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With a Hit LP, Julian Lennon Starts Down a Long and Winding Road Toward His Own Identity

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“He’s bloody marvelous, Cyn…. Who’s going to be a famous little rocker like his dad, then?”

—John Lennon to his wife Cynthia, April 1963

He was born with the tidal flood of Beatlemania, sandwiched between the Fab Four’s first No. 1 hit, Please Please Me, and their second, From Me to You. Two decades later his name, face and eerily familiar voice stir memories—and occasionally action. At a fancy Manhattan hotel a couple of weeks ago, punkettes in miniskirts cruised the hallways and camped out in the lobby as part of a ritual that surely some of their mothers had known: They were there looking for a Lennon. This time it was John’s 21-year-old son, Julian, in town to promote his first album, Valotte.

Having seen pictures of the fan reaction to his dad’s band two decades ago, Julian, a pale young man with one dangling earring and a soft North Wales accent, says he’s in no hurry to “get big.” What he’s after, he insists, taking yet another drag on a cigarette, is “more the recognition for the music than the fame.” Valotte, most critics agree, is an important step toward establishing that musical credibility, and the public seems to concur: The LP is nestled snugly in the Top 20, and its sweetly affectionate title track, released as a single, climbed even higher.

The tunes on Valotte—named for the remote French chateau where they were written last year—are lyrically simple and confessional, much like John Lennon’s music during his introspective Imagine years. “I have serious thoughts,” explains Julian, somewhat shyly. Privately he often displays his father’s acid sarcasm and is known to his friends as a prankster with a penchant for racing around London in disguises. “I’m never noticed then,” he says with a grin. “People just think, ‘Why is that man’s mustache falling off?’ ” Such playfulness has yet to emerge in his music—or in most interviews. “Once in a while I really go over the top, you know,” he says. “But most of the time I hide my feelings. I look at people and see the mistakes they make—and I try to avoid them. I write from watching—and from a bit of self-experience.”

He becomes less guarded only with a small circle of friends, and with his mother, Cynthia, who has married twice since Lennon. He’s especially pleased that she’s happy with his success: “She enjoys it immensely. And now she’s looking at it from the outside, instead of from the middle of the storm.” It was Cynthia Lennon who first pointed out the uncanny resemblance between father’s and son’s singing voices, when teenage Julian played her a tape of himself singing to an acoustic guitar accompaniment. “She said, ‘It sounds just like your dad.’ I thought, ‘Oh, does it?’ ” He laughs. “I’m proud of them,” he says of the similarities, although he insists that in the studio he and producer Phil Ramone tried not to cultivate the obvious. “He just said, ‘Sing naturally, wherever the feeling takes you.’ I didn’t think, ‘Oh, sorry, I hit a note that sounds like Michael Jackson. I’d better stop.’ I’m not trying to carry on a tradition—except maybe in the simplicity of Dad’s writing. A lot of songs are too complicated these days, and I think if you’re going to get a point across, you might as well do it in the simplest way, which is what I learned from him. Like Dad’s song Isolation, which inspired many of the songs on my album.

“I’d like to be a wise old man,” he continues. “That’s what I regarded Dad as. Well, not old,” he giggles, “but a very straightforward, speak-your-mind guy. I think if you’ve got something to say, you might as well get it out in the open.”

There were instances in his life when Julian Lennon might have found his father’s candor hard to bear. Like the time in 1980 when Lennon flippantly revealed to an interviewer that his firstborn son had been “unplanned…born out of a bottle on a Saturday night.” Lennon hastened to add that “90 percent of us were accidents…Saturday-night specials.” According to one close friend, Julian was hurt by the casual cruelty, but is now forgiving, and attributes John’s remark to his cynical humor. But almost from the start a tension existed between father and son.

Cynthia Powell was pregnant when she and John Lennon married in August 1962. On April 8, 1963 a son was born, named after John’s mother, Julia, who had died five years earlier. John, newly famous, was on tour with the Beatles and would not see his son for a week. (Even then he had to disguise himself to sneak past waiting fans.) When it came to parenting, John was the original Nowhere Man, taking off on holiday with Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and leaving Cynthia to manage with the baby. Epstein was determined to conceal John’s marriage and infant from his fans, so Cynthia and Julian moved into the Liverpool home of John’s Aunt Mimi, and kept a low profile. Later the Lennons acquired a spacious house in a London suburb, but it was rarely a home. By then John, who had had a surfeit of everything, had turned inward with the aid of mind-altering drugs and left Cynthia to her drawing, needlework and the task of raising their son. Still, Julian, as a tyke, managed to contribute a footnote to Beatle history. One day he came home after school with a painting he had made of a friend named Lucy, silhouetted against a field of stars. It was, he proudly announced, “Lucy in the sky.” Add diamonds and stir at 33 1/3 rpm. John, and now Julian, denied that his kaleidoscopic Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds had anything to do with LSD.

