You may say I'm a dreamer

By Dylan Jones
The Sunday Times - 3 May 1998

Photograph Smile

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Photos: David Bailey. John Lennon (left) 1965 Bailey's London studio.
Julian (right) 1998 - same studio.

You may say I'm a dreamer.

Julian Lennon has been likened to his father all his life. Now he just lets it be.

Being Julian Lennon hasn't been easy. Wasn't easy at school, hasn't been easy since. He'd have found it easier had he chosen another career, but as it is the ancestry refuses to be shaken. When he is captured by the tabloids, the captions are invariably the same: "Julian Lennon seen at the Los Angeles opening of Titanic. Julian was only 17 when his father, John, was tragically shot outside the Dakota building on New York's Central Park in December 1980."

It's not as if he hasn't had a lot to live up to. The first words his father said to him, just a few hours after he was born in Sefton General Hospital, 35 years ago at the height of Beatlemania, were "Who's going to be a famous little rocker, like his dad?"

Although his father officially left him in 1969, when Julian was just six, marrying Yoko Ono four months after his divorce from Julian's mother, Cynthia, John had been an absentee parent almost since his son's birth. It was Cynthia who brought him up, Cynthia dragged him from Liverpool to London, then Weybridge and Wales. And it was Paul McCartney who taught Julian to play guitar, not his famous father, Paul with whom he had played cowboys and Indians. In 1980, John recorded the song Beautiful Boy for Sean, the son he had with Yoko in 1975, yet he was so anxious about the reaction to the lullaby he wrote for Julian -Goodnight, from the Beatle's White Album- that he badgered Ringo Starr into singing it. For most of his life, Julian has suffered the consequences of his father's profound neglect, yet people still approach him as though he were a shrine, whispering "I loved your father" before he has a chance to say anything. Not that he would, of course: "I'm too nice not to be nice," he likes to say.

John effectively cut off relations in the early 1970s when he moved to New York to live with Yoko (or Hokey Cokey, as Julian used to call her). A house husband for most of the next 10 years, he brought up Sean while his wife took care of their business affairs. In recently unearthed letters to Cynthia in the 1960s, John admits to being a "thoughtless bastard" where Julian was concerned, and only started making contact when his son was in his late teens.

In the famous Newsweek interview conducted just before his death, asked why he hadn't made a record for five years, John said, "Because I wanted to give [Sean] five solid years of being there all the time. I hadn't seen my first son grow up, and now there's a 17-year-old man on the phone talking about motorbikes. I was not there for his childhood at all. I was on tour. I don't know how the game works, but there's a price to pay for inattention to children. And if I don't give him attention from zero to five then I'm damn well gonna have to give it to him from 16 to 20, because it's owed, it's like the laws of the universe.' Tragically, with Julian at least, he never got the chance. His son last spoke to him two weeks before he was shot, by telephone.

You could say it's a wonder the boy's still sane, but then he very nearly wasn't.

I'd been warned that meeting Julian Lennon for the first time would be unnerving, not because he is a difficult person to be with- he is known in the music business as a "nice bloke"- but rather because he looks so much like his father. He has the same Restoration face and bent nose, the same eyes and wavy hair. He sounds like him too. Really sounds like him. While he doesn't appear to have his father's laconic wit, everything is delivered with the same stateless northern twang.

Considering the battering he has taken in the press, he is not as uncomfortable with scrutiny as you might think, and far from acting like an indulged superbrat he seems almost humble- naive, even answering potential powder-keg questions with grace. Sitting in a corner of the Chelsea Arts Club on a breezy London afternoon, he's drinking tea, something he does a lot these days.

Having decided to enter the music business, he had huge successes with his first LP, Valotte, which made the Top 20 in 1984, and a single, Too Late For Goodbyes, which reached No 6 the same year. This success opened up new worlds for him, particularly the world of drugs.

In the 1980s he turned into a ferocious party animal and spent several years in a haze of cocaine and booze. He partied so hard, he was advised to seek a bit of damage limitation. So he recently invited Hello! magazine into his Los Angeles home, shortly before selling it, giving a copy approved interview to try to quell the tabloid stories of his downfall. "You know the stuff being drunk and drugged up; not having a life, falling out of clubs, being s***-faced all over the world." S***-faced he was, though not all of the time, but enough to cause concern. If you had dinner with him during this time you'd be eating alone, as he rarely strayed from liquids, spending most of the time in the loo. Happy times, but not happy times.

