The Dragon's Roar
An Interview with Julian Lennon
What, you might ask, does Julian Lennon have to do with American roots music? More, what does this famous man whose music falls into the pop and rock categories have to do with honky tonks, twin fiddles or steel guitars? Well, as one famous American hero, Roy Nichols (Merle Haggards guitar player for 22 years) once told me, All good music is connected. Such is the case here. And while you are never going to find him hanging out in a smoke-filled honky tonk off of the old 99 that runs from Bakersfield to Sacramento or performing at the opening of the Reno Rodeo, it is hard to deny his place within the scope of good music today.
Further, just speaking his name brings to mind a flurry of images; images that do not a complete picture make of the man he has become. For many, he was THE child of the Age of the Beatles, the first-born son whose very existence represented some kind of new mythology within popular world culture. However, beyond the image and the memories stands the man who was at one time that child. It is his story that you will hear this time around as The Dragon Roars.
The son of a Beatle, Julian Lennon's fate was seemingly cast in stone by the time he was 10 years old. An earlier foray into the music business began with the release of his highly-touted debut in 1984, Valotte, which included the hit "Too Late For Goodbyes," and ended in disappointment by 1991 with Help Yourself after several other unsuccessful projects. Treated like a prefabricated clone of his famous father, he was pushed and prodded by corporate forces, as well as by the ignorant masses who desired only to secure a John Lennon replacement, into being something he was not.
Recalling that time the singer-songwriter states, "For me there was just no consistency within the industry. You couldn't maintain a group or family connection. Either somebody is leaving the company or fired. Or, whether the companies were being bought and sold themselves, it was just impossible to build upon any sort of relationship within these companies. That's extremely frustrating from the public side and within the industry to have to reprove yourself over and over and over again."
His label experience also details the sharp contrast between an artist and the mindless corporations that have taken over the music industry. "After I was sold off to Atlantic, so to speak, and after I moved to America, I was much more in the hands of Atlantic than I was with Virgin over in Europe. For many, many years Atlantic was pulling the strings. That was a different scenario altogether than the original idea when I signed up with a very small indie label in England. The famous Charisma label that got eaten up by Virgin," he laughs dramatically. "It was fine at the time until Virgin made another deal and became part of another company."
Admittedly, his initial go 'round in the music business allows him some valuable perspective on his own career. "I didn't have a bloody clue as to what was going on. Again, it was putting too much faith and trust in other people and just sort of being carted around from one situation to another. Now, not a day goes by, not a thing gets past me that I don't have the final say-so."
Today, after seven years away from the industry, time he spent living life to the fullest, Jules is back. "I feel like I had a break. It separates me and the work from the past. It was very difficult to actually come out and do this again."
But, things are vastly different this time around. For one thing he has his own label, Music From Another Room, and is most certainly calling all the shots. He also has a brilliant new project, Photograph Smile, already released in Europe to glowing reviews, and he is prepared on all levels for the grueling grind of a world tour. Moreover, while he is wiser and older, he is still not who or what many people want him to be. He is, first and foremost, who he wants to be--his own man. Asked to define himself, he answers crisply, "I consider myself a very courteous, respectful, kind, generous -- maybe overly generous -- person. And a damned hard worker!" he adds, laughing. But, he notes that life should be enjoyed and believes that he is finally succeeding at that, too. "Over the last three or four years I've made some major strides forward in resolving many of life's problems, not only on a professional level, but on a personal level too."
A writer who has come to believe that living a balanced life is the key to all things, including one's writing, he says "I very much care about what I do. It's an art, it's a craft. I take it very seriously. I write it because I feel it. It's an expression."
When asked about the melancholy nature of the material on Photograph Smile he mentions that "It's so easy to write happy songs. We all know what it's like to feel happy. But, it's those moments of loneliness and quietness and despair and pain that a lot of us in this world don't know how to deal with. I feel that through the work that I do it will provoke, hopefully, other people's thoughts and maybe, in the end, will help resolve some of their issues."
As for his own issues, they, like Julian's history, are forever intertwined with those of popular culture around the world and the Beatles themselves. Recent comments concerning his father's widow and his criticism of how she is handling the Lennon estate continue to stir the media into a feeding frenzy. Not to mention the fact that he is forever being asked about his relationship with his younger half-brother Sean, who released a CD, Into the Sun, on the same day, May 18, 1998, as Julian's European release of Photograph Smile. A coincidence? That is doubtful. But, Julian's deep feelings for his sibling go beyond pettiness and superficial competition. "Sean I love very much. Sean is a talent. I think he's got a lot of hard work ahead of him," he mentions somberly before adding jovially "He's not only got his father, but me to deal with. So, as far as comparisons, twice as much trouble!"
