The son also rises

After 14 years of disappointment, Julian Lennon is finally doing it his way.

By Dawn Eden
Published July 8, 1998 11:40AM (EDT)

In America, Julian Lennon is known for many things, but making first-rate records is not one of them. His 1984 debut, "Valotte," sold more than a million copies, but today only 37 are known to exist. Ditto for the album's singles, even the No. 5 hit "Too Late for Goodbyes," which presaged the ska revival by a good 10 years.

Now, for the first time -- even by his own admission -- Julian Lennon has made a great album. He is performing to six-figure crowds throughout Europe. He is getting rave reviews from England's most jaded critics. He is planning an American comeback.

He has his work cut out for him.

Lennon's failure to win the hearts of Americans can be attributed, in large part, to his failure to live up to what listeners and critics believed to be John Lennon's legacy. When the Beatles broke up in 1970, they were immediately canonized by the rock press. Nearly 30 years later, they remain untouchable, impervious to criticism. The difference is that today, when rock critics say they like the Beatles, what many of them really mean is that they like John Lennon. And the Lennon they idolize is the countercultural icon -- the Lennon of the bed-ins and protests, Yoko's partner in outrageousness, the revolutionary.

Atlantic Records released "Valotte" the same week that America voted Reagan into office for a second term. But for many, the Reagan era had really begun four years earlier when John Lennon was murdered. The Beatles' American fans, still smarting from the loss, expected John's 21-year-old son to carry his father's rebellious torch.

As it happened, Julian did speak with his father's voice -- the similarity was so eerie that it spooked many listeners. The songs, however, were lightweight pop confections, about as countercultural as a Levi's commercial. It was as if Atlantic intended for "Valotte" to act as a mere stopgap between Phil Collins albums -- which, in fact, it did.

Forced to carry an unrealistic burden of expectations, Julian crashed. The downward spiral began in 1986 with the failure of his second album, "The Secret Value of Daydreaming," and continued until 1991, when he took a much-needed break from the music business.

"After I left school at 17, it was only a year or two later that I went into the music business -- there hadn't been any relevant part of my life not associated with music," explains Lennon, now 35, as he sits down for an interview after practicing with his band at a rehearsal studio on the west side of London. He is dressed in black boots, black jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt, and sporting a light goatee. My fears of being unable to look at him without seeing his father prove unfounded, although the resemblance remains strong. The vocal similarity, however, is unmistakable. He speaks unaffectedly in that same nasal Liverpool accent, in jarringly familiar tones. "It was necessary for me to find out who I was outside of the business. If music stopped tomorrow, who am I?"

While Julian laid low, the rock press's search for a new Lennon continued unabated. On May 18, when he re-entered the recording world with the European release of "Photograph Smile," many critics felt they had finally found their man -- only the long-awaited heir to the Lennon throne wasn't Julian, but his younger half-brother, 22-year-old Sean, who released his debut album, "Into the Sun," that very same day on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. What was supposed to be Julian's moment in the sun turned into the U.K.'s biggest press battle since Blur vs. Oasis. Not surprisingly, given Julian's reputation for less-than-sterling releases, most of the media put its money on Sean.

As the era of conservatism came to a close in both America and England, critics no longer measured a new John Lennon by the same standard that they did in 1984. Instead of a countercultural savior, they wanted a countercultural fashion plate, someone with an air of radical chic, but without the incontrovertible artistic genius that made John Lennon and his music such powerful weapons against the establishment. By that token, Sean had the stuff of a rightful heir: radicalism (he claimed the CIA assassinated his father), avant-gardism (he spent two years in an expensive studio to make his album sound like a demo) and a romance with a wacky Japanese artiste, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto.

In England, the arbiters of taste had to do an about-face when both
"Photograph Smile" and its single, "Day After Day," made the charts, while
"Into the Sun" faded into the ether. Julian, however, took no joy in the
"victory," telling reporters that he would much rather have avoided the
battle. In fact, to avert a similar head-to-head confrontation in the
states, he delayed the American release of "Photograph Smile" (on his own
Music From Another Room label) until October 1998. He needn't worry.
Despite near-unanimous rave reviews, "Into the Sun" has dropped from
Billboard's Top 200 album chart (it peaked June 6 at No. 153).

