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Photograph Smile

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Son rise: Julian Lennon knows he sounds like his dad, thanks very much 
By Robert Wilonsky 
Take a Photograph, it'll last longer: Julian Lennon doesn't need anyone to remind of him his past. He's over it. Why aren't you?

Julian Lennon
 Deep Ellum Live
August 22
The Push Stars open

Julian Lennon always understood why critics hated him and why, ultimately, his audience abandoned him. But, for God's sake, it doesn't take a genius to figure that one out: It's one thing to do a John Lennon impression from a distance, and something else entirely different - and seedier - to do it while standing in the man's shadow.  Not that the son-of-a-Beatle was ever very close to the old man - indeed, Julian was raised by his stepfather Roberto Bassanini, the man to whom he dedicates his new album Photograph Smile. But Julian was screwed from the get-go: He looked like his pop, sounded like his pop, only he wasn't his pop and didn't make his pop's pop. 

For that, he was never forgiven. Hence, Lennon became the ultimate novelty act, a parenthetical footnote in the thousand-page history-of-rock entry "Beatles, The." As in: "Lennon, Julian: Son of John and Cynthia, born April 8, 1963, Liverpool, England. Released debut album, Valotte, in 1984; hit single, 'Too Late for Goodbyes.' 

Dropped from Atlantic Records in 1991, after release of Help Yourself. 

Returned 1998 with self-released Photograph Smile. 

All things considered, it could have been worse: Think Frank Sinatra Jr.; Wilson Phillips, now best known for Carnie Wilson's online stomach-shrinking surgery; the band Bloodline, which featured Robby Krieger's and Miles Davis' kids; or Ricky Nelson's boys, Siegfried and Roy. Or Jason Bonham, who has spent his entire adult life playing in Led Zeppelin cover bands - as though it was his old man who wrote or sang "Stairway to Heaven." Or Ringo's kid, Zak Starkey, who inexplicably shows up on Who-related albums, among them ones from Pete Townshend's brother Simon (as in, who?) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing symphonic renditions of "My Generation" and "Pinball Wizard." (Someone really should remind Zak which band his father was in.) And speaking of Pete Townshend, his daughter Emma released a record in 1998 titled Winterland, which went copper in Belgium. 

Some rock progeny have managed to elude the skeet-shooting range, among them Leonard Cohen's kid Adam, Loudon Wainwright III's boy Rufus, and Tim Buckley's son Jeff, who, unlike his father, died off-stage. Then again, nobody outside of the rock press has ever heard of these three fellows. Then there's Jakob Dylan, the spokesman for a generation...of frat boys and their girlfriends. 

At least Julian, for whom Paul McCartney wrote the sympathetic "Hey Jude," had his one moment in the here-comes-the-sun in 1984, when Valotte was released. Julian's only crimes: He's the son of John Lennon, and his name ain't Sean. If only Julian made records that sounded like bad Beach Boys rip-offs - then he'd get the respect he craves. If only Julian made a record people other than rock critics liked -- then he'd be signed to a real record label, instead of running his own. Such is the 36-year-old's lot in life: always the other Lennon, the wrong Lennon. If only, if only... Talk to the guy long enough - say, eight minutes - and it's clear he sits somewhere between contentment and bitterness. He loves Sean like a step-brother, has made his peace with his old man's abandoning him when he was a child, and it's always Julian who brings up his father's name; it's always Julian who brings up the comparisons to "Dad's nasal tone." He has arrived at a certain conciliation with his legacy; he's comfortable with his last name now, no longer wearing it like sack cloth over a leather jacket. That, he insists, is why Photograph Smile - a surprisingly charming disc full of baroque pop break-up and breakdown songs - contains two songs that sound as though they were rescued from the John Lennon Scrapbook: "I Don't Want to Know," which is actually kinda Fab, and "Way to Your Heart," which literally breaks into a little "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" midway through. Depending on your generosity, the songs are either capricious asides or sad, failed nods to something the boy will never be. Julian, of course, insists it's all in good fun, a way of letting audiences know he's fine with being John's first-born. And yes, he does sound like his old man. So friggin' what? "Without a doubt, 'I Don't Want to Know' doesn't fit the album at all in many respects, and I had to find a place where it would go," he says. "I mean, that was the toughest thing. But the idea behind that was that after so many years of the comparisons and the reviews, I said, 'Well, you know, whether people realize it or not, this is going to be very tongue-in-cheek for me to do.' The thing is as close to dad's nasal tone as possible. That's for the usual reviewers who said in the past that 'You sound just like your dad' or 'You sound just like the Beatles.' That was oh-so-constructive criticism. For the first time in my life and my career, I am saying, 'Well, you know what, yes I do sound like my dad. Now that we both understand this and realize this, let's move on, 'cause I certainly have.'" 

By all rights, Julian Lennon shouldn't even have a career in music at this point in his life. Were he a smarter lad, he would have gone into real estate by now or begun selling insurance, anything but a career in pop music. Until Photograph Smile was released overseas last year - it has been available in the States since May 1999 - Lennon hadn't even released a record since 1991's Help Yourself, his final album for Atlantic Records. 

