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When Victoria, a regular commenter here on Dullblog, asked if she could write up a review of John Green’s out-of-print book Dakota Days, I immediately said “yes!” I remember reading it as deep background for my comic novel Life After Death for Beginners, and finding its glimpses into soothsaying and John and Yoko fascinating and maddening in equal measure. Here are her thoughts. Enjoy.—MG
The Dakota, a Renaissance Revival building constructed in the 1880s, is well-known as a glamorous and sought after residence, and as the site of supernatural happenings in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Beatles fans know it, however, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s residence from 1973 onward, and the backdrop to the probably most contested period in Lennon-Ono history.
Some time ago I read Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of The Beatles (2009), a readable and magisterial book that deals primarily with the Beatles dissolution and aftermath. In it, Doggett remarks, “Authorised and unauthorised accounts of Lennon’s life in the late 1970s vary so widely that both are unbelievable,” going on to contrast the Lennon-Onos’ 1980 interview talking points—John as happy house-husband, focused on child-rearing and baking bread—with reports from other sources that depict John as creatively, emotionally, and spiritually deadened. Indeed, in her excellent 2016 book The Beatles and the Historians: An Analysis of Writings About the Fab Four, past Dullblog commenter Erin Torkelson Weber describes the competing narratives around Lennon’s last years as forming “another of the great unresolved debates in Beatles historiography.”
This debate—certainly ongoing here on Dullblog—piqued my interest to seek out Dakota Days, one of the counter-narrative publications, and the first of the three (!) John-centric memoirs published in 1983—the others being May Pang and Henry Edwards’ Loving John, and Pete Shotton and Nicholas Schaffer’s John Lennon: In My Life. Fred Seaman’s Living with Lennon, due to be published in January 1984, eventually appeared in 1991 as The Last Days of John Lennon.
Dakota Days is the memoir of the Lennon-Onos’ chief tarot reader John Green. The book opens with Green’s first meeting with John Lennon: freshly returned from his ‘Lost Weekend,’ a panicked Yoko has called Green in to read for him. However, John Lennon did not meet John Green that day, but rather… Charlie Swan. The reason for the alias? Yoko first claims that John would be jealous that he and Green have the same name, but the real reason is that Green had previously used his tarot reading skills in order to locate Lennon at his hotel at Disneyland in Florida in late 1974—incidentally, this was where and when John signed the papers to legally dissolve the Beatles—an act of supernatural detective work that Lennon didn’t kindly take to, and Yoko had assured John that she’d gotten rid of that psychic. Therefore, at Lennon and Green’s first face-to-face meeting, John Green became Charlie Swan. John apparently never knew the real name of the man he called Charles, or ‘the Oracle.’
In Green’s account, Yoko is a difficult and exhausting blend of imperiousness and extreme anxiety; she calls him at all hours of the day and night, asking him to reading on every aspect of a topic. If even half of what Green says about the demands Yoko placed on him is true, he certainly earned his paycheck. She comes across as more overwhelmed than wicked, detached and distressed by turns, always intensely concerned about John. Green doesn’t pass judgment on her directly, but it’s overall an unflattering portrayal, and his decision to include certain details—Yoko’s tendency to refer to employees or staff as servants, the fact that she apparently smoked through her pregnancy—hardly implies that he thought well of her.
For his part, John is a man of changeable moods, variously upbeat and morose, cruel and accepting, jocular and serious, insightful and vacant. He has intense preoccupations—finding the Spear of Destiny, researching Celtic history, following the coverage of Paul’s Japanese incarceration (“not that I care, you understand”)—but not a lot of focus, and a tendency towards self-absorption and torpor. Wrestling with the loss of his muse (for which he openly admits the house-husband narrative was a cover story cooked up, in fact, with Green’s aid), John clearly needed more social and creative outlets in this period of his life. In Green’s description, John spent virtually all of 1978 ensconced in his bedroom watching television on mute and chain-smoking joints, though he’s on the upswing in 1979 and 1980, with the Bermuda trip as an important turning point. Via Green, we see John indulge in long and rambling narratives encompassing everything from his views on friendship (tending toward the nihilistic and transactional), his identity crisis (there is an evocative description of himself as a series of ghostly forms that he peels off himself and places around his room), his relationship with Yoko (complicated), his relationship with his sons (complicated), to his attitude toward Paul (complicated).
