"I don't like people to think, 'Maybe they just did music because their daddy did,'" says Otis Redding III, the son of the late soul legend. "When you're born into music and you love it, it's yours every day, whether you're successful or not."
Redding got tired of hearing A&R guys tell him, "Think about your old man's stuff. Make sure your lyrics are really, really strong." His goal, he says, was "to get better as a songwriter, and then you've got people telling you all the time, 'You need to be listening to your daddy!' I learned that just because you're Otis Redding's son, ain't nobody gonna bend over backward for you. Or maybe they will too much. But you know – you just gotta get in where you fit in."
On a chilly night last December, the audience in the tiny club Tonic, an experimentalmusic venue on New York's Lower East Side, included Yoko Ono (sitting up front, in a folding chair) and members of the Strokes, as well as Ben Taylor (son of James), Ethan Browne (son of Jackson) and Sebastian Robertson (son of Robbie). The occasion was an unannounced show by Sean Lennon, Harper Simon, and Yuka Honda, of the New York-based Japanese art-pop band Cibo Matto. The three play together periodically – Sean on acoustic guitar and vocals, Harper on electric guitar and Honda on keyboards. The music is gentle folk rock with some jagged edges, shifting into psychedelia at one point when a tabla player joins them for a song. Harper, though talented, displays a tentative stage presence. He started playing guitar at the age of ten. He's thirty-two now, but he's only become confident as a performer in the past few years. "I've really struggled with playing music," Harper admits. "It's hard to put yourself out there – just because my dad is so damn good. But the truth is, music has always been a passion for me. And when you're ten years old, you're just trying to learn barre chords. You're not thinking, 'Oh, maybe going into a field where one of your parents has had a huge success is not the greatest idea.'"
Harper and Sean are both wary about being identified as the children of rock stars, and Harper only warms to the subject of being Paul Simon's son after several whiskeys. He looks quite a bit like his father – circa One Trick Pony – only with a less gaunt face and an expensive-looking messy haircut. Harper spent most of the Nineties living in the Lower East Side, trying to get over his performance anxiety and taking odd jobs, like portraying a junkie punk-rock kid in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead.
"That was sort of a parody of my life at the time," Harper says. He moved to London four years ago, partly to escape the New York scene, partly to seek anonymity. When he heard, through his friend Stella McCartney, the designer and daughter of Sir Paul, that an eclectic local band called Menlo Park needed a new guitar player, he met with the group and got the job. Since then, he has relished every positive review that makes no mention of his heritage.
When Menlo Park played a gig at Tonic last year, Sean surprised Harper by turning up in the audience. The two have known each other since they were kids: They grew up together in the Dakota, an apartment building that overlooks Central Park. Sean is twenty-nine, and far more relaxed onstage, though his banter with the audience displays a defensive level of self-deprecation. At the Tonic gig, he openly discusses how his record label, Capitol, has delayed the release of his second album, Spectacle, because it lacks a marketable single.
Sean began playing music a few years after his father's death, when he requested piano lessons. "You know, this might sound really cheesy," he says, "and I don't want it to come across in an overly sentimental way, but on some level, my earliest memories of playing piano were a desire to be closer to my dad, who I lost. Because I did associate him with music. So I think a lot of the days upon days I spent just sitting alone at the piano were kind of the closest sense I could experience of being with him. That's how I look at it, anyway. The closer I come to music, the closer I come to understanding him."
Sean divulges this bit of self-analysis very reluctantly and quickly changes the subject. Like Harper, he does not want to be known exclusively as his father's son. "I'm not ashamed of it or trying to avoid it or anything like that," Sean says, "but my life isn't only defined in terms of the celebrity of my parents and therefore by my default celebrity."
Still, like many other children of rock stars, Sean has found breaking free from his parents' fame a tricky proposition. For one thing, he's been in the spotlight since the day he was born. For another – well, look at him. Sporting round, thin-framed spectacles and a beard fit for crossing Abbey Road, he bears an uncanny resemblance to his father.
