The above photo in the Dakota shows the painting of John and Sean painted during their holiday in Bermuda and given to Yoko as a gift, where it was placed over the piano in ‘Studio one’
‘I guess it’s time to say good bye to paradise’
Since sailing the rented 68-foot yacht Megan Jaye from Newport to Bermuda in early June, 1980 John Lennon had found rented accommodation, firstly at Knapton Hill and then at a more secluded spot in Fairylands. He’d visited Disco 40 in Front Street and been inspired to write music again after a five-year self-imposed exile.
For the remainder of his two-month summer holiday in Bermuda the former Beatle became increasingly relaxed, enjoying the opportunity to wander around Bermuda virtually unrecognised and uncrowded by the locals.
He bought some unsophisticated tape recorders and speakers from Stuart’s on Reid Street.
Rolf Luthi, who had moved out of the Undercliff villa at Fairylands to allow Lennon to use it for a month or so, noticed Lennon had an unusual working regime.
“He’d be working on his music at 4 a.m. I think he went to sleep and then he would get up early in the morning. He’d work in the morning and relax in the afternoon.”
Lennon is reported to have made a number of shopping excursions in Hamilton, including visits to the Old English Sports Shop where he ordered a grey, flannel suit with extra length turn-ups so that he’d be able to wear cowboy boots underneath. He and his assistant Fred also undertook a tour of the Island’s restaurants and Rolf Luthi remembers Lennon and Yoko visited Heritage House.
“Jay Bluck had Heritage House. John and Yoko went upstairs where there were antiques and found a very old gramophone with a disc with holes in it,” explained Rolf.
“John knew how to operate it and the two of them started dancing upstairs to the record.”
One of Lennon’s favourite places on the Island was the Botanical Gardens. He made almost daily trips to the former Il Chianti café which stood where the present day visitor centre is located. At the café he ordered cappuccino or iced tea. Sandra Maranzana was working at the café in 1980 and remembers one of Lennon’s visits.
“I did not realise it was him until one of the Spanish waiters said ‘Do you know who that is?’ He was very quiet and insignificant and sat in the corner with his young boy. He had an iced tea,” she said. After having the gentleman pointed out Sandra recognised the former Beatle, and on behalf of the excited waiters approached Lennon and asked if he would sign some autographs “for the boys”. The musical legend obliged, scrawling messages on café stationery.
It was during one visit to the Botanical Gardens that Lennon famously came across the Double Fantasy freesia that was at the time being grown there. A plot of the freesia were planted near the front of Camden House and, under a cedar tree, Lennon is thought to have stopped and read an identity label with the name of the flower.
It is possible that one or two late straggler freesias may still have been around at the time Lennon came across the label, in any case he was struck by the name and, as he recalled in interviews later that year, decided it was the perfect title for the comeback album he writing.
Back at the rented house in Fairylands, Rolf Luthi occasionally turned up to check everything was all right at the house and to arrange for any repairs. One such problem arose with the outdated sewage system to the property. Rolf called for the White family plumbers to fix it.
As the plumbers were working four-year-old Sean Lennon kept saying to them “My daddy’s a Beatle.”
Rolf said: “They didn’t know who was staying at the house and after Sean had said this for about the fifth time one of the White brothers replied ‘Yeah, and my dad’s a cockroach’.
“It was only later that they were told that John Lennon had been staying at the house.” Rolf said Lennon and his son got on “like a house on fire”.
He added: “He told us how he enjoyed looking after his son Sean, and how when Sean had been born Yoko had handed him to John and said ‘take care of him’. He said he had really enjoyed that life – that family life.”
One day Lennon and Rolf were outside the house, Rolf said: “We were talking about families and children and stuff and he said something I’ve never forgotten, he said: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’.” That line was later to be found on the “Double Fantasy” album in Lennon’s personal song to son Sean, “Beautiful Boy”.
Lennon also smoked a great many French Gitanes cigarettes during his stay. “The cigarettes were very strong and he smoked them a lot. There was no alcohol or anything else around. He said what he wanted to do was write music for people in their age group … 35-40 like himself.”
The tranquil surroundings of Undercliff villa, which belonged to Sir John and Lady Cox, was greatly enjoyed by Lennon, particularly the waterside area with a hammock and decking where he spent many afternoons. It was here Lennon and assistant Fred Seaman heard the sound of a lone bagpipe player drifting across the water from Bluck Point.
“The Sinclairs used to live across the water and at sundown he (John Sinclair) would go out to the point and play and the sound would drift across and everyone loved it. John said what a beautiful sound it was,” said Rolf. As writer Roger Crombie reported in his 1995 article on Lennon’s stay in Bermuda, efforts were made to track down the bagpiper and early on the morning of July 28 Fred Seaman delivered a note and package to the Sinclairs. The gift was a bottle of 21-year-old Chivas Regal Scotch whisky, which to this day remains un-opened.
The letter read: “Thank you for the beautiful music and memories of Scotland. Here’s a little something for the piper. Regards, John Lennon.” Around his typed name Lennon drew a squiggly self-portrait of himself.
The same day, Lennon’s last full day on the Island, he took a taxi to St. George’s and spent a considerable time in the graveyard at the rear of St. Peter’s Church. Then it was time for Lennon to fly back to New York. As he prepared to board his flight at Bermuda Airport on July 29 he said: “I guess it’s time to say goodbye to paradise.”
Back in New York, Lennon started to assemble a team of musicians to perform on his new album “Double Fantasy”, its title inspired by the flower he’d come across at the Bermuda Botanical Gardens.
Bermudian drummer Andy Newmark was hired. Andy was touring with Roxy Music in the summer of 1980 when he got a call asking if he would be able to play drums on a new John Lennon album. Although he was born in New York in 1950, Andy’s mother was Bermudian and he moved back to the Island to attend high school.
A lifelong fan of The Beatles, he jumped at the chance to work with Lennon having already performed with George Harrison during the 1970s. In August 1980 he found himself at the Hit Factory recording studio in New York ready to begin work on Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album.
The other session musicians included guitarist Hugh McCrakin who was asked by producer Jack Douglas to suggest a suitable drummer. The first choice was to have been world famous session man Steve Gadd, but when he wasn’t available Andy was next on the list.
“I got lucky. It was Steve’s loss,” said Andy.
He had met Lennon briefly in 1974 when he was drumming for George Harrison at some concerts in New York and Lennon had come along to see his former Beatles colleague. Those meetings were little more than a brief “Hello” and handshake.
When Andy finished the Roxy Music tour he visited Bermuda for a break and, even though he was aware Lennon was also on the Island, did not seek him out as he thought it would be inappropriate before getting to know the man properly once the “Double Fantasy” recording sessions began in the autumn.
Recalling the recording sessions in New York, Andy said: “I got on well with John. He was easy to get along with. He had been completely sober and clean of all drugs for three or four years. He’d stopped everything, even drinking.
“He said he’d been raising Sean ‘hands-on’ and he’d been a house-husband so that ‘Sean knows who is father is unlike my other son (Julian)’.
“As is the case with anyone who has over-indulged with various substances in their lives once you are ‘clean’ everything is easier and clearer and life is better. John was in a really, really positive frame of mind.
“This was the first time that he was making music without being ‘high’. So I consider myself lucky to have met him at that period of his life. He knew exactly what he wanted.”
When it came to working in the studio Lennon took immediate control and quickly broke the ice with the other musicians.
Andy said: “With any artist when you go into the studio there is always a day or two of getting to know each other and building a rapport. We’d all be wanting it to be right.
