by John McCarthy
Fairylands is a name that conjures up a dreamy, other-worldly place, somewhere to escape the cares of a busy life. And so it is. Set across two small peninsulas on the island of Bermuda, it is a district of winding lanes through low hills, where homes, some grand, some cottages, sit surrounded by stone walls and green hedges filled with hibiscus blooms. With names such as Xanadu and Windermere, these dwellings have manicured lawns and little letter boxes that are models of the houses themselves. Fairylands is at once magical and twee.
It’s the last place you’d expect, perhaps, to find a right-on rock star with an interest in world peace—but that’s probably why it appealed so much to John Lennon in June 1980. Nor does it necessarily sound like a spot where a man who hasn’t written a song for half a decade is going to rediscover his mojo, and dispel a reputation for reclusiveness. Yet that’s what happened, as I’ll be recounting in a programme for Radio 4 next week, Imagine John Lennon’s Bermuda Adventure.
Lennon stayed for two months and started working intently on new material, including, Starting Over, Watching the Wheels and Woman, with which he would return to the recording studios and plan to take on the road with a band. He didn’t get the chance to perform again: he was shot dead outside his apartment block in New York on December 8 that year. But he did release an album, Double Fantasy with Yoko Ono, the month before his murder. Other songs recorded with his wife went to make up the posthumous album Milk and Honey.
Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that Lennon arrived at Bermuda on a yacht, having sailed 700 miles from the United States. John Lennon, working-class hero, as yachtsman? Who would have thought it?
Lennon had got the sailing bug on Long Island where he and Ono had a house on the waterfront. He’d bought a dinghy at a local boat yard from Tyler Coneys who then taught him to sail. Though Coneys was many years younger, the men became friends and when Lennon decided to make a longer, offshore journey he asked Coneys to find them a yacht.
Lennon and Ono made many decisions based on astrology and the reading of tarot cards. These divinations told them that Lennon should make a long journey in a south-easterly direction. Bermuda lies south-east of New York, so that became the destination.
Coneys chartered the Megan Jaye, a 43-ft sloop based in Newport, Rhode Island, and skippered by Hank Halsted. Talking with Coneys and Halsted dramatically revised my view of Lennon as a reclusive and contrary man. He was relaxed and open with them, talking about his past as a Beatle and his life as a superstar. He was interested in everything and enjoyed learning about their lives, saying that Coneys and his two cousins, who formed the rest of the yacht’s crew, reminded him of himself as a young man.
On the voyage, the pop star was very much part of the crew. In fact, as the least experienced sailor on board, he was happy to be appointed ship’s cook and spent a good deal of time preparing food in the small galley.
They set sail from Newport to Bermuda in early June. The passage should have taken four to five days, but less than 48 hours out they were hit by a force-eight gale. Coneys described this as a “brutal experience” and he and his cousins were laid low with sea sickness.
Only Halsted and his inexperienced “cook” were left standing. After 48 hours at the helm, the skipper knew he needed to rest, so Lennon would have to steer for a while. Initially reluctant, later describing himself as “the cabin boy learning the trade”, with Halsted’s coaching Lennon got the feel for keeping the ship safe.
As mountainous seas rolled down upon them, smashing over the deck, Halsted left him to it. After six hours sleep, he returned to the cockpit to find Lennon still lashed to the helm, in control and roaring curses—and sea shanties—at the offending waves. For a novice sailor to keep the ship safe for so long in those conditions was remarkable. Halsted observed simply to me, “What an accomplishment.”
Lennon later described the voyage as “the most fantastic experience I ever had”. Sailing through the storm had been an extraordinary and empowering adventure. Halsted and Coneys said they saw a new man standing on the deck afterwards. Being in a place that was nowhere, facing the elements and outrunning them had given him a new confidence. Coneys described what it meant to his friend. “This was an epiphany, this was imprinted on you, you could do anything now.”
What Lennon wanted to do was work, to concentrate on making music again. And on making landfall in Bermuda he decided that this was the place to settle for a while and get writing songs.
Donna Bennett, an estate agent, helped him find a new home. She didn’t recognize him at first. Calling himself John Greene, he explained that he wanted to stay for a while and bring his family down from their home in New York. He was charming, diffident but above all very friendly, with no airs or graces. As she drove him around the island, he eagerly took in the new surroundings.
Bermuda may be virtually tropical but, this being a British Overseas Territory, there are many reminders of home: red telephone and letter boxes, cars driving on the left, and parishes sporting utterly British names such as Pembroke, Warwick and St George’s. For Lennon, who had not set foot in Britain for nine years, there must have been something of a homecoming feel to the experience.
Bennett told me Lennon “was looking for peace, he wanted to walk on to the dock, have a quick swim, and go for a sail”. When she took me to see Undercliff, the house he settled in, a couple of miles from the island’s capital, Hamilton, I appreciated that this place must have been ideal.
Though relaxed and friendly, Lennon was clearly concerned that he would not be overwhelmed by fans and local journalists. A few others did not recognize him initially, but his presence was soon common knowledge on the island. The locals, used to the rich and famous holidaying among them, left him in peace.
