My Father Ignored Me for 5 yrs...
By Helen Weathers
After a lifetime in the shadow of his famous father, Julian Lennon has now accepted being the "son of John". He tells Helen Weathers of his bitter rift with Yoko Ono, and how his songwriting has helped him accept the past.
Julian Lennon aimlessly drifted through the busy streets of Paris. Here, no one knew who he was, which was just the way he liked it.
Worn down by the constant and less than flattering comparisons with his mudered father, he didn't care if he never made another record again. Burned out and exhausted from an endless treadmill of writing, recording, promoting and TV appearences, he'd had enough.
His four-year relationship with actress Olivia D'Abo, who he'd planned to marry, was in ruins as a result of his almost obsessive need to prove himself as a songwriter. Now it seemed, as he bolted from his jaded "Son of John Lennon" existence in Los Angeles to the welcome anonymity of Paris, that he'd sacrificed his personal happiness for nothing.
Dropped by one record label and put into a straitjacket of a contract by another, he was alone and full of doubts that only a bout of soul-searching could lay to rest.
Then there was the bitter relationship he has with his step-mother Yoko Ono to contend with. Until two years ago, Julian was embroiled in a lengthy legal wrangle to claim part of his father's £220 million estate - left entirely to Yoko. He was also angered by her plans to sell off John's personal effects - things that Julian considered cherished memories. It all took it's toll.
So why, after seven years spent happily out of the limelight and today in the heady stages of a new love affair, is he throwing himself back into a world that caused him so much pain?
"I had a wonderful seven years so the idea of coming back into the business was quite daunting, I really didn't know if I wanted to do again. It was 50/50," he says of his decision to release his new album, Photograph Smile.
"I was enjoying life, writing poetry, taking photographs, cooking, or hopping into the car and driving off on adventures to discover a new restaurant tucked away in some village," he continues. "People took me at face value. I was just Julian, not the son of one of the Beatles. It was so liberating. I embraced that anonymity because I'd never really had it before. I needed to find out who I was outside the music industry, and for the first time in my life I found true peace of mind."
"Instead of being respected as a songwriter in my own right, I'd become the "Son of Lennon TV celebrity" which was fun at first, but made me question my own identity. I was seen as some extension of his spirit, instead of a seperate individual, which, quite frankly, I found rather twisted."
"But in the end I just felt my previous work was not a good enough legacy to leave behind as a songwriter. I wanted to produce something I felt proud of."
"For years and years I have felt walls and barriers put in my way, it's been a constant battle to simply be myself. I felt that a lot of people, for one reason or another, did not want me to succeed. And I wanted to prove to those people that I could do it on my own."
The album, released in May on Julian's independent label Music From Another Room, was well recieved by critics and sales have been respectable. It is dedicated - significantly - to Julian's late Italian step-father Roberto Bassinini, who he says was more of a father to him than John Lennon ever was.
"If I never made another album again, I could feel satisfied with this one," he enthuses. "Just getting it out on my own label is a huge acheivement for me. Anything on top of that is a bonus."
However, Julian would be fooling himself if he didn't hope his new single, "I Don't Wanna Know", released on Monday, would emulate the success of his first international hit, "Too Late For Goodbyes", 14 years ago.
The new single, which he calls a, "tongue-in-cheek homage to The Beatles" could also be described as two fingers to the music industry. For years record label bosses tried to cajole and bully him into cashing in on the Lennon name, and give the world a reincarnation of John in the shape of Julian. But it is only now that he's confident of his own talent that he can make the record everyone else wanted him to.
"For me, the only way I could do a song with a Beatles sound was if I'd satisfied my own worth as a songwriter," he explains. "I put it on the album at the last minute. I thought, "why not?" For years people said, "when are you going to cover a Beatles song?" and I kept going, "no, no, no". I was always thinking, "when are you going to hear my voice?" I was young, naive and felt like a puppet on a string, but now I'm the one pulling the strings."
We meet in a quiet town by the lakes in Northern Italy. Julian moved there two years ago to be near his late step-father's family who live in Milan. It is a quiet, simple existence shared with his girlfriend of eight months - 20-year-old model and student Lucy Bayliss.
At 35, the similarity to his father is still striking. The serious, angular narrow face and long, brown hair tied loosely into a pony-tail. And, of course, the voice.
Born in the 60's, the only son of John and his first wife Cynthia, Julian has sepent a lifetime trying to come to terms with his legacy. There are times when being the first-born of a man regarded by many as a musical genius in life and as a saint in death, has felt like a cross to bear.
Julian was just four when John, at the height of his fame, left Cynthia to set up home with Japanese artist Yoko Ono. And Julian only saw his father ten times before John was shot dead outside his New York apartment on December 8, 1980. The father-son relationship was a difficult, distant one, and it must have been all the hurtful when John's son Sean, by Yoko, was so obviously the favoured child.
"The image I have of my father is of him not being around at all. That's what sticks with me," he says, a trace of bitterness in his strangely unemotional voice. "He preached about love and caring yet on a personal level he couldn't bring it home. I don't understand the mentality behind all the hero-worshipping that goes on with my father. To me he was just absent."
Julian last saw his father on a trip to New York to celebrate his 16th birthday - a year before John's death.
"We went on a boat trip to Long Island. It was a bit peculiar. It was distant, uncomfortable. I felt odd. It felt like it was very forced," he recalls. "If anything we had a better relationship on the phone, it was easier not facing each other."
The day John was killed is still burned on his memory. For all their distance, it was devastating.
"It was a very strange time. I was staying at my Mum and step-father's house in North Wales," he says.