“Lennon said ‘Let’s get to work’ and for the first couple of days when he spoke to us he would not remember our names, he’d say something like ‘Drummer, don’t do that. What’s your name again?’
“And he would always say when he didn’t like something, he’d say ‘Andy, forget the fancy stuff. I want to get this in one or two takes. Play like Ringo’, which meant play simple and in the groove and I knew what he meant. Ringo was a great support drummer and did not draw attention to himself.
“So I knew what John meant when he said ‘Play simple because there’s less change of f**king it up’ and also because he was singing live. We were playing to his vocal. Many artists do not keep those early vocals but go back over them weeks later, but John wanted to get it live in the moment in a performance with the band.”
During the sessions Lennon played some of the demo tapes he’d recorded on a cassette player while strumming away during his summer holiday in Bermuda.
Listening to the tapes Andy was transported back to the Island by the instantly recognisable sound of crickets and tree frogs in the background.
“He was just playing out on the veranda of the house at Fairylands and on the demo we could hear the crickets and whistling tree frogs, which used to be quite deafening – more so than today – and it was quite a cool thing for me to know that he had been to Bermuda and he had liked the Island.
“I loved it that he had been there and I’m glad that he did come to Bermuda.”
Only two or three of the songs were in demo form recorded in Bermuda, the others had been made at Lennon’s New York apartment.
“The vibes we got from John were very friendly, it was a good vibe all day and every day and the recordings were going well and sounded good.
“He was writing in a pop-Beatles style again for the first time since The Beatles broke up. “The Double Fantasy” songs like “Woman” were very Beatle-esque.
“It was clear how he talked about the Beatles that he he’d been trying to get away from that part of his life for ten years but now he was proud of them and he was aware of the strong song catalogue they had written. When he spoke about them he called them ‘The Bs’ not The Beatles. He always spoke of them very affectionately.”
When the recording sessions were over there was enough material for two albums. The tracks that did not appear on “Double Fantasy” were released on Lennon’s posthumous 1984 album “Milk and Honey”.
According to Andy, Lennon had spoken wanting to go on tour to promote “Double Fantasy”.
Reporter Gerry Hunt, who’d enjoyed drinks and conversation with Lennon at Disco 40 in June, was working in The Royal Gazette newsroom when he took an unexpected call in October.
“The man on the line said he was Fred Seaman, John Lennon’s assistant, and that we had met in July. I immediately assumed the voice was in fact that of one of the many friends I had told about ‘our night with Lennon’ playing a joke on me,” said Gerry.
“The man went on to say that John was so pleased we had not plastered all over the paper the fact he was in Bermuda, that he wanted to return the favour and thought he might have a little story for us.
“He had written several of the tracks of his new album while on the Island and indeed the title, “Double Fantasy”, was taken from the name of a flower he had come across in the Botanical Gardens.
“I thanked Fred for his call, but frankly was convinced I was being conned by a friend.
“A couple of weeks later I was on Elbow Beach, enjoying some late autumn sun, when I bumped into Andy Newmark, who had been sworn to secrecy while recording Lennon’s new album until it was completed.
“I told him of the call from Fred, and Andy confirmed it was true. As they all relaxed in the Hit Factory studio in Manhattan when the recording was completed, Lennon had told Fred to call ‘those guys we met from the paper in Bermuda. It might make a little story for them’.
“I just couldn’t believe that a star as big as Lennon had taken the time to think of a bunch of nobodies like us.”
It is apparent that Lennon had intended to return to Bermuda. His assistant Fred Seaman made a return visit to the Island and was welcomed into the private lounge at Disco 40 where Tony Brannon encouraged him to bring Lennon back for another visit. By all accounts plans were afoot to do so once the publicity commitments for the “Double Fantasy” album had been completed.
Rolf and Molly Luthi, who had vacated their Fairylands home for the ex-Beatle to enjoy during the summer, had received an advance test pressing of Lennon’s new album. It featured songs clearly inspired by his time in Bermuda, including “Beautiful Boy” for Lennon’s son Sean with the evocative sound of waves lapping on a beach and gentle Bermudian-inspired steel drums.
Rolf said: “Both myself and my wife were mesmerised. When we listened to it we thought ‘How can this guy come here for five weeks and write this fantastic music just like that’, it was amazing.”
And he recalls: “He was supposed to be coming back. They had already asked if they could use the house again.
“We said we’d be glad to do so and we’d move down to South Shore as before. And he’d invited us to see him in New York and bring our children.”
But it was not to be.
On the evening of December 8, 1980 Lennon and Yoko were returning to their Dakota building apartment near Central Park in New York. They had been to the recording studio, working on Yoko’s dance track “Walking On Thin Ice” and had decided to skip going to a restaurant on the way home so that Lennon would be back in time to see son Sean before he went to bed.
At 10.50 p.m. the couple got out of a car in front of the Dakota building. Out of the shadows stepped 25-year-old Mark Chapman, for whom Lennon had earlier that evening autographed a copy of his album “Double Fantasy”.
Chapman called out “Mr. Lennon” and, as the former Beatle turned around, fired a handgun. Five of the bullets hit Lennon who staggered to entrance of the Dakota before collapsing.
Police arrived and found Chapman calmly standing reading a copy of J.D. Salinger’s book “Catcher In The Rye”, his gun discarded on the floor.
As Chapman was arrested, the fatally wounded Lennon was carried to one of the police cars and put in the back seat, there was no time to wait for an ambulance.
The patrol car raced to Roosevelt Hospital, but Lennon was sevelt Hospital, but Lennon was already drifting out of consciousness. A disbelieving police officer tending to the dying star, asked: “Are you John Lennon?”
With his fading strength Lennon whispered “Yes”.
By the time Lennon reached Roosevelt Hospital he had no vital signs. Doctors battled to revive him, but it was to no avail. A short time after arriving at the hospital he was pronounced dead.
TV news producer Alan Weiss, who had suffered a motorbike accident earlier the same evening, was in the emergency department when Lennon was rushed through.
As the musician’s life ended Mr. Weiss recognised a version of The Bealtes’ tune “All My Loving” was coincidentally being played through the hospital’s muzak system.
Lynne Matcham, one of those who had met Lennon in Bermuda at Disco 40, was staying at the hotel next to the Dakota in New York on the night Lennon was killed.
She’d been out with a friend shopping during the day.
“When we got back to the hotel we heard that Lennon had been shot. I stayed until the 12th, the day of the vigil, when there were these huge, silent crowds of thousands and thousands of people converging on the street outside,” said Lynne.
“The only thing you could hear being played was “Imagine”, and as the song struck up a light snow started to fall. It was unearthly.”
Drummer Andy Newmark had just returned to his Manhattan home and was told the news by his then wife.
“I was stunned, totally destroyed. I was so upset that for months I did not want to play music. I didn’t do anything for a year. I was so disheartened that he had been murdered that I did not want to be involved in music,” he said.
“It was a low point and I was deeply, deeply saddened for a long time.
“The Beatles were the biggest thing to happen in my life. I was 13 when they came to America and it was that music explosion that gave me a life direction, so working with him was like meeting the real McCoy.
“I’d been with the real guy, the number one who started the explosion. For me and those of my generation he was the leader. I did not want to do music again for a long time.”
Former Disco 40 boss Tony Brannon said: “When John was shot, for many who had grown up in the 60s it felt worse than if their own mother or father had died.
“I spoke to Andy Newmark on the phone and he said ‘New York City is black, the world is black, I don’t want to talk to anyone. Call me in a month’.”
