The badlands of the Tabernas Desert and Cabo de Gata Natural Park, near Almería, Spain is an eroded place of prickly pear cactus, arroyos and dry winds that slide down the mountains. It is where salt flats meet the sea and where movie scenes, mostly nostalgic reenactments of bygone eras in North Africa, have been filmed with regularity. It is picture-perfect desert.
George C. Scott's Patton and Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia paced these hills and riverbeds, as well as Spielberg's whip-cracking Indiana Jones. And in September of 1966, fame-wary John Lennon came to this countryside to partake in a film of his own, Richard Lester's satirical "How I Won the War." For him, it was an attempt at extrication from the incessant Beatle worship that came with his celebrity. On the trip he brought his guitar, and in a corner hostel room on the beach near Almería, he began to pick out the chords and lyrics to one of the most recognizable classics in the history of popular music.
Almería has long been a place that can fail to enchant even the most impressionable traveler. Interspersed among the meandering suburban sprawl, there are chipped cinderblock walls covered in graffiti lacking enthusiasm and vacant lots overgrown with weeds. In the '60s, there was less dashed urban planning, but just as much sand and dirt. But it is also a place that stirs the imagination and pokes at one's inner adventurer. Nowadays, especially in the desert, there is still the overriding sense of isolation that attracted David Lean and Sergio Leone to film Arab rebellions and dusty duels. It is the ideal locale for rugged fantasy, but the foreigner risks feeling quite alone and misplaced.
"It's like the moon, you know," John Lennon said when asked of his impressions of Almería in the fall of 1966. "Just desert and sand and hills ... not very nice to look at."
If it was escape from stardom Lennon sought, he certainly found it in Almería. Even considering his tendency toward melancholy, he was probably not being derisive when evaluating his surroundings; it simply lacked humanness. He had a lot of time to himself, and with the wearing monotony that occurs in a place where no one cares who you are. Few journalists pestered him for interviews and there was a refreshing lack of wide-eyed followers screaming in his face. Here, his thoughts finally had the chance to turn inward, and, with a few environmental cues, toward his childhood.
When he first arrived in Almería, Lennon checked in at a modest hostel, Delfín Verde (The Green Dolphin), situated near the beach. I found the building, now with a touched up façade, and I sat on the terrace facing the water, over a beer and fried calamari. I watched a catamaran bob on the calm water, children jumping from it, and a sluggish white ferry sounding its horn in the distance.
I asked the waiter, a messy haired man probably in his late 60s with a stained white shirt half-tucked, if he knew which room John Lennon stayed in.
"Oh yes, that one there," he pointed to the corner room upstairs (the hostel staff later mentioned the same room). "That John Lennon was a bit of hippy. Always smoking joints."
"Did you meet him when he was here?" I asked.
"No, no. My father knew someone who knew him," he said. "He sold Lennon's bed for a lot of money years ago."
And he continued a yarn, with increasing embellishments, and I played along. He was adept at telling someone, especially a tourist, what he wanted to hear.
"I wonder who's sleeping in that bed now," I said.
It is not difficult to imagine, though, more fitting places for quiet, unsettling reflection than here, where the edge of the arid land meets the expanse of the sea. Even a rock star could slip inside the cracks of a lone foreigner's anonymity. And I couldn't help but surmise that through the window of that little room, Lennon sat on a hard, squeaking bed and began to write, for the first time honestly and personally, marinating in nostalgia of childhood and Liverpool, and slowly breaking away from his hang ups and self-conscious demons.
But whatever his frame of mind, it is here where an unwinding Lennon played a nylon stringed Spanish guitar to a tape machine, and "Strawberry Fields Forever" began to take form.
After a short stint at the Green Dolphin, Lennon moved to a bigger, more accommodating dwelling for himself and his new entourage of party guests, which included his then-wife Cynthia and Ringo Starr, among others. It was a pronounced change in atmosphere. The Santa Isabel, a 19th-century mansion locally known as El Cortijo Romero, was a spacious building with a belvedere flooded with natural light and a view of the distant sea, and it was where the Lennon's development of "Strawberry Fields Forever" continued.
I discovered the building had been neatly renovated, housing a thoughtful museum determined to highlight the irony of having had cinema and music icons in Almería. An entire wing of the museum is presented as an homage to Lennon, where there are notes scribbled in Lennon's handwriting and a montage of apparently rare photographs of him on the set of "How I Won The War." There is a reconstruction of the bathroom, complete with white tub, where the so-called Santa Isabel demos for Strawberry Fields Forever were recorded.
The story of the John Lennon's stay in Almería has resurfaced mostly through investigative efforts of La Voz de Almería journalist Adolfo Iglesias. He rediscovered the dilapidated villa in the '90s, after suspecting that the "big Spanish house" Lennon mentioned to Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 was probably the crumbling and neglected Santa Isabel, which happened to have an impressive iron gate strikingly reminiscent of the red gate at the Salvation Army house near Liverpool, where Lennon played as a child, called Strawberry Field.
"There were the same elements as Strawberry Field," he told me, still enthralled. "The wild garden, the water, the high fence and the shouts of children playing in the school next door."
Iglesias is convinced that the building was his sentimental stimuli, an oasis in the desert precipitating his inner artist. And it's a notion confirmed to him personally by both Cynthia Lennon and movie producer Denis O'Dell, on a later visit to Almería.
While passing the nights and afternoons writing at the Santa Isabel, Lennon was at once struggling to identify himself as either madman or genius, with few peers, while having the good spirits to invite the listener to a playful world in his imagination and memory. Before leaving the villa, he scribbled "Santa Isabel" on the boxes of recorded demos and brought them back to Abby Road, where his team of musical wizards awaited. The Santa Isabel demos wouldn't be heard by the public until The Beatles' two-album anthology was released in 1996.
In retrospect, John Lennon's acting experiment turned out to be a subscript in the story of his evolution as an artist. He came to take his minor movie role in what he admittedly called "a strange film." "How I Won the War" was Richard Lester's anti-war satire, a heavy dose of absurdist humor. Lennon was still dabbling in a new medium (after somewhat less earnest performances in "Hard Day's Night" and "Help!").
On the Tabernas desert set, he first wore the round granny glasses that would later define his face to the masses. His hair filled with sand and his face got sunburned. He waited in line for cheese sandwiches with the extras. Playing the part of the normal guy, he was just a man finding his individuality in the Spanish desert.
"I was always looking for somewhere to go," Lennon told Playboy magazine in 1980. "But I didn't have the nerve to really step out on the boat by myself and push it off."
Since Almería's 10th-century affluence as a conduit of merchant seamen, it seems that few have found themselves here except by accident or necessity, but the isolation of the Tabernas desert and the largely oblivious residents of the Spanish pueblo arguably facilitated an unfettered clarity in Lennon's creative process and his own ability to place himself in the world.
"It did me a lot of good to get away," he said. "It gave me time to think on my own, away from the others."
On a hot, cloudless afternoon I walked through a sandy riverbed at the movie set of "How I Won the War," in the skeleton of a water flow, and I found a small group of date palms, bunched together in defiance of the barren surroundings. To some, this lunar landscape may only present dust devils, tumbleweeds and an unnerving realization of man's insignificance. But some corners of the world have a knack for purging the clutter gathered during a life and, occasionally, something spectacular is pushed out by the hot wind.