(The following article was published by the late Rocky Mountain News in January of 2008 – The subject was a surprise visit by John Lennon to the famous and now retired Caribou Ranch.)
Lennon’s Visit Had the Staff on Their Toes
By the mid ’70s, the staff at Caribou Ranch was pretty blase about having big names around. But when John Lennon visited for four days in July 1974, everyone struggled to keep their cool.
“It was very funny. There were a lot of stars up here,” said ranch manager John Carsello. “But when John came up, we all couldn’t believe it.”
It was during Lennon’s 14-month “Lost Weekend,” when he was separated from Yoko Ono and included his infamous ejection from the Troubadour for drunkenly heckling the Smothers Brothers. He was accompanied to Caribou by girlfriend May Pang for a long weekend to add guitar and vocal to Elton John’s take on Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
“We had a great time,” Pang said in a recent phone interview. “John enjoyed that. It wasn’t his show. He could do it for someone else then walk away.”
It was a nice break for Lennon, particularly because the U.S. government was trying to have him deported for his antiwar stance. “It was at the time he was trying to get his green card and they were trying to throw him out,” Carsello said. “I remember him saying, ‘Yeah, I hope they let me stay in New York. It reminds me of home.’ ”
Certainly the Caribou staff made Lennon feel at home, Pang said. “Everybody made us feel really comfortable. Elton wanted to be sure that John had fun. That’s exactly what John did have.”
“The boss said whatever John wanted, let’s make sure he gets it – the boss meaning Elton,” Pang continued. “You could see everyone was all excited and they were afraid to say anything.”
Carsello’s sister and mother happened to be visiting that weekend and ate dinner in the mess hall with the crew.
“It was (guitarist) Davey Johnstone’s little boy’s birthday. So we all sang Happy Birthday. My sister goes, ‘Now I can say I sang with Elton John and John Lennon,” Carsello said.
“He had a great sense of humor. He was fantastic,” said owner James Guercio, though Lennon nearly roasted at night. “Elton cranked the heat and we had to help him open the windows. I said, ‘You can move wherever you want’ but he said, ‘Elton wants me to stay here.’ ”
Guercio was in a delicate position, because he’d helped Paul McCartney mix the 1971 Ram album; Lennon felt several of the songs on that album were digs at him. Lennon had also gone on the record years before dismissing Guercio’s “sterile” and “antiseptic” production of the second Blood, Sweat and Tears album and its hit Spinning Wheel.
“He was eating breakfast one morning and I said, ‘Listen, John, let’s clear this up.’ He said, ‘Oh no, I knew this was going to happen. . . . I knew you were going to bring that up,’ ” Guercio said with a laugh. “I said, ‘No, John, you’re right. I had a dysfunctional group. I had to find a singer. It was totally antiseptic.’ ”
That broke the ice, though “we were kind of guarded because I didn’t want to get into Paul. It was definitely tense.”
Lennon and Pang set the town on its ear when they borrowed Carsello’s car for a trip down to Nederland for toothbrushes and a visit to Boulder to buy cowboy boots. “He freaked everyone out in town,” Carsello said, but he signed autographs for anyone who wanted one.
“John was not opposed to just going out. He enjoyed all that – the quaint country, just walking down the street. He loved that part of Americana,” Pang said.
The recording sessions were quick. Halfway through Lucy in the Sky, the guitars and vocals take on a reggae feel. “That was John’s idea. John always liked ska and reggae music,” Pang said. “He did that and (the single’s B-side) One Day at a Time.”
Pang said: “I was not prepared (for the altitude). I don’t think John was prepared. In the recording studio I said, ‘John, what’s this?’ He said, ‘That’s an oxygen tank.’ I didn’t understand that the air was this crisp and thin that you might need it. When John was recording, every so often they’d take some oxygen, get some breath in.”