Rolf Luthi, who has since moved from the Undercliff villa in Fairyland, said: “It was very sad for us. He had to have been a genius to have written that album in the short time he stayed here.
“We were particularly sad. The music and art world had lost such a great, great genius.”
THE LAST SUMMER
By Scott Neil
It was early summer 1980 and somewhere in the 600 or so miles of sea between New York and Bermuda a small yacht coursed through the waves.
On board were four crew members and former Beatle John Lennon.
While sailing the open waters the 68ft rented boat Megan Jaye encountered a harsh North Atlantic storm and, for a time, Lennon stood at the helm steering the boat through the tempestuous seas.
Ten years after the world’s most famous pop group The Beatles had split up, the 39-year-old, regarded as the group’s guiding spirit, was now momentarily in charge of this rented yacht, a lonely dot bobbing through a vast empty ocean charting a course for Bermuda.
He had never been to Bermuda and, though no one knew it at the time, the next two months on the Island were to be Lennon’s last summer holiday. On the evening of December 8,1980 he was fatally shot on a New York City sidewalk outside his Manhattan apartment.
Between setting out on his summer voyage to Bermuda and the fateful winter’s night in New York, Lennon was to reawaken his desire to record music after a self-imposed hiatus from the music industry.
For the past five years he had been bringing up his son Sean.
From accounts of those who met the musician during his stay in Bermuda, the holiday was a happy time, when he was able to re-connect and relax without being hassled for being a global superstar.
And without exception those who personally encountered Lennon during his time in Bermuda recall a truly ‘gentle’ man, polite, courteous and genuinely gracious character.
In his 1995 article on Lennon’s stay in Bermuda, writer Roger Crombie notes that “every single individual who met him in Bermuda” used the word ‘gentle’ to describe the former Beatle.
Lennon’s decision to sail to Bermuda rather then hop on a plane is perhaps not so surprising once consideration is given to the connection water and sailing played in his life.
His estranged father Fred had been a merchant seaman, and the Liverpool of Lennon’s youth had been a significant sea port as was Hamburg in Germany where the fledgling Beatles played lengthy residences and honed their live performances in the early 1960s.
By the middle of the 1960s, and with the riches afforded by Beatlemania, Lennon had bought himself a large home and grounds in the stockbroker belt of Weybridge were on the other fringe of London.
The estate had its own boating lake with an island and Lennon is captured on an early solo video rowing a boat, with wife Yoko Ono his passenger, out to the tiny island.
And after buying a coastal home in Poole, England, for his Aunt Mimi – the woman who raised him up from the age of five – Lennon is reported to have at least once taken a boat out and rowed to the town of Wareham on the other side of the immense harbour.
In May 1980 Lennon had reawakened his love of sailing having bought a 14ft sailboat. It was too small to undertake a voyage to Bermuda, but Lennon’s desire to take a sailing holiday was arranged with the owners of the larger Megan Jaye.
Lennon joined the crew Ellen, Tyler and Kevin Coneys and a chartered skipper known only as ‘Cap’n Hank’ and set sail on June 4 from Newport, Rhode Island, for the voyage to Bermuda.
His passport was stamped by Bermuda Customs and Immigration on June 11, although some reports have it that he actually arrived on the Island on June 9, the Megan Jaye mooring up in St. George’s harbour.
The first Bermudian to know that Lennon was on the Island was estate agent Donna Bennett – although all she knew for sure was that the visitor was someone particularly important and well-off and his name was John Green.
Donna remembers being called by a travel agency in early summer 1980 and told that a “highly recommended” client was sailing to Bermuda and was looking for a holiday rental.
She had to sign a disclaimer to say she would not reveal the identity of the client, whose name was given simply as John Green.
The request was nothing unusual. Donna was used to dealing with high-flying clientele, the rich and famous, who often asked for a degree of anonymity.
Then one evening in early June she got a phone call.
“It was about 9.30 p.m. and he said he was John Green, he’d arrived on the Island and he would love to sleep in a comfortable bed and he needed something hot to eat and a shower.
“I told him to go along to St. Georgia’s, a small restaurant in St. George’s. I knew the owner so he could get a shower and something to eat and I’d see him in the morning,” said Donna.
“I called Angelo at the restaurant and told him there was someone coming in, and to make him feel important. He called me back the next day and said Mr. Green was a nice guy and had eaten some food and then gone back to his boat for the night.”
When the visitor arrived at Donna’s office the following morning she still did not realise he was the famous former Beatle.
“He was a thin man with a straw hat and looked like a sailor. I did not pick up on the accent and he was not wearing his trademark glasses and John Lennon had been out of sight to the public for quite a few years.”
The incognito musician had arrived at the peak season when there were very few rental properties on the market in Bermuda. However, there were two properties that Donna was able to show. One was in Tucker’s Town and the other a small cottage on Knapton Hill near Harrington Sound.
She agreed to drive the new arrival to look at the properties.
While in her car the pair talked about sailing and his trip from New York to the Island and also his young son.
But there was no mention of music in the conversation and Donna, despite being a life-long Beatles fan, had not worked out the real identity of the man in the straw hat sitting beside her in the car.
“I showed him the house at Tucker’s Town but he said he felt more comfortable with the small, two-bedroom bungalow at Knapton Hill. He said it was fine because his son and his nanny would be coming down.
“So we booked him in and that’s when he took his hat off and I instantly realised who he was. I asked him if the nanny was Yoko and he said she was.”
Lennon said he needed to have a quiet place and Donna kept her part of the bargain not to let out that news that the ex-Beatle was on the Island. “He did ask where were the hot spots, and I told him to try Disco 40. He came across as a nice guy who wanted to have some fun.”
Lennon’s stay at the Knapton Hill bungalow was to be short-lived. With himself and the three Coneys from the yacht there was not much room and even less when Lennon’s assistant Fred Seaman arrived on the Island soon after with the musician’s four-year-old son Sean and a nanny called Uneko Uda.
Yoko herself would also be visiting at a later date. So a search was begun for a larger property and one was soon located by real estate agent Bill Lusher in Fairylands near Hamilton.
Donna remembers Lennon called her one evening shortly after he’d arrived. “He called and asked if I would like to go for a drink but I couldn’t because I had a prior engagement (with a man she later married),” she said, a decision she later found hard to live down once her work colleagues found out.
Donna has since seen some documentary home movie footage of Lennon on the veranda of the Knapton Hill cottage, which still stands at the corner of Knapton Estates Road although it is now a two-storey property.
Of all the celebrities, and rich and famous, she has met through her work renting properties in Bermuda, her encounter with Lennon is the one she regards as the most special. “That was the top one. It is probably the best thing I’ve done. He was such a nonchalant, nice guy.”
Photographs of Lennon on the Island are rare, through a combination of the low profile he kept and the Bermudian way of not hassling or crowding celebrities.
One amateur snap that does exist shows Lennon in his straw hat with son Sean watching the Queen’s Birthday Parade on Front Street. It was in Front Street also that Lennon was to have an encounter in the Disco 40 nightclub that many believe sparked him to begin writing and recording music again.
Having spent his initial days in Bermuda at the rented cottage in Knapton Hill, Lennon decided he needed another home on the Island that was not as public and would allow him more space and freedom.
The crew of the Megan Jaye, the three Coneys, stayed at the Knapton Hill property.
Lennon and his son Sean and assistant Fred Seaman, who had by now arrived on the Island, were to move to a new rented house in Fairylands, Pembroke, near Hamilton.
Because it was June there was virtually nothing available in the rental market, but estate agent Bill Lusher had made enquires and felt sure he’d come up with a suitable property and location.