Through Green’s eyes and ears, we witness Yoko mostly fretting and planning. Of the things she’s reported to have said in Dakota Days, the part that has probably gotten the most attention is when she talks about Paul. Green quotes her as saying:
It’s a pity, really. I like Paul! I think of him as a friend. John is the one who doesn’t like Paul. Paul was always the cute one and John was jealous of that. When I first met Paul I was attracted to him. […] That’s why I was getting close to John, so I would be near Paul if he wanted to make a move. […] I think that he [Paul] was always a little interested because of the way he looked at me.
The fact that she approached Paul before John is, by now, widely known—and who knows, maybe in his swinging bachelor man-about-the-London-avant-garde-scene phase Paul did once give her the gladeye—but the whole thing really comes off as wishful thinking. Green reads the cards and diplomatically tells her: “He seems to have gotten over his infatuation with you”. There’s also a bunch of rivalry toward Paul and Linda (just why were the Lennon-Onos so weird about Paul and Linda’s marriage?) As always, Green relays these conversations without passing personal judgment.
As portrayed in Dakota Days, the Lennon-Ono’s own marriage is a strange dynamic indeed: there are moments of warmth, unity and thoughtfulness, and even a Druid remarriage ceremony, but also underlying dysfunction, a strong sense of tug-of-war sometimes turned cold war. There is an obvious element of selection bias here—at times when things are going well, people don’t need as much advice or validation from the mystical consultants in their life; nor does peaceful coexistence make for good copy—but even so, this does not seem to have been a stable or emotionally mature partnership. In the Estate/Goldman debate, John Green comes firmly down on the Goldman side (more about that later).
As described above, Yoko comes off poorly in Dakota Days. At the same time, John often seems like a nightmare partner. Something that I think a lot of discussions about John and Yoko and their relationship underrate is just how difficult it must have been to be in a relationship with someone as intense as John, who, by many accounts, had an almost bottomless need to be validated and entertained. Green flat-out says as much at a couple of points:
John openly resented his wife’s growing interest in a subject other than himself, no matter how closely related to him that subject was, and expressed his feelings with stinging hostility.
John did have a long-established pattern of early support followed by sudden withdrawal. What he required above all was Yoko’s undivided attention. So long as her ideas kept her focused on him, he would support them. But as soon as she started off on her own, John would withdraw his energy, knowing that this would force her back to him. This pattern extended to everything from travel plans to her musical career.
In light of this, a lot of Yoko’s own behaviour makes more sense: it’s really no surprise that she often seems to have dealt with things by disengaging and/or focusing on things that she did have control over, such as their business affairs, planning elaborate visits to Japan, sending people off on auspicious directional trips, or, indeed, buying an Egyptian mummy who she believed to be the reincarnation of herself. Overall, these two badly needed a therapist who specialised in helping couples develop healthy communication and conflict resolution skills.
After chapters of Lennon-Ono marriage drama and Apple machinations, things kick into gear in the most enjoyable chapter in the book, where Yoko, Green, and Yoko’s art dealer friend ‘Dan G’ (Sam Green) go to Cartagena, Colombia, to meet a witch. Now this is the kind of story you want from a psychic adviser’s memoir! We have John Green and Lena (here named ‘Nora’) using their knowledge of toad magic to size each other up, with Green noting for the reader’s benefit that he doesn’t specialise in amphibian philtres. Sure! There are many mystical rituals, culminating in a candlelit, sulphur-infused ceremony in which a dove is sacrificed and a contract is signed in its blood—and at the last moment, Yoko loses her nerve and implores Green to do the signing! He makes her squirm with the knowledge that he didn’t sign his own name to this particular Faustian bargain. Just great stuff.
However, bruja-hunting in Colombia aside, Dakota Days contains a lot less occult hijinks that I was hoping for from the memoir of a professional tarot reader/psychic. If you changed all the references to tarot readings with references to business meetings or on-call marriage therapy, the book would change relatively little. It does, of course, benefit Green to portray himself as a canny adviser rather than a man of mystical practices and black magic arts, given the obvious credibility hit his account would take from leaning too heavily on the latter, but it’s still a bit of a let-down.
