By Jody Denberg
AUGUST 23, 1999: Julian Lennon spoke so frankly about his life, music, and family in a New York City recording studio this past June that the interview bordered on therapy. Then, two hours into the session, the 36-year-old pioneer of rock's next generation -- who had been smiling and smoking throughout the conversation -- suddenly stopped smiling.
After pondering the prospect of ever subjecting himself again to the media scrutiny that has been part of promoting his first album in seven years -- explaining as if on a tape loop how at the age of 3 he gave a painting of his schoolmate girlfriend Lucy to his father John Lennon and inspired the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"; relating for the nth time how Paul McCartney wrote "Hey Jude" to comfort him after his parents' separation; remembering how he made his recording debut with a drum bit on his John's Walls And Bridges album; revealing what he really thinks of his former stepmother Yoko Ono and his half-brother Sean Lennon -- Julian Lennon threw down the gauntlet:
"Anything you ever wanted to know, ask now, because after this, if you want to understand who I am, just listen to the work. And if you like the work, you like it. If you don't, you don't. But no more questions. It's over with."
If the endless questions about Julian Lennon's past and legacy ever do subside, it would be nice if the focus shifted to his new release. Photograph Smile is exquisite, replete with subtly inventive string arrangements and romantic lyrics that often rise above the obvious. With co-producer Bob Rose, the scion of one of rock & roll's greatest figures has fashioned a unique aural identity on Photograph Smile, and in concert earlier this month at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, Julian Lennon proved that his stage presence has evolved as well, moving eons beyond the floppy microphone-holder who roamed the boards in the mid-Eighties pointing and bouncing aimlessly.
After his last album, 1991's Help Yourself, Lennon returned home to Europe, frustrated by the music business and bored with his "numb life in Los Angeles." He ultimately made his main residence in Italy, where his late stepfather Roberto Bassanini (to whom Photograph Smile is dedicated) had lived. Julian spent his time exploring non-musical interests -- cooking, photography, painting, sculpting, and raising awareness for environmental causes -- and collecting Beatles/John Lennon memorabilia. He also met his stunning girlfriend named, yes, Lucy ("Well, we've just come full circle, haven't we?"). Lennon eventually returned to writing and recording music and bankrolled his own label, Music From Another Room. Now that he has finalized his financial settlement with the Lennon estate, Julian Lennon also feels free to get some things off his chest once and for all.
Austin Chronicle: You've said that you consider Photograph Smile the first real Julian Lennon album. Doesn't that leave your fans of your earlier work feeling a bit awkward?
Julian Lennon: Maybe so, to a certain degree. But there were times on some of the albums that I felt the material was not what I was about. There were several songs that I felt coaxed into having on the albums. Due to [my] lack of courage and strength in those days, I was always aware that maybe things weren't quite the way they should be, but never could speak up against them.
JL: I certainly was someone to watch in regards to how things worked out. How I was treated. What not to do. Make sure that you read the contracts. Make sure you've got a good lawyer. I did jump in the deep end myself, you know. Anything that went wrong in the past, I have myself to blame on many levels. But without these experiences, I wouldn't be who I am today and as content and happy as I am today.
JL: Well, I do, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean to a certain degree, it's almost like barefaced lying. Obviously, a lot of people have so much love for this man. And it's a very difficult thing to tell them that this man was not who he said he was, in the sense that [he] was publicly preaching about peace and love, but couldn't keep that going at home. That he couldn't even take care of his own family.
What surprises me more is that later on in his life, several years before his death, it was only then that it started clicking: "Maybe I should try and make it up to my son who I've not paid attention to for 20 -- almost 20 years." And for me, that's very disturbing. It saddens me. It saddens me a great deal. But the public doesn't want to hear that. They don't want to hear that the icon and god of peace and love was actually not ... Didn't believe himself in what he was saying, to a certain degree.
JL: Well, that's a tough one. It's very difficult, because people are only looking at him from his musical talent and persona. Whereas, I was the person that had to deal with the actual real-life person, the real-life John Lennon, who was not around, who was always away, and who for many years didn't remain in touch with me and didn't seem to care, didn't look after me. It has been very difficult dealing with that issue of, "Well, your dad's so great." I try and be as polite as possible. These days it's a lot easier just to go, "Oh yes, thank you. He was a great musical talent," rather than clench my fist and sort of say, "Well, you don't know the half of it."
JL: Well, there are many things that my mother and I feel have been done to the Lennon family on Yoko's behalf that were not right. For instance, we're very close with Dad's half-sisters, who are his family. They are blood, back in England. Many years ago when Mum and Dad were together, they bought a house for his sister Julia. The problem was, it was a carefree lifestyle at that stage. So there was no thought in organizing the paperwork and doing all that kind of stuff. It was a gift from Dad. This is a house for the family. This is where you can live.
After Dad died, Yoko came over to England and said that the house was still in Dad's name, whereupon she decided to take the house from Dad's half-sister and sell the house and basically put them out on the street. And Julia was calling up trying to make some sense of it all saying, "Why have you done this?" [Yoko] said, "Well, it's not in your name and the house was worth 30,000 pounds or something like this when it was first bought. So you can have the money if you want." And [Julia] said, "It's not about the money, Yoko. John bought this house for us, to live in, to grow up with our families. This was part of our lives. Saying you'll give us 30,000 pounds is not going to bring back what that meant to us." That was just one occasion.
JL: There's a way of doing it where you don't cheapen his effect or his personality or creativity. It just seems that she's throwing it out there willy-nilly, so to speak. There's no medium ground here. It's either locked in the basement, which it's not because it's out there on everything -- "Instant Karma" on an English commercial for Walker's Potato Chips. There's a way and approach of doing this which is a lot more classic, a lot more stylish, and a lot more fair to the fans that want to have sentimental things of his to collect.
JL: No, I don't think so. It hasn't in the past. Whether it does in the future ... You know, he will become his own man at some stage. He will be able to figure his life out for himself and what his relations are with me or any of his other English Lennon family. You know, he's early 20s. He's got a lot of growing up to do. I know what the experience was like myself going from 20 to 30 to 35. Thirty-five was when I felt that I had actually clicked. When I was finally beginning to understand what life was all about and what it meant and how to become happy and contented and having some level of peace and balance in life.
On the occasions that we do see each other, whether it's in England, whether it's in Japan or because he's out on the road from time to time now with his own band, it's always like long-lost brothers. I have a great amount of love for him. We'll have lunch and dinner and go out and have some fun and chat about anything and everything. The one thing we don't chat about probably is home. The estate and his mom and that kind of stuff. We avoid that like the plague. I think our love is very clear and very open for one another, aside from all the bull and all the stuff in between, which I don't think we need to talk about. I mean, one day, but not now.*
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