Kyoko and trying to repair his relationship with Julian on their Highland holiday. Harrison, while cautiously committing to the sessions, wasn’t yet ready to snap to attention when the headmaster clicked his fingers. Starr, flying back from France with Maureen after another vacation in the millionaires’ playground of Cannes, made up the third truant.

The date was, nevertheless, important. Informally or otherwise, it drew a line under the ramshackle ‘Get Back’ project and initiated work on their next album and what McCartney and Martin hoped would be a period of proper focus to achieve their goal of finishing a new album, probably their last.

Some nine tracks, including ‘Something’, ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry That Weight’, ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’, ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ and ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, were already good works in progress, though none had yet acquired The Beatle quality kite mark. And then there was that intriguing notion, still being kicked around between McCartney, Lennon and Martin, of stitching together a medley from the patchwork quilt of musical cast-offs they both had lying around.

There was undoubtedly a lot riding on the project. Lennon, his cultural antenna always fixed to the winds of change blowing through music, was fearful that The Beatles were in danger of becoming relics. McCartney, though, was convinced that the band was still musically relevant.

Studio Two had been block-booked for the entire month and into August as well, if they needed it. Six weeks to find out whether to stick or twist. But the plans were thrown into immediate chaos when a call was put through to McCartney from a shaken Derek Taylor. Lennon, Yoko and their two kids were currently laid up in a remote Scottish hospital. Lennon, he reported, had driven his Maxi into a ditch on a road outside the small village of Tongue, almost ninety miles north of Inverness. The accident happened as the couple, having stopped off at a tearoom, were on their way back to Durness, taking in the scenic route round Loch Eriboll. The roads there are notoriously narrow and Lennon had already forgotten the sage advice of Stan Parkes when he set off from Edinburgh: ‘Don’t forget the Highland etiquette on single-track roads of letting another driver pass.’ When Lennon saw another car, reportedly driven by a German tourist, on the road ahead, he panicked, knowing there wasn’t room enough for both of them. Instead of pulling over to the side, he steered the car off the road where it came to rest at a 45-degree angle.

Luckily, no one was seriously injured. Lennon had a gash on his jawline, which would eventually require seventeen stitches while Yoko also needed stitches in her forehead. The two children were suffering from no more than shock. An ambulance took the injured party to the Lawson Memorial Hospital in Golspie, little more than a country clinic. Naturally, the staff were shocked to see a bleeding Beatle walking among them, looking somewhat sheepish but nevertheless displaying the good manners that Aunt Mimi had long ago instilled in him.

‘He was not in the least demanding,’ said Dr David Milne, who treated the couple’s injuries. ‘He was slightly embarrassed at the predicament he found himself in but apart from that he was a model patient. There was a bit of commotion when they were first brought in. They were quite shaken up.’

It was Lennon who put in the call to Apple, which was then relayed to Paul in North London. It was clear that he would be out of action for the foreseeable future. Still, McCartney reckoned, there was no point in cancelling the sessions already in the EMI diary.

The next day, he was joined by Harrison and Starr and for the next six days the ‘Threetles’ – an eerie portent of what was to come twenty-five years down the line – laid down tracks and overdubs for ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘Carry That Weight’, while Harrison finally took the wrappers off ‘Here Comes The Sun’, the second of what would become his major contributions to the next album.

Devoid of the preachy overtones that weighed down some of his more recent songs, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ was warm, exuberant and brimful of optimism with a chorus that was delightfully infectious. On hearing it for the first time, McCartney must have winced at its effortless-sounding melody, one that could just as easily have sprung from his own well.

As with ‘Something’, Harrison had a clearly defined vision for how the song – his song – should sound. Diplomatically, McCartney adopted the position of almost a session musician and retreated to the margins as Harrison taught him and Starr their parts for ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Even at this early stage, the song presented tricky percussive challenges for a drummer. Heard inside the Studio Two echo chamber, it was already a subtle confluence of laidback Western folk music and complex Eastern ragas based mainly on an Indian polyrhythmic technique called a tihai. It consists of three equal repetitions of a rhythmic pattern, followed by two equal rests, adding up to the time signature that sounds weird to Western ears. The result was wonderfully exotic.