Reassured that his privacy would not be invaded—he even had impromptu drinks one night in a bar with a couple of local journalists who volunteered to write a brief story about his presence on the island but nothing more—Lennon arranged for his four-year-old son Sean to come and stay with him.
Ono did visit, but mostly she stayed in New York managing their business affairs and the couple communicated by telephone, playing each other the latest takes of the songs they were writing and developing.
A rackety chorus of crickets and frogs forms the nightly soundtrack to Bermudian life. It creates a strange atmosphere, looking out into the dark, when not a breath stirs and yet the wall of sound tells you there are thousands of creatures going through their nocturnal round just feet away from you. This backbeat features on some of the demo tapes Lennon was recording in a makeshift studio he set up in a spare bedroom at Undercliff.
Echoes of Bermuda ring through Double Fantasy, not just in the content of the actual songs, but in spoken asides from Lennon. At the end of one track he can be heard talking, as if writing a postcard to Ono, saying he’s “in Bermuda having a lovely time”. He describes the pink and blue houses, the ships going by and his daily swims from the dock at Undercliff. He says he is having a portrait done of Sean and himself.
The artist he commissioned, Nancy Gosnell, whom I met in the United States, remembered that Lennon was full of stories. “He was very funny and entertaining, he could do impressions of famous people,” she told me. “His Henry Kissinger was quite amazing.” He’d talk about the Beatles days and would sometimes jump up and play a song on the piano. Gosnell said he was eager also to talk about his new music. “He was tired of writing songs for kids,” she told me. “He wanted to write music for adults and couldn’t wait to get back in the studio and start recording.”
Gosnell recalled, as did everyone I spoke to, the close relationship between Lennon and Sean. They would visit her house each morning to sit for their portrait, the young boy very well behaved, his father treating him with respect and love.
Together they explored the island. One of their regular haunts was the Botanical Gardens, just outside Hamilton. The gardens’ 36 acres spread out over a hill top, with walks leading through flower gardens and lawns shaded by massive ficus trees. All the plants and trees are carefully labeled and though the flower was dormant, Lennon was captivated by one plant name, that of a freesia, the Double Fantasy. The idea of a fantasy being doubled captivated him and, given the recording project he was developing with Ono, was destined to become their album’s title.
When Bermudian fans decided to mark their island’s connection with Lennon, it seemed only natural to erect a statue to him in the Botanical Gardens. The work, by local artist Graham Foster, incorporates a representation of the Double Fantasy flower along with a guitar and the outline of Lennon’s face and trademark glasses. A Peace Day Concert, dedicated to the musician, is held once a year in the gardens.
The Lennon legacy has undoubtedly become a feature of Bermuda’s tourist industry. Holidaymakers remain an important part of the local economy, but so too does the insurance and reinsurance business. Having lunch at a restaurant on a first-floor balcony on Hamilton’s Front Street, taking in the sights of boats and ferries setting off across to other towns around the Great Sound, I found myself utterly baffled by the jargon-filled conversation of two insurance men. They sat drinking iced tea, looking immaculate in crisp button-down shirts, ties and blue blazers. Given the soaring midday temperature, I thought they must be unbearably hot. It was only when they left that I noticed they were wearing shorts. True, they were elegant, camel-colored shorts with sharp creases and turn-ups, but I still found myself laughing. These guys, these overgrown Just Williams, were running the world of insurance?
Taking a local bus around the island, I recognized that there are two different Bermudas. As the bus made its way past resort hotels, mansions and a remarkable number of golf courses, it also passed through small hamlets with more modest houses, next to plots growing vegetables. These were the homes of the islanders who made the pampered lives of tourists and international business people possible.
The bus journey ended at the westernmost tip of the island, the old Royal Navy Dockyard. Now home to the National Museum, the former Commissioner’s House sits on a commanding promontory overlooking the Great Sound and the ocean beyond.
The place was deserted as I strolled around and stood a while watching a yacht sail in toward the harbor. A keen sailor, I was envious of the crew on board having the chance to sail on these stunning, shimmering blue waters.
I looked out to the horizon and remembered Lennon’s lines in his song Dear Yoko: “Even when I’m miles at sea/And nowhere is the place to be” and thought about his arriving in Bermuda, on a yacht like the one before me.
Returning to Hamilton by ferry across the Great Sound, I looked between the small islands into the bay where Lennon had stayed at Undercliff.
Like most people I’ve been touched, am still moved, by his music and wondered what it was like to be John Lennon, the Beatle. Now, appreciating how strange his life must have been and how the voyage here clearly affected him very deeply as he entered a new phase of creativity, I imagined him sitting on the dock at Undercliff, strumming his guitar and playing with Sean, swimming and sailing in a borrowed dinghy. I felt a curious closeness to this man who had been watching the wheels going around for a long time but was now back “playing the game”, happily on his own terms.
Lennon returned to New York at the end of July 1980 and four months later would be dead. But as he left Bermuda he was looking towards a bright horizon, at peace with himself and the world and buzzing with artistic energy.
John McCarthy presents Imagine John Lennon’s Bermuda Adventure on Monday at 11pm, on BBC Radio 4.