One thing Lennon couldn’t deny was the disintegration of his marriage. By 1968 he had fallen in love with Yoko Ono and retreated into a life with her. “It was hard for John to give space to a child, because he was more involved in growing up himself,” Yoko says today. “His need for love and attention was very large.” Until the end of his life, she says, John was not particularly comfortable around Julian. “I was concerned about it but I felt that John needed a couple more years to come to terms with the relationship. He didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Cynthia was granted a divorce in 1968—and was immediately cut off from most of the Lennon circle. Paul McCartney, who had lost a parent himself and perhaps sympathized with the abandoned child, paid Cynthia a surprise visit, bringing with him a song he said he had written to console Julian: Hey Jude. Only McCartney of the surviving Beatles has kept up with Julian through the years. He continues to send birthday greetings and, after the release of Julian’s album, sent a congratulatory telegram that read: “Good luck, old fruit.” Says producer Ramone, “He was as proud as a godfather who has suddenly seen his son come into the light.”

Living with his mother in northern England, Julian toyed with the guitar and drums when he was 10, but didn’t take music seriously until much later. By then John and Yoko had moved to New York. During the couple’s brief mid-’70s separation, Julian traveled with his dad and John’s then-girlfriend, May Pang, and recorded a song on his father’s 1974 LP, Walls and Bridges. The credit for Ya Ya, a rock chestnut, reads “starring Julian Lennon on drums and Dad on piano and vocals.” It was the first statement Lennon would make about parenthood in his music.

Like any modern teenager, Julian absorbed the music of the Beatles secondhand, through records and films. During the late ’70s he taught himself to play the piano and showed a special interest in jazz and classical music. As for pop music, he liked the punk look but not the sound, preferring the softer, more melodious efforts of Steely Dan, and the Police. By 1977 he was trading blues and rock licks with his father during a Christmas visit to the States. “Just being with him and having fun was the most important gift he gave to me,” says Julian. “Wrestling on the floor—we were silly, over the top, mad in our different ways.”

Julian says his biggest disappointment was that his father “didn’t come to see me. I had to go to him. And it’s a shame, but you know, forgive and forget. I learned quite a bit from observing what he went through, the good bits and the mistakes. I’d rather not think about the times when I didn’t see him, and I hope I’ll meet him up there for a drink or whatever when I disappear.”

John, too, expressed regret about his estranged relationship with Julian. In 1980, when he surfaced after five years of reclusiveness, he told this reporter that his unshakable resolve to spend time raising Sean, his child with Yoko, was partly an attempt to atone for having missed Julian’s childhood. “No matter what artistic gains I get or how many gold records, if I can’t make a success out of my relationship with people I supposedly love, then everything else is bullshit,” he said. “There’s a price to pay for inattention to children.”

Lennon promised that “Julian and I will have a relationship in the future.” That never came to pass. Eight months after John threw him a 17th-birthday party bash on a boat in Palm Beach, Julian, halfway around the world, had a premonition that something was wrong: On the night of Dec. 8, 1980 his chimney collapsed. The next morning he was on a plane to New York to be with his father’s widow and 5-year-old Sean.

“We’ve always got our troubles/So we solve them in the bar,” Lennon sings in Valotte. He was devastated by John’s murder. Having finally found his father, he had lost him again—this time forever. Back in Wales, “I was a handful,” he admits. “I’d bring 12 people back to my bedroom and booze it up.” (On his album Julian thanks Cynthia Lennon “for all she’s had to cope with.”) He moved to London and jackknifed into a life of glitzy nightclubs and tacky people. “I must admit I didn’t think much of him when we first met three years ago,” says Dean Gordon, now Julian’s close friend and manager. “You know what it’s like when you see someone that people are living off? They were using him as a meal ticket. Hangers-on who wanted access to clubs, club owners who wanted the free publicity he brought them. You could see he was someone trying to have fun—but he wasn’t. He was very insecure. He would get into deep conversations with people he didn’t even know. He needed to have these conversations, but he was having them with the wrong people.”

His naïveté made him an easy target for one fagin who signed him to a long-term contract and pressed him to record unreleased songs of his father’s. (Julian later learned the tapes had been stolen from John and Yoko’s apartment.) Yoko eventually paid $20,000 to the promoter to free her stepson from his commitment.