Harrison may not have known it himself, but the song’s time signatures switched from 11/8, 4/4 and 7/8 on the bridge. Starr spotted it immediately and rose to the challenge as he, Harrison and McCartney laid down backing tracks on what was the drummer’s twenty-ninth birthday.

Indeed, it was a happy harbinger of Starr’s drumming, which over the next six weeks would scale impressive new heights. A contributing factor was his old drum-heads, relics from the far-off days of Beatlemania, finally being replaced.

 He said, ‘The drum sound on the record was the result of having new calf-heads. There’s a lot of tom-tom work on that record. I got the new heads on the drum and I naturally used them a lot – they were so great. The magic of real records is that they showed the tom-toms were so good. I don’t believe that magic is there now because there is so much manipulation.’

Starr also benefited hugely from the leap forward in recording techniques and the recent installation of a transistorised mixing console at the EMI Studios, not withstanding the fact that every track was now being recorded in stereo, despite The Beatles’ own belief that they always sounded better in mono. Studio engineer Geoff Emerick said, ‘This was the first time I was able to record Ringo’s kit in stereo because we were using 8-track instead of 4-track. Because of this, I had more mic inputs, so I could mic from underneath the toms, place more mics around the kit – the sound of his drums were finally captured in full. I think when he heard this, he kind of perked up and played more forcefully on the toms, and with more creativity.’

Starr was front and centre on ‘Carry That Weight’, the McCartney song that segued directly from ‘Golden Slumbers’. Paul had always intended for the songs to be linked when they were first aired in Twickenham in January. Now, months later, they needed next to no reworking, but the drumming on ‘Carry That Weight’ gave the song a palpable sense of renewed energy. With Lennon absent, the vocal duties were shared between all three Beatles, but it was Starr’s distinctive nasal baritone that gave ‘Carry That Weight’, an early comment on the growing meltdown at Apple even before Klein’s arrival, its sullen forecast of a lifetime burden shared by four closely linked individuals.

McCartney said, ‘I’m generally quite upbeat but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can’t be upbeat any more and that was one of the times . . . “Carry that weight a long time” like forever! That’s what I meant.’

‘Golden Slumbers’ also touched on the same melancholy that was evident in ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘The Long And Winding Road’, ‘Two Of Us’ and ‘Every Night’, each song proof nevertheless that despondence can create great art even in an eternal optimist like McCartney. Written at the tail end of 1968, the lyrics to ‘Golden Slumbers’ were ‘borrowed’ from a ballad by the Elizabethan poet Thomas Dekker after Paul saw the ballad’s sheet music propped up on the piano at his father’s home in Heswall, Cheshire. Most of the words remained unaltered except the telltale intro that was pure McCartney.

McCartney recalled: ‘I can’t read music and I couldn’t remember the old tune, so I just started playing my own tune to it. I liked the words so I kept them and it fitted with another bit of song that I had [“Carry That Weight”]. I remember trying to get a very strong vocal on it, because it was such a gentle theme, so I worked on the strength of the vocal on it, and ended up quite pleased with it.’

Away from the business entanglements, in the studio, things went better between McCartney, Harrison and Starr without Lennon and definitely without Yoko. The tension was palpably absent. It didn’t necessarily guarantee a stress-free zone but it did mean by and large a smoother vibe. There were no unwelcome asides from the touchline or awkward silences as everyone – studio staff included – tiptoed round the double-strength tag team of John and Yoko.

Engineer John Kurlander told me: ‘The mood was very good from what I can recall. I’m not saying they didn’t occasionally disagree but there was no slamming doors or finger pointing. Right from the start of July they seemed to be very focused. John wasn’t there at the start so that might have had something to do with it. But right from the start you could tell they had brought their A game to the studio. Musically, it was gelling very well and we could all hear that.’

Beneath the studio bonhomie, however, lurked the ever-present spectre of broken business alliances. Nems had been lost and the battle for Northern Songs with ATV seemed equally to be a lost cause. For McCartney, guilt could only be apportioned in one direction. But the future had still to be written and McCartney was convinced that Apple could yet be salvaged. Conditional on that was persuading Starr and Harrison that Klein would destroy them all. His first point of influence was Ringo.

