Hunter Davies recalls a meeting with John at Kenwood: "The first memory that always comes back is swimming in John's pool at his house in Weybridge. I'd gone to spend the day with him, but when I arrived, it turned out he had decided it was a day for not talking. I walked round his garden with him, not talking. Cynthia made lunch and we ate it, not talking. I sat with John in his cramped little den, under a sticker saying "Safe as Milk" while he watched children's television, not talking.
Then we had a swim, round and round in his pool, not talking, but while we were swimming, we suddenly heard the noise of a police siren floating up the hill from Weybridge itself. It was giving that familiar two-note wail - Ah, ahh, ah ahh, ah, ahh. John started playing with the two notes - humming them, while not actually talking.
Then he went inside, went to his piano, till he had turned the two notes into a song, or at least half a song."
by Hunter Davies (An excerpt from the book The Quarrymen)
By the mid-Sixties, John Lennon was already growing tired of his fame. He turned to his childhood friend Pete Shotton, who was drawn into a surreal world of drug-fuelled creativity at the Beatle’s home. Yoko Ono moved in, and Lennon began comparing himself with Jesus.
The Rolls-Royce was covered with girls, crawling all over it, trying to get a hand through a window to touch John Lennon. “This is the life,” said his friend, Pete Shotton, sitting inside next to the Beatle. “No it’s not,“ said John. “One of these days one of these f**king maniacs is going to get hold of me and tear me to death.“
It was the end of 1963, the year the Beatles conquered Britain. John had invited Pete - his “best mate“ since they were six years old - down to London from Liverpool to share the experience of being a star. “I knew from the old days that John didn’t actually like physical contact, even from his family and close friends,“ Pete remembers. “Most of all he hated strangers touching him - yet here he was, surrounded by thousands wanting to get at him.“
The Beatles were in their first Christmas show at the Astoria, in Finsbury Park, north London. Each evening, after running the gauntlet of girls at the end of the performance, Pete and John would go round the clubs till the early hours. “About four o’clock one morning we were desperate for an early breakfast. The only caff we could find was one at Kensington air terminal, quite near his flat. We had eggs and bacon as we watched all the travellers arrive to fly off somewhere.
“’Let’s get on a plane,’ said John, ‘the first one that we can get on.’ I said: ’Don’t be daft, John. You’ve got a concert tonight.’ ’f**k the concert,’ said John. ’Let’s just fly off to the Canaries for the day, have a couple of hours’ sun, then fly back.’ It was the sort of daft idea he’d always had, but now he could fulfill his daftest fantasies. So I thought, why not? John told his chauffeur to take us out to London airport. When we got there, we asked what was the first plane out - and it was Manchester.“ They went home to bed.
Pete returned to Liverpool after this amazing holiday but, as the Beatles collected more fame and fortune, he was drawn deeply into his friend’s new world. As boys and teenagers they had been inseparable. Pete had been one of the first Quarrymen, John’s first group. Over the coming years, John grew depressed about his international fame and became increasingly dependent emotionally on his childhood confidant.
In 1965, John generously set Pete up in business in a small supermarket on Hayling Island, near the Isle of Wight. It cost £20,000 - perhaps equal to about £200,000 today. The arrangement was that John owned it, but took no share of the profits, no rent and no interest (much later Pete paid him back the full amount). Having moved south, Pete spent many weekends with John at Kenwood, his mock-Tudor mansion on a private estate in Weybridge, Surrey. Ringo was just down the hill. George was not far away.
John preferred it when Pete visited without his wife, Beth. “We don’t want the women hanging around,“ he would say. One of his favourite phrases was that “women should be obscene and not heard.“
“He liked to stay up late while Cyn, his wife, liked to go to bed early,“ said Pete. “By 1965 their marriage had settled into a state of peaceful coexistence. They had little in common, but at that stage I wouldn’t have said their marriage was unhappy. The only row I remember between them was when Cyn wanted to buy a Porsche and John was against her having such a fast car. In the end he relented.
“John didn’t do much with Julian, their son. He spoilt him with expensive toys, but he had a low tolerance level. He’d put Julian out of the room and say he was working or ’talking to Pete.’
