Julian Lennon's Long and Winding Road
Born the son of a hero - born the son of a Beatle - Julian can never escape his heritage, which was, of course, an accident of birth. Not his doing. Not his fault. Not his wish.
John Charles Julian Lennon - always called Julian - was about 6 when his father left him and his mother, Cynthia, for another woman, Yoko Ono. But John was almost invisible from the time Julian was born, and the boy was raised by Cynthia. Julian was 17, and still trying to figure things out, when his father was shot to death outside the Dakota apartments in Manhattan. Now Julian is 35, and his life has gotten easier, but it still isn't easy.
He was asked recently if growing up the son of John Lennon was a curse or a blessing.
"Mostly a curse," he said.
"Do you ever think about how it would have been growing up with him around?"
"Not really, can't say that I have. I tend not to live in that world of hypothetical reasoning because so much has been reality. I've been dealt certain cards, and it depends how I deal with it. In the past couple of years I've sort of turned that hand around."
Example: Julian has a new album out this month, his fifth, called "Photograph Smile." His first record, "Valotte," was a sensation, spawning two enormous hits in 1984.
Listeners who heard Julian on the radio swore they were hearing John. In person, Julian, with his slightly bent nose, Restoration features and his flat, north-of-England accent, might be a ghost of John.
But there is a moment on "Photograph Smile," a cut called "I Don't Wanna Know," when you might forget that Julian's second, third and fourth albums were just awful, a moment when folks of a certain age - 50-ish, say - will hear the voice and the harmonies and the guitars and swallow hard and insist, "the Beatles."
"I mean, that was done specifically," Lennon said the other day. He was curled up on a couch in a suite in Manhattan's Pierre Hotel, wavy shoulder-length hair framing his clean features, an American Spirit cigarette planted between his lips. He wore black jeans and black boots and ignored a wine glass of Coke.
"After so many years of the same old comparisons, 'You sound like Dad,' 'You sound like the Beatles,'... Well, trying to find my own path, I would never agree with that. It was a last-minute decision to put 'I Don't Wanna Know' on the album, and it was only after I'd felt I've proved my worth as a writer." Lennon stared at the Coke. "Now I expect the critics to say, 'You sound just like your Dad.' And I'll say, for the first time ever, 'You're right. I sound just like him. Like the Beatles. Now that we both know this, can we move on?'"
Moving on is the agenda.
Engaged to an English lass, and drug-free, his life somewhat rooted (asked where he called home, he said "Europe, London and France, too"), Julian says he's put behind the wild party life that consumed him in the '80s, when he was fodder for the tabloids, and that he's learned from his naiveté.
"I scraped the bottom of the barrel a couple of times," he said, "but not to the extent that I didn't know what I was doing or where I was." Lennon is very aware now of being in control, a mind-set motivated by years of other people feeding off his success, "people who used and abused me. I attracted the wrong kind of people, hangers-on, and I did that a lot."
Life after "Valotte" was further complicated, Lennon says, by executives at Atlantic Records, who convinced him to record songs before they were ready to be put down on vinyl, a situation that "trashed my career in a heartbeat."
"I felt there were a lot of people in the industry who didn't want me to succeed," he said. "When you have icons, the last thing they want is for you to break them. (Expletive) me if I was ever as good as Dad if not better, and probably most people don't think that's a possibility. But you never friggin' know."
Clean and usually sober - Lennon still drinks - he's reemerged and is actively publicizing his new pop stuff, which is engaging and already on the charts in Europe and Japan. "Photograph Smile," his first album since 1991 and the product of "just sitting down at the piano and starting to play naturally again," was released last week in the United States on a private label. "There were some good deals on the table," he said. "I just decided I didn't want to sell myself to the devil again, and that I would have to be in control."
Other rock and roll offspring from the '60s and '70s have had mixed receptions. Bob Dylan's son Jakob had smashing success in 1997 with his band the Wallflowers; Ziggy Marley never reached the heights of his father, Bob. Zak Starkey, Ringo's son, was praised for his drumming on tour with the Who; Pete Townshend's daughter Emma flopped in the States with her first album.
None, however, had the complicated past and the haunting voice of Julian Lennon.
"When I would sing things there were certain nasal to nations that would obviously sound just like his," Julian said. "I thought, should I force myself to change that and try to sing in a different way? I said, I can't really, this is me. But with this album, there's things that not in a million years could I hear Dad singing."
Another aspect of Lennon's "coming out" this year is that he says he's "kicked the shy bucket and will speak my mind" about his long and tumultuous relationship with Yoko, whom he calls "Her Highness."
"I think she's in another world," he said, looking sad and gazing east toward Central Park. "I do have a strong belief in karma... if you put out bad energies.. I've been wanting to discover about why things are the way they are, especially about Her Highness."
Much of the tension between Ono and Julian stemmed from the Lennon estate, and who was to get what. A settlement was reached in 1996, and although both parties agreed not to discuss the terms, Julian reported received about $32 million, money he says "will go into trust for my kids, so at least they'll have something about their heritage and their grandfather." Julian said he's using some of the money "to buy back all the stuff of Dad's [piano, guitars, memorabilia] that she auctioned off. It's the most ironic thing I've ever heard of: buying back his stuff with his money for his family."
While Julian admits to continuing frictions with Yoko and he's ambivalent about relations with his half-brother Sean - "Sean I love to death. He's stuck in the middle" - he's always been close to, and admired, Paul McCartney. It was McCartney who, after visiting Julian and Cynthia soon after John's divorce, wrote "Hey Jude" for the boy.
"I didn't know Linda that well," he said, "but she and Paul showed that it was possible to remain together. It's the only way to survive a relationship in this industry; it's too difficult without that. Either you don't have the support of the distance is too great that in a time of need, you fall apart. The only way that doesn't happen is if you're side by side all the way."
Commitment has always been crucial for Julian Lennon.
He's been engaged for a year, and while marriage isn't planned yet, the commitment was "to let this person know how much I cared." And despite his own past, he says he wants to have children.
"I was in another relationship with a woman who had a child, and she worked a lot, so I spent a great deal of time with the kid," he said. "and I found that to be one of the most wonderful experienced, and that's why it just makes me think, how could Dad have done what he did?"
"Well, there was a lot going on in his life, and it was too much to handle. I understand that, but I don't understand, even towards the end of his life, that there were certain realizations that he still hadn't come to. That boggles me."
In an interview last year with The Sunday Times of London, Julian said, "What is nostalgic for other people isn't necessarily nostalgic for me. Maybe there's a wall of detachment that still remains... I admire [Dad] for his songwriting ability tremendously, but as a father, there's a different angle altogether."
That breach may never heal, but professionally, Julian may be cementing some kind of future.
"One of my first interviews in Europe when this thing [the new record] got going was with a kid, maybe in his mid-20s," he said. "And he went on with a story about how he got introduced to the Beatles' music, and that was through me. Finally, finally, things are turning around."
Background/Flowers from the 'Photograph Smile'
CD inlet by Angelika Letsch.
'Hey Jules' © 1998 - 2002 CJ Burianek