But, as he is now willing to admit, his own connection and the comparisons to his father and the Beatles remains strong. For a long time he fought it, trying to distance himself from it. Attempting to find himself beyond the hype and public interest was a Herculean effort that could have destroyed a lesser soul. Today, a strikingly handsome man of 35 who still possesses the intense, dark eyes of the child he once was, and who resembles his mother as much as his father, Lennon has accepted his past and says quite plainly, "That's my karma."
His karma is well documented. Born April 8, 1963 in Liverpool, England, John Charles Julian Lennon is the son of Cynthia Powell and John Lennon, who met at art college in 1958. Married in August of 1962 just prior to the musical explosion that would forevermore be known as Beatlemania, the Lennons' married life was difficult at best for the young mother and her only son. The first child of the Beatles era, both young Jules and his classically beautiful mother were kept hidden away from the growing numbers of Beatles fans around the globe at the insistence of manager Brian Epstein. Touring, making records and being a Beatle resulted in the eventual demise of the Lennons' marriage, even after the existence of Cynthia and Julian was made public.
But, as any child of divorce will attest, you are always your father's child, no matter what may transpire. For Julian Lennon, that was a fact that the world would not let him forget--ever.
Growing up on the Continent with his mother as his most significant influence and source of comfort, Lennon saw his father only a handful of times between his parents' 1969 divorce and his father's death in 1980.
In praise of his mother, a lady who has sustained her dignity and grace in the face of bitter scrutiny and constant media intrusion, he confides, "She, without a doubt, gave me my moral guidance. Mum sowed the seeds for that. Obviously, anybody can go any which way. But, there were very strong seeds sown." His voice softens a touch when he says, "Everybody who has met her feels the same way about her. There's a genuine sincerity, truth and honesty that comes from her that's obviously a very serious influence in my life. We speak every couple of days. We have the usual long chats. She's one of my best friends for that, if not the best." His mother also gets high marks for being his strongest supporter. "Fortunately, she has had enough belief in me in time of trouble that she obviously felt that in the end I would resolve the situation or circumstance. It was a question of learning that the only person who can resolve anything in your life is you."
And what was the most important thing he learned from his mum? Collecting his thoughts, his words are carefully selected as he answers, "Whenever I felt overwhelmed, as a kid or when I was going into the profession, she would say to me, 'Jules, hold on a second. Look at the other person's point of view, the other person's perspective; what they've seen, what they've heard, what they think about. You always have to take into consideration that other side of an argument. It will never be just your point of view and you will never be able to understand and communicate on all levels unless you do. This is something you have to be aware of.' I've learned by that and I believe in that."
Another huge influence who taught Julian about life was his step-father, Robert Bassanini. Growing up for a time in Bassanini's sunny Italy also gave him a love for Italian culture, food and their way of life. He describes the Italian lifestyle when he says, "It's not working to live, it's living to work. They wake up, do a little bit of work and eat and socialize for 4 hours and do a bit more work and socialize and eat for another 6 hours. They truly enjoy life. To me, that's what it's about. Otherwise, what's the point? You work yourself to an early grave and that's the end. And the French are not too dissimilar in that respect. I'm a resident in Italy. That has a lot to do with the fact that I spent many years there with my step-father. The culture, the kind of people they are," he states affectionately.
Dedicating Photograph Smile to Bassanini only makes the significance of this relationship more pertinent to the man Julian Lennon has become. "He was the one who took me to school, fed me, clothed me. He took me to the movies and that kind of stuff. He was the kind of man who enjoyed every moment of his life and wanted everyone to enjoy it too. I try and live by those statements. It's a little difficult, of course. He was very much an ideal--life is too short, so enjoy it while you can. That meant a lot to me."
While fans loyal to his famous father would prefer a more idealized, flawless portrayal of John Lennon, his eldest son reflects on him as a very human being. Pointing out that both of his parents were young when they married, he explains, "That obviously figures into it and that is why in trying to resolve things in life I have to look at every angle and realize, my God, he was only in his early 20's! In the situation that he was in--being the first Beatle to have a wife and kids that were not supposed to exist anyway. And the fame that came along so quickly...that's got to be a tough situation to be in." He's matter-of-fact when he says, "I just feel that as a father, what John Lennon gave to me was what not to do. As a father. That was probably the biggest learning point I got from him as a human, as a father, how not to treat your wife and kids. There's a great level of forgiveness there, but there is also a great level of anger as in 'Why didn't he figure it out? Why didn't he understand sooner?' Which is what makes me feel bitter and angry at times. Unfortunately, the one thing that will never be resolved in my life is that. Which is an uncomfortable thing to have hanging on your shoulders. And, a very awkward thing."