“During my visits I got to know the other Beatles, as well. I grew very fond of George. In fact he originally wanted to put money into my supermarket, but John did it on his own. The one I found hardest to really know was Paul. He was always friendly and charming with strangers, but he played his cards close to his chest. Paul was the one Beatle who posed any challenge to John’s authority in the group. John did see him as a more or less equal. He admired and respected him for his self-discipline and all-round musical facilities - which John thought he was relatively lacking.
“But John never forgot that the Beatles had started out as his band. Sometimes it irritated him when Paul appeared to imagine otherwise. But until about 1968, I never witnessed or heard about any serious disagreement between them.“
By the end of 1966, John was becoming less interested in going out. “He immersed himself in books about Christianity or the dead or Tibet or Freud, looking for new ideas and philosophies all the time. He was really bored, that was the main thing. He thought he’d become Nowhere Man, which was why he wrote the song.
“Just for amusement, for something to do, he wanted me to commit a robbery with him. He knew the Beatles could now enter any building in the world, just walk in and be welcomed. So he thought he’d steal the crown jewels. Just walk into the Tower of London and take them. ’Nobody would ever suspect the Beatles, Pete,’ he said. ’We are allowed in anywhere.’ “
One escape from the boredom of being a Beatle was drugs. “I associated drugs only with low life, not with wealthy, clever people. But after about a year, John finally talked me into it,“ said Pete. “After that, John and I tripped together regularly. He used to appear in my bedroom in the morning with a tray containing a cup of tea and a tab of acid. John saw acid as a godsend - a magical key to the uncharted regions of his mind. It did bring enthusiasm back into his life and inspired him to write some of his most brilliant songs.“
One afternoon, Pete was idly going through one of the sacks of fan mail, which were delivered most days and generally left unread till they were chucked out. “I dipped into a sack that had just arrived and pulled out a letter which happened to be from our old school, from a pupil at Quarry Bank. He said his English teacher was getting them to read and analyse Beatles lyrics, find out the hidden meanings, what they were really all about. This started John off remembering lines we used to recite when we were at school. ’How did that dead dog’s eye song go, Pete?’ I thought for a while and remembered bits of it - about yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. ’That’s it,’ said John, and he started scribbling: ’Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.’ And it went into I Am The Walrus. He threw in semolina, thinking of how we were forced to eat it as kids and hated it, and pilchards. When he finished, he turned to me and said: ’Let the f**kers work that one out, Pete.’ “
You can take your pick on when and why the Beatles gave up being Beatles. You could say it all began to change and go wrong when Apple first came along - when the Beatles got it into their heads that they could move on from singing and playing to changing the world. The origins were cynical and accountancy-led, a strategy dreamt up by men in suits who pointed out that the Beatles had approximately £3m lying around that was about to go in tax unless it was otherwise spent. Tax in those days was up to 90%.
But the Beatles were also thinking and believing altruistically. They wanted to make it easier for people like themselves, who had no formal training, but had natural talent and unusual ideas that should be given a chance. The first visible manifestation of the Apple concept was the Apple Boutique, which opened in Baker Street at the end of 1967. Who better to run it than Pete?
“Just pack your stuff and move to London at once,“ John said. But Pete didn’t really know whether he wanted to. “I loved all the toys that went with knowing John, but I liked my ordinary life in Hayling Island as well, with Beth and our son, Matthew. The Beatles were really alien to my world. I remember once they had this idea of all moving to a Greek island, along with all their friends, such as me, our wives and children. We’d live in a commune, in interconnecting houses. John drew me the plans for it. They did look at an island and might even have bought it, I can’t remember where, but the commune idea never happened.“
The Beatles broke down his resistance about running the shop. His first task was to get Apple Boutique ready for opening. “It was total madness. I had four bosses for a start, giving different orders. Paul would come to the shop and tell me where he wanted a partition. Almost as soon as we had done it, John would arrive and say: ’What the f**k’s going on here?’ He’d then want the partition taken down.
