The Scotsman


The Scotsman Weekend
22 May 1998

Photograph Smile

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It is 2pm. Julian Lennon has been up since five. This morning on GMTV he performed two songs and was interviewed twice (once by Lorraine Kelly, who started by making a joke about slippers). He had a GMTV sausage baguette for breakfast, but now his stomach is beginning to rumble. Over the next hour and a half, he will offer it two Marlboro Light cigarettes, two cups of coffee, and half a chocolate biscuit from a plateful of Rover Assorted which this discreet Notting Hill hotel has laid on. The chocolate will melt on his fingers.
He looks tired. "Are they working you hard?" I ask. "I'm working me hard," he replies. For Lennon, this Lennon, the difference between "they" and "I" is more than semantic.
And then, as Julian gazes sleepily round the little lounge, there is an odd moment. Observing the slightly dusty charm of the hotel, with it's antique clothes in glass cases, Julian realises that he has visited the place before, on his last promotional tour.
When was that?
"Oh," he ponders. "Seven years ago….`73?`74?"

JULIAN LENNON has a new record. It is called Photograph Smile. The title song was inspired by a long distance relationship, where the only memento the singer had of his love was a small picture. In that title there may also be reference to the falseness of faces we put on in public, a tilt at the nature of celebrity. A photograph smile, after all, is a kind of mask, often prompted by a cry of "cheese".
Photograph Smile is Lennon's first album since 1991's Help Yourself. In the intervening seven years, he almost disappeared. Some of the Internet sites dedicated to him gave up, because there was nothing to report. Others were left to ponder the voice-over he had done for a cassette of Lewis Carroll's I'm a little teapot; a proposed Toblerone advert; his cameo as a bartender in the film Leaving Las Vegas.
For Lennon, the disappearance was deliberate. He was disillusioned with the music business, sick of it.
He had promoted Help Yourself for a year and two weeks, to the point where he was physically exhausted, signed off by two doctors, but still expected to turn up for work, hosting TV programmes and puppet shows. He felt, he says, "like a sheep". So he made plans to get out. One day, he flew back from LA to London to attend the premiere of Backbeat, a film about the Hamburg-era Beatles. He ended up at the Monaco grand prix and fell in love with Europe again.
Like an American, he says "Europe".

The non-pop life he describes sounds idyllic. "I wanted to start painting and sculpting again, and I'd been doing a lot of cooking, which is one of my favourite pastimes. Sailing, driving from country to country. Just driving. And also just writing and taking photographs." Then one day, he had an idea. He went to the piano, and started writing. Suddenly music felt natural again.
All of which avoids the point. There is, with Julian Lennon, the problem of the surname. Here is what he says about using it. "There could have been the opportunity to approach this with another name, but I always felt that if I did that, five or ten years down the road, somebody would find out. And the last thing I wanted was…if I was maybe married and by that stage had kids, then the invasion of privacy from hell would come. And also I think, if I am going to be in a relationship that's going to solidify itself with kids or whatever, (it's important) that the other person knows what there in for. It's a lot to take on board. It's not just your everyday life.
It is not hard to understand just how far from everyday Julian Lennon's life has been. The signs are there in the first magazine articles that were written about his pop career. Reviewing one of his early concerts -- in New York in February 1984 -- the American magazine McCall's gets to the point in it's opening paragraph. The concert is in a theatre on West 74th Street. "Police security is tight…a little more than four years ago, officers from this precinct answered a call on West 72nd Street, the Dakota apartment building…"
We all know what happened next.
Julian is John Lennon's son by his first wife Cynthia. He has his place in Beatles lore for two things.
Firstly, a childish drawing he did was the inspiration for the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Later, Paul McCartney made up a rhyme to cheer him when his parents were on the verge of splitting up. When it was a song for Julian it was known as Hey Jules. When it was a song for everyone it became Hey Jude.
And now, 17 years after his father was murdered, 13 years since the beginning of his own career, Julian Lennon is still trying to fight his way out of the shadows. The Beatles are more famous now than ever, a fact that does not sit easily with this Lennon's ambition to be considered as just another songwriter.

"The cards that I was dealt are quite amazing," he says. "I'm brought into this world, the son of one of the most famous musicians ever, he leaves home when I'm three years old. I hardly see him. I maybe see him ten more times in his lifetime. And then, in another sense he leaves again."
"It's very difficult when someone comes up and says, 'I love your father.' Especially when he wasn't there. It's still something I'm battling with. I want to say 'thank you very much' on one hand, 'but if you only knew', on the other hand. People don't really think, and they are insensitive when they approach you. They don't consider the fact that he disappeared when you were three and were never around, and after he died, they love to bring it up. It's a very bizarre situation. I don't know whether they're trying to get a rise out of me, or what. It's amazing that people want to talk about it. I literally want to grit my teeth and say, 'You don't understand. He wasn't a great father. He was a great musician.' That's always been a touchy one, and it will be until I can find the answer, but I don't know if there is one."
In his own life, Julian became a mildly successful musician, with a smattering of Top 20 hits. For various reasons, none of which he is comfortable talking about, he prefers to put all that behind him. The words he used to describe his early musical career are "insane" and "scary".
He wants the new record to be considered his first. The words he uses to describe his current approach are "grounded", "human", "honest" and "upfront". What he hopes is that by behaving in this way, the public's "need to know" might be limited.
"There are a lot of walls up against me," he says. He talks in a guarded way that sometimes verges on the paranoid. "A lot of people not wanting me to be successful. From the past. Industry people. It's very peculiar, because they obviously know it's going to be hard enough as it is, and I can't be specific, I don't have facts, so to speak, in front of me, but I have sensed a vibe over the past ten years. They're not making it easy for me, that's for sure."