The occupants of the house at the end of Fairylands Drive, known as Undercliff, were Rolf and Molly Luthi. When Rolf heard that the former Beatle was seeking to borrow his home for a month or so he had initial reservations.
“He came to Bermuda. He did not like the house he was in so we were asked if we would be willing to accommodate him,” said Rolf.
The plan was the Luthis would temporarily live in a cottage on South Shore while Lennon moved in at Undercliff.
The Fairylands house was old fashioned, part of the building dated back to 1700. The yellow stucco villa with green shutters was tucked away and accessed by a flight of stone steps.
“I asked to meet him before he came to the house to tell him it was not a fancy house,” explained Rolf. “I met him at Knapton Hill. He sat down with me and I told him about the house and he said that it was too public at Knapton Hill.”
Having met Lennon, Rolf now felt more relaxed about giving up his home to the musical legend.
“I’d expected a different person. He was a nice guy and I had no doubts about him using the house.”
There was one problem though. Lennon was keen to move into Undercliff as soon as possible, but with the Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend imminent the Luthis were having trouble finding cleaners to prepare the house for the new arrival.
So they opted to do as much of the cleaning themselves as possible, and before they had a chance to finish Lennon arrived.
“He waltzed in, saw the grand piano and started playing it,” remembers Rolf. “We had a young cleaner doing the windows and he saw the man at the piano and said ‘I think that’s John Lennon’, but I did not tell him it was because it had to be secret.”
Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono paid a brief visit to the Island during Lennon’s extended holiday.
Lennon and personal assistant Fred went to pick her up at the airport but, according to one account, “tarried too long at the Swizzle Inn and missed her at the airport”.
Having been informed that Disco 40 was regarded as one of the Island’s ‘hot spots’ Lennon soon found his way to the Front Street venue.
The disco and bar no longer exist although the building, known as Magnolia House, is now a combination of offices and a gym and is located a few doors away from the Docksiders pub.
It appears Lennon made at least two visits to the disco. Lynne Matcham was in Disco 40 with her sister Theresa. It was a “slow night”.
“I’d popped in for a few drinks with friends and saw this slim guy walk in all in white. He was wearing a baseball hat and had a pony tail and he was with this other guy,” said Lynne.
She recognised the ex-Beatle and told her dancing friends, but they were initially disbelieving that such a famous name had simply walked in without fanfare.
Lynne was working at that time in the Smiths retail shop and had seen Yoko at the store, so figured Lennon must be on the Island too.
Too breathless with expectation to do it herself, Lynne asked one of the guys she was with to approach the man in white and find out if it was Lennon.
“He confirmed he was and our friend invited him to sit with us. He talked with us for half an hour, bought us drinks and said how much he loved Bermuda and how he and Yoko could walk about and not have their clothes pulled apart,” said Lynne.
“He could not say enough about how good Bermuda was. He was so thin and dressed in the image of total white. I had imaged him to be much larger in real life. I’d been a Beatles’ fan since I was 13 and John was had always been my favourite.”
Meeting her idol, Lynne said: “When you get to talk one-on-one with someone so famous you do not think as quickly as normal.
“But he was just so gentle and softly spoken, there was none of the rock star glam bit. He was down to earth, smiled and laughed and said how Bermuda was his inspiration and how beautiful the Island was.”
It was on another evening at Disco 40 that Lennon famously encountered two off-duty journalists in what is believed to have been the catalyst for one of his most famous final songs Watching The Wheels.
Gerry Hunt, at the time a reporter on The Royal Gazette, and journalist colleague Mark Graham from sister paper the Mid Ocean News, were out on the town. “A friend had told me Lennon was on the island. I was nuts on The Beatles, had been ever since I was a kid. I can remember when I was about nine or ten, it was 1963 or ‘64, and my dad saying as my family had breakfast ‘The Beatles? Another three or four years and you’ll not remember who they were’,” recalls Gerry.
“You get into journalism and you meet a lot of stars, and eventually it’s not that big a deal meeting somebody who is a big name. But there are a few, a very few, that you would really like to meet. For me it was The Beatles, any one of them. I just wanted to shake one of them by the hand and say thanks for all the pleasure they had brought.
“If I’d had a choice it would have been, in order, Paul, George, Ringo, and then John,” Gerry says. “I’d always just assumed that if you met Lennon he’d turn out to be a snarling, swearing, obnoxious character who would treat you, a lifelong fan and starry-eyed hero-worshipper, as a piece of dirt.
“A man who’d hit the big time – as big as it gets – but having got there regarded with utter contempt the people who had put him there. I figured the other three were a lot more likely to be pleasant if you ever came across them. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was in late June 1980. I’d finished work late at night at The Royal Gazette and gone for a few drinks with friends at the Lobster Pot, just up the road from the office.
“We moved on to Disco 40. It was a quiet night, nothing special. Two of my close friends, Mark and Brian Stevenson, a psychiatric nurse at St Brendan’s, were with me but had left me at the downstairs bar as they wandered off.
“Another good friend collared me at the bar and, knowing how much I was into The Beatles, asked did I realise that Mark and Brian were speaking to John Lennon out in the hallway.
“I didn’t believe her at first. A mutual friend on the Island had told me in confidence a few weeks earlier she was organising a place for Lennon to stay, so I knew he was there, but hardly imagined him hanging around in the lobby at Disco 40.
“But my friend was insistent, so eventually I wandered out from the bar. By the cigarette machine I saw Mark and Brian talking to a fairly small, slightly-built guy, with his hair scraped back harshly in a pony tail, a pointed nose and almost “piggy-like” eyes behind pink-rimmed specs.
“Mark, one of the biggest Lennon fans I ever knew, said in awe ‘Gerry, this is John Lennon’. “I was convinced the lads had had too much to drink and were being conned. ‘Get out, he’s not Lennon’, I told them. ‘That’s right, I’m actually ‘Arry ‘Arbottle’, said the pony-tailed guy.
“But he said it in the most distinctive, Liverpool accent. And I realised this was indeed John Lennon,” said Gerry. “The next few minutes passed in a blur. There was a lot of trivial chat about the cigarette machine not having the brand he wanted; about whether he was having a good time; about the weather, for God’s sake!
“Then we asked if he fancied going upstairs for a drink. He was with his personal assistant, a guy called Fred, and the two of them discussed whether he should or not.
“John was worried he would get in trouble with ‘Mother’ – the name he used for Yoko – if he got back late. But eventually he said, ‘Yeah, let’s go and have a few’. We could not believe it.
“There we were, upstairs in Disco 40, having a drink with John Lennon. This was the man who had not made a record for five years, and had not given an interview for longer than that.
“Mark and I felt we couldn’t miss the opportunity, and explained who we were, small-time journalists who had the chance of one of the biggest exclusives around.
“His response was amazing. No, he wouldn’t give an interview, because he didn’t think he had anything to say (What!). But, he didn’t want us to think he had any grudge against journalists.
“He said ‘Without you lot, The Beatles would still have been stuck playing in small clubs in Liverpool’. We came to an arrangement that if we agreed just to write a short piece about him being on the Island, he would willingly chat for a while.
“And he did, for nearly two hours, with his man Fred being sent to the bar regularly to top up the drinks. He seemed to be completely relaxed, talking without any prompting about growing up in Liverpool, success with The Beatles, the life he loved in New York, and the love for his son, Sean.
“One of the most memorable things about the night was how Mark kept laying into Lennon about how a man of his talents should not be shutting himself away in a New York apartment, but should be writing great songs.
“I was a fan of The Beatles, but Mark was a fan of Lennon, and felt cheated his hero was not producing. He seemed determined to make John feel he was wasting away.