“There was so much back-stabbing and status-seeking as Apple took on more and more people, often just people they’d met in a club or a gallery. Then there were the suits, pushing around their bits of paper, sending memos. Most of them didn’t have a clue. I’d come from running a little supermarket to find I was supposed to organise something that was taking on the size and complexity of ICI.
“The Beatles wanted the shop to be a beautiful place where beautiful people could buy beautiful things. They also wanted everything to be for sale. So if a customer fancied a light fitting or display case, that was for sale as well. Imagine trying to stock for that. The Beatles thought they could do anything and everything. They saw things in black and white. All very simplistic.“
At the opening party, there were so many special guests and assorted gatecrashers that half the goods in the shop were trampled underfoot. The boutique was packed over Christmas. “Things were flying off the shelves as fast as we could replenish our stock. The trouble was that a lot of it was flying off without the benefit of a cash transaction. Our tuned-in, turned-on staff were loath to apprehend shoplifters - and they also had few scruples about helping themselves to stuff that caught their fancy.“
After seven months, Pete had had enough. Shortly before Apple Boutique closed down, he became John’s personal assistant. His duties included driving John around, sorting his post and paying his bills, but most of all it meant being his companion.
“One night, after a few joints, a bit of LSD, we were sitting around at Kenwood playing tapes when John suddenly said: ’Pete, I think I’m Jesus Christ.’ ’You what?’ I said. ’I’m Jesus Christ. I’m back again.’ ’Oh yeah,’ I said. ’What are you going to do about it?’ ’I’ve got to tell the world who I am.’ ’They’ll kill you.’ ’That can’t be helped,’ said John. ’How old was Jesus when they killed him?’ ’I reckon about 32.’ ’Then I’ve got at least four years to go,’ said John. ’First thing tomorrow morning, we’ll go into Apple and tell the others.’ “
Next morning, Pete contacted Apple to arrange an emergency board meeting. All four Beatles turned up, plus Neil Aspinall (once the Beatles’ roadie, later Apple’s managing director) and Derek Taylor, their press officer. “Right,“ said John, sitting behind his desk. “I’ve something very important to tell you all. I am...Jesus Christ. I have come back again. This is my thing.“
The Beatles looked rather stunned, but said nothing. “It was totally surreal,“ says Pete. “But nobody cross-examined him. No plans were made to announce the Messiah’s arrival. There was a bit of muttering, then silence, till somebody suggested the meeting was adjourned for lunch. “In the restaurant over lunch a man came up to John and said: ’Really nice to meet you, how are you?’ ’Actually,’ said John, ’I’m Jesus Christ.’ ’Oh, really,’ said the man. ’Well, I liked your last record.’ “
The matter was not referred to again, but that night, back at Kenwood, John said to Pete that he fancied having a woman around. Cynthia had gone away on holiday. “I think I’ll give Yoko a ring,“ said John. “I’d like to get to know her a bit better, and now’s a good time.“
John had first met Yoko at the Indica Gallery more than a year earlier. “Nothing much happened at that first meeting. I assumed she was just a 36-year-old Japanese lady artist whose interest in a young multi-millionaire was that he might finance some of her future exhibitions.“
She was contacted at her flat in London and persuaded to jump into a cab. John told her he would pay for it. When the taxi arrived, John found there was no money in the house. The Beatles, like the Queen, did not carry money. “He asked me for the money. As a joke, I said no. ’Come on, Pete,’ he said, ’you’ll get it back. Put it down as f**king expenses.’ Which, of course, it was. Yoko appeared shy and nervous and mumbled a lot, so I couldn’t hear what she was saying. After about half an hour’s awkward chat, I went to bed and left them to it.“
Next morning, when Pete got up, he found John standing in the kitchen in a kimono-style dressing gown, eating a boiled egg. Pete asked if he’d had a good time. “He said: ’Yeah, Pete, it was great.’ The way he said it, I could see that something unusual had happened. He said he and Yoko had not slept all night. He asked me if I was busy that day. I expected he wanted me to drive him shopping or up to Apple. But what he said was: ’Pete, I want you to find me a house.’ I said he already had a house. He said he wanted another house - to go and live in it with Yoko. ’Just like that?’ I said. ’Yeah, just like that. This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for all my life. f**k everything. f**k the Beatles. f**k money. I’ll go and live with her in a f**king tent if I have to.’ He then ran back upstairs. He said he couldn’t bear to be away from Yoko for another minute.“
She moved her belongings into Kenwood and Pete was asked to drive her up to the West End of London to get some new outfits. “John asked me to go out to Italy, where I think Cyn was, and tell her he’d fallen in love with someone else. I refused. I’d always got on well with Cyn. Someone else was sent. The day Cyn returned, she found Yoko and John sitting together having breakfast, the curtains closed, surrounded by dirty dishes. Yoko was wearing one of Cyn’s nightdresses.“
“Oh, hi,“ was all John said, according to Pete. End of marriage. Cynthia moved out. Did Pete feel his own days with John were numbered?