It’s a truism to say that fortune tellers, mediums, and people of that ilk are really in the business of reading people: Dakota Days is essentially a book-length masterclass in this, and openly so. We see Green repeatedly use his readings to reframe a situation, provide reassurance, or deliver sensible advice; at one point, Green directly states that his main role in John and Yoko’s life is to play marriage counsellor and business advisor. Green does seem to have put a lot of work into their business affairs; there are whole chapters about dealing with ‘the Apples’, buying dairy cows (apparently a surprisingly lucrative investment!), investing in real estate, acquiring Egyptian relics as investments.
To a modern Beatles fan, it may seem bizarre that a random tarot reader had such sway in John and Yoko’s lives and dealings, but it’s not so surprising when you consider that this was the 1970s, an era of drug abundance and occult cachet, and the kind of people John and Yoko were. John and Yoko both harboured suspicions of conventional professionals, with some justification; Yoko’s mistrust in doctors is not unreasonable when you consider the fact that she was forcibly committed to a mental institution as a young woman, for example, and John had been subject to a lot of questionable business decisions in the Beatles era. In addition, Yoko was clearly strongly influenced by traditional Japanese cultural beliefs. One of Yoko’s key consultants was ‘directionologist’ Takashi Yoshikawa (called ‘Mr K—’ in Dakota Days), an expert in katatagae, a Japanese system in which the directions taken during a journey possess important meaning and value. As with other people in the Lennon-Ono orbit, Green at one point went on a round-the-world trip calculated for its auspicious direction. Another of their card readers was Frank Andrews, who darkly proclaimed to Yoko: “Your husband sleeps in blood.”
For his part, John had a classic looking-for-the-one-true-answer personality—serially infatuated with the Maharishi, Janov, Ono herself—with its shadow twin of inevitable disillusionment. They were intelligent but also credulous, talented but superstitious, impractical people who had enough money to insulate them from the usual consequences of such impracticality. I hate to use the word ‘mark’, but perhaps it would have been more surprising if John and Yoko hadn’t had a coterie of spiritual advisers.
You could easily come away from Dakota Days assuming our narrator was simply a guy on the make, but Green did in fact have genuine occult bona fides (of which more later). Still, even just on a storytelling level, imagine how much more entertaining this book could have been if it, say, used a different tarot card as a motif for each chapter, or had been structured in seven parts matching Green’s seven tasks?
Speaking of storytelling, one of the weaknesses of Dakota Days is Green’s copious use of dialogue. He defends this, saying he has a good memory and that working with the Lennon-Onos was memorable, and also disclaimers that some conversations are reconstructions. However, his use of dialogue is truly excessive: in many chapters, it forms the majority of the text. While some quoted lines have an believably Lennonesque ring to them—“long time no seer”, “Little Mystic Sunshine”, “Capitol punishment”—there is no way that even the least critical reader can swallow this much dialogue as being anything close to accurate remembrance.
There are, of course, a number of ways in which Green’s book seems self-serving. Green meets John Lennon, superstar, and immediately establishes a rapport with him; Green’s advice is always sound (and things go badly when his advice is not followed); Green is always able to say things just so; not long before John dies, he visits Green’s apartment for the first time ever and delivers a kind of summary speech. I can believe that Green got on with John and that he gave John and Yoko some decent advice—frankly, that wouldn’t have been difficult—but there’s a lot that I suspect he played up.
It’s also interesting to consider what Green left out. To his credit, he’s frank about the fact that he’s not telling the whole story and has omitted certain details for privacy reasons, but also that his position only provided a certain view onto the Lennon-Onos’ lives. He writes in the introduction:
One of John’s favorite references was to the story of the six blind Hindus describing an elephant. One would hold the ear and say that the elephant was like a leaf. Another would press against the side and say, “No, no, the elephant is like a wall.” Each in turn touched a different part of the elephant and assumed that that part was the whole. So do we all when we attempt to describe the truth.
I do not claim here that this book is the whole story of John’s last years, for that would be false. This is the part of the story that I saw and shared, day by day, year by year.
John Green himself emerges as something of a cipher. Dakota Days is so tightly scoped to Green’s association with the Lennon-Onos that we learn very little about the man himself. The only real personal details that I picked up are that he was a large man in both stature (6’7”) and bulk, that he was divorced, and that he’d studied art education and child psychology. We also know from the book’s copyright page that he was born in 1947, making him late twenties to early thirties during his association with the Lennon-Onos.