The McCartneys invited the drummer and his wife Maureen to Cavendish Avenue for dinner. With Linda on cooking duty, the evening was going well until the host gingerly brought up the subject of Apple and, inevitably, Klein. Sensing a set-up, Starr shuffled uncomfortably and politely refused to shift allegiances, especially since it would mean going behind the backs of the other two. Suddenly, Linda burst into tears and declared: ‘Oh, they’ve got you too.’ It was a cack-handed attempt at emotional blackmail and Starr wasn’t falling for it.

Meanwhile, Harrison took advantage of the pre-booked studio time at EMI to do a little moonlighting. By the summer of 1969, London had replaced San Francisco as the new epicentre of the Hare Krishna movement. Up and down Carnaby Street and the King’s Road, shaven-headed Krishna devotees, draped in orange robes and carrying their prayer beads in a bag, mingled with ordinary shoppers, bowler-hatted bankers, mini-skirted secretaries and longhaired hippies. Harrison was a closet Krishna, happy to chant his mantra for hours on end but unwilling to commit to some of the religion’s more disciplined tenets, such as no illicit sex and abstaining from alcohol and drugs. For a Beatle with strong appetites, that was a step too far. But no one was in any doubt about the sincerity of his support – financial and practical – for a movement that had set up its own HQ in London and to which he felt a clear spiritual affinity. And it wasn’t long before the Krishnas zeroed in on Apple, treating the offices in Savile Row almost like a transcendental annexe. Lennon and McCartney were both known to take cover when the street-level chanting announced the devotees’ arrival on their turf. Derek Taylor, bounding sharply from his chair, was more to the point: ‘Christ, it’s the bloody Krishnas! Lock the door.’

But the devotees knew that with Harrison’s patronage they were Beatle-proof. Not only that, he could be the key that could bring others to join them at a time when millions of young people were turning away from orthodox religions and seeking some other inner light. The answer was obvious to all parties – turn the Hare Krishna mantra into a record and have the world’s most famous adherent play on it.

Harrison bought into the idea right away. In fact, he was the prime mover behind the sessions at Apple and Abbey Road to turn the sixteen-word ‘Great Mantra’, the chant that underpinned the Hindu religious organisation, into a three-minute, radio-friendly pop song.

He corralled Ken Scott, a veteran of Beatles sessions, to act as engineer. Having sat through the dysfunctional White Album sessions from twelve months ago and having also witnessed the efforts by the Lennons to tip over the Beatle boat, Scott thought he had seen it all. But the sessions for the Hare Krishna mantra during that first week in July took matters to a new and surreal level.

‘On the surface it all seemed pretty bizarre to see them there in the studio with the robes and the beads,’ he recalled. ‘But then again I had seen a lot of strange things over the years so it didn’t faze me that much. The important thing was to help George get the job done and he knew where he was going with the session.’ Indeed, Harrison acted as producer for the session as well as playing lead guitar and bass guitar. Elsewhere, other devotees were roped in to beat time with a pair of kartals and Indian drums, while someone was commandeered to strike the gong at the song’s climax.

Among them was Joshua Greene, a young American student newly arrived in London from the Sorbonne in Paris. Greene had already tapped into his Krishna consciousness when he found himself at the Radha Krishna Temple in London. He said, ‘I just found the nicest people on Earth. They were asking about me and I just happened to mention that I had been in a college band and they said, “Really? Come with us.” We then piled into a Volkswagen mini-bus and pulled up outside this building with a big number three on the outside.

‘We walked inside and there was this big green apple on the wall and then I found myself in a recording studio. And suddenly I’m standing next to George Harrison. He went over to hug some of the devotees and then he hands me a harmonium and says just play along. So I’m just jamming on the harmonium and I start thinking to myself, “If I stay with these people I get God and The Beatles. Okay, I’m in.” ’

When they reassembled at EMI Studios a few days later, having listened to playbacks, Harrison wanted a bigger chorus and so gathered an ad hoc group of backing singers from every nook and cranny inside the warren that was EMI Studios to help bring the track to a multi-layered crescendo. Chris O’Dell, the American who had drifted into the band’s social circle, was also roped in to help. She later said singing the mantra had left her feeling ‘physically and spiritually changed’, adding that ‘chanting the words over and over again was almost hypnotic . . . there was a point of freedom where there was no effort at all, no criticism or judgement, just the sound generated from deep inside, like a flame that warmed us from the inside out.’

