In June 1980, John Lennon planned to sail from Rhode Island to Bermuda. Yoko Ono checked the routes with the ancient Japanese practice of katatagae, which seeks to avoid unlucky directions in travel, and Lennon embarked on the Megan Jaye, a 43-foot Hinckley centerboard sloop.
Apparently the katatagae wasn’t working, because the yacht sailed right into a massive storm. The rest of the crew was wiped out by seasickness. But to Lennon’s surprise and pride, he realized all his time spent in the junkie trenches had made him immune to seasickness. He ended up taking the wheel by himself throughout the night, howling old sea shanties into the wind and spray as he imagined his sailor father and father’s father had done.
Staring into the abyss of the blackest ocean in the throes of a storm was a mental jolt as heavy as the drugs he’d hit when he was younger, and in the calm aftermath he found himself feeling more alive than he had in years. After spending half a decade in his apartment watching TV, he had stared down the sea and felt like a man again. He felt like he had it in him to get back into the game. Maybe the katatagae was right after all.
When they docked in Bermuda, Bob Marley‘s 1973 tune “Hallelujah Time” wafted out to him, in which Marley sang that we had to keep living on borrowed time. Lennon took the line as a title for his own reggae tune, not suspecting his own time would be up in less than half a year (and Marley’s soon thereafter).
When the Double Fantasy sessions started back in New York on August 6, it was the second song he laid down. He told the band to think of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” and “Spanish Twist.”
A bright, slightly phased guitar slices in one channel while a laidback bass percolates in the other. As a strumming acoustic guitar grows louder, Lennon starts calling out about when he was younger, like he once had in “Help!” and “She Said She Said.” In those songs, written in his angst-ridden twenties, he yearned for the happiness of his childhood. But when he wrote “Borrowed Time” he was approaching 40, and now “younger” meant his twenties, a time of confusion and despair. As the percussion and keyboards kick in to complete the calypso feel, Lennon celebrates how much happier he is now that he’s older, like an updated “My Back Pages.”
No longer the blowhard big mouth, he admits that the more he sees the less he knows. Having come full circle on a vast Odysseus journey, he proclaims he wouldn’t change any of it, but is glad to be living in a less complicated time of his life. He laughs how he used to worry about acne and what to wear and if his lover at the time really loved him. Now he knows his woman loves him, he just needs to worry about being able to stand up.
Lennon planned to overdub horns onto the tune, but ended up setting the song aside, a bit frustrated, as once again his band could not quite capture the reggae feel. The Beatles were hip enough to try ska way back in 1964 with “I Call Your Name,” but no one listening today would know that’s what it was supposed to be. And Paul McCartney‘s perfectionism with “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” caused one of the first serious ruptures in the band.
But whether or not “Borrowed Time” missed the mark as reggae, the tune showed that, for brief moments anyway, Lennon had arrived at his destination.
From the book Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers by Andrew Grant Jackson. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Grant Jackson. Published by Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.