“I couldn’t have been more pleased by Yoko’s arrival. She had a galvanising effect on John. I’d say she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. She wasn’t just the love of his life, she convinced him he was an artist, which he’d always wanted to be. John rediscovered his convictions through Yoko. It brought out the child in him. You could even say Yoko brought John back to life.
“I sincerely believed that I did my best to make Yoko feel welcome at Kenwood - and I would like to have been able to say she extended the same courtesies to me. But unfortunately her possessiveness and jealousy or insecurity, call it what you will, meant that she couldn’t bear to see John enjoying a close rapport with anyone but herself.“
Over the next few weeks, says Pete, Yoko changed from being a timid little mouse into a tiger. He moved into a house nearby, where Cyn’s mother had lived. His wife and son moved up from Hayling Island to join him. “I never took orders from John, so I wasn’t going to take them from Yoko. But she was soon treating me like a servant to order about. That’s when it got hard,“ said Pete.
His first row with Yoko happened while he was driving her and John in his own car from Abbey Road, where they had been recording Hey Jude, to Ringo’s flat in Montagu Square, where they were living. “I got lost as I didn’t know central London very well, and she started screaming at me: ’Get me home, get me home.’ I told her I wasn’t her f**king chauffeur. I said I was doing her a favour and if she wasn’t happy she could get out and walk home. John intervened and said: ’Pete, Pete, easy, easy; she’s dead tired.’ “
Not long afterwards, John asked Pete, as a favour, to come and help clear up the flat, saying he was very busy and Pete was the only person he could trust to go through his personal stuff. When he got there, “the place was a mess, papers and dirty dishes and dirty underclothes everywhere. I thought: What the hell am I doing? Why can’t Yoko stay home one afternoon instead of running after John all the time and clear the place up herself? Anyway, I did it. When they came back, John said: ’Thanks, Pete. You’ve done a great job.’ I said to him: ’Who the f**k do you think I am, John? It’s Pete Shotton. Don’t you remember me? I’m not here to clean up your dirty underpants and your girlfriend’s knickers. I’m Pete, remember?’ John looked a bit stunned by this outburst. I then said I’d had enough, I was resigning as his PA. I’d remain his friend, but I didn’t want to be employed by him any more.“
Next time Pete visited the flat, he “found John in the throes of vacuum cleaning, much to my amazement. ’Thank Christ you’ve come,’ he said. ’We’ve had a tip-off that the drugs squad are about to raid us. They’ll have their sniffer dogs and they’re bound to find something. For Christ’s sake, Jimi Hendrix used to live here.’
“I helped John to clear up as much as possible, shoving things in bags, when Yoko appeared. ’I don’t want him here,’ she screamed. John said they needed all the help they could get, but Yoko said no, they could handle it by themselves. So I left. I took some stuff with me to dump, but to my regret I must have missed a vital bit. That was the day John got busted for possessing cannabis. He was fined £171, which gave him a police record that created so many problems for him in the next few years.“
Did Pete ever think he was just a hanger-on, which is presumably what Yoko must have thought?
“No, I was never a hanger-on. If anyone was doing the hanging on, it was John. He hung on to me, always had done. He always made me feel special, made it clear he was desperate for my company, especially when he was depressed and fed up, which he was for many years. He used to say to me: ’I don’t want to be a Beatle any more, stuck in a bag marked Beatle. I want to open the bag and let the Beatles out. I want to be myself.’ But he couldn’t. He felt stuck, couldn’t go out without being pestered, yet he didn’t know what to do with the rest of his life.