Harrison was delighted with the track, which he saw as his gift to help the Krishnas spread the word of God to a cynical world. Speaking of the sessions years later, he said, ‘Well, it’s just all a part of service, isn’t it? Spiritual service, in order to try to spread the mantra all over the world. Also, to try and give the devotees a wider base and a bigger foothold in England and everywhere else. There was less commercial potential in it, but it was much more satisfying to do, knowing the possibilities that it was going to create, the connotations it would have just by doing a three-and-a-half-minute mantra.

‘That was more fun, really, than trying to make a pop hit record. It was the feeling of trying to utilise your skills or job to make it into some spiritual service to Krishna. It was just like a breath of fresh air. My strategy was to keep it to a three-and-a-half-minute version of the mantra so they’d play it on the radio, and it worked.’

He added: ‘I did the guitar track for that record at Abbey Road Studios before one of The Beatles’ sessions and then overdubbed a bass part. I remember Paul and Linda arrived at the studio and enjoyed the mantra.’

Karma, though, did not extend to another rock god. On 3 July, the morning after Paul, George and Ringo regrouped at Abbey Road, came the news that Brian Jones had been found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. The founder of the Rolling Stones had tragically become the founder of the ‘27 Club’, so named after the company of stars who would be cut down in their prime at the same age. Jones had gone from golden-haired deity to bloated junkie. His demise – the official verdict was death by misadventure – came after he had been fired by the Stones for no longer being able to function as a musician. Even so, Jones’s death was still shocking.

Strangely, none of The Beatles commented directly on his death. Apple produced a perfunctory statement that was devoid of any genuine sentiment. Lennon, perhaps the Beatle who was closest to Brian, remained incommunicado to the dwindling group of journalists parked on the lawn outside the Lawson Memorial Hospital in Golspie.

Jones had even once joined in on a Beatles session, adding some ropey sax to the novelty number ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’. Only seven months earlier, John had hung out with Jones on what would be his last public appearance as a Stone at the band’s chaotic film, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Even then, Jones, his eyes glazed and sunken and his skin parchment-white, had the whiff of death about him.

Lennon recalled: ‘He was one of them guys that disintegrated right in front of you. In the early days he was alright because he was young and confident. But in the end you dreaded he’d come on the phone – you knew it was trouble. He was in a lot of pain.’ It was a reminder that even rock gods are not immortal.

*

After the media frenzy of the previous few months, the hospital stay provided the Lennons with some splendid isolation, a time of much needed introspection away from the self-induced narcissism that had permeated both their lives. News, though, travelled fast.

Within hours of being admitted to the Lawson, the news wires were chattering out bulletins from the Highlands to Fleet Street and on to television autocues.

Watching at home, no one was more surprised at the broadcasts than Cynthia Lennon, who knew nothing about her former husband’s trip to northern Scotland with their young son. As far as she was concerned, they were still in Liverpool. She knew more than anyone that John was a bad driver and that, given the length of the journey, this was literally an accident waiting to happen.

Alarmed, she contacted Peter Brown at Apple and made hasty plans to retrieve the youngster, who was by now in the trusted care of Lennon’s Aunt Mater in Durness. It was a long journey, not helped by the fact that she accidentally first boarded a plane for Ireland instead of Scotland.

En route to Durness, they stopped at the hospital but Lennon couldn’t find a reason to speak to the woman who had been his college sweetheart and the mother of his son. A ward nurse was summarily dispatched to tell Cynthia that John and Yoko didn’t want to be disturbed.

One person who did breach the NHS-fortified Maginot Line was the Reverend David Paterson, a minister in the ultra-conservative Free Church of Scotland. His position gave him unfettered access to the wards and the opportunity to lock horns with the man who once declared that The Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’.

On the surface, the two men appeared to have little in common. But Lennon welcomed the chance to debate the issue with a man of the cloth away from the flashbulbs and scribblers. They quickly struck up a friendly rapport on a whole range of subjects encompassing religion, philosophy, war and peace while agreeing to disagree on the overall message of Christianity.

