Sean Lennon On His Father, Yoko Ono, and His Own Musical Career

'You never know about the genetic thing. Look at Brian Wilson's dad. His records sucked'

Sean Lennon
Martyn Goodacre/Photoshot/Getty Images
Sean Lennon
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Sean Lennon does not need any prompting to talk about his late father, John Lennon – or about anything else. "I like to talk," he says brightly, his face – a blend of his dad's sharp, familiar features and the strong Asian countenance of his mother, Yoko Ono – aglow with enthusiasm. "On every report card I had, the teacher would say, 'Sean likes to hear himself talk.'"

He also speaks without the defensive posture you would expect from a veteran of the most daunting kind of fame: the reflective aura of a famous, absent parent. "When you've never experienced anything else, it's not weird – it's simply your life," Lennon says of the celebrity he inherited after his father was fatally shot in front of the Dakota, in New York, on December 8th, 1980. "I never knew that doing interviews and having press was weird. You take it as it comes. You don't choose your name, you don't choose your parents. You're hurled into this earth, and life hits you like a slap on the ass. Boom, you're born. Now deal with it."

Sean Lennon's New Noise Rock Duo Is 'Incredibly Liberating'

Lennon, 22, is now a musician in his own right. He played guitar on Ono's 1995 album, Rising; he is a member of the band Cibo Majo. And he has just released his debut solo effort, Into the Sun, on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. Produced by Lennon's girlfriend, Cibo Majo keyboard player Yuka Honda, the album is an eclectic survey of noise, melody and mood. There are hints of Lennon's earlier power trio, IMA, in the grizzled romanticism of "Mystery Juice" and "Spaceship." He indulges his fondness for sweet funk and Brazilian pop in "Two Fine Lovers" and the title track. And Lennons infatuation with the Beach Boys shines in the sun-splashed psychedelia of "Queue."

But Lennon knows that he remains, to many people, simply the son of a Beatle. And he is not coy about the blessings that go with the baggage. "People ask me, 'Do you feel like he's still around?' And he is, man," Lennon says proudly. He's alive in his music, in my life. Sometimes I walk into a store and hear him singing – 'Instant Karma' is playing – and I feel like that's him talking to me."

Sean Ono Lennon was born in New York on his father's thirty-fifth birthday, October 9th, 1975. It was the start of five years of domestic calm for the Lennon family. John raised Sean; Ono managed her husband's business affairs. But Sean says he quickly learned of his father's impact on the world after his death: "People gathering outside the Dakota every day, on my birthday every year – I knew it was because of the music. And because, from a very early age, people said to me, 'When's your first album?'"

Sean Lennon's debut on record was a squeaky rap on a 1984 Ono tribute album, Every Man Has a Woman; he was nine. He wasn't much older when his half-brother, Julian, launched a solo career, shooting in and out of the Top Ten with heart-sinking speed. "He got attacked, destroyed," Sean says now. "He'd say stuff to me like, `Be careful. They're really gonna get you."

During three lengthy sessions one at the New York studio where he cut Into the Sun and two at the spacious lower-Manhattan loft that he shares with Honda Lennon proves to be an eager, guileless interviewee, outspoken about his childhood, his parents and his future in music. "If it does well, that's great," he says of the album. If it does badly, it's not like that's it. I'm going to make music no matter what. He beams like any young man with a brand-new life ahead of him: "Nobody's gonna stop me."

Now that you have released your own album, do you wish you could talk with your father about his experiences making music and dealing with the music business?
Yeah, totally. [Pauses] But that's not the only thing. I wish I could do anything with him. Go to a movie. Walk down the street. Watch TV with him let alone talk about music.

I think about my friend Harper Simon. His dad [Paul Simon] is constantly showing him chords on the guitar. It's nice. He's lucky. On another level, I think it's made it hard for him, that his dad is constantly over his shoulder musically. But that doesn't mean that I don't wish my dad was around. Even if my dad had totally repressed me and not allowed me to play music at all, I would take that over him being gone.

If you could talk to your father right now, what would you ask him?
I would just play him my songs; say, "What do you think of that, man?" I'm sure he would be like, "That's a great song." Or, "That line could be worked on. Why are the drums so loud? The vocals should be more clear."

