NEW YORK

Mike Tree in John Lennon’s Nutopia

A plant doctor’s secret friendship with the ex-Beatle

by

In March 1977, Michael Barbosa Medeiros, a freelance houseplant doctor, was at a party chatting with John Green, a professional tarot-card reader, also known as “Charlie Swan.” Green told Medeiros about a possible job opening. A few days later he called Medeiros with the details: Go to apartment 72 in the Dakota, on West 72nd Street in New York City.

Medeiros waited outside the apartment, puzzled by a brass plaque on the door that read “Nutopian Embassy.” He’d never heard of that country. The door opened and a pony-tailed man holding a baby and dressed in cut-off jeans greeted him. “Hi, I’m John,” he said. “You must be the tree man.” He led Medeiros through a sprawling apartment to a sunny room with a few plants and trees. Then the man spoke at length about wanting to fill the room with more greenery. Medeiros recognized the voice. His potential employer was John Lennon. Though he found the ex-Beatle unpretentious and down-to-earth, he was stunned and awed to be in his presence. Later that day, he met with Yoko Ono. She hired him.

Thus began Medeiros’s stint as John and Yoko’s houseplant doctor. Yoko soon gave him the additional responsibility of personal assistant. John couldn’t remember Michael’s last name and began calling him “Mike Tree.” At first they rarely spoke, and Michael quietly went about his tasks. He built a terrarium. John liked it. Then, apparently intrigued by Michael’s silence, John began asking him about his family and upbringing, especially his relationship with his father. He asked if Michael had ever wanted to play music. Michael told John that he’d always wanted to play the banjo; John gave him an old banjo that was lying around the Dakota.

A bond began to form between the Beatle and the houseplant doctor. Yoko didn’t like it and threatened to fire Michael for talking to John, but she didn’t. John and Michael were both Libras, which John found significant. Michael was one year older, and John seemed to appreciate having an assistant who was close in age (most of the assistants were considerably younger).

Michael’s duties expanded to include setting up Yoko’s recording equipment and organizing tapes of everything from John Green’s daily tarot-card readings to, eventually, the Double Fantasy sessions. (Microphones at the Hit Factory and Record Plant, where the album was recorded, were left open at all times to capture everything spoken, sung, or played.)

One day John telephoned Michael at home. He wanted to come by and see the abstract paintings Michael had told him he’d been working on. So John came to Michael’s apartment and stayed for about an hour. Michael began to consider John a friend. When John was in Bermuda during the summer of 1980, composing songs for Double Fantasy, Michael joined him there. He found a small, disassembled sailboat in a shed on the property. He assembled it. The houseplant doctor and the Beatle went sailing.

On the afternoon of December 8, 1980, Michael was working at the Dakota when John walked into the apartment. He seemed upbeat, sitting on the carpet, taking off his boots, and talking about how well Double Fantasy was doing and how the critics were finally saying nice things about his solo work. As he was walking to another room to meet Annie Leibovitz for a photo shoot, he said to Michael, referring to how Beatles fans were reacting to the new LP, “We’re opening the door slowly to see if anybody is still out there.”

That night, John was murdered by a “fan.” Michael was one of the people who stood suicide watch over Yoko in the days that followed. In January 1981, she asked Michael, who’d remained freelance, to go on staff. Michael had refused numerous requests to do so, but this time he agreed. He resigned in June 1982, due, in part, to friction with Yoko’s new partner, Sam Havadtoy, a British-born Hungarian American artist. In addition, Yoko accused Michael of stealing the banjo John had given him.

Later that month, Michael, who’d never thought of himself as a writer, began jotting down his memories of John on a yellow legal pad—disorganized fragments and anecdotes. “Writing about John helped me grieve for him,” he told me. “He was one cool guy. He did not take himself seriously. That somebody could be so wealthy and so smart and accomplished … it didn’t mean shit to him. He didn’t care.” It wasn’t until 2000, after taking a memoir-writing class, that Michael considered turning his notes into a book. It took him 15 more years to finish it. He called it Barefoot in Nutopia.