Cross-checking against other sources is invaluable here, particularly Albert Goldman’s notorious Lennon biography The Lives of John Lennon (1988), for which Green and his circle were all interviewed; Goldman filled no less than six folders related to John Green. Although Goldman’s biography has numerous and well-documented issues, the research he conducted was and is highly regarded; if you can sift through Goldman’s lurid brand of editorializing and backtrack through the muck to triangulate what his sources are actually saying, there is useful information to be gleaned from his book.
According to Goldman, Green discovered his psychic powers when studying art education at the State University at New Paltz (NY). He then married a classmate and taught for a year before moving to NYC and working at Financial World magazine, before becoming the protegé of Joseph “Joey” Lukach, a renowned witch with links to Santería. In 1974, following the breakup of his marriage, Green was living with a woman named Wendy Wolosoff (who now practices as a healer). Goldman also mentions at various points that Green had a disciple, other clients, and also managed a New Wave singer called Mande Dahl. (Dahl is still around; there’s even a photo of her from 1981 captioned “John and Yoko’s” on her website.)
We also get more details on certain things that Green skims over in his book: how Green and Yoko first met (she needed an exorcist for her haunted apartment), the Florida detection (Green’s self-proclaimed “neat trick” here carried out with a distinct lack of mystic arts), and finally the Green-Yoko split. Yet another justification for the name of Charlie Swan is offered. In exactly the kind of ominous portent that Dakota Days could really have used more of, Goldman reports,
The name has a numerological significance, but its basic meaning is metaphorical. As John Green explained to his friend Jeffrey Hunter, “The swan is a symbol of hypocrisy. Though it appears to be pure white, when you lift up its feathers and examine the skin, you see that underneath it is all black.”
One Goldman-reported episode unsurprisingly omitted from Dakota Days is the painting scam that the two Greens, Sam and John, pulled on Yoko. The details can be found (and judged) in Goldman, but briefly: the two plotted together to sell her a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir where the Greens inflated the price and pocketed the difference—a plan which worked, although John Green’s girlfriend broke up with him over such unethical behaviour. Instant karma, baby. But as far as Yoko was concerned, the two Greens had never met before they all went to Cartagena together. In his book, John Green portrays Sam Green as something of a wheeler-dealer: that may be accurate, but there’s an element of disingenuity there. Dakota Days also makes no mention of how Yoko eventually kicked John Green out his residence in the Lennon-Onos’ Broome Street apartment.
What happened to John Green after his time in Lennonland? He was briefly based in Virginia in 1983, as detailed in this Medium article by a woman who knew him in that period, after which he moved to LA. The comment section of a 2010 book review of Dakota Days gives more possible information about him: if those commenters are to be believed, Green also spent time in Washington DC, had family ties to Santería, and was displeased with his book’s title and the fact the manuscript was extensively trimmed. Green is apparently now deceased. I haven’t been able to find any interviews with him, and there are no known photographs of him. Curiously, it doesn’t seem like Green did much promo for Dakota Days; in the comments of the book review linked, a woman identifying herself as Green’s widow says that he turned down interview requests after the book’s publication. Decades later, “Charlie Swan”—perhaps appropriately—remains a shadowy figure, with a legacy within Beatledom that is decidedly mixed.
It’s hard to fully size up Dakota Days. Green is telling a story that is believable in its broad strokes, but there are some clear shortcomings and self-serving elements to it too, along with flat-out incorrect details. Cross-checking with other sources simultaneously bolsters and diminishes Green’s credibility: these stories are broadly substantiated, but we can also see that Green is sometimes selective in his telling of events. We should weight his testimony appropriately, while also valuing the insights that we can glean from his close position to the Lennon-Onos in the Dakota years.
Given that it was Peter Doggett who sparked my interest in the topic to begin with, I was excited to see that he was publishing a book about John’s Dakota years; only to be dismayed by its cancellation for undisclosed reasons. Here’s hoping that Doggett’s manuscript eventually sees light, and we get some clarity on this period in John and Yoko’s life.
Dakota Days is long out of print, but can be borrowed from the Internet Archive here.