I read this interview with Tony Levin [bass guitarist on Double Fantasy]. He said that in the studio, John Lennon had more of a clear vision of what he wanted from the bass than anybody [Levin] had ever worked with. My dad made a ton of records; they're the most amazing records ever made. I'm sure he would have had a million ideas about my music.

And you know what? I think he would have liked it, too. Because it's melodic, pop-y. And it's really weird. I don't think he would have liked the jazz. I really like jazz, Brazilian music, funk. Those are things my dad wasn't into [laughs]. I can imagine him saying, "Why are you doing this fake jazz shit on your record? What is this crap?"

You're doing things the low-key way – playing clubs like CBGB's Gallery, signing with Grand Royal. Is it hard keeping the hype in check because of the Lennon brand name?
I feel really lucky because of the name – that I have an opportunity to go to CBGB's, to pack it without having released a record yet. But in a way, I am starting out slowly. My brother [half-brother Julian] came out with a record. Boom! It was gold; he was playing the Beacon Theater in New York. It was mad.

I'm on Grand Royal, this supercool alternative label with these really weird artists that most people have never heard of. I'm not trying to brag, but I could have said, "OK, Capitol, EMI, I want a huge deal – tons of money upfront, a world tour."

Why didn't you just ask for all that?
It has nothing to do with what I'm about. I'm really the bass player for Cibo Matto. That's my main gig. I got all my experience playing on the road with those guys.

I've played hundreds of gigs. My strings can all break, the show can suck, and I'm like, "Well, the next show's tomorrow." I've played in the weirdest, most fucked-up situations. Literally getting electric shocks. Playing in truck stops where the sound board is in a Mack truck and there's a stuffed buffalo above the drum set.

Where was this?
Vinton, Louisiana. It was bugged-out! Cibo Matto were opening for the Butthole Surfers. There was this hugely obese woman with a gun in the dressing room when we arrived. The sound board is in a Mack truck, in the venue. The stage is twenty feet off the ground; for some reason, they put it on stilts. And we saw boars – I swear to God, wild boars – running in the field next to the venue [laughs]. Those are the kinds of experiences that have seasoned me.

But as a singer and songwriter, you have the Lennon name, and there are certain expectations that go with it.
I don't want to not use the advantage I have to help achieve my goals. I know for a fact that if I was only Cibo Matto's bass player and not Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon, I would not be sitting here with you. I would not get the exposure that I'm getting for my record.

People are interested in me, in finding out what I'm doing. And I don't want to blow it. Because it's very, very possible that for the second record [grins as the telephone in the next room starts to ring], my phone is going to be silent.

Your father was quite adept at using the media and his celebrity to promote his agenda – returning his MBE award, buying full-page "peace" ads in major newspapers during the Vietnam War.
After that initial Beatlemania explosion, he made a lot of mistakes with the press and learned a lot. He figured it out – how to exploit the media in a way that was positive for him. Look at the bed-ins. That was a complete media exploitation to promote peace, which was brilliant. A lot of celebrities complain about the attention they get. My dad and mom said, "Hey, this is great. We can use this interest to promote these philosophical ideas about world peace."

That's what it's all about. I have all this attention. And instead of complaining about it, I want to use the situation for a positive goal: to get my music out there, to promote open-mindedness, all those things that are important to me.

Are you worried about the comparisons people will inevitably make between your music and your father's? The classic complaint made by many older music fans – those who grew up with the Beatles – is that rock & roll ain't what it used to be. Which is a way of saying that your generation can never measure up.
In a way, it's true. In the Sixties, you could stand on the earth and say, "Jimi Hendrix is alive. Janis Joplin is alive. Miles Davis is alive. John Lennon is alive. Brian Wilson is making Smile." I don't think any intelligent musician can possibly deny that was a special time. Bob Marley said, "You have to know your history. "It's true. You've got to know your past to face the future. What makes the Beastie Boys and Beck so great is you know they listened to that shit, that they know all the music that's been made, inside and out.

But people think that knowledge and ability should already be in your genetic code.
You never know about the genetic thing. Look at Brian Wilsons dad [Murry]. His records sucked. They had the same genes. I feel like I inherited some things, like my voice. I have an ear for music. I'm sure that's genetic.

The question is, always, have you got it, the magic thing that makes the whole world sing? Who knows? I personally think my mom has got it. But the whole world did not sing.

What are your earliest memories of your father? A couple of years ago, you said that you remember more about your life from ages two to five than about your teenage years.
That's really true. I think the event of my father's death forced me to cling on to those memories harder than I would any other memory. It was such a shock that it etched in stone those few events I had.