It is understandable that Julian Lennon should be ambivalent about public life. It makes a decision to return to it difficult to understand. Why, if you had a comfortable life, of sculpting, painting, driving, cooking and sailing, would you open yourself up to the unpredictable moods of media scrutiny, to the whims of lunatics? Most performers are motivated by the urge to make a name for themselves. Lennon's problem is different. He has a name to live up to.
"That's why it was so important to do this album, for myself, from the point of view of self-worth," he says. "After having that peace and quiet for seven years; when I came back to Europe, I moved to a little place in the South of France, nobody knew who I was. I had that sort of anonymity. I just thought, 'Wow, wow, this is amazing.' I could do anything. Nobody noticed. Nobody. It was fantastic.
"So that was a big worry, coming back into this. I thought, as soon as my face is out there it's going to take another 10-20 years before nobody recognises me again. If things go well. But I'm trying to play it from a different angle. Because, before, what it felt like was this pop image thing, and the whole selling point was 'son of…' and it was never that for me.
"You want to be recognised for what you do, but you want your privacy. So I'm playing it without the image thing…"
By "the image thing", Lennon seems to mean the association with his father. This is hard to swallow when the first words he sings on Photograph Smile include the line "daddy's work is never done". To complicate thing's further, there are genetic similarities. At 35, and looking older, Julian's face is the spit of his father's. The voice, too, is uncannily similar, high and jagged, loaded with echo. "I like him, how he sounds," he says. "Some of his falsetto stuff, because his tone was extremely nasal, and I'm that way too. But why try to throw away something good?" Whatever his plans, Julian's re-emergence into the public eye was almost strangled at birth. His publicity campaign began a few weeks ago in Germany. There was two days of press activity scheduled.
Interest was high. All seemed to be going well. Then his half-brother Sean (whose mother is Yoko Ono) speculated to the New Yorker magazine that John Lennon could have been killed as a result of a conspiracy backed by the US government. "Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests, is insane. Or very naïve. Or hasn't thought about it clearly. It was in the best interests of the United States to have my dad killed," Sean was reported as saying.
"I didn't think it was a very clever move," Julian says of the statement. Especially living in America, and to say something like that. Also to make a statement like that that's unfounded and has no factual back-up whatsoever."
He pauses to pour more coffee, then stirs, clattering his spoon against the china.
"You can't go publicly to the world press and make a statement like that. I just hope there will be no repercussions that will hurt him. I don't necessarily think it was something he intended to blatantly say like that. I think it was probably something he mentioned in passing, in comment, and his advisors, or whoever, said that would be a good thing to say if you totally believe it. I know how the camp runs."
He is stirring his coffee. When you say camp, what do you mean?
"I mean the camp. I'll leave it at that. I think that people around him probably pushed that statement forward. I was just amazed when I saw it on TV, because after not having done press for seven years, I just found this really quite strange. And also finding out that Sean was releasing an album at roughly the same time, and that his management group - and I don't believe he is behind this - had been to visit all the people and companies I was working with. And whatever I was doing, almost exactly, Sean would be doing the week before me.
"It just seems a little bit coincidental that the night before I do my first, enormous German press conference, in front of quite a few hundred people, a statement like that is issued to the world press. They knew I was doing that, they knew that the very first question that any press would ask me wouldn't be about my album, it would be about what Sean said.
"I'm not saying that happened. My thoughts are just a little interesting on that one. It's a way also to get Sean's face on every newspaper, on TV, to get his image out there immediately, in a heartbeat overnight. Which worked. I don't think it'll do him any good with the album, because what they should have learned - not only from my experience, but from other people's - a name will only last so long, but if you haven't got the talent it'll fall through. Your not going to last."

