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It was 40 years ago: The curious tale of John Lennon in Cape Town

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Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

Only two images reportedly from the trip can be found on the internet. One, presumably taken by the taxi driver, purports to show John Lennon on a bench from which he had a view of Table Mountain, the other was taken by a fellow passenger on his flight home.

Of the many famous guests who have stayed at Cape Town’s iconic, pink-walled Mount Nelson Hotel – Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Marlene Dietrich, Liberace, David Bowie, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and Prince Andrew to cherry-pick (probably not an apposite expression so close to Prince Andrew’s name), just some – none is more intriguing than a certain “Mr Greenwood” who was a guest at The Nellie 40 years ago in late May 1980.

That innocuous name was a cover for none other than John Lennon. “More famous than Jesus Christ”, in his own, oft misquoted words, the former Beatle spent a week in the city alone and, by most accounts, barely recognised, just six months before his murder in New York. 

Lennon’s visit to Cape Town is, to me, puzzling on so many levels. Why would such a politically conscious man come to apartheid South Africa, of all places? What did he do while he was here? Why didn’t the local press go berserk with paparazzi fever? Why wasn’t he mobbed by Beatlemania groupies? Why is this aberrant and significant journey seemingly so shrouded in mystery? And, while we’re asking questions, why did he use “Mr Greenwood” as a fake name?

To avoid getting your hopes up, most of these questions will remain unanswered. Lennon, obviously, isn’t here to speak for himself, and everyone else disagrees about what happened on this curious journey or, indeed, whether it happened at all. 

The context is important. 1980 was a time of increasing isolation for South Africa on all fronts. In December of that year, the United Nations passed Resolution 35/206 requesting member states “to take steps to prevent all cultural, academic, sports and other exchanges with South Africa”. 

Plenty of top-line musicians would defy that resolution and tour the republic. Frank Sinatra was here in 1981, as were, at various times in that turbulent decade, Queen, Rod Stewart, Cher, the Beach Boys, the Village People, Tina Turner and Millie Jackson. Most played for big pay from Sol Kerzner to perform at Sun City in the Bophuthatswana homeland with Sinatra getting a reported $1.75-million. But they all copped heavy flak for coming. 

When Steven van Zandt originally recorded his Grammy-winning, anti-apartheid anthem, Sun City, in 1985, he named and shamed the prime boycott busters in a track overlay, but he dropped that idea on the released version performed by a celebrity ensemble, which included Lennon’s former bandmate, Ringo Starr.

It seems impossible that Lennon was unaware of the cultural boycott of South Africa in 1980, especially as his own solo albums were blacklisted by the SABC at the time. Visiting the country was undeniably different to performing here – Lennon was still on a five-year break from music and would only return to the business with the recording of (Just Like) Starting Over in October of that year – but, surely, he knew that his off-the-charts fame could make any trip to SA a stick with which he could be beaten. But he came anyway, and, as if to raise the middle finger even higher, planted himself in a hotel which was the very symbol of colonial elitism. 

Or did he? There are plenty of Lennon obsessives who argue on the nether reaches of the internet that the trip never happened – cross-referencing diary dates and quoting several of the many Lennon biographies, which do not mention the trip at all. (There’s no reference to it on Lennon’s lengthy Wikipedia entry.) 

Only two images reportedly from the trip can be found on the internet. One, below left, presumably taken by the taxi driver, purports to show Lennon on a bench from which he had a view of Table Mountain, the other was taken by a fellow passenger on his flight home.

One blog poster named Luis wrote in 2010: “Well I don’t believe that John was in South Africa in June 1980. I’ve asked (for) info (from) South African immigration office. I’m waiting for an answer.” I bet he’s still waiting. 

But the trip did happen. Lennon himself spoke about it in a radio interview just before he died; his PA and sometime lover, May Pang, says Lennon phoned her from Cape Town and sent her two postcards; and there was some SA media coverage. One researcher puts the trip dates as 23rd May until sometime in early June. Lennon’s most reputable biographer, Philip Norman, records the journey very briefly, ascribing the motivation to the “all-powerful numerologist, Takashi Yoshikawa (who) – presciently but, alas, far, far too prematurely – detected clouds of evil beginning to form above his head and worked out the direction in which he needed to travel to escape them”. That propitious direction, apparently, was south-east from New York, which pointed Lennon to the tip of Africa. 

The Mount Nelson’s website records only a few details of the stay of Mr Greenwood: “He is said to have been exceptionally tidy (he even made his own bed), he meditated on Table Mountain, spoke to his wife Yoko Ono regularly, and planned to bring her to stay at the hotel the following year. Legend has it that a guest once complained that a vagrant was sitting on the lawn. When staff went to investigate, it turned out to be John Lennon doing yoga in the garden.”

There are several accounts that Lennon befriended a coloured taxi driver who drove him around the city, including a trip to the kramat on Signal Hill to meditate. The driver said that John had no cash on him and used a gold American Express Card to pay for everything. He took several photographs of John, which the singer was relaxed about as long as they were only published after he left. 

A Cape Argus photographer at the time, Ivor Markman, posted on one site: “We heard that he was in town and battled to track him down. The taxi driver was the closest we got to getting any photos”. 

Only two images reportedly from the trip can be found on the internet. One, below left, presumably taken by the taxi driver, purports to show Lennon on a bench from which he had a view of Table Mountain, the other was taken by a fellow passenger on his flight home.

The most extensive coverage of the trip comes from the book Nowhere Man by Robert Rosen – a controversial work based on Rosen’s memories of what he said he had read in Lennon’s personal diaries (without any written record). I haven’t read the book, but the relevant extract can be found online at a strange space called www.meetthebeatlesforreal.com where it’s confirmed as accurate by Rosen himself in an argumentative back-and-forth with Lennon fans, doubting his credentials. 

Rosen claims that Lennon was constantly recognised in Cape Town and adds sordid details: “Strangers offered him drugs and whores, but he declined … alone in his room, he clipped classified ads for massage parlours from a local sex tabloid.” (Did Cape Town have anything resembling a “sex tabloid” in 1980?) He then goes into detail about Lennon visiting local massage parlours more than once. Rosen also claims that Lennon had been to Cape Town before – something I can find no confirmation of anywhere else – and (direct quote): “He knew that it was a good place to get jacked off”. I did say it was sordid stuff!

The lockdown prevents me from trawling the archives of the Cape Argus, the Cape Times, the Sunday Times and The Star (which one blog poster claims reported Lennon staying at The Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg), to see how substantial the South African coverage was at the time. 

Rosen mentions one newspaper article, published during Lennon’s visit, about him buying a raincoat which upset him, but I suspect most locals 40 years ago were blissfully unaware that one of the planet’s biggest superstars was in their midst. Except for one anonymous, and very Capetonian, blog poster in 2014, who claimed he had met John on Long Street: “He had apple tea with me, he was very depressed. He meditated on Signal Hill for the release of Nelson Mandela. He told me darkness was approaching.”

Lennon was shot dead by Mark Chapman outside The Dakota apartment block in New York on 8 December 1980, around 180 days after his return from Cape Town. Chapman remains in prison. His 11th parole hearing is scheduled for later in 2020. DM

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