"I went mad for a couple of years, I admit," he says, not at all reluctantly. "Thank God for self restraint, that's all I can say. I've got far too touch self respect to go beyond where I was [i.e. beyond cocaine]. It's common sense. You've got to remain in a situation where you can continue to be motivated. I was never going to experiment with anything else.

"It was my lifestyle. There were too many people around who took advantage of me, who used and abused me for years. I took care of everyone's bills, paid for meals, drink, everything. I attracted the wrong kind of people, hangers-on, and I did that a lot. I had my fair share and still do from time to time, but now I feel I am wearing the cap of responsibility. I still drink and I feel fortunate that I am able to control that, because a lot of people lose it with drugs and drink. I think I'd be in a worse place if I'd had more success."

Since those early days his career has been rather a grab bag, with his follow-up LPs The Secret Value of Daydreaming, Mr Jordan and Help Yourself all selling less than their predecessor. Until recently this had made him feel like a has-been, although now he says he can't afford to let music take over his life - "I'd have to say I'm not as hungry or as desperate as I used to be" -filling his time with sailing, cooking, painting, sculpting, photography and poetry, all the leisure pursuits of the artist in recovery. The one constant has always been Mum. "I think things would have been very different if Dad had been around; but I have to thank Mum for who I am," he says. "She has played the biggest part in my life, keeping me together, in the way I am and the way I treat people. She knows, she knows. She has always been the most important thing in my life, and will always be. Mum is the kind of person who likes people to make their own mistakes, and I think she would only have got involved if she had seen me at death's door, which I was close to, but thankfully I pulled back."

He has been almost invisible these past five years, and was last seen as a bartender in Mike Figgis's film Leaving Las Vegas. He fell out with both his record company and his long-time girlfriend, freed himself from all management contracts and suffered extended bouts of writer's block. He has now left LA, and for tax reasons he's only here a few weekends a year, keeping a flat in London's Notting Hill and an apartment in Monaco, spending most of his time at his house on Lake Como in northern Italy.

His first stepfather, Robert Bassanini, was Italian and he kept in close contact with him when his mother separated from him in 1970. When he wasn't in school he was running around the Tuscan hills or shopping in Milan. "He was more of a real father to me, because he was around on a regular basis," says Julian. Bassanini recently died, and Julian has dedicated his new record to him.

Musically, Julian burnt himself out, his lack of success pushing him into dozens of ancillary projects. He tried to open a chain of charity-based theme restaurants that paid homage to revolutionaries, is building a multimedia centre in the south of France, and has involved himself with a software company as well as assorted environmental projects. Fifteen months ago, the engines starting rolling again, and the prodigal began recording a record with various trusted friends and musicians. He called it Photograph Smile, and began hawking it around all the major record companies. Unable to find a suitable deal ("Some were interested, others weren't sure how much I had left in me"), he has decided to put it out himself, an avenue recently explored by Prince. And while this might look like desperation, if the record is a hit - which it might very well be - he could stand to make a lot of money. Predictably it's not the cash that's worrying him: what Julian Lennon wants more than anything is respect. The offspring of 1960s and 70s rock stars who have decided to join the family business are many: Ziggy Marley has tried to ape the success of his father, reggae legend Bob; 20 year-old James McCartney played guitar on his father Paul's album Flaming Pie; Zak Starkey plays drums like his father, Ringo (maybe a better, in fact), Pete Townsend's daughter, Emma, has just released her first album; and the new Bob Dylan is none other than his own son, Jakob.

But Julian Lennon is in a different league. His father burst into a world that he made up as he went along, whereas Julian has simply to live in it. It has been a hard call. Not only do people still feel guilty about what happened to his father, wanting to protect Julian in some way, they also castigate Julian for attempting to follow in his father's footsteps. It would have been easier for him if he had chosen to make cutting-edge dance music or form a heavy-metal band, but instead he chose -rather bravely, I think- to make the type of music his father excelled at; simple, straightforward pop music featuring a voice and a piano. His ambitions to be a song smith have proved to be his undoing, and he has been goaded almost beyond endurance by critics who feel that, because his talent is perhaps not as great as his father's, he is somehow sullying the family name by inflicting it onto the public. Julian, they say, was unlucky enough to have inherited his father's looks but his mother's talent. But there are many pleasant surprises in his work, not least on his new album. Even so, he isn't holding his breath for the reviews.