But his discomfort is much lighter and less evident today than it was when he began his education in the music business back in 1984. Like going to college, his first 15 years in the industry were tough. A self-assured individual, he speaks with knowing and excitement about his new project. Believing that this is really his first record, the one that is most truly him, he says of the recording process, "I was finally putting myself in a place where there wasn't going to be any intrusion into the work I was doing. That allowed me to get on with it in the most natural way possible. There was nobody knocking at the door saying it wasn't commercial enough or it wasn't up-tempo enough."
As for the contents of the material on Photograph Smile he confesses, "To a degree, I would say a majority of the album is personal. But there are some commercial elements to it, of course." Laughing, he adds "Unless you never want to be heard again you have to add some of that into it. But, I try and keep it as real and as honest and as new as possible."
Co-producing the project with his Music From Another Room partner, Bob Rose, gives Lennon another reason to be so pleased with Photograph Smile. Rose, whose own credits include the legendary Roy Orbison, has proven to be a perfect in-studio counterbalance for Lennon.
With songs that are melodically strong as well as with lush lyrics that are made bold by the sturdy harmony evident in his style, Lennon proves himself to be an adept, well rounded artist, songwriter and performer. He also displays the kind of talent for melody that is more akin to the kind of music associated with Paul McCartney as opposed to the rebellious style of his late father. Listeners familiar with the music of the Beatles will find several instances where Lennon purposefully tips his hat to the Beatles as he does on "Day After Day" ("Fool On the Hill") or "I Don't Want to Know" ("Hard Day's Night"). But, as he has already confessed, this is part of who he is and part of the music he makes.
What about the influence of Paul McCartney? Is there a connection? "Yeah, very much so. You see, Paul's truly the melodic one. Dad's always been the raw aggressor, which I do like as well. But, I've always had an ear for melody whether it be instrumental like Keith Jarrett or listening to bands like Steely Dan or Don Henley, the Doobie Brothers--people like that. If any comparisons are to be made, particularly arrangement-wise, I would say it leans much more towards Paul. A lot of people don't get that. But, it's true."
Lennon's catchy-yet-light "Kiss Beyond the Catcher," an appealing upbeat pop number that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the album, is very much like something the clever McCartney might write in a moment of whimsy. Lennon, who describes himself as a storyteller, says, "It almost didn't end up on the album." Admittedly, the song is as much a part of Lennon as the darker tunes, "There are times when it's me, when I'm carefree."
Concerning McCartney, who wrote the song "Hey Jude" for a young Jules and was the only Beatle to keep in touch with Julian and Cynthia after the divorce, he is dear to Lennon as is apparent when he speaks of his father's old friend. "I have a great fondness for Paul," whom he sees maybe once or twice a year. "He is very much like an uncle. It's an extended family. Obviously I look at it from the perspective, too, that I'm the son of one of his best friends who is no longer around. That's got to be difficult for him. Especially when he sees the physical comparisons or even the work I do. There's always been an awkwardness. I wouldn't say a barrier, but an awkwardness in our meetings in the past. But, it's very difficult, especially when you get older, to feel like there's more distance than just the years."
Recalling his last visit with Paul at McCartney's home, Lennon acknowledges, "I feel that the last time we met was probably one of the first times we broke through as adults. I went to see him at the beginning of 1998, literally a couple of months before Linda passed away. He was in very good spirits." As to what allowed the two men to move beyond the adult-child relationship they had functioned within for so long, he chuckles, "The thing that broke the ice was talking about Yoko! That's when the barriers came down and we had a laugh. He was digging up old stories like you wouldn't believe, (stories) that only he should be allowed to tell, really. It was very, very lovely and very, very sweet."
The untimely passing of McCartney's wife Linda evokes heartfelt emotion from him. "I feel deeply upset and saddened for him over this last year. I haven't spoken to him since Linda passed away because I feel there is a time and a place that's right. And, I know what it's like, obviously, when people die. From my point of view, there are times when you want to be left alone." Adding respectfully, "I'd rather the next time I speak to him or the next time I see him that I make it more a personal and real expression of my sadness and emotion over what he's had to deal with."
Bound together by many things, Julian Lennon and Paul McCartney are also connected by a musical instrument as well. Known for his bass playing in the days of the Beatles, McCartney also possessed a wonderful ability to play piano, which became apparent later on in his still-vibrant career. Lennon, who was given both a guitar and drum kit as gifts by his dad, was only truly inspired to peruse music when his mother bought him a piano. He was 16 or 17 at the time: "It's a beautiful, old upright Steinway that used to be a friend of my mum's and he was moving. He used to play a lot of jazz. I'd always had a keen interest and whenever I went over to his house I would always be sitting at the piano, teaching myself." He also admits to writing 20 minute instrumental pieces until he was persuaded by his young friends that lyrics were important and 20 minutes was way too long to keep someone's attention. "I taught myself how to trim long instrumental pieces to 5 minutes," he laughs.