I have a lot of memories of just talking with him, hanging out and watching TV. Saying "Good night" to me was an intimate moment. It was just me and him. There was something so soothing about his voice. And he did this really cute thing: He would flick the lights on and off in rhythm to whatever he would say. He would say, "Good night, Sean" and the lights would go [makes clicking noise]. It just made me feel so cozy.

I remember him playing guitar. I don't remember any specific songs. I remember watching The Muppet Show with him. He loved The Muppet Show. And he would always turn the TV off during the commercials. I would go, "Dad, we're going to miss some of it." And he would go, "No, we're not." He'd wait two minutes, then put the TV back on. He told me that anything you ever see on a commercial is a lie.

So I wasn't allowed to watch commercials. I wasn't allowed to eat refined sugar. I wasn't allowed to eat dairy. I grew up completely macrobiotic. The sweetest thing I had were these little dried fish, these Japanese fish. That's what he would give me as candy. The first time I had a Coca-Cola was years after he died.

It sounds like you were raised on bird food.
My dad was really strict that way. In fact, when you asked about the memories, I didn't want to say it, but I have some less than happy memories, too [laughs nervously]. Of him screaming at me, you know? He definitely had a violent temper. He would get angry sometimes. And when he did, that voice that was soothing would become like a knife.

But it must have been hard for him to suddenly become a responsible parent after so many years of footloose, indulgent pop-star living.
I think it was also hard for him to become a sensitive monogamist. Because he was a macho Liverpudlian. I think my mom really tamed him. Look at the "lost weekend" in L.A. He was a macho pig in lots of ways, and he knew it. I think his greatest accomplishment was recognizing that he was a macho asshole and trying to stop it.

Like that song, "Cool chick baby" [a line from "Death of Samantha," on Yoko Ono's 1973 album, Approximately Infinite Universe]. That's all about him having sex with some girl at a party where my mom was. When I think back on those events, and hear about them, I think of my dad as being a huge asshole. And the only thing that made it OK was that he could admit it. That was his saving grace. He tried to overcome it.

I don't want people to think I'm being disrespectful. But then again, he's my dad, and I know better than they do, man. I know that he was a great guy. But he was also an asshole in a lot of ways. There's no question about it.

The two of you spent so much time together in those five years. Were you aware that he was writing songs during that period?
I don't think I knew what writing was. I knew that he played music. He would play guitar, and I would sit on his lap. There's a tape of me just banging on a distorted electric guitar, sitting on his lap. He was very sharing with music. We'd sing songs constantly sing.

Did you go to the "Double Fantasy" recording sessions?
Yeah, I was there a lot of the time. I'd be sleeping, listening, whatever. I definitely grew up in the studio. It's a very comfortable environment – at least the kind of studios that he worked at. Everything's there; it's carpeted and warm; the lighting is dim. It's very cozy. My parents are both there. The music's loud and clear and exciting. It's a very magical environment for a kid.

But I remember more being in the studio when my mom was making records – Season of Glass, It's Alright and Starpeace. I remember Season of Glass, the music moving me so much. It's an amazing accomplishment that she went into the studio after my dad died. She takes the most painful, most intense experiences and turns them into beautiful art. And I think that's what my dad loved so much about her.

With your father in charge of parenting, what kind of relationship did you originally have with your mother?
It was almost like I didn't know my mom until my dad died. Suddenly, I was introduced to her: "Here she is. Wow, this is my mom." I remember getting dressed in my best clothes to go out for a walk with my mom. Because most of the time, I was with nannies, especially when my dad died. My mom couldn't deal with me a lot of the time, because she was going through a lot of difficult stuff of her own. We became closer and closer as I got older. It was me and her against the world.

What do you recall about the day your father died?
I didn't find out until a few days later. I remember it really clearly, someone saying my mom wants to talk to me. I had to go into the bedroom, and my mom was in bed. She'd obviously been in bed for days. I remember kind of glancing at a headline on a newspaper. I could barely read; I didn't really know what it meant.

She said, "Your dad's dead." She said it really straight up, like that: "He's been killed." I remember really wanting to be mature about it for some reason. I said, "Don't worry, mom, you're still young. You'll find somebody." Which was an intense thing to say, when I think about it. But that's what I said. She'll verify that.