The close relationship that Lennon once was said to have had with his brother had already been strained in recent years, a situation exacerbated by the concurrent releases. Could it have been a coincidence? "I know for a fact that Sean's representation were looking into exactly when mine was being released," he insists. "Apparently, they were asking some of the same companies that we're working with distributionwise to release his either a week before or at the same time as me. I know that for a fact. Not that I'm putting Sean down," he asserts. "I love Sean and I like what he does, but I don't know whether he's completely aware of who's doing what around him."

When I ask Lennon what he thinks of "Into the Sun," he answers quickly, "I like
it." That hangs in the air for a second before he adds, "It surprised me. I'd heard a lot of [Sean's] earlier demos, a couple of years before, which were more just him, and I was surprised to hear that it felt like more of a duet album. There was a lot of influence from his girlfriend, which surprised me for a debut album. If that's what he wants, then cool, I'm very happy for him. It just surprised me, because the stuff I'd heard on demos felt like they were more inside of him."

Lennon has to rely on the media for information on what's going on inside his brother's head. He says they haven't spoken in years. "I've exchanged telephone numbers with him a thousand times, but he's never called me back."

Ten days after Lennon uttered those words, it was reported that he and Sean met by chance in London, where they went out for dinner and seemed to get along famously. Judging from what Lennon said to me, the reunion would not have happened were Sean not separated from his usual circle: "I think maybe there's more influence than just his own that's holding him back from calling me."

- - - - - - - - - -

Julian notes that Sean has more pressing things to do right now than make up for lost time with his older brother. "He's only just moved out of the Dakota recently, to somewhere in the Village, so, I mean, separation from home is the first thing he's dealing with," he says. "When the time's right, I'll get a phone call." I observe that Sean, who lives with his girlfriend, has still never really been on his own. Julian nods. "There's always been a watchful eye over him, that's for sure."

For much of Sean's life, that watchful eye has been Yoko's, who guards her son's privacy as jealously as she guards John Lennon's estate. Although Julian has always been diplomatic about his stepmother, he can't hide his disgust over how she licenses his father's legacy. "I don't like it. I don't like any of it. I don't like the silk ties that I've been sent with his lithograph drawings on them. I don't like the mugs that I've received. I think there are other ways to deal with his memory than how she's dealt with it, and I'm not fond of it at all, and I'm just sad that I have no control over that whatsoever. That sickens me."

Julian, who was left out of John Lennon's will, started Music From Another Room with money from his court settlement with Ono, the culmination of a long battle to gain a share of his father's estate. When I bring up the reported figure -- #20 million (about $32.6 million) -- he interjects, "Reported, only." Although he is not allowed to divulge the exact amount of the settlement, he insists, "It certainly wasn't the figure that's been quoted in the papers, by any means. It was minimal compared to even that figure."

It's difficult to reconcile the wise, peaceful soul who was a model father to Sean with the selfish bastard who left his eldest son out of his will. Beatles biographies are rife with tales of how John Lennon mistreated his wife Cynthia, and Julian. There's no doubt that John had a great capacity for warmth and affection, but Julian says that very little of it went to him. While Lennon played with the press, it was Paul McCartney who was keen to play with the young Julian.

"Paul had a much more tender way with people, and therefore had a greater understanding of handling children," Julian recalls. "That's how his association with me was tightened.
When I was a kid, Dad wasn't necessarily the playing-around type, whereas Paul was, so there was cowboys and Indians and all that kind of stuff."

In 1968, John left Cynthia for Yoko Ono. McCartney felt for Julian, who was only 5 at the time, and wrote a song for him, "Hey Jules," which became "Hey Jude." I ask Julian how he feels when "Hey Jude" pops up on the radio. "It puts a smile on my face. I mean, for anybody to write a song about anybody, I think it's special that someone thought about you that much, taking the
time to do that on your behalf. For someone to write a song about worrying about your future, how you're gonna make it through and how you're gonna survive, which is basically what the underlying story is, that's special."

In America, I note, it was the number one single of 1968.

Julian nods. "That just goes to show that a song written out of pure emotion always wins out. It wasn't necessarily a commercial song by any standard. It was about a person, and a life, and a story."

That story has changed dramatically during the last seven years, as Julian put an end to his partying, put his musical career on hold and put his priorities, both personal and
musical, in order. "Atlantic had me running around like a lost puppy. I mean, I was hosting TV music shows, so many bloody shows, I didn't know whether I was coming or going, and I thought, What am I doing here?" Even when he changed labels, the situation remained the same. "I consider myself very simple, a humble singer/songwriter. Finally, I'd had enough, and I said, 'No, this is wrong. This is not what I'm about.'"