He spent the better part of this decade trying to get off the label, trying to write, trying to avoid a world that made him a shooting star when he was 21 and a fallen has-been when he was 23. Not that his was a dismal existence: He spent the 1990s sailing, cooking, learning photography, traveling, and playing at his piano -- "just enjoying the good things in life," as he puts it, making it hard for anyone to feel too sorry for him. 

But it was never easy for Lennon, who released Valotte, scored a couple of hit singles ("Too Late for Goodbyes" and "Valotte"), and earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist -- itself, the mark of the doomed. It didn't help matters that the label, hoping to capitalize on the success of the debut, hurried Lennon's second album, 1986's The Secret Art of Daydreaming. 

Even Lennon now admits it was nothing more than a batch of demos pasted together. He speaks of it almost as though it were made by someone else, so unattached is he to the final product. That album was the beginning of his downfall -- the thing that turned the son of John Lennon into a one-OK-two-hit-wonder. The album, and the man, was vilified. 

"I understand how the critics and how the public looked at me, and for the most part, I can understand why they felt the way they did," Lennon says of his sophomore effort. "I felt the same way, because I felt that I was never afforded the time I needed to do the work properly. I always felt that there was somebody knocking on the friggin' door saying, 'Well, it's not up-tempo enough, it's not commercial enough,' so there was a certain element of compromise in all that - in trying to be true to myself, but also trying to give in to trying to be a commercial pop act that had an image. That, for me, had nothing to do with what I was about." 

Atlantic gave Julian considerably more time to make his third record - there was, of course, no rush to follow up The Secret Art of Daydreaming, which sat like a dead fish in the cut-out bins - but it didn't help. As the decade closed, he sounded more lost than ever, like some kid who was ashamed of where he'd been and baffled by where he was going. Mr. Jordan, released in 1989, was a dreadful, dreary record on which Lennon sounded like the bastard stepson of David Bowie. (Perhaps it should have been renamed Tin-Eared Machine.) Whatever Julian was trying to do - escape his father entirely or simply find out whether imitating someone else famous might garner him the respect he wanted - the album was a miserable failure, artistically and commercially. Even Lennon regrets it now - and, truth be told, seems a bit confused by what he was trying to accomplish with the disc.

"I was at a stage where I still felt that I hadn't truly found my own identity, whether that was on a personal level or a professional level or a creative level, and so there had to be some times of experimentation," he says. "Yes, it was a bit Bowie on some vocals, but part of that was tongue-in-cheek, and part of that was everybody thinking that I was trying to run away from Dad's nasal tone or something similar. It was actually me and the boys having a blast, an absolute blast, and I think there are some very good songs on that album. But the label certainly didn't like it, didn't understand it at all, and, of course, there was some inconsistency on my level too due to that fact. But it had been because of how things had taken a left turn after the first album. I put a lot of trust and a lot of hope and faith in these people to guide me through this, but it was not a happy relationship by any means." 

After severing ties with his management and his label, Lennon returned to writing the kind of pieces he began composing before he set out to become a "pop star": 20- to 30-minute long classical-tinged compositions tapped out on a piano. After hooking up with producer Bob Rose, Lennon felt the urge to blend his pop sensibility with his orchestra fetish, and the result is a disc loaded with layers: Strings appear on nearly every song, alongside such instruments as the tabla and a bouzouki and the good ol' sitar. And the songs aren't singalong ditties: Indeed, most are sad, slightly overwrought compositions about dead old friends, lost loves, and, just maybe, slaying a few old demons. 

Were Julian not, well, Julian, Photograph Smile might well be regarded as one of those baroque-pop masterpieces that make all those Elephant 6 bands -- Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal, and all the rest of them rustic pop geniuses -- poster boys for white rock critics between the ages of 25 and 33. It's got all the makings of an indie-rock success story...the only problem is, we're talking about a man with four major-label records on his hands, three of which Atlantic couldn't give away. And so Julian Lennon is a bit screwed, if only because his main influence is the man with whom he shares DNA. If only he had bought Beatles albums at the record store like Will Cullen Hart or Robert Schneider. Then, maybe, he'd get a little of the approval he seeks, even after all this time. In the end, Julian Lennon wants only one thing: not for people to forget he's the son-of, but for them to stop holding his past against him. That alone would make a sad song better. 

"I can understand why they do it, but it still ticks me off," he says, but without a hint of bitterness in his voice. He sounds more flabbergasted than anything else, astonished by the idea that it takes people forever to forget what he did a thousand yesterdays ago. "I think there is a lot more to this album than the pop aspect. People are still labeling me with the pop idea, but I think so much more of the material is far deeper than that. It's a different relationship altogether. There is a lot more depth to it, more than what I would determine as pop these days, which is basically the very commercial stuff that you hear in the Top 20. That has no relevance to me whatsoever." 

"When you're in your early 20s, especially during the 1980s, the whole thing was about pop. But certainly the roots of my beliefs and understanding in music and love for music came from a much deeper-seated place than that, whether it was jazz or classical music or improvisational stuff. That absolutely interested me far more than just being able to write something that somebody could sing along to. Believe it or not, I never wanted to do that."