The drama surrounding Sean's statement was the first indication that the potency of the Lennon surname had not waned. For Julian, a second reminder was to come towards the end of his first day interviews.
"There was a cameraman who was following us around. A young kid. A nice guy, he seemed at the time. He was filming us, like a day in the life of. And he came running over at one point; it had been a long gruelling day, but we still had something like eight hours to go. And he said, 'My interview's the last interview, and I've been trying to think of questions that people haven't asked you, and it's very difficult.' I said, 'Well good luck'. "And he had to do it. He came up with one. I was absolutely shagged, knackered beyond belief, God knows how many interviews I had done. And it was on camera, and it was the last question, and after all the Sean stuff, which I dealt with pretty quickly, he just said, 'So last question. You probably haven't heard this one today.' I said, 'Okay I'm ready.' He said, 'It's about Mark Chapman. Do you know about him?' I said, 'What? What about Mark Chapman?' 'Mark Chapman, the guy who murdered your father, who assassinated him?' 'Where are you going with this?' He said, 'Well, he's up for parole in two days, what do you think of that?' I was so tired at that point. I just said, 'My thoughts are my own on that. That's all I have to say. Thank you.'
"And that was the end of the day, and I went back to the room. I was so flustered. I was almost in tears, and I said, 'You know I didn't come back into this to be faced with all that kind of crap again. This is not what I am here for.' It was to the point where I said, 'Fuck this. Fuck this. I don't want to do this anymore. I was so much happier wandering around, driving around the countryside, cooking every day and getting on with life, with friends, and this is the last thing I need.'

"Bob Rose (producer and co-director of Lennon's record label) and me had a two hour long chat. He said, 'Jules, if you want to drop it, let's finish the commitments we have, drop out of it, get out of it, go back to your peace and quiet, let it go.'
"I said, 'No, fuck this, I've never given in and I'm not going to now. I've got to learn to deal with this again.' Actually, after that night, there was another adjustment made in the head, of putting that into perspective. There's maybe one in a hundred that that'll come from. I can deal with it.
"But it came close. I almost said 'I've had enough' again. It's really not worth going through that pain over and over again."
Lennon compares the insensitive approach of the young cameraman to that of the Barbara Walters Show in America, where - as parodied by Saturday Night Live - the aim of the interviewer is to make the guests cry.
"She would have the soft focus on with the hair bouffed up, and she would ask the most horrific questions. It just felt like that - the American approach of gossip TV, of trying to get a rise out of you. Just so they have something on camera that nobody else does. It's like: get a fucking life. Stop trying to pull people down and rip them apart. There's enough pain, were all trying to mend ourselves one way or another. It's just a shame that there are so many people out there that want to cause pain. It's very sad. That's why it's so nice being a humble cook, or a sailor.

THERE WILL, most likely, be a few more bends in the road before Julian Lennon can work out an accommodation between his desire to be public and his need to be private. As his own boss, he has designed a work schedule that is almost one week on, one week off, in an attempt to limit the brain-deadening routine of the music business life. In the end, though, he finds that his own celebrity is less easy to control. The one thing he has found hard in life and business is establishing trust. He has been betrayed by many of his close friends, and admits that there is always a nagging doubt in the back of his mind, with everybody.
His relationship with the estate of his father seems equally complicated. He disapproves of the estate's promotional activities - the issuing of ties and mugs with John Lennon lithographs on them, for example - and is bitter that he has had to bid at auction for some of his father's effects, thing's he considers to be family heirlooms. According to some reports, John left a set of diaries to Julian, but he has never seen them, and has no idea where they might be.
At the moment, he has no real place to call home. He has one or two "small places" but most of his belongings are in storage. "But I am looking forward to finding that one place to put all my crap in. It's important to have a place to call your own, where you want to shut the world out and be with your closest friends. Or with the one you love. Or even on your own. Having a good think.

There is a technique he uses when faced with difficulty in his life. He calls it the paper trick. What he does is write his problems down. Then he looks at them, and thinks about how they might be resolved. On paper, often, the problems seem less frightening. Answers seem to suggest themselves. He says: "Well, if this is the problem, how do I resolve things, how do I change things? Is it me that needs to change things? Do I need to look at things more from other people's angles so that I have a clearer vision of what they are looking at?"
What he finds is that by seeing things through the eyes of other people, he can overcome his problems: "Which I think is necessary to be able to communicate with people. If you shut off, there's no way of understanding, it can't happen."
One of the real surprises of meeting Julian Lennon is how old he looks. In the public mind, perhaps because of his father, he is still a boy. The mirror tells a different story. "I have to say that I much prefer this age," he says. "It's to do with the levels of understanding I seem to be reaching. I'm a true believer in instant karma. In the sense that, before, I tended to be very judgmental, and I really believe it has an effect on you, it comes back to you. Almost immediately, if you think badly of someone, or some situation, or something, I immediately apologise in my head for it. Immediately. Maybe that's a selfish thing because you don't want it to come back on you. But I know what it's like to be shat on. And battered and abused. And rumours. And things said about you without people knowing you, and it's awful being judged, when people don't know you."
Everyone says Julian Lennon looks like his dad. He can see that, but he also sees his mum and, increasingly, her brother, his uncle Tony. He also has his mother's cough. It is a smoker's cough. When he used to perform in school plays he would hear it hacking out of the silence, and would know she there in the darkness watching. It made him feel secure and nervous.