“And he kept on at him about how he must surely regret he was no longer part of the big time. How could he possibly be happy when he was no longer involved?
“While Mark was ranting, a number of images were being projected on to a wall of the club. It was a series of wheels, constantly turning. “Check out the lyrics to Lennon’s ‘Watching the Wheels’ on his album Double Fantasy. I KNOW I was there when Lennon got the idea for that song.”
An attempt was made to entice Lennon to play a jam session with Brian and two other musician friends, but Lennon and his assistant had to go.
“And so they headed off into the night. Seaman actually recalls the evening in the book he wrote after Lennon’s death.
“He doesn’t mention us, but he does say how John had been disappointed the good-looking young women he spoke to had not been interested in him – he was too old and none of them recognised him!”
Tony Brannon and his father ran Disco 40 and Tony remembers the night Lennon visited the venue and stood in the upstairs disco at the bar.
Although a big Beatles fan, he was not sure that the customer was indeed one of the most famous musicians in the world.
“I didn’t know that he was on the Island, I don’t think many people did, it never really got into the newspapers,” said Tony.
“John and Fred (Seaman) came to Disco 40 and I must have walked past him four or five times and thought ‘That guy looks like John Lennon, but he can’t be’.
“It wasn’t a very busy night, I’m sure it was mid-week. He was in the upstairs at the new disco at the bar up towards the back of the club. I walked past him.
“I was in the lounge/VIP area, which has a grand piano and afterwards when I realised it was Lennon I was kicking myself thinking we could have invited him into the lounge.”
Tony recalls seeing Lennon talking to the local journalists.
In interviews later that year, Lennon mentioned hearing the B52s’ Rock Lobster track at the disco and was struck by how much it reminded him of Yoko’s recordings and felt it was time he and Yoko got back into the recording studio.
Tony thinks the well-intentioned barracking Lennon received from Gerry and Mark also had something to do with it.
He said: “They gave him a hard time, not in a nasty way, but asking him when he was going to get off his arse and start writing songs again.
“As a result of the stick he got at the bar that evening he started writing again, playing his guitar outside Rolf’s house in Fairylands.”
It was only as Lennon left the disco that Tony realised who he was.
He said: “I followed him down the stairs. He was wearing a black suit and had a black hat and looked very serene. He was very petite and thin but was very Zen-like. He nodded his head and got into a taxi.”
Although Tony did not meet Lennon, he became friends with the star’s assistant Fred who paid a later visit to Disco 40 and was entertained in the VIP lounge.
He re-paid the compliment with a copy of Lennon’s new record when it was released that November and a witty note that it should be played at the disco, warning ‘you better not f*** around and play it only in the lounge’.
Tony has kept these treasured items.
Meanwhile it was July 1980. Lennon still had the best part of a month to enjoy in Bermuda.
Folowing is an article printed in ‘Uncut’ magazine from December 2005:
John Lennon felt really alive. For the first time since those distant days as a leathered-up rock’n’roller in the bierkellers of Hamburg, he felt that his destiny was in his own hands. Alone at the helm as 20-foot waves crashed down on the bow, he gripped tightly to the wheel, carving a path for his vessel through the squall with just a yellow Sowester for protection, screaming seas shanties in the face of the tempest.
He had locked himself away in the Dakota for five years, watching TV, reading books, ringing-up late-night radio phone-in shows, bringing up his son, baking bread, and above all avoiding most forms of confrontation and danger. Now, with the rain lashing his face and tears streaming down his cheeks, John felt a different man. At the helm of the Megan Jaye, a 43-foot sloop bound for Bermuda, he knew that he was fighting for survival against elements more powerful than himself, a force of nature infinitely more potent than the Beatle machine that had drained away the control he once exercised over his own life – and he felt the rush of blood all the more keenly, the surge of adrenaline in a way that he had forgotten possible. Here was a man in the process of rediscovering that life was for living. From this point on, for John it would be just like starting over!
In May 1980 John Lennon had been a man seeking adventure. Having been dispatched to his recently acquired summer home in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island’s north shore, as far as Yoko was concerned he was out of sight and out of mind. Away from the watchful eyes of ‘Mother’ and her helpers at the Dakota, who provided a regime of round-the-clock policing that could save him from his own more cavalier gut instincts, John set in motion a plan to fulfil what he claimed to be a lifelong ambition. He wanted to learn how to sail.
“All my life I’ve been dreaming of having my own boat,” he confided that summer, embroidering this desire with tales of haunting the Liverpool docks as a child, wistfully following the boats with a longing stare as he wondered whether each vessel might be the craft carrying his errant father out to sea. This nautical fascination had developed with age. The househusband of the Dakota was an avid reader, with plenty of time to ponder the possibility of a Viking ancestry. He devoured books on the subject, on Eric The Red and Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Early Man And The Ocean’, and meekly confessed to violent seafaring fantasies, where John the fearless Viking would rape and pillage at will.
Splashing out on a 14-foot sailboat from Coneys Marine, a family-run enterprise in nearby Huntington Bay, John recruited 25-year-old Tyler Coneys to show him how to handle his new toy, named Isis by the former Beatle after the Egyptian fertility goddess. After work each evening Tyler would swing by the Canon Hill mansion to show John the ropes, and soon Lennon and his young bosun were at ease with each other’s company, taking the sailboat around the bay and shooting the breeze, chatting openly about music, relationships, guy-talk.
Learning what he could from the young but experienced sailor, John supplemented these personal tutorials by consuming all the maritime manuals he could lay his hands on. But John’s ambition lay far beyond the small sailboat that he was soon single-handedly piloting around the bay. “He was a doer – the kind of guy who liked to do things,” recalls Tyler Coneys. “He was just a real guy.”
With his heart set on journeying onto the high seas, John was ready for a big adventure, and he set Tyler the challenge of turning this pipedream into a reality. “It all came about suddenly, but he’d had it in his mind for a long time,” says Tyler. “It’s a common thing, isn’t it? You think life is passing you by and when you’re 40 all of a sudden you get that sports car or a motorcycle or go on some adventure. You say ‘I’ve got to do something, get off the couch!’”
Yoko initially insisted that her psychics scour the sailing magazines to perform ‘readings’ in their search for a suitable boat, but soon she relented and allowed Tyler to secure the services of Captain Hank Halsted and the Megan Jaye, a 43-foot Hinckley Centreboard Sloop out of Newport, Rhode Island. Yoko maintained the right to decide upon a destination for John’s little summer adventure and consulted her Japanese ‘directionalist’, Takashi Yoshikawa. The only way for John to escape the clouds that were casting a shadow over his life, to re-find his quiescence and his creativity, his centre and his balance, was to travel south-east towards Bermuda.
Only a matter of weeks previous he had been dispatched alone to Cape Town to similarly escape the gathering clouds. Now, after years fearing to venture out in case Mercury was in retrograde, John was now literally casting himself adrift in the company of people he barely knew.
“Yoko said he could do it because the stars were right,” says Tyler, so on the morning of June 4, 1980, John Lennon, Tyler and his cousins, Ellen and Kevin Coneys departed Farmingdale Airport in a Cosmopolitan Airways twin-engine Cessna. “See you in paradise,” shouted John as he boarded the plane. Waiting in Newport was the Megan Jaye and John Lennon’s date with the unknown.
Cap’n Hank hadn’t been told the identity of his principle passenger, and to be honest, he didn’t really recognize Lennon for the best part of a day as the crew prepared to depart, but eventually the clues began to mount up until the point, just as they were leaving the dock, when Hank turned to his charter agent and said, “What would you say if I told you that I think I have John Lennon on my boat”. “Just what I always say to you,” was the reply, “that you’re full of shit!”