“I’ve learned quite a lot—it was nasty,” says Julian. “I take care of myself now. I still talk to people, but I don’t let them get too close.” Age and experience helped. So did a few good friends, including Debbie Boyland, 21, Julian’s girlfriend of two years. “I can confide in one person,” he says of their steady relationship. “I’m not one for flings, I can tell you that.”

Julian says his father’s death was the turning point that convinced him to “work harder, not sit around. I felt I had to go out and do something.” Given his interests and public curiosity, music was a natural choice. Manager Gordon offered him financial aid if Julian promised “a good effort,” and they contacted Ramone—whose work with Billy Joel and Paul Simon they both admired—to produce Julian’s first LP. Skeptical at first, Ramone became convinced that Julian was serious about a career in music. “His turning point was taking a stand, deciding to find out if he was capable of being a musician,” says Ramone. Julian was a quick study. “I’d show him some tricks with a drum machine and leave him alone for two hours, and he’d expand far beyond what I’d shown him,” says the producer. “He can hit your heart with a lyric and be clever with a melody. Music is the joy of his life, no doubt about it.”

Julian’s answer to people who criticize his career choice is that “if my dad had been a world-famous carpenter and I did what he did, I would have been praised. People would have said, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ But it’s the music business and the public feels possessive about Dad. They probably didn’t expect the similarities. I didn’t either. I mean, I hear bits now and then, but a lot of people are looking for it, dragging the dregs, saying, ‘Listen, that note sounds…’ I mean, there’s no need for that.

“Maybe give it five or 10 years. Then if I can prove myself, I can get out from under his shadow. I used to feel I was in a goldfish bowl. Now the water is rising and I’m poking my head out. Maybe someday I’ll crack the glass.”

Julian claims he is not the rich kid people think he is. Cynthia Lennon helped him buy a flat in fashionable Kensington, and he claims he “scrapes together” a living, often borrowing from his mother and his manager. “I’m earning my way to furniture,” he jokes. He has publicly criticized his father’s widow—whom he once called “Old Hokey Cokey”—for withholding money as well as mementos from his father’s estate. Now conciliatory, he says the press “blew those stories out of proportion—a lighthearted comment taken too far. I think Yoko is great—a strong woman, and I really respect her. It’s other people who have created the bitterness between us. It’s like, ‘Well, couldn’t she have given you more money?’ I said, ‘Well, she could have. I’m not bothered. I’m just waiting to earn it myself.’ ”

The only money John left Julian was in the form of a £250,000 trust fund set up when the Lennons divorced. Julian will not gain control of any capital until he is 26. For now, he admits, Yoko pays his bills (roughly $2,000 a month), and recently she surprised him with one of his father’s fur coats. Although one friend says Julian may have felt eased out of the Lennon legacy—”To Yoko, the only heir to the throne is Sean,” the friend says—last summer, when Julian visited New York during the ground breaking for a John Lennon memorial in Central Park, Yoko persuaded him to join Sean at the dedication. Later he was invited to Sean’s 9th birthday party—simple acts that demonstrate an attempt on her part to draw him closer.

Gordon says that he believes Julian “is much happier with himself now than he has been in the past.” His client is still cautious. Talking about success and its consequences, Julian peppers his remarks with phrases such as, “When I’m a bit older and more comfortable with myself,” or “I have a lot of doubts, obviously,” or “I take it day by day. Good things can happen. And bad.”

He is still stalked by dark thoughts. He has received death threats and is considering hiring a bodyguard. “It’s worth it,” he says. “Dad had the opportunity. He used to have guards. It’s unfortunate that the week before, he changed his mind—he said, ‘I think we’re okay on our own.’ ” His voice trails off.

In Well, I Don’t Know Julian sings about feeling “the presence of the dead.” The song was written with his father in mind. “It’s about looking for signs of afterlife from Dad,” says Julian. John once told his son that when he died, if he could make contact, he would float a white feather across a room. Julian hasn’t seen a feather, but sometimes he feels that someone is watching him. “When I’m on my own, worried or scared, I just think about him a lot, you know. I almost talk to myself.” He laughs self-consciously. “For a while I was looking for some sign or something strange, but I’m not looking for it anymore. I believe if you look too much, you may not find it.” At any rate, John’s is not a threatening ghost. Last summer, while Julian was finishing his album at New York’s Hit Factory studios, he worked on the same console that his father had used to record Double Fantasy. “Do you feel the ghosts?” Ramone asked him. “They feel good for me,” said Julian. “The vibes feel good and I want to be here.”