"I think it's an uphill battle with the press," he says. "No matter what I say or do, things are always twisted around, quotes manipulated, contexts changed. Things still hurt. Some people have a degree of faith in me, but then some absolutely crucify me. I've gone through years and years avoiding certain questions, yet still I get asked them. I've given my life story so many times I feel I can't give it any more. I think I'm almost through it, though." He is so resigned to the "Beatle problem", he has written two songs on his new album with distinct moptop overtones. One, Way to Your Heart, is a blatant homage to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Beatles classic he inspired when, aged four, he came home from his private nursery in Weybridge with a drawing of a classmate surrounded by stars. Another, I Don't Wanna Know, wouldn't sound out of place on Beatles For Sale.

"I avoided doing anything too Beatley for years, but there are so many people who expected me to do something close to the Beatles that I thought, this time I will. There will still be comparisons, but I felt it was time to put something out there they could really go for."

Hey Jude was written by Paul McCartney following a visit to Cynthia and Julian soon after John's divorce. McCartney knew it wasn't going to be easy for the young boy: "We'd gone on this Greek holiday once to buy an island, and Julian and I spent a lot of time playing around on the boat," he said recently. "I used to play cowboys and Indians with him. I remember John coming up to me and he took me aside and said, 'How do you do it?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'With Julian. How do you play with kids like that?' I remember feeling a wave of sorrow coming over me. Then I tried to give, like, the potted version: 'Play, pretend you're a kid. Play with him.' But John never got the hang of it.

It wasn't until Julian bumped into McCartney in New York's Carlyle Hotel in 1987 that he found out the full details. "We hadn't seen each other for years, and it was an indescribable feeling to find out the truth," says Julian. "It's hard to imagine this man was thinking about me and my life so much that he wrote a song about me. It's an honour knowing that someone was worried about your wellbeing and how you were going to grow up." It's some burden, too. "If I'm sitting in a bar and the song comes on the radio, I still get goose pimples.

Throughout the 1980s, especially in America, we'd be playing in the middle of nowhere and pull into some diner, and be subjected to people staring and whispering. One way they would test to see if I was who they thought I was, was to put a Beatles song on. It was friggin' sick. And it's not like I haven't heard the Beatles' songs enough. Rather than just come up and say, 'Hello, are you Jules?' they'd do this little test. This happened so many times that any time I hear a piece of Beatles music now, I tighten up and think, is it one of those? I don't know how to describe it. I suppose it plagues me."

How does he treat people who approach him now, who profess their love for his father, or just want to touch him and talk? "Well, I've never been rude, and I always try and avoid it being uncomfortable, but there are occasions when I feel people overstep the mark, which I think shows a lack of respect. What is nostalgic for other people isn't necessarily nostalgic for me. I don't care about a lot of stuff. I bumped into Chris Evans in the Groucho one night, and his knowledge of the Beatles and Dad is 100 times more than mine. Why I don't wish to know more, I'm not sure, but maybe I do, because of feeling left in the cold, so to speak, at an early age, and losing him as a father, and him not being around. Maybe there's a wall of detachment that still remains, and I don't know how close I will ever come to breaking that. I admired him for his song writing ability tremendously, but as a father there's a different angle altogether. I think that's something other people don't wish to recognise.

"I liked Free as a Bird. The weird thing was, it felt like a song I could have written. Obviously it's a very strange thing to do, putting it bluntly, but the finished result was pleasurable. It was reminiscent in a sense of what Dad was to me, because he was there but he wasn't there. For me it was a modern-day representation of what our relationship was."

* * * * Julian Lennon has been involved in legal wrangles with his father's estate almost since his death. In the original divorce settlement, Julian was to receive £2400 a year in maintenance, and to inherit a £50,000 trust fund when he was 25.