The boat pulled out of Newport into a high-pressure system with the wind coming out of the North West. The weather was clearing and John was excited. “This is good,” he said, “we’re sailing south east.”
“It was an important direction for him in the context of his psychic healing,” explains Hank. “He hung on Yoko’s every word in that department. He had recently flown to Cape Town to literally get out from under the clouds – and he pointed to this cloud that we were sailing out from under, saying ‘boy, this is pretty cool, this feels right’.”
The adventure was beginning in an idyllic fashion. “It was fantastic,” recalls Tyler. “It was sunny, with perfect winds, and there were dolphins swimming off the bow.” John was content with his role in charge of the ship’s galley and with the journey scheduled for six days, he planned to use the vacation for a cleansing fast. With over 700 miles of clear blue water to cover, there was also plenty of time to enjoy the weather and listen to the radio, as each watch took their turn at the helm. John and Tyler formed one watch, Tyler’s cousins another, and Cap’n Hank took the dog watch – the lone spell at the helm reserved for the odd man out.
Tyler noted with interest how Lennon’s ears would prick up when old sparring partner Paul McCartney would hit the airwaves with chirpy ditties like ‘Silly Love Songs’ and current single ‘Coming Up’, then heading towards the very top of the US charts. “John was hearing those songs on the radio a lot,” says Tyler. “Think about it. It was like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ or ‘She Loves You’ all over again. It was like the same lyrics – and here Paul is, with the Number One hit again. John was saying ‘I could do that’. I wouldn’t call it a rivalry, but it made him think ‘Jesus, what am I doing sitting here, I should get up and do something, because it’s not that hard’.”
John and Cap’n Hank hit it off immediately. Closer in age, they had much more in common with each other than with their younger crewmates. Back in Colorado in the ’60s Hank had experimented with the same kind of psychedelics and had run a drug clinic, while in the early ’70s he had dabbled in concert promotion, staging a festival at Erie Raceway that featured The Allman Brothers and Big Brother and the Holding Company. “John and I pretty rapidly discovered that we’d been around a lot of the same corners in all kinds of things,” says Hank of the drugs and rock’n’roll. “He simply went around his corners on a much grander scale than I did.”
With things peaceful aboard ship, the two would sit and chat, Hank working his way through a pack of Camels. There were a thousand questions that Hank wanted to ask and Lennon was never slow in responding. They would talk about many things and Hank would push Lennon on success, fame and John’s self-inflicted retirement from rock’n’roll. “You just affected 50 million people to the positive there, big boy, what are you going to do to follow that up?” begged Hank. John thought about it for a second, drawing on a Gitane, and looked back. “I’m going to raise my boy Sean,” he said.
Not long into the trip the adventure would take a turn for the unexpected. “That’s when we had the big storm!” recalls Tyler. “It got all grey very suddenly. A group of military ships came by and went around us in a circle and then left, making us wonder what was going on. We were already too far out to go back – once you’re out in the ocean, you can’t turn back anyway. Then it got real bad. It was the worst storm I was ever in, 65mph winds and 20 foot seas – you can get BIGGER waves, but that’s pretty bad in a 43-foot boat.”
With the storm showing no signs of abating, one by one John’s shipmates fell victim to the constant rolling of the boat and were felled by seasickness. Even Tyler, an experienced sailor, eventually succumbed – leaving Cap’n Hank at the wheel and John in the galley. “He was unaffected by it,” remembers Tyler. “He told me later that because he had been a heroin addict for a short time, and that as going through withdrawal is the hardest thing you would ever go through, being out here was nothing compared to that.”
“That’s what smack does to you,” concurs Hank. “He’d been through drugs for so long –you learn to control throwing up.”
With gales blowing at 40 knots and waves relentlessly pounding the deck, the ship was taking somewhat of a battering. “We have what we call a dodger, a stainless steel cover for the hatch,” says Cap’n Hank. “It’s the only time I’ve had one of those absolutely flattened by a wave. It was a pretty serious storm. This was a situation where you had to know what you were doing.”
For reassurance, Lennon would scrutinize the Captain’s face, looking for any signs of worry or fear. “Had he sensed any nervousness on my part, he wouldn’t have had such a good time. He really placed a tremendous amount of faith in me.”
After nearly two days at the wheel, tiredness finally got the better of the Captain and responsibility for piloting the vessel fell to the ship’s cook. Pointing to John, and then to the ship’s wheel, the Captain said, “I’m going to need your help here, big boy.”
John looked back in disbelief. “Hey Hank, I’ve just got these little guitar-playing muscles here.”
The Captain fixed him with a stare. “That ain’t the kind of strength I’m looking for – just come back and drive this puppy and I’ll tell you what to do.”
Sitting with Lennon for the first hour, Cap’n Hank taught his shipmate some of the fundamentals that he would need to weather the storm. “I let him know that you don’t jibe, you don’t let the wind get across the back-end of the boat because that would cause some other violent changes and we don’t want to deal with that. And I gave him his course. He picked it up fast. His intuition about this kind of stuff was remarkable.”
Railing against the storm, Lennon, invoked the name of his father in the face of the gale, hanging on to the wheel for dear life. “At first I was terrified but Cap’n Hank was at my side, so I felt relatively safe, ‘cause I knew he wouldn’t let me do anything stupid,” Lennon would later tell his personal assistant Fred Seaman. “Once I accepted the reality of the situation, something greater than me took over and all of a sudden I lost my fear. I actually began to enjoy the experience, and I began to sing and shout old sea shanties in the face of the storm, feeling total exhilaration. I had the time of my life.”
“That might have been a tremendously cathartic moment for him. When I came back on deck several hours later, this was a man who was just enraptured – it was stimulus worthy of this stimulus-addict of a guy,” says Hank. Tyler could also sense the exhilaration: “Besides having his children I think it was one of the happiest moments in his life.”
The storm lasted for the best part of the six-day journey and John had met every challenge thrown at him. He even helped Cap’n Hank make on-the-spot repairs after damage to the mainsail resulted in the Megan Jaye coasting without sails for a day. “I would venture to say that he discovered the tremendously strong man who had always been there,” concludes Hank. “It was a cool thing to watch, a metamorphosis that occurred.”
The John Lennon who arrived in Bermuda was indeed a very different man. When his personal assistant Fred Seaman caught up a few days later he was immediately struck by the transformation. “The moment I saw John I noticed a difference in him. He had lost the pallor he had acquired over five years at the Dakota. I realized that the whole time I had known him he had always looked like a man suffering from a degenerative illness. Now he was tanned and exuded health and vitality.”
John was quite taken with Bermuda. Still a Crown protectorate, he revelled in the colonial Britishness of the place – it reminded him of the England of his youth, the country he hadn’t seen for nearly a decade. The boat journey having restored confidence in his own powers, here in the Bermudan sunshine, in a makeshift home studio at his rented villa on the outskirts of Hamilton, John Lennon picked up a guitar, rolled his sleeves up, and got back to some serious work. “I was so centred after the experience at sea that I was tuned in to the cosmos – and all these songs came!” he said later.
The first song composed on the island was directly inspired by the experiences on the Megan Jaye. John was looking for a hook on which he could hang all the thoughts and ideas about the frailty of life that had been buzzing around his head since the storm. Listening to Bob Marley’s ‘Hallelujah Time’, he grabbed at the line he needed: “We got to keep living, living on borrowed time”. “That’s the phrase I’ve been looking for. I’ve had this song in my head for ages,” said John. “I’ll write the words around the theme of living on borrowed time, which is exactly what I’m doing… what we’re all doing, even though most of us don’t like to face it.”