His parents were fully aware of the burden that Sean would bear. "John and I were very careful about not trying to influence Sean musically or telling him who we were," says Ono. "Sean came home from school one day and said, 'Daddy, were you a Beatle?' John had never mentioned it to him. He didn't have us playing certain music and saying, 'Listen! This is us!'" Ono chuckles. "But you know, now he knows every lick, every intro, every beat of the Beatles' music, of John's music, of my music. Privately, that makes me very happy. I don't know how he found out, but obviously he does some listening."
A few months after the Tonic gig, Sean is sitting in his mother's private gallery on the ground floor of her SoHo loft. John and Yoko lived here briefly in the early Seven' ties before moving uptown to the Dakota. Lighting a Marlboro, Sean sinks back into a plush white chair. Behind him, a vast white wall is covered with seventy-two small abstract drawings by Ono, hung in neat rows of nine. He's facing a larger canvas, also by his mother, which features a huge knife wound dripping blood-red paint. Sean is wearing a pinstripe suit jacket over a burgundy V-neck sweater. There's something quiet about his entire affect, quiet bordering on fragile — from his high, thin voice to his mild demeanor to, of course, the inevitable association one makes between John Lennon's son and sudden, senseless loss.
"I don't think being a musician is something I consciously decided I wanted to do," he says. "I think it's something I was already doing." He pauses. "I'm a little uncomfortable with what I've been saying," he continues. "It's a little too tear-jerky. But in my desire to explore music, which is abstractly connected to my father, at some point I became a musician. Now I've been playing music all my life, and that's the way I interact with the visible universe. I've come to realize that only a few things take away my anxiety, and one of them is playing music. Then maybe saunas and exercise. Reading, too. But if I could not sleep and just play music twenty-four hours a day, that's what I would do."
Do you remember the point you realized your parents were extremely famous?
"Um, yeah. That was definitely when my dad died. It was clear at the time. The crowds of people outside the house, for months and months – years, in fact. It was overwhelming. I was five, so before that my experience was pretty insular. So it went from a relatively insular childhood to looking out the window, seeing thousands of people singing and holding candles. It was a pretty profound experience."
Do fans of your father expect certain things from you?
"People come up to me all the time and say, "You don't understand how important your father's music was to me.' Which I guess is a sweet thing to say, but I feel like, 'Actually, you don't understand. I'm closer to him than you could ever imagine, and for you to say that is ridiculous. How can I not understand? It's you who don't understand that my relationship with him goes way beyond music.' But I don't blame anyone for thinking that way. You have this experience that's real and vital and moving and intense, and you don't think anyone else could understand how you feel."
Sean's 1998 debut, Into the Sun, had a title pun that may or may not have been intentional, but the album was a fairly well-received indie-rock take on what Sean calls "easy, breezy Seventies music." He opened for Beck, Sonic Youth and, weirdly, the theatrical German heavy-metal band Rammstein. ("There were leather studs everywhere," he recalls. "Their fans had a murderous intent toward me.") He also began making the scene – most conspicuously with recent romantic interest Lizzie Jagger. Sean declines to discuss the matter, but the eugenic possibilities of such a match captured the imaginations of tabloid editors around the world. There were shots of the couple hitting clubs, with Sean sporting a Stones T-shirt, and quotes from the likes of Lizzie's mother, Jerry Hall, who declared the pair "so in love" and revealed that Sean had serenaded Lizzie with a rendition of "Imagine."
As for his own music, Sean understands the baggage he carries, and the preconceptions Beatles fans might bring to his work. 'I went to see Charles Mingus' son play – I didn't know anything about him – and stupidly, I had assumed it was going to be jazz," Scan says. "It wasn't. And it's funny, because of anybody, I should not be the one to fall for that stereotypical, preconceived notion of the son or daughter of so-and-so. But I was like, 'It's not jazz? Why?"
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