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Julian Lennon: Hey, Jude

John Lennon’s firstborn steps out on his own with his debut album

Julian LennonJulian Lennon

Julian Lennon

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

“It sounds like whales.”

Julian Lennon stubs out a Camel Light and half rises from the sofa to peer out the window of his mid-Manhattan hotel room. You can hear the squeaking of cables and cranes cutting through the din of construction on the street 28 stories below.

“It sounds just like whales,” he says in a nasal Liverpudlian drawl that complements the sharp profile and almond eyes he inherited from John Lennon. It’s a resemblance made all the more haunting by the carbon-copy singing and songwriting on his first record, Valotte. It’s a resemblance that’s somewhat overwhelming, even to Julian.

“It drives me mad thinking about it,” he says with a crooked smile, settling back into his seat and his first American interview. “I get confused all the time. I’m never sure whether I’ve got the right answer for anything these days. I’m always asking myself questions, like an idiot, but I only solve problems when it’s time to do it — on the spot. It’s very difficult, but I seem to find my way around.”

If Julian Lennon weren’t straightforward enough to tell you that his confidence and sense of direction are a bit shaky, you’d never know it. At 21, four years after his father’s murder in New York City, he’s vibrant with boyish charm, but he speaks with the thoughtfulness of someone twice his age. “I’ve got a brain now,” he says, running a hand through his longish brown hair. “I used to be a bit loose in the head. I didn’t think too much. Now I think too much.”

So far, it’s been only too much of a good thing. He’s been shrewd enough, after a few false starts, to hook up with veteran producer Phil Ramone and the renowned Muscle Shoals rhythm section for an unusually polished recording debut. Valotte  — named for the French château where he made the demos that landed him a deal with the small British label Charisma Records in 1983 — has yielded a Top 10 single, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” in England, and the album’s title tune is already in the American Top 40. Of course, the immediate success, like his automatic celebrity, is due in no small way to his status as the heir apparent to a rock legend and to the uncanny similarities between father and son. But Julian claims he and Ramone, who produced Billy Joel’s hommage to the Beatles, The Nylon Curtain, made a conscious effort not to emphasize the obvious. “There were times when I’d work something out that Phil would say was too Beatle-ey. It was like, enough is enough. But I can’t change the sound of my voice. Anyway, I’m proud of it.

“My dad was like the wise old man to me,” he continues. “It was like the grasshopper and the ant. I learned a lot from him, looking at what he’s done and what I’ve got to go through and how I’m going to present my case. That’s why I really worked on this album to make it stand by itself, on my merit, though it’s still carrying on, I hope, in the same sort of vein as his. Not the political side yet — I’m too young for that now.”

Born April 8th, 1963, Julian — named for his father’s mother, Julia — was too young to remember much about growing up in the giddy, golden heyday of the Beatles. The first Beatle offspring, he was kept a secret, along with his father’s marriage to his mother, Cynthia, to preserve the pop idol’s glamorous image; he was on board the Magical Mystery Tour bus; he accompanied John to the set of the Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus and met Brian Jones and Eric Clapton. These are merely pictures in a scrapbook. He does recall, however, one time when he played an inspirational role in Beatles history. “When I was about five, I was trundled home from school, and came walking up with one of my watercolor paintings,” he relates. “It was just a bunch of stars and this blond girl I knew at school. And Dad said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky,’ and, well, you know the rest.” Julian, like his father, insists that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was not meant as an acrostic for LSD: “You better believe it!”

Julian has no recollection of his parents’ divorce, not even of Paul McCartney writing “Hey Jude” for him on that somber occasion. McCartney, he says, is the only ex-Beatle who has kept in touch over the years. “I remember rolling about on the floor, wrestling with Paul, when I was a kid. He always sends me telegrams on my birthday, which is nice, and he sent me one about the record a couple of days ago: ‘Good luck, old fruit.'”

For Julian, life without father began when John and his new wife, Yoko Ono, moved to New York. He had been seeing his father every other weekend; now the visits were infrequent but memorable. At 11, Julian made his recording debut playing drums on John’s rendition of the old Lee Dorsey hit “Ya Ya” on Walls and Bridges. For Christmas 1974, his father gave him a “prehistoric” drum machine and took him to Disney World, where John’s celebrity allowed them to bypass the long lines for the rides.

VIP treatment, however, was rare. The disadvantages of his father’s fame seemed to outweigh the advantages. Despite being kept on a tight allowance — his trust fund mainly paid for schooling — he was branded a snotty rich kid and picked on by local toughs. “You couldn’t be too much of a chicken,” he says, “but you couldn’t get too abusive, either, or it was no more front teeth, mate.”

