Palatial desert home that inspired a Lennon classic
Oct 25 2004
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By Andy Allen, Daily Post
ANDY Allen meets the man who traced John Lennon's Spanish hideaway
AT FIRST glance it is hard to think of anywhere possessing less in common with Liverpool than the Spanish city of Almeria.
Surrounded on one side by a harshly beautiful desert that provided the location for Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns and Lawrence of Arabia, Almeria is Spain's hottest city, a place where even the palm trees provide little escape from temperatures that often rise above 40C.
Go back 40 years and the difference was even more pronounced. Then Almeria was an isolated, backward and poverty-stricken part of General Franco's Spain, while Liverpool was enjoying a high profile on the world stage thanks to the emergence of the Beatles.
Yet, intriguingly, it was here that one of the Fab Four, John Lennon, found his mind turning back towards his childhood and his home city. It was also in here where he wrote a song that was to become one of the Beatles most famous and significant hits and one of the only ones that directly referred to a place in Liverpool - Strawberry Fields Forever.
The singer had come to the area for six weeks for the filming of Richard Lester's "How I Won the War", a black comedy in which he played the role of Private Grip-weed.
Yet life as an actor didn't suit Lennon. He quickly became bored during the long shoots in the desert and was lonely without the companionship of his wife Cynthia or any of the other Beatles. These frustrations were evident in the one interview he did at the time.
"Well, we're somewhere in Spain, it's a dump really... it's like the moon," said the singer.. Little would be known about Lennon's time in Almeria beyond this, were it not for the efforts of Adolfo Iglesias, a fan and a journalist on La Voz de Almeria.
"I was surprised that the city was ignoring what seemed to me to be an important part of its cultural heritage," says Iglesias..
In particular Iglesias was puzzled by one of Lennon's references to Strawberry Fields Forever when the singer said: "It was written in this big Spanish house, part of it, and then finished on the beach. It was really
Lennon had initially stayed in a tatty beachfront apartment upon arriving in the city - which was clearly not the place he was talking about. Equally confusing were references by Lennon's driver, Neil Aspinall, to the Lennons' stay in a lush mansion in "Santa Isabel, near Almeria". No such village or district existed around Almeria. So where did Lennon write the song then? It took a stroke of intuition to solve the mystery.
The only property in Almeria that matched was Cortijo Rome-ro, now abandoned and well inside Almeria's city limits but in those days a huge luxurious home outside the city. but why refer to "Santa Isabel"? One day Iglesias was passing and, on a hunch peeled back the vegetation that had completely overgrown the wrought iron gates, to reveal precisely that name. When he managed to track down the then owner of the property she confirmed that Lennon - as well as several movie directors - had stayed there.
Yet the owner wasn't impressed with Lennon and his entourage, regarding them as unkempt hippies, even though Lennon's hair had been cut for his film role.
Many other locals had similar reactions. Old women would cross themselves as Lennon's black Rolls Royce (complete with hi-fi and fridge) roared down the dusty streets, thinking it was a hearse.
One taxi driver, visiting the film set, was equally unimpressed. Given the opportunity to have his picture taken with Lennon he preferred to be photo-graphed with a clown who was on the set at the time and to this day treasures the picture. A couple of young boys remember pinching a pair of the singer's famed granny glasses, from his car. Lennon had several pairs as he was required to wear them for the role (in fact, after this, they became his trademark).
Meanwhile the Lennons had begun to fall in love with their huge new lodgings with its huge stretch of lush greenery - an oasis in the desert landscape around Almeria.
"It'll take days just to explore this place," John was quoted as saying as they moved in. Ringo was even more enthusiastic: "You expect all kinds of heroes with swords to come swinging round the corner on a chandalier! What a great place for parties."
"I was convinced beyond all doubt the villa housed many beautiful spirits."
Writing of a candle-lit party held during a power cut he recalls "an incredibly magical experience" in the villa as the Lennons and actors and crew from the film "sang to the ghosts" they believed haunted the mansion.
As they settled in, something about the house began to stimulate Lennon creatively. The song that took shape was initially vague, relying on the varying acoustic properties of different rooms, as revealed in the later "Santa Isabel demos", which reveal the evolution of the song. Yet it is undoubtably Strawberry Fields Forever.
These days the house stands empty and abandoned. It is not even as picturesque as it was five years ago when Iglesias found it. The local council chopped down the surrounding vegetation and was about to destroy the house but now there are plans to turn it into a cultural centre.
So just what was it that prompted Lennon to write the song that could be said to mark the changeover for the Beatles from pop band to serious musicians?
Iglesias has an intriguing theory. He notes that the original wrought iron gates of Santa Isabel (now in council storage) bear an uncanny resemblance to the gates of the orphanage of Strawberry Field (Lennon added the "S") in Liverpool where Lennon used to play as a boy. At the same time the huge expanse of lush vegetation could resemble the orphanage's vast grounds, which the young Lennon loved to explore.
It is impossible to know with any certainty but despite the inummerable differences between Liverpool and Almeria, something in the Spanish city, it seems, made a huge impact on John Lennon.
In the meantime Iglesias is appealing for anybody who might have any more information about Lennon's stay in Almeria to contact him on email@example.com.