Overall, however, visitors from the outside world were discouraged. Persistent press requests for interviews, once a part of the couple’s daily routine, were simply ignored. Even the UK release of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ on 3 July – the same day Brian Jones’s death dominated the news headlines – passed without any hint of bedside self-promotion or even a pre-recorded statement.

‘Give Peace A Chance’ confused many Beatle fans, who initially thought it was the latest release from the Fabs, especially since the song was credited to Lennon and McCartney. Lennon would later say, ‘I didn’t write it with Paul, but again, out of guilt, we always had that thing that our names would go on songs even if we didn’t write them. It was never a legal deal between Paul and me, just an agreement when we were fifteen or sixteen to put both our names on our songs. I’d put his name on “Give Peace A Chance” though he had nothing to do with it. It was a silly thing to do, actually. It should have been Lennon-Ono.’

The single, in retrospect the start of Lennon’s solo career, saw the introduction of the Plastic Ono Band, a conceptual group which was more a nod to Yoko’s idiosyncratic art than any notion of ground-breaking rock ’n’ roll by Lennon.

With Lennon absent, Starr and Maureen stepped into the promotional breach to help officially launch the Great Peace Anthem at a press bash at Chelsea Town Hall. Lennon’s silence seemed like an opportunity lost given the message contained in the song’s grooves. But he was strangely happy to keep the media blindsided.

Dr Milne was impressed by his patient’s lack of starry self absorption, contrary to a public image that suggested a rampant conceit. He told me: ‘I had long chats with John and he just seemed like an ordinary bloke. We covered a wide range of subjects. We spoke at length about the life he had been leading. He told me he had been through it all from religion to drugs. He was very honest. He didn’t give the impression of being a pop star, he was extremely ordinary and down to earth.

‘One night he went down to the kitchen and said, “Have you got any leftovers?” I remember another night a group from his Apple organisation had flown up to Inverness and then taken a taxi from Inverness up to Golspie. They arrived at 9.30 p.m., and I went to John and said, “Some of your mates are at the door.” And he said, “I didn’t ask them to come. Tell them to go away.” He said, “Don’t be fooled, I’m paying for all this.” He seemed very intelligent to me, well read and very well up on world events. I thought he was quit an impressive figure.’

Dr Milne practically became the Lennons’ unofficial press spokesman for the week, wheeled out before the cameras and print journalists to give regular condition updates. In truth, there was very little he could tell them that would spark the call to hold the front page. Today, there would be fifteen-minute updates on Sky News, CNN and BBC News 24. But almost fifty years ago, the column inches generated by the Lennons’ hospital stay amounted to little of substance. A trawl through the archives of Scotland’s Daily Record, the Scottish Daily Express, the Mirror and the Scotsman reveal few headlines and prove that Lennon succeeded in his bid to recharge his drained batteries away from the media spotlight. Even Cynthia’s ill-fated arrival at the hospital after that turbulent flight to Glasgow to collect Julian failed to ignite any serious coverage.

Dr Milne added: ‘I was actually quite impressed by the media. They had a rough time because they just had to sit out in the car park night and day. They were scared to leave in case they missed something. If their editor phoned and they couldn’t answer right away they would be sacked. I used to go down at nine o’ clock at night to tell them, “Look, they’ve gone to bed for the night, you’d be as well to go down to the pub.” But they said they daren’t do that.

‘Part of their orders had been to get a photograph and apparently some painter or someone who was working at the hospital had got in and surreptitiously taken a photograph, which he then tried to sell to the newspapers.’

Nevertheless, Lennon didn’t fully pull up the drawbridge on the outside world. He sent a typically witty postcard with deliberately misspelled words from his hospital bed to Derek Taylor. He began by declaring, in capital letters, ‘THIS IS NOT A BEGGING LETTER.’ Lennon, an inveterate postcard doodler, then went on: ‘I am a crippled family who need som mony to git out of Scotcland [sic] a few hundred will do.’ At the bottom of the card he signed off as ‘Jack McCripple (ex seamen).’ The card is addressed to ‘Dirty Tayler MBE at the Apple HQ in London’. The front of the card shows a castle and Lennon has drawn a line to one of the windows and written ‘held prisner’.