In May 2016, Jawbone Press, a small British publisher specializing in music books, expressed interest in Barefoot in Nutopia. Negotiations dragged on until finally a contract stipulating a $3,000 advance and publication in 2018 was drafted, on November 1. But Jawbone soon backed out of the deal, claiming that their distributor said the book wasn’t a good fit with Jawbone’s format—an odd decision, considering that books written by former Lennono (Lennon’s post-Beatle song company) employees have sold well. (See The Last Days of John Lennon, by Fred Seaman [Birch Lane Press, 1991]; Dakota Days, by John Green [St. Martin’s Press, 1983]; and Loving John, by May Pang [Warner Books, 1983].)

I’ve detailed the story behind Medeiros’s memoir because it raises questions about what really happened with Jawbone Press. After backing out of a contract for a straightforward memoir about one man’s personal relationship with Lennon and Ono, why did Jawbone then acquire Peter Doggett’s highly controversial book Prisoner of Love: Inside the Dakota With John Lennon, based on Doggett’s reading of Lennon’s stolen diaries? And why did Jawbone then cancel publication of that book just before it was scheduled to go to press?

To my knowledge, Yoko Ono has never sued a publisher for something they’ve already put out—even publishers who’ve apparently tried to goad her into filing a lawsuit as a way to publicize their book. In 2000, for example, Cooper Square Press published Lennon in America, by Geoffrey Giuliano. In a flagrant violation of copyright law, the book is subtitled 1971–1980, Based in Part on the Lost Lennon Diaries. Ono had not granted the author permission to base his book on Lennon’s diaries, yet she took no legal action and the book remains in print. 

It would be almost impossible for a public figure like Ono to win such a suit and the suit would, indeed, bring more attention to the book in question. But Jawbone’s actions, especially with Prisoner of Love, have the hallmarks of a catch-and-kill or catch-and-delay scheme. Catch and kill, a tactic Donald Trump and the National Enquirer made infamous, involves a media organization’s buying exclusive rights to a damaging story about a celebrity with the intention of never publishing it. It’s also possible that Jawbone is planning to publish Prisoner of Love after Ono’s death. An editor familiar with the situation wouldn’t comment on Doggett’s book but said in an email that Jawbone neither acquired nor canceled Medeiros’s book, and reiterated what they told Medeiros’s agent in 2016: “We withdrew our interest after consulting with our distributor, who felt the book would be a tough sell for a publisher of our size.”

Doggett and Lennon-estate spokesman Elliot Mintz did not respond to requests for comment.

Medeiros, meanwhile, made a deal with Diversion Books to publish his memoir, now titled In Lennon’s Garden, in May 2020. He was paid a $6,000 advance. But in August 2019, one of Ono’s attorneys, Dorothy M. Weber, of Shukat Arrow Hafer Weber & Herbsman, sent Diversion a cease-and-desist letter claiming that Medeiros had signed a nondisclosure agreement stipulating that he could not “divulge or exploit information he obtained by virtue of his employment relationship” with Lennon and Ono. Though the attorney failed to provide Diversion with the alleged NDA (Medeiros claims he never signed an NDA), the letter went on to say that should Diversion “attempt to publish the book, we have been instructed by our client to commence a litigation seeking damages and injunctive relief for tortious interference, copyright infringement and to the extent the book is published overseas, violations of the droit moral among others.”

Diversion then told Medeiros that they would not honor the original publication date but would instead publish the book at an unspecified future time. Medeiros asked Diversion to amend the contract to include a new publication date, but Diversion refused. Medeiros has since requested that the contract be terminated. The publisher has not responded.

Mike Tree remains in Limbono.   ❖

Robert Rosen is the author of  Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. His latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, will be published in July 2022.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.

Highlights