And she said, "Well, I'm glad you feel that way about it." Then I ran into my bedroom, because I didn't want her to see me cry. I didn't want to admit that it was hard. I ran into my room and started crying hysterically.

It must have been strange for you to live at the Dakota, to grow up there, after what happened on your doorstep.
It would have been a lot stranger to run away. The Dakota was all we had left of him. Memories and everything. How could we leave? What are we going to do? Run away and pretend he never existed? No. It would be denial. We lived there, and that's where he lived. That's where we started the family. It was out of respect for him, and out of respect for the family. We're not going to let anybody fucking make us run away from our home, no matter what.

But to this day, when I walk into the Dakota with my mom, I make sure she walks in front of me. I can't tell you how many dreams I've had about being shot, man. I can't tell you how many dreams I had when I was a little kid about my mom getting shot.

When I covered your mother's 1986 European concert tour, I was struck by the fact that she had only one bodyguard. I've seen a lot more security around other people who had a lot less to worry about.
That's true. I guess, to me, it just seemed kind of crazy.

When I was going to school, I had bodyguards. Come to class. Come to the bathroom. Go to the gym. Every day. Two big bodyguards packing guns. I was definitely aware of why they were there.

But they were our friends at a certain point. It wasn't this formal kind of feeling, these marching soldiers. It was more like these guys hanging out. Certainly, in public situations, they made sure that nobody who seemed kind of shady approached my mom.

I don't think it damaged me. The kids [at school] were weirded out by it at first. But then we'd go to gym class some days you'd go to the park for gym and the bodyguards would be playing ball with us. They were fun, these big, strong, muscle-bound guys.

What role did your mother play in your musical education after your father's death? Did she ever say, "Listen to this; this is important"?
Schonberg. Wagner. Some serious shit [laughs]. "Listen to John Cage, prepared piano." That's the stuff that was important to her. My mom's sixty-five. She doesn't come from the Sixties. The music she grew up listening to was not the Beatles. She grew up listening to Three Penny Opera, and that's what she turned me on to.

On that '86 tour, I recall talking with you about music and finding out you were a fan of the Violent Femmes, which seemed pretty hip for a kid of eleven.
I was a huge Violent Femmes freak [sings the opening line of "Blister in the Sun," from the groups 1983 debut album]. But I was also heavily into hip-hop Run-D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash. I was a pretty cool kid, I have to say [laughs]. But I had the connections. I had guys like [Lennon photographer] Bob Gruen making me tapes of Klaus Nomi and Romeo Void. From first to sixth grade, I spent my time trying to be like everybody else, as conservative as possible. Then I discovered Jimi Hendrix and the Violent Femmes, and it was like, "Fuck this, man, I'm gonna be weird!"

Did your mother ever worry that you were getting too weird? Although that seems like a strange judgment coming from someone of her background.
She never worries about getting weird. She only worries about my health. I remember when I was seven, really wanting to piss my mom off. I said, "Mom, I'm going to get a mohawk. And she's like, "Great." "No, I'm gonna get a mohawk. That means I'm going to shave my head. And she goes, "Yeah, yeah, that's great."

Then I didn't do it. I was probably bluffing, anyway. But the fact that she said, "Great," it was like, "Man, I can't do anything to rebel against her." All I could do was abuse my body, and that I don't like doing.

In a sense, your mother's 1995 release, "Rising," is your real debut album. What was the genesis of that record? I actually thought your mother was finished with making albums – especially primal-rock albums.
I'm sorry, I have to take responsibility for that [laughs]. I made her get together with a rock band. I was saying, "Mom, get back to Plastic Ono Band. What is up with all this New York Rock musical stuff?" We recorded "Franklin Summer" [a thirty-minute piece included on the Rising Mixes EP] the first day. Hearing her do that in the headphones made me realize I wasn't even close to expressing myself musically.

To be honest, that was a period of my life when I was staying up till five in the morning, doing God knows what with my friends downtown – heavy-duty partying. Then coming to the studio – tired, wasted, late. I was a total slacker. I've come around since then. But during the making of Rising, I was more of a waste-oid, being a little arrogant: I'm late; it doesn't matter."

My mom would be like, "OK, today I want to do this song. I want you to just play in A-minor." This is how we did the song "Rising." We started playing. And my mom starts going [does perfect imitation of Ono's trademark shriek], doing all this shit. And I go, "Wait a second, Mom. I'm sorry. I didn't realize this was going to be so intense." It's not like playing a tune. You gotta put your life on the line, your soul on the line, when you're playing that shit.