"Photograph Smile" is Julian's first truly mature effort, both musically and lyrically. He no longer tries to hide his vocal and musical similarity to his father, nor does he exploit it. The Beatlesque touches that he sprinkles throughout seem like nothing so much as photographs in a family album. While the hook-filled rockers and atmospheric piano ballads sound like they would be more at home on vinyl, they nonetheless are closer to 1998 than 1968.

"I felt I got thrown all over the place in the past 10 years, with the treadmill of the business, and, after the last album, I said, 'I've had enough. It's bullshit. Too many broken promises, too much lack of support, it's crap. Why am I doing this? It's not fun anymore.' Atlantic didn't have a clue. If they'd have let me go back home and take six months to a year writing some songs, then they would have had another good album, but they didn't, so I hold them responsible for what happened to my career, basically."

I remind him that he did nothing to prevent them from marketing him as John Lennon's son. "I know, I know, I know. Back in those days, I was too shy, and I just didn't
have the strength -- I just didn't know back then."

And so, I say, it looked to the public like he was trying to ride on his father's fame. Julian bristles at the memory. "Which was the worst thing possible for me."

Although John Lennon introduced Julian to the guitar, he didn't actively encourage him to become a musician. "On the rare occasions that I visited Dad," Julian recalls, "he would sit down and play a couple of chords with me and show me some new chords. That was about it."

Julian sought out other influences, including Steely Dan, Keith Jarrett, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. "It was Keith Jarrett who indirectly inspired me to play piano, really. I started writing basic songs with the guitar from age 11, but it wasn't until I got my piano at age 16
from Mum -- a beautiful old Steinway upright, hand-carved -- that I started
playing improvisational music. I really got into music from playing the piano, really, not from the guitar. That's when I started to write the sort of big long ballads that I love to do, because I just feel that the piano is much more of a playground for emotion."

Julian dedicated "Photograph Smile" to the late Roberto Bassanini, who was his stepfather for several years in the early '70s. "He played a very, very serious part in my life," Julian explains. "He was the guy that picked me up from school, he was the guy that took me to the park, he was the guy that took me on holidays. So, for me, this was my father. That's how it felt."

In 1996, when Julian was preparing to record the album, he chose Bob Rose -- who gained his first studio experience as a 15-year-old second engineer on the Beach Boys' classic "Pet Sounds" -- to be his co-producer. Although Rose has since produced George Harrison, Edie Brickell and others, he retains an enthusiasm for music rarely seen in career hit makers. The freedom he brought into the studio was manna to Julian, whose past efforts were marred by the kind of clinical, highly polished production beloved of major labels. "For the first time in a long time, it was about having fun in the studio -- nobody knocking on the door, just being allowed to do whatever the fuck you wanted. That was such a big difference for me, just being able to play and have fun, and keeping that element of reality in it all," he says. "Nothing in life is perfect. And I think through mistakes some wonderful things can happen -- that's where realizations come through. There are many things that are not perfect on the album, but for a reason."

Whereas Sean is into sounds, Julian is devoted to song craft. "There are still a couple
of great songwriters out there," he observes, "but it seems a lot of that has gone by the wayside, because it's not about a great song anymore. It's about an era, it's a time and a place, and rhythms and samples and this and that and the other. But unless the song underneath all that crap is solid, then, yeah, you can have a No. 1 hit and you can dance to it, but, a year later, I don't see hearing the same song again."

Julian seems so comfortable in his own skin that I don't really have to ask if life is treating him well, but I do anyway. He describes the "peace and contentment" he finally felt last year when, he says, "I understood who I was."

"One of the major things that was very important was to structure life in such a way that music was not 100 percent of my life. Before, it was. Now, I refuse to do that, because there are much more important things in life. Music's a big part, but so many of my relationships have been lost to the business -- friendships, contacts and family. I think it's very important to keep a life outside the music business, being alive and well and healthy. Because success in the music business is not always going to be there."

I note that his happiness is at odds with the public's perception of him as the perpetual victim.
"I never, per se, felt that I was a victim," he insists. "I felt that I had been dealt a difficult hand. We all get our hands to play in life. My ambition, especially after what happened over the last 10 years, was to finally start turning those cards around and shuffling them about, choosing better hands, so that I could play the game a lot better and also get to a position of control, where I would start to win. For me, that's just beginning to happen."

Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden is a New York writer and music critic.


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