Archetypal conflicts with his second stepfather were also part of the picture. “He was a real pain. I tried to do everything he didn’t want me to do, so there was a lot of fighting. I’d often run away in the middle of the night and go to Justin’s.”

Justin Clayton, one of the guitarists on Julian’s album, has been a close friend since childhood. They used to ignore their schoolwork and hang out with the gym teacher around the pool, playing guitar. They didn’t take to punk music, and when Julian went through a headbanger period, it was more a matter of affecting the tough leather look than any affection for the music itself. The music of choice was Steely Dan and Keith Jarrett — and the Beatles. Julian soaked up Beatlemania secondhand, through the records and films, like any other kid his age, but with a poignant twist. “It was weird to think that the man singing those songs was my father,” he says. “Sometimes it’s still hard to understand.”

In 1977, John Lennon started inviting his first son to New York for more frequent visits. By the time of his death, in 1980, their rekindled relationship was going strong. “He was like a real dad, you know?” says Julian. “I mean, he was the boss. He got heavy on occasion, so I didn’t shoot my mouth off a hell of a lot. I was very quiet. We used to sit down with guitars and mess around, playing old blues and rock.”

For Julian’s 17th birthday, John threw a bash aboard a boat near his Palm Beach mansion. It was the last time they saw each other. Eight months later, the day after his father was shot, Julian flew to New York to be with Yoko Ono and his five-year-old half brother, Sean. The tragedy devastated the teenager; it raised questions he deals with in “Well I Don’t Know,” one of the more dramatic cuts on his album.

“I’d always wondered about life after death,” he explains, “and Dad had said to me that when he died, if he could get in touch, he’d float a white feather across the room — not down, just straight across. So I’ve been looking for that, or something strange. Basically, in that song, I’m questioning myself: Am I seeing things? It’s me asking my friends whether I’m going mad or not.”

There was a period after his father’s death when people were wondering just that. Julian dropped out of school during his last exams and washed dishes at a bistro. He soon left home, because “my mum couldn’t handle me anymore. I used to bring people back to the house every night and blast music.” On his own in London, Julian hit the clubs and made the papers: he was depicted as a drunken playboy, an irresponsible upstart forming groups with names like the Lennon Drops or the Lennon Kittens. “They just made that up,” he says. “I mean, everybody goes out drinking and gets pissed. But, yeah, I guess I didn’t have anything better to do.”

His apparent aimlessness also made him an easy mark for more serious exploitation. One recording deal had him doing a version of “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” at the time an unreleased song of his father’s, which had been stolen from the Dakota by a former Lenono employee and given to Julian. Yoko Ono bailed him out of that one, and his current management disentangled him from other ill-advised recording commitments. He also credits his management with overcoming the prejudice of major-record-company executives, who perceived a project by the son of John Lennon as ticklish, problematic.

As evidence of his newfound maturity, Julian acknowledges his mother on his LP sleeve “for all she’s had to cope with.” He’s even conciliatory toward Yoko Ono, whom he has publicly criticized for being stingy with his inheritance (both money and mementos) and whom he’s been quoted as calling Old Hokey Cokey. “Hokey Cokey is like a nickname, not necessarily a term of affection, but a lot of people took it the wrong way,” he maintains. “I’ve always been very wary of people, anyway, and especially of her for some reason. But there have been lots of times when we’ve had great fun together. It’s just the business side of things that gets in the way.”

Julian has decided it’s better that he wait for the personal mementos until he’s settled into a stable lifestyle: a Rickenbacker guitar his father once gave him has already been stolen. On the financial front, he admits that he occasionally gets help from both his mother and Yoko. At 26, he says, he’ll receive roughly $250,000 from a trust fund he shares with Sean. And now that his own recording career is taking off, he says, “I’m trying to make a living for myself.”

Curiously enough, both of John Lennon’s sons have records and videos out at the same time. “We have a great relationship,” says Julian of Sean, dismissing any suggestion of sibling rivalry. “Unfortunately, we don’t get enough time to see each other. When he’s older, I think we’ll have some fun.”

The sight of Beatles progeny on the music scene may stir revised dreams of a Beatles reunion, but Julian is not likely to consider a concept as dubious as the Junior Beatles. He’s simply satisfied — and relieved — that he’s successfully negotiated his own rite of passage.

“I wanted to get it out of the way,” he says of Valotte. “I had these songs that were written from experience, things I had gone through. It was just having them there and wanting people to listen to them. Now that I’ve got it off my chest, I feel fine. But now I’m worried about the next album, ’cause I don’t know what I’m going to come up with. I’m not sure which road I’m going to take. I’ve got to sit down and think.” 

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