Within a few hours, ‘Living On Borrowed Time’ was already roughed out. John was a man with a creative purpose once more. Although he’d never really stopped composing through his Dakota days, he had lacked the motivation to complete anything he would be happy to put his name to. He had brought many of these unfinished fragments with him on cassette, and now, with his songwriting urges restored, he could plunder this treasure trove of ideas whenever the need arose.
Like several of these new hybrid creations, ‘Watching The Wheels’ had its roots in older melodies, or lyrics that had been passed from song to song, then refined aboard the Megan Jaye in philosophical conversation with Cap’n Hank about the meaning of success. Others had a more obvious Bermudan genesis: ‘Stepping Out’ was inspired by a petulant crawl around the nightclubs of Hamilton after Yoko had failed to commit to a visit, while ‘I’m Losing You’ resulted from John’s inability to get his wife on the phone at a time when he feared his relationship might be slipping away from him, turning the unfinished ‘Stranger’s Room’ into a savage rocker that he would ultimately dub “‘Cold Turkey’ rides again”.
According to Tyler, the Lennon who set-sail for Bermuda had shown little interest in re-launching his musical career, but with so much of the inspiration for the new material spinning out of a love for his wife and child, it seemed that his near-to-death experience had helped focus John’s priorities in life. “Yoko was really good for him and he really loved her,” says Tyler. “He was trying to keep everything burning with ‘Double Fantasy’ and I think it worked very well.”
The demoing process was simple but effective. Using a drum machine, a guitar, and two boom boxes to allow him the luxury of very primitive double tracking, John would record a backing track on one cassette and sing along into another, sometimes with Fred Seaman tapping out percussion. Bit by bit, John Lennon was getting ready to go back out into the world. The clouds had lifted.
Producer Jack Douglas was not surprised when he got a call from Yoko Ono. He had worked with John many times in the early ’70s after first meeting him as a young engineer on the New York end of the ‘Imagine’ album sessions. He had worked on several of Yoko’s albums and had subsequently become a Producer in his own right, with major successes under his belt care of Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. When Lennon had stumbled upon him in a restaurant earlier that year, he congratulated Douglas and admitted to having kept an interested eye on the young producer’s career. John quizzed him about current production trends and studio technology, but Douglas thought no more of the chance meeting until Yoko’s call, when she announced she was dispatching a seaplane to pick him up from a pier on the East River to take him to their house in Cold Harbour Bay. On his arrival she handed him a package marked, ‘For Jack’s Eyes Only’.
“Yoko told me that John was going back into the studio to do an album and he wanted me to produce it, and that I couldn’t say anything to anyone,” says Douglas.
he package contained a letter from John, who was in Bermuda, and two cassettes of demos. A few minutes later John was on the phone, talking Jack through the Top Secret plans. “He told me to put together a band of his contemporaries so that if he made a reference to something from the ’50s or the ’60s they would know what he was talking about,” recalls Douglas. Lennon’s only stipulation was that they should be top-notch professionals – he was now totally focussed and didn’t want the distraction of his former studio sidemen and drinking cronies. For Lennon this session was too important to take risks.
Before Douglas could return to New York, Yoko handed him a huge stack of reel-to-reel tapes, containing dozens of her own compositions. “John doesn’t know it yet,” she confided, “but I’m going to have a couple of songs on this album.”
On July 29 Lennon left Bermuda and two days later he was sketching out plans with Jack Douglas. Although the exact form of the album, and it’s content, had yet to be decided, Lennon already had it’s title – Double Fantasy, the name of a freesia that he had chanced upon while taking Sean on a sightseeing trip around Bermuda’s botanical gardens.
Lennon was keen to work quickly in the studio and to that end, Douglas had been rehearsing the musicians in advance. “My immediate impressions were that I was going to have a hard time making it better than the demos because there was such intimacy in the demos,” recalls Douglas. “They were so much fun to listen to.”
On Monday August 4, 1980, dressed in a black embroidered cowboy shirt and brimmed hat, briefcase in hand, John Lennon headed for the Hit Factory on West 48th Street for the first day of recording. “He was in charge from that very first moment,” recalls session drummer, Andy Newmark. “There was not a lapse of ten minutes between when he came in and when things got rolling.”
The band would run through a song a few times to get comfortable before going for a take. John sat close to Jack Douglas and wasn’t slow to pull the musicians up if it wasn’t what he wanted. “John was so blunt,” remembers Newmark. “He didn’t tiptoe around with the way he spoke to people but it wasn’t offensive or nasty – it worked. His usual comment to me was ‘Andy, forget all the fancy shit, I want to get this in three takes, play like Ringo’. All he had to say was ‘play like Ringo’ and it completely focused me on how to approach making his record.”
John was now a man at ease with his past as ‘Beatle John’. Although the 115-hours of Jack Douglas’s covertly taped studio banter reveal him snapping at Yoko when she joked that he was sounding like a Beatle – “an ex-Beatle you cunt!” – he was happy enough to encourage his musicians to regard the beautifully crafted ‘Woman’ as an “early Motown/Beatles circa ’64 ballad”. Indeed, he would reminisce daily about “the B’s” in the studio, never leaving his audience in any doubt that they had, in fact, been HIS band!
Very early in the sessions, Jack Douglas had persuaded John to experiment with a couple of tracks – he wanted to bring in Cheap Trick to add a bit of edge to Lennon’s ‘I’m Losing You’ and Yoko’s ‘I’m Moving On’. Douglas had produced Cheap Trick and had been the man responsible for signing them to Epic Records. He rang up George Martin, who was currently working with the band in Montserrat, and joked: “You’ve got my band and I’ve got one of yours, can I borrow my band for a few tracks?”
Cheap Trick drummer Bun E Carlos arrived at The Hit Factory with guitarist Rick Nielsen, who had been given special dispensation to appear on the session by his wife, who had given birth to their third son earlier that morning. “I don’t think I would have missed being at the hospital for anyone else except for John Lennon,” says Nielsen. The Cheap Trick pair joined regular session bassist Tony Levin and George Smalls on keyboards for the recording of “I’m Losing You”, Lennon and Nielsen trading guitar licks as the band furiously jammed out the song until it had the form they wanted. “It really rocked,” says Douglas. “It was very different from the kind of thing you get from straight-ahead studio musicians and John was thrilled.”
With the basic track nailed in just three or four live takes, the musicians sat in the control booth watching Nielsen doubling his guitar solo. Lennon turned to Bun E and confided: “Man, I wish I’d had him on ‘Cold Turkey’ – we had Clapton on that and he froze up and could only play this one riff.”
John may have been pleased with the track, but Yoko was less happy, and the recording was shelved. According to Jack Douglas there was nothing that he could do or say to persuade her that this wasn’t some unknown band wishing to trade on the Lennon name. “And of course John didn’t argue with Yoko.”
As for Cheap Trick, they were unaware of any problems in the studio. “Yoko was great to us when we were there – and she said great stuff about us when the track was finally released 17 years later,” says Nielsen. “We were thrilled that we got to play on it and when it came out all those years later I felt kind of vindicated as
I always thought our version was better than the one on the album.”