“So I was vital to him many times. I didn’t go on about him being a Beatle, treating him like a star, asking him dopey questions about the Beatles. I wasn’t interested in all that. We just mucked around as mates, as we’d always done. He hung on to me all those years because he was afraid to be on his own. Especially when he went out. He always needed someone.“
John and Yoko got married in Gibraltar in 1969 and the Beatles split up in 1970. Two years later, John departed for New York with Yoko, never to return to Britain.
In the summer of 1976, Pete went on a long holiday to America with a friend. At the end of October they arrived in New York. After a stroll in Central Park, they realised they were passing the Dakota building and Pete said that was where John lived. His friend said Pete should pop in.
He left a note with the doorman and, within an hour, John had called him over. He met Pete at the door of the flat, his baby son, Sean, in his hands. He looked trim, fit and healthy. Yoko floated around in the background, not saying much. John booked a table for them all at a local Japanese restaurant, and after Sean had been put to bed, all three walked a couple of blocks to the restaurant. Pete was surprised that John wasn’t hassled as they were walking. John said people might say they loved his records, or offer him a joint, but he didn’t get pestered.
John ate only brown rice and raw fish. “He was in excellent form, warm, funny and at peace with himself and the world. It was the real John Lennon, the one I always knew was there. He seemed to have got over the ’ex-Beatle’ thing, didn’t seem bugged any more.“
Back in the apartment, “me and John chatted for a few hours, drinking tea. He said he’d given up alcohol forever. He told me about his Japanese lessons and also his numerologist. This numerologist had said his body was out of synch with the rotation of the planet. To reset his cosmic clock, Yoko said he would have to travel halfway round the world. So he had been to Hong Kong, without Yoko. She’d made him go alone. I was amazed - and so was he. He’d done the bookings, organised everything, something he’d never done before. He’d loved it, checking into hotels on his own and walking the streets.
“It was almost light when I left, but John said he had to be up early in the morning for his Japanese lesson. He said we must do this again, before I left New York. I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days, so I rang him at the Dakota, on the private number he had given me. In the background I could hear Yoko shouting something and John saying: ’Look, Yoko, he’s f**king coming over and that’s it.’ “
At that night’s dinner, “they hardly spoke to each other or to me. John looked pale and drawn, not as fit and healthy as he’d looked three days earlier. We didn’t talk about the old days or personal things this time. Just about the occult and mysticism. ’Still searching then, John,’ I said. He told me he’d seen a flying saucer from his window at the Dakota.“ As Pete left, John shook his hand warmly and said: “Give my love to England.“
“And that was it. I never saw him again.“
Four years later, on December 8, 1980, John and Yoko went off in the morning to a recording studio where he was helping her on a song called Walking On Thin Ice. As they left the Dakota, a young Lennon fan called Mark David Chapman asked for John’s autograph. John was courtesy itself and signed. When they returned in the evening, Chapman took out a .38 revolver and shot him dead.
Pete was at home in Hayling Island. He was still running his supermarket and also a betting shop. A friend rang to tell him the news. “I was stunned, didn’t know what to do at first. Then I decided I wanted to be with someone who knew John as well as I had.“
He jumped in his car and drove to Friar Park, George Harrison’s home. “I just felt we could comfort each other. I got to his house shortly after midday. George had just got up, having been awakened with the news. He wrapped his arm round my shoulders and we went silently into his kitchen and had a cup of tea. “I told him I just wanted to be with someone, communicate with someone who would understand. He said he knew what I meant. We spoke quietly, just for a bit, not saying much, then George left the room to take a transatlantic call from Ringo. He was in the States somewhere.
After about an hour, some musicians started to arrive. George had arranged a recording session for that afternoon. I asked if he was going to cancel it and he said: ’No. There’s nothing to gain by it, there’s nothing else we can do, we just have to carry on. So I left, leaving George to get on with his music.
“All the way home I thought: What a life. What a f**king life. And what an end. What a f**king end.“