"I feel that this new album will finally, hopefully, break through the barriers for me as an artist and as a person. I think the preconceptions about me and my life have gone on for far too long. I felt like there were a lot of facades, to a degree, before due to the people I was working with and their perception of who I was. From day one I've never been one to consider having an image. What is most important to me and shall always be, is the music and how it affects you and other people."
important is control. "That was the objective. To
finally have control of the professional and
personal." Gaining control and liking it, he
observes, "So much of my life wasn't (under my
Just as important as reestablishing himself as an artist is getting Music From Another Room off the ground. "It's basically myself and Bob Rose who co-produced the album, with another business partner who runs the business on a management level. We go by instinct, intuition and heart. We follow those rules only, not what the industry says or does."
Lennon knows the score as far as surviving as an indie label is concerned. "You are faced with a lot of walls that must be broken down. But," he says with a smile, "we seem to have been able to achieve that in the areas we've really worked," referring to his CD, which is not only out in Europe and Australia, but in Japan as well. The significance of Japan is specifically important to him because he recalls an instance during the course of promoting his project to the Japanese where the distributor did nothing. Taking the bull by the horns, Lennon and company made things happen for themselves. He notes, "Purely by just getting out there and doing radio or the in-stores or setting up your own idea of what the public would like, we were able to achieve a Number One there without any (other) record company support whatsoever." The business-savvy new label head believes, "There are ways of doing it. It's just a question of if your mindset is ready to work hard and if you believe in yourself enough and what you do. That's what it truly takes, in the end. It may take a long time--it took me a hell of a long time. But, as far as I can see, that's the only way of doing it."
With ambitions beyond his own work as an artist for his label, Lennon foresees signing other artists, but he remains grounded in reality when he notes, "The thing that is going to make or break the company itself is what happens with me and this album. So far I feel we've done extremely well. Within the first year we're out of the red. Within six months is when we would go into profit, with our fingers crossed."
Of the business strategy he and Rose practice, Lennon admits, "It's a lot more work than relying on other people who won't necessarily do the job. It's a way that, at the end of a hard day's work, you can wake up the next morning, look in the mirror and you can at least say you haven't stabbed yourself in the back or lied to yourself. You're actually following your dream and doing it."
Still single, the singer is a man of many talents and interests. While his music is paramount at the moment, he remains a multifaceted individual whose ambition it is to find the perfect home, preferably in his beloved Italy, where he can grow vegetables, cook, paint, sculpt, practice the photography that has become one of his passions, clean and maybe even write a book. To this end he says, "I've many, many pieces in bits and bobs in books and I'd like to sit down one day in the not too distant future and put something together." Musing over the proposition he reveals, "I'd probably call it, "The Closet Philosopher."
In addition to his music he's also involved with many charities and will plan his 1999 tour so that he can do a full-blown benefit show for one local worthy cause or another at each and every location he stops at all around the world. While he refuses to be a spokesperson for any one cause or organization, he does feel it is important to use his position for the highest good. He explains, "My point and my connection in all of this is, as in my song, "How Many Times," is just to remind people and make people aware that there are situations that are not going to go away." He adds firmly, "The only way things are going to change is by everyone making a difference."
Another project he is happily involved in is making documentary films about the indigenous peoples of the world. Three films are in the works, including one entitled "The Gathering." Filmed at a spot in northern Australia where the whales gather at a certain time of the year called Whole Rock in September of 1998, "The Gathering" documents the coming together of more than 20 tribes from around the world. These many tribes spent a week sharing their stories and histories with each other. Lennon remarks with awe at the thought of such an event, "It's the first time this has happened in history."
However, for the moment, he is putting most of his energy into Photograph Smile. His world tour will bring him to the U.S. from April through August. "I enjoy the stage thing, but I'm generally pretty nervous and pretty anxious about the whole idea of getting up and having that rapport with an audience. There aren't many artists I go to see, but I truly find it disrespectful when an audience comes to see you--yeah, they are happy to see you get up and play--but, I think they truly do want some communication from you apart from running the songs through. I feel it is the audience's right to know how such things came about," referring to the act of songwriting. "Or , what you feel about a particular song. For me that's as important, if not more important, than the actual show itself."
How he feels about his own songs is evident when he says, "I felt I'd done some good work in the past, here and there." But, as he learned, "If you are going to write about it you have to experience it." Photograph Smile is the first project, he believes, that fully reflects his life and his experiences. "When people actually get a chance to sit down and listen to it people will understand about me, who I am.
To find out more about Julian Lennon, his new release Photograph Smile, or his tour schedule, click on the following websites:
Jana Pendragon can be reached at email@example.com