The Cheap Trick take of the song remained unreleased until its appearance on the Lennon Anthology box-set in 1998, when Yoko reunited Nielsen, Carlos and Levin to make a video for the track. Within a couple of days of the original recording session, however, the house band were instructed to re-play the song, even replicating Rick Nielsen’s guitar licks, much to his annoyance all these years later. “We played the Cheap Trick track into the earphones of the musicians and they played along with it, to kind of get the feel of the original,” says Douglas. “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘Wow, that sounds so amazing’,” recalls drummer Andy Newmark. “They played it for us a day or two after they had done it, but for whatever reason we cut the tune again.”
Another guest appearance that actually made it onto the album was more bizarre in its origins. Jack Douglas and engineer Lee DeCarlo had come across a street musician playing Hammer Dulcimer in Greenwich Village, enquiring whether he wanted to take part in a recording session. Arranger Tony Davilio remembers the bemusement on the face of the musician as he was preparing to make his contribution to ‘Watching The Wheels’. “He was a really hippie and he was sitting down with his Dulcimer in a yoga position, with his legs folded under him,” recalls Davilio. “Jack and John pretty much told him where they wanted him to play – it went well, but at one point he was staring into the control room. He points at John and says ‘What’s your name?’ ‘I’m John,’ comes the reply. And he goes ‘Hi John’. I really don’t think he knew who John was.”
In just under two weeks all the basic backing tracks were recorded, including all of the songs that would later form Lennon’s half of the ‘Milk And Honey’ collection. The musicians were then called in when required for overdubs, followed by vocals – which brought their own problems. “John stayed away from what should be done with his vocals because he had no objectivity,” says Douglas. “He thought he didn’t have much of a voice left, so he insisted on double-tracking everything. It was only after he heard his performance on ‘Watching The Wheels’ that he told Yoko she could announce this record was being made. He was suddenly very happy and realized he could do it.”
Yoko’s vocals tended to take a little longer, Douglas piecing them together bit by bit. Having worked on several of her solo albums, he knew how to get the best from her. “She could be a handful for sure, but there were certain psychological things you had to do to work with her.” Creating a comfortable environment for her to work in, and employing mic techniques that would suit her style, he would concentrate on achieving several complete performances and after the end of each day’s session he would stay late to ‘comp’ together the best parts of each take. Everybody on the album, from John downwards, was totally focussed on making this a tremendous record –and that meant Yoko’s tracks too.
To get the best out of both of his clients Jack Douglas had already worked out that it was best to keep them apart, not because there was any lack of love between the two principles – everyone who worked on the project came away from the sessions with the distinct impression that here was a couple totally devoted to each other – but because they worked in completely different ways. “I couldn’t have the two of them in the studio at the same time, it just didn’t work,” says Douglas. “John would get really frustrated with Yoko if she was singing flat, and she didn’t really want his interference in what she was doing, so we would work on Yoko’s songs in the afternoon and then John would come at 7pm.”
With enough material in the can for two albums, John, Jack and Yoko each sat down to prepare a potential running order. By now John was completely focussed on making the album an equal showcase for both their talents, but when Jack and John turned in their fairly similar tracklistings, Yoko objected to the way that both had assumed her songs would be on one side of the album and John’s on the other. “She got really mad at us and said ‘no way, because no-one will ever flip the record over – if you want to listen to a John song, you’ve got to listen to a Yoko song, that’s the way it has to be’.”
As the album progressed, one very important thing was still missing – the world’s most famous couple were still to sign a record deal. John had allowed his recording contract with EMI to lapse early in 1976 and had not sought to renew it while concentrating on life as a househusband. Now back in the centre of the creative process, the pair shied from the possibility of record label interference and decided to finance the ‘Double Fantasy’ sessions themselves, with the intention of striking a deal when John was happy with the direction of the album.
Yoko assumed responsibility for securing the contract. John was hard at work in the studio and distanced himself from the deal-making process, refusing to talk to anyone who wasn’t prepared to negotiate with his wife. Privately he had set himself a target of matching the reported $22.5m deal that Paul McCartney had recently signed, and while Bruce Lundvall, President of Columbia Records, was willing to match the deal that he had struck with McCartney, like so many other suitors, he baulked when informed by Yoko that her songs would form half of any album.
With every label determined to clinch Lennon’s signature, and none of them allowed to bypass Yoko, some tried more extreme measures. Legendary Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun even managed to penetrate the sixth floor security at the Hit Factory before being asked to leave.
David Geffen watched with interest. The one-time founder of Asylum Records had recently formed a new label, Geffen Records, and rather than shying away from Yoko’s involvement in the album, he cannily insisted that if he managed to get them, he would be signing two great artists instead of one. After Yoko had analysed his personal information – date of birth, phone number, address, and concluded that he had “good numbers” – they proceeded to discuss a potential deal, Yoko asking him to throw out figures. Geffen had learnt well from a bad business mistake made early in his career and rather than pitch in with a ludicrously high opening offer, he simply asked Yoko to name her price. She informed him they were looking for at least a million dollars per album. As he had paid a similar amount to clinch the signatures of both Donna Summer and Elton John, he did not hesitate to grab at this bargain. “We’ve got a deal,” he said, having not even asked to hear the music.
With work on the album ongoing, and less than a week after agreeing the deal with Geffen, the couple spent September 26 mixing the first single for release. The chosen A-side was the aptly titled ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’, Lennon’s affectionate nod to his rock’n’roll past. Although its roots were in unfinished older compositions like ‘Don’t Be Crazy’ and ‘My Life’, it was one of the last songs to be completed in time for the sessions. “We didn’t hear it until the last day of rehearsal,” recalls Douglas. John pulled him aside and said: “I was listening to some Roy Orbison and I thought this would be kind of like a Roy thing.” He played ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ on the piano and Douglas knew straight away that here was John’s opening gambit.
To hit the necessary schedules the single had to be completed long before the album, with work progressing through night and into the next day. That afternoon, Fred Seaman was dispatched to the Dakota to fish out a Tibetan wishing bell for the song’s opening flourish – it would be the final touch added to the recording. The race to finish the mix by 7pm – because Yoko had pointed to a “significant moon change” – was achieved with just seconds to spare, and backed by Yoko’s ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’, on October 23, 1980, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ became John Lennon’s first new release in five years. The final mixes of ‘Double Fantasy’ had been finished just days earlier.
An odyssey that had started on the high seas of the Atlantic was now complete – if there had been rocky moments for John and Yoko on the road to ‘Double Fantasy’, the album proved a Valentine capable of fanning the flames of their love. And for John, there was no doubting what had inspired this renewed spirit of creativity. “I always talked about sailing but my excuse was that I’d never had lessons,” he said. “Yoko’s attitude was ‘Put up or shut up’. So she sent me on this trip and I went. She sent me specifically to open up my creativity, though she didn’t tell me that.”
John had planned to take a break in Bermuda after the recording was over, but so excited was he about a plan he had hatched to make his wife a star in her own right, he soon returned to studio to work on Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. “The last time I saw John he had this incredible smile on his face,” recalls Jack Douglas. “It was the evening we finished ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. He was just thrilled, and so was Yoko, because we all knew we had accomplished what John set out to do with that track. I walked him to the elevator and said goodnight. About 40 minutes later my girlfriend came to the studio, all white. ‘It’s just been on the radio,’ she said. ‘John was shot’.”
For the first time in years Lennon had been making big plans. He had let it be known that he would be calling the ‘Double Fantasy’ musicians back into the studio in mid December to complete unused recordings like ‘Living On Borrowed Time’ and ‘I’m Stepping Out’ for a second album, with a world tour to follow. But that wasn’t to be. Lennon had lived his life demanding truth, but on ‘Double Fantasy’ he had stumbled across the most brutal truth of all – that life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.