"I remember the night he was shot I was woken in the middle of the night by the chimney caving in. I didn't know what it was at the time but it disturbed me as if I sensed something was wrong."
"The next morning I came downstairs and heard all this commotion outside. The curtains were drawn and I peeked out and saw all these photographers. I instantly felt something bad had happened."
"Mum was visiting Ringo Starr's wife Maureen Starkey and she had told my step-father not to tell me until she came back. But, of course, I badgered it out of him, he couldn't keep it from me."
"When mum arrived she was in bits, absolute bits. I held her in my arms and we both cried. Of course, my mother still loved him, he'd been such a major part of her life. And I had trouble accepting that he was dead. I just couldn't believe it. I wouldn't believe it until I went to New York for myself."
Then 17, Julian went to stay with Yoko at his father's apartment in the Dakota building, where she still lives. "It was all very weird. There were thousands of people outside the building carrying candles and Yoko locked inside her room not seeing anyone," he says. "Sean was in Long Island and didn't even know at that stage. Yoko wouldn't see me - I was told she wasn't ready to see me. It was bizarre, very surreal to say the least."
"I finally accepted that my father was dead when his urn with the still-hot ashes was brought up to the apartment and placed on the mantlepiece in Yoko's bedroom."
Julian's strained relationship with Yoko is something that continues to this day. It is clear there is no love lost between them.
John left his entire estate - now worth an estimatied £220 million - to his widow and it was only two years ago that Julian finally agreed a settlement following a long legal wrangle. He is forbidden from discussing the exact terms of the agreement but says, somewhat dismissively, "I've had better record deals."
But he adds, "To fight it would have taken years, not to mention the money. A court case with all the media attention would have resulted in her trying to undermine me, by throwing everything at me and vice versa. It could have been extremely ugly."
"Rather than accept a lump sum, I got something that was much more real, that I could pass on to my children. Some rights to his work, which is far more important to me, percentage ownership of his songs."
What has upset Julian more than anything is the sale of Lennon memorabillia. "A lot of Dad's things were sold off at auction without me even being asked," he says. "Friends would call me and say, "Yoko's sold off this or that." When I questioned her about it she said it was because the death duties in America were so steep. She'd say, "I can't cut the guitars in two, Julian, I have Sean to think of too."
To have some of his father's possessions as keepsakes Julian spent £30, 373 to get the Afghan coat John wore on the cover of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album in 1967 and £17, 246 for the black velvet cape worn in the Beatles film Help! He also paid £25, 000 for the scribbled notes of Hey Jude, written by Paul McCartney for Julian when his parents were splitting up.
Julian has not spoken to Yoko for some time. It is unlikely he will in the near future.
On the day Julian released Photograph Smile - his first album for seven years - his half-brother Sean, 22, released his new album, Into The Sun. And the day before Julian held a press conference in Germany to introduce his new songs, Sean grabbed the media headlines by talking about his father's assassination.
"I have no bones to pick with Sean whatsoever, I care about him a great deal, I used to babysit him. He's blood, he's my brother," says Julian. "But I don't think Yoko wants me to succeed and she will manipulate situations to make sure that Sean does - even if it is at my expense. I feel that she thinks I'm a thorn in her side."
"I think she'd prefer it if I'd just shut up and disappear. Perhaps being the first-born she feels that I am some kind of threat to her and Sean."
The Photograph Smile album, a mixture of up-tempo rock and emotional ballads, is the result of deep soul-searching, and many lyrics are based on his own experiences. His own insecurity and the failure of relationships are themes which run throught it.
Day After Day is dedicated to former girlfriend Olivia D'abo. They broke up when Julian was on the road for more than a year to promote his third album, Mr. Jordan.
"I put too much effort into the work front," he admits. "Olivia got fed up of my not being around. It was the promo tour from hell. It was relentless. On one occasion I was in Dallas, Texas and I was beyond physically drained. I was due to play a live show and two doctors said, "This man needs to stay in bed for two weeks." The guilt factor that was laid on me for not wanting to do that performance made me get up and do it anyway."
"That went on for over a year until I said, "Enough". I felt disrespected and abused. I felt like a commodity, not a person. It wasn't about music anymore, it was about creating an image. For me it's never been about who's son, or who's father, it's been about music. People think that by touching me they have touched a part of Dad, a part of The Beatles, a part of history, and that's completely not true."
Disillusioned, unmotivated and single in LA, he moved to Paris and then Monte Carlo before buying a lakeside home in Italy.
Last Christmas he fell in love with his new partner Lucy Bayliss, whose family he has known for years, while on holiday in Barbados. At 20 she is 15 years his junior, but Julian does not worry about the age gap or whether their relationship will last.
"I now believe in living for the moment," he says. "I learned that from my step-father Roberto. He loved life to the extreme - every second of every day counted for him, but it is only the last couple of years that I have tried to follow that path myself."
"With Lucy, I'm determined not to make the same mistakes again. Before, music was 100 percent and friends, family and loved ones got left by the wayside. But over the last seven years I've realised how valuable and important it is to spend time with the people you really care about."
"Relationhsips come first with me now and if I had to give up music tomorrow to pay more attention to that I would. Music is still important, but it has it's place now."
With his love life idyllic, enough money to retire on, and a new album out, there can't be much more that would make him happy.
He thinks for a minute and then says in that unmistakable voice, "I want to be recognised as Julian Lennon, not John Lennon's son."
"It's happening slowly.....but it is happening."
Copyright © 1999 Evening Standard
Background/Flowers from the 'Photograph Smile'
CD inlet by Angelika Letsch.
'Hey Jules' © 1998 - 2002 CJ Burianek