In June of 1980, John Lennon took a summer vacation. He sailed from Newport, R.I., aboard a 43-foot sloop with a crew of four to Bermuda, where he rented a house and flew his son Sean, then 4, down to join him.
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be such a loaded statement, but given what happened December 8, 1980, Lennon’s trip to Bermuda has gained a kind of misty-eyed significance.
You can see what we mean with John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes, a sprawling, interactive album app now available through iTunes.
The app consists of two parts: An illustrated narrative of Lennon’s time in Bermuda, as well as interviews with Lennon, Yoko Ono, the ships’s crew (and a few other notables), plus demos of the songs he made while on holiday. Collectively, the app is an indispensable, afternoon-swallowing treat for Lennon and Beatles fans.
Yet pictures can’t really describe how pretty and innovative this app is. Designed by Peabody and Emmy-award winning director Michael Epstein, it’s insanely detailed and totally immersive. You can guide yourself through scenes from the vacation using your phone: Walk around the island, or guide the sail boat through a storm the crew encountered. Lennon, the only one not incapacitated by food poisoning or exhaustion, was left alone at the helm at one point; he sang sea chanteys and later likened the experience to being onstage at the height of fame. He also credits the wild experience as the catalyst that inspired him creatively and helped conquer his writer’s block.
Back on land, you can explore the island disco where Lennon heard the song “Rock Lobster” by The B-52s for the first time (which he credits as the moment that convinced him people were ready for his musical collaboration with Yoko), and listen to them discuss how it felt having John Lennon cite their song as an inspiration. (Not an experience many people had.)
There are also pictures of Lennon with Sean and the crew, including a portrait a local artist drew of Lennon and Sean, and handwritten lyric sheets to several songs, such as “Woman.”
Then, of course, there’s the music. Lennon says in one of the tapes that his experience with the storm left him “tuned in to the cosmos, and all the songs came.” Hearing bare-bones versions of immortal Lennon songs like “Woman,” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Dear Yoko” that he wrote while there, it’s hard not to agree with him. Other tapes reveal how he cut songs using pots and pans for percussion, his misgivings about the music industry (“Walking away is much harder than carrying on. I know because I’ve done both”) and how he approached the songwriting process.
All net proceeds from the app ($4.99) go to WhyHunger, an organization that works to feed hungry and impoverished children worldwide and educate communities about farming.
The cumulative effect of the app is harrowing: Hearing Lennon’s voice and seeing pictures of him with Sean, it’s hard to believe it’s been 33 years since his death.
As he sings in “Dear Yoko,” “Even after all these years / I miss you when you’re not here.”