But if Lennon liked to believe he was indeed a hostage to misfortune, his scheduled release date was coming up fast. Six days after being admitted to the Lawson bleeding and bruised, the couple prepared to face the world again. For the hospital, this would mean an end to the constant phone calls from worried fans that had almost caused the switchboard to go into meltdown. And for the staff, a sense of relief that business would go back to normal, even if the Lennons’ stay had interfered little with the normal running of the hospital.

Joyce Everett was one of several young nurses who often attended Lennon and Yoko and, like her colleagues, remembers only a husband and wife who had been injured in a car accident and not the stellar couple of pop culture folklore. During the Lennons’ recovery she was the only staff member to speak to not just one Beatle, but two.

‘My outstanding memory is picking up the phone one night and it was Paul McCartney,’ she said. ‘He was my favourite Beatle, so that was nice. He was just asking how John was. It was a coincidence that I picked up the phone. But I just stayed quite cool about it and told him how he was. There was no facility in the hospital to pass Paul’s call through to him or anything like that. But the message was passed on that Paul had phoned to ask how he was and I suppose he was quite pleased about that.

‘This was at a time when they weren’t supposed to be getting on so it’s nice to know there was still a friendship there. During the time they were in the hospital they were fine . . . They kept themselves to themselves and there were never any problems. They also had a ward to themselves, so that kept them out of the way of the usual running of the hospital. And it meant that the other patients weren’t disturbed in any way by what was going on. I mean, they knew that someone famous was in the hospital especially since so many journalists were camped outside the main entrance. You couldn’t help but notice, but there were no paparazzi with mega lenses or anything like that.’

On Sunday, 6 July, twenty-four hours after the Rolling Stones played a free concert in London’s Hyde Park to honour the memory of Jones (McCartney, heavily disguised, was rumoured to be among the crowd), the Lennons got ready to re-enter the public domain. On the morning they left, a helicopter landed on the hospital lawn to take John, Yoko and Kyoko to Inverness airport where they would fly by private jet back down to London.

Before departing, the couple went out of their way to thank all the staff who lined up outside the entrance to wave farewell to the most famous patients in the hospital’s history. They handed out signed pictures and albums, one of which was given to Dr Milne as a token of goodwill for his discretion as much as his bedside manner. He recalled: ‘I got an autographed record – I can’t remember which one now – that I gave to one of my sons.’ The waiting press finally got their picture. One group shot still hangs in the entrance to the hospital.

They also got their parting soundbite, a mere twenty-four words to sum up six restful but nevertheless long days: ‘If you’re going to have a car crash, try to arrange for it to happen in the Highlands. The hospital there was just great.’

John, wearing a large floppy black hat, shook everyone’s hand and then, with one final flourish, they stepped aboard the chopper. As the helicopter banked south towards Inverness, Lennon could not have known he would never again visit his beloved Scottish Highlands, an affair that had begun when he was nine years old.

There remains, however, the perfectly legitimate question about why they were allowed to remain in hospital for six days. Under normal circumstances, they would have been discharged after being kept in overnight for observation. Yoko, though, was in the very early stages of pregnancy again, a fact unknown to all but a select few. And given her previous miscarriage, the hospital’s medical staff decided to monitor her for longer. But that revelation still didn’t kick into the long grass of history one theory that the Lennons used their surroundings to again try to purge their bodies of drugs, specifically the heroin they still used. What is beyond scrutiny is the fact that they couldn’t be seen to be taking drugs in hospital. For one thing, it simply wouldn’t be tolerated. And the breadcrumb trail of clues would be impossible to conceal from trained nursing staff, as Yoko herself confirmed. ‘We wouldn’t kick in a hospital because we wouldn’t let anyone know.’

Waiting for them in London was an old life, one in which a drug-enforced siege mentality would quickly re-establish its hold and see them return to a state of opulent misery. McCartney, Harrison and Starr were also nervous about how Lennon’s return would affect the relative harmony of the sessions. No one had to say it out loud but it was an obvious question: what was it going to be like in the studio again?

Read more in And in The End: The Last Days of The Beatles by Ken McNab

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