Catch and Kill, Ono-Style?by Robert Rosen
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 said “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 Medeiros. “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 he’d 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 recordings of the Double Fantasy sessions (microphones 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.
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 ex-Beatle went sailing.
On December 8, 1980, John was murdered. 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. 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 their distributor said the book wasn’t a good fit with Jawbone’s format—an odd decision considering books written by former Lennono employees have sold well. (See The Last Days of John Lennon by Fred Seaman, Dakota Days by John Green, and Loving John by May Pang.)
More likely, either Jawbone or the distributor had received a threatening letter from Ono’s attorneys, who routinely send such letters to anybody planning to bring out an unauthorized or unflattering book. (It should be noted that Ono has never sued a writer for something they’ve written. It would be almost impossible for a public figure like Ono to win such a suit and the suit would bring more attention to the book in question.)
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, uncontroversial 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, 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?
Medeiros thinks Jawbone and Ono are involved in 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 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.
Tom Seabrook, managing editor at Jawbone, wouldn’t comment on Doggett’s book but said that Jawbone neither acquired nor canceled Medeiros’s book and reiterated what he 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 Lennono-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. Though they’d paid him a $6,000 advance, Diversion, after receiving a threatening letter from Ono’s attorneys, told Medeiros that they would not honor the original 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. Diversion refused and Medeiros has since requested the contract be terminated. The publisher has not responded.
Mike Tree remains in Limbono.
Illustration: detail of book cover design by Sarah Phelps
My latest book, Bobby in Naziland (soon to be re-titled A Brooklyn Memoir), is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.