How old were you when you discovered the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album?
She's my mom. It's not like you discover it. But you know what's interesting? There is something about your mother's voice that has a special effect on your body. It has a special frequency. You hear that voice and realize it's the voice that said, "OK," when you were crying when you were two months old. For me to hear my mom's voice is . . . [long pause]

Cathartic?
Yeah, cathartic. But it's also very personal and intimate. I don't know when I realized that Plastic Ono Band was the greatest record ever. I don't know if it was because it's my mom or what. But I got it. Why do I like it? I don't know why people don't like it.

When I play "Greenfield Morning" or "Why" for anybody that I know my age who's into rock, they are fucking floored. When that beat kicks in "Greenfield Morning" [does human-beatbox imitation of the drum pattern] – I would play it for my friends who were only into hip-hop. They'd be like, That's fat. They want to hear Public Enemy rhyming over it.

My dad was saying to the world, "This is it, man. Yoko is it." His inspiration came directly from her. And people didn't get it. It's intense how racist the world is. If she looked like Deborah Harry, I really think the reaction would have been different.

As a musician, do you feel financially privileged or handicapped? You have to show not only that you can make credible records but that you're not just relying on your parents' wealth – the money that came from your father's success with the Beatles – to pave the way and cushion the blows.
I am relying on my parents' wealth. Completely. But it would be stupid to throw the money away. That would be denial. I cant deny who I am.

I'm very lucky in that I don't have to worry about money, simply from the inheritance. I inherited the [song] publishing, so I make money from the Beatles' stuff. That's where my bread and butter comes from.

What would be wrong is if I used that for the wrong reasons. I just want to do right by my privileges. And I feel like I have to take advantage of those privileges, in order to honor the situation. If I ignore them and rebel against them, which I wanted to do in the past – "I don't want any money, I don't want any privileges, I just want to be like everybody else" – that wouldn't be the right decision.

If you're in a privileged position in society, it's good to honor that position and take advantage of it to change things positively. My mom definitely taught me that. I'm gonna try to be that kind of person.

Do you keep an eye on how other celebrity sons and daughters are doing in pop music, like Jakob Dylan?
From afar. I'd love to meet Jakob. I'd love to meet Ziggy Marley. I'd love to talk to those guys about just being celebrity kids. When I first met Stella [McCartney], we stayed up all night talking about it. In a way, we feel like these weird floating islands. And when we bump into each other, it's like, "Wow! What was it like for you? Oh, well, that's what it was like for me, too." I definitely feel that connection with Jakob, even though I've never met him. I'm really psyched for him that he became so successful. Now people are like, "Oh, yeah, Jakob Dylan's dad, he was pretty cool, you know?"

As celebrity kids, you have great advantages in terms of upbringing and opportunity. But if you screw up, everyone assumes you only had the name, not the gift.
It's this weird paradox. I've got all the connections, I've got all the opportunities. But, man, is the world ready to beat you over the head with it, to kick you back into the dirt. The world is really ready to say, "You suck. You're not as good as your parents. You can't sing, you can't play. You're fat and ugly."

It's crazy. It's harsh. I see the success of Jakob and I'm just in awe. "How did you do that? How did you overcome the shadow of your dad and establish your own career so strongly?"

As an adult, are you able to reconcile the difference between the way the world sees John Lennon – the idealization created by the music, the history, the cultural impact and the way you remember him as a parent during those five short years?
The main difference is, he wasn't a god. He was a person like you and me, flesh and blood. He was imperfect; he had doubts. And he had days where he felt like shit, days where he felt good.

People forget how easy it is to overglorify that human being, to mythify them. The reality was, he was my dad. Sometimes he would yell at me for no fucking reason, scream and shout, and I would cry hysterically. If there's anything the public doesn't understand, it's that he was a human being. That when he died, he left a real family behind. And that I miss him every day. I don't miss John Lennon the persona. I miss my dad. I miss the guy who showed me how to clean my penis when I was peeing. Seriously – that's what I miss. I don't miss the Beatle. I mean, I miss the Beatle – as a fan of that era. But, really, what I miss is the guy who put me on his shoulders and we walked on the beach together. You know?

This story is from the June 11th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 788: June 11, 1998
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