Quite rightly, he felt this wasn't fair, so in the early 1980s he began lobbying to get more. "After Mum and Dad separated, the only settlement she arranged with him was that I had enough for food, clothing and school- that was the only obligation Dad had. So the only money I had, I earned. Unfortunately, in the past, people took great advantage of my age and inexperience, and the majority of what I earned disappeared. I guess I was partly to blame, but when you're making a lot of money at the age of 20, 21, you never think of the consequences of who's paying for the first-class accommodation or the Concorde tickets."

In August 1996, 16 years after his father's death, following exhaustive legal work, he finally received a multi-million pound settlement from the Lennon estate, an endowment bestowed by his stepmother in order to "clean up the books". While it is nothing compared to the £250 m fortune Sean will inherit, the settlement is said to be in the region of £20m. "One of the things agreed was that we wouldn't talk about it," says Julian. In her defence, Yoko Ono said she had been waiting until he was "mature" enough to cope with the money.

"The settlement had more to do with heritage than money- it was more about the principle," says Julian. "There were a lot of things belonging to Dad that I would have liked- pianos, guitars (last year Julian bought several items belonging to his father at an auction of rock memorabilia, including an afghan coat, which cost him £30,343). In the early days, after Dad passed away, the estate sold a lot of his personal items, and I was a little upset that I never got a chance to see them. If I finally settle down and have kids, I want them to have a little piece of their history."

His relationship with Yoko was never an easy one, and is now somewhat strained, something it will probably always be. "It's never been particularly close, and when we do see each other it's Hello, how are things going?', but it's not much," he says. "I think a lot of her opinions about me come from the press rather than actual contact with me. If I ever said anything in the press that impinged upon her life, I'd always get a call, because her people read everything about everything. So there were many times when she'd be absolutely furious about something I was meant to have said about her, regardless of whether it might be true or not. But the relationship's okay, it's not good, it's not bad, it's... there, it exists, and if I'm in New York I'll go and see her- well, Sean mainly- and once in a blue moon I'll either get a card or we'll speak on the phone.

"Obviously there are things I still get very frustrated about, concerning the way the estate is dealt with, if I can put it like that. Situations like one of Dad's drawings ending up on a tie that's being sold for whatever reason. Every piece of him seems to be public property, for money, and I don't think that's right at all."

Things are not all hunky dory with Sean, either. Julian had been distantly jealous of his half-brother for years, although they got to know each other when Julian began spending more time in America. When Julian last played in New York, at the Beacon Theater a few years ago, he got his half-brother up on stage for a song, and it has been reported that they are now very tight, but when I suggest this, Julian's eyebrows lift slightly.

"I love Sean to death, I think he's a very smart kid. I know he was on the road with Yoko for a while, although I'm not sure what he was doing in that respect, I don't know whether he's trying to find his path or whether he's staying at home too much. It's been a little difficult with Sean, because every time I go to New York, or it's his birthday or Christmas, I try and see him or call him or whatever, but I also think he's at an age- early 20's- when your older brother is not so important.
"I think he's out there experiencing life, so I don't hear back the way I'd like to, and I think if I were his age I'd probably be doing the same thing. It's probably only because I'm older and I feel time is passing by and relationships mean more to me now. In a sense, it hurts that I don't hear from him as much but it's okay: given a little time he'll come round." He sighs, sips tea.

Sometimes he looks like a stone over which sadness has washed for 30-odd years. He's acting stoical, though. When I ask him what he's proudest of, he says, "I think the fact that I've held it together. I feel focused, grounded. I believe in instant karma, and I think that's how I'm guided morally these days. You have to learn from your mistakes. There were many times when people around me thought I was in danger of losing it, but I'm coping. It's been very difficult finding out who I am, because of who I am. I didn't have to put myself what I've gone through, I know, but I've dealt with the consequences."

Fatherhood appeals to him now, and when he says, "I'll try not to make the same mistakes that certain other people have made with rearing children," it is difficult not to feel enormous pity for him.

He's a nice man, Julian Lennon. Battered and bruised, and not without his problems, these days he's obviously in a better place. I hope he can enjoy it. Now, more than ever, he deserves as much instant karma as he can get.