Pop musing: The rocky road
 for John Lennon's No. 1 son

Jon Bream / Star Tribune March 9th, 1999

Photograph Smile

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Midway through Julian Lennon's first song Thursday evening, the sound system died. Undaunted, he continued without missing a beat, even though perhaps only half of the several hundred Beatlemaniacs and pop diehards gathered in the Mall of America's rotunda were able to hear him.

Midway through the next song, the power returned and everything was OK -- until after the four-song performance was over, when an emcee from Cities 97 radio introduced the camera-toting, autograph-seeking fans to "the official John Lennon photographer" for the evening.

The scene could have been a metaphor for Julian Lennon's musical career. Even though he had a Top 10 hit ("Too Late for Goodbyes") in 1984, it's been a rocky road for John Lennon's No. 1 son. He's struggled with comparisons to his legendary father; opposition from his stepmother, Yoko Ono; the rise of his half-brother, Sean, and the expectations of record labels and critics. Moreover, the Beatles scion, who was the inspiration for the classic "Hey Jude," became more of a celebrity than a music maker.

As Paul McCartney sang on "Abbey Road": "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight."

It all got to John Charles Julian Lennon (his parents called him "John" for the first two years, but it was too confusing, he says). After a mixed reception for his fourth album, "Help Yourself," in 1991, he disappeared from what he calls the "soul-destroying" music business. He followed the advice of his stepfather, Roberto Bassanini -- "he was my father in so many respects; he was the one that took me to school, took me to the movies and took Mum and I on holiday" -- and decided to enjoy life. He traveled, indulged in photography, painting and cooking. He went sailing. And, after living in the United States and doing his share of drugs, he got sober and eventually settled in northern Italy. 

Lennon, 35, says he's happy and balanced now. But, with his high forehead and crinkled eyes, he looks much older than he is. His face unquestionably resembles his famous father's -- as do his wit and charm.

It took Lennon five years to free himself of contracts with recording labels and managers. Then he found himself writing songs again -- not for an album but just for the sake of writing. "My primary job is songwriting," he said Thursday after an hour-plus of signing autographs. "Singing is secondary. Recording is next, and then playing."

Nonetheless, he was so pleased with the new material that he decided to make an album anyway -- he didn't want his previous albums to be his musical legacy. After recording more than 20 songs with producer Bob Rose, Lennon sent the tapes to labels but turned down their offers. Instead, he and Rose released "Photograph Smile" on their own label, Pinnacle. 

Lennon thinks he's finally found his own voice. "Obviously, I recognize the paternal resemblance," he said in a basement office in the megamall. "It was very difficult when I started. The tougher reviews were comparing every single album of mine to the Beatles catalog. That was beyond unfair. And there was four of them buggers; there was only one of me."

He credits his survival instincts to his mother, Cynthia, who raised Julian, from age 4 or 5, by herself after John left her to be with Yoko Ono. (After Sean Lennon was born, Cynthia called John and insisted that he get involved with his other son, too; so Julian visited New York occasionally, although he said he spent more time with Sean than with his dad.)

Lennon's plan was to release "Photograph Smile" outside the United States first. Unfortunately, it arrived in stores last May on the same day that Sean's debut disc appeared.

Julian thinks it was no coincidence. The day before he was to face 100 reporters from around the world -- his first news conference in seven years -- Yoko put out a news release in which Sean blamed his father's death on a U.S. government conspiracy. Said Julian: "Of course, what was the first question I was going to get the next day? It wasn't going to be about the album -- and it certainly wasn't."

Despite the distractions, "Photograph Smile" reached the Top 10 in Japan and Australia. It's sold about 100,000 copies so far; it was just released in the United States last month.

Lennon said he gets along fine with his brother. In fact, when their father was still alive, Julian would go to New York and baby-sit with Sean. More recently, he says, he's tried to call Sean on the private line at Ono's residence but the messages apparently never got passed on.

How frustrating has it become for Lennon? Well, he's had to buy John Lennon items at auction with, as he puts it, John Lennon's own money, i.e., his inheritance.

Moreover, he doesn't agree with Ono licensing John's sketches for products. "When I see his drawings on dinner plates and electric-blue ties with his sketches on it . . . certainly this is not him. He was about the music."

Next week in New York, Lennon will attend McCartney's induction as a solo artist into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. McCartney always sends Julian birthday and Christmas cards, and gave him a special Beatles collage.

"He wrote 'Hey Jude' looking at my circumstance," Lennon said. "He was always playing with me; I probably played more with him than I did with Dad, to tell the truth. 

"I would say my material is more like his. I'm more into the melodic, gentler side of things than Dad's side, which was raw."