How did author Philip Norman get Sean Lennon to open up? “He has that honesty John had,” says Norman, who interviewed the now 33-year-old musician for his new biography John Lennon: The Life. “If he thinks you’re really interested, he’ll tell you.” Below, an excerpt from the book.
As a rule, the only memorable childhoods are unhappy ones. Sean was idyllically happy with John, yet their hours together linger.
“I remember that my dad was always barefoot. And for some reason he was very interested in teaching me to pick up pens and things between my toes.
I remember him teaching me how to cut and eat steak, which was a mystery to me at age 4. I think it was that night when he got upset with me, I think because I did something very cheekily with the steak. He did wind up yelling at me very, very loudly to the point where he damaged my ear, and I had to go to the doctor. I remember him holding me and saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ He did have a temper; I don’t think that’s a secret.”
Not surprisingly, the dearest memory is the sound of John’s voice.
“Every night when I was going to sleep, he’d come in and say, ‘Good night, Sean,’ and he’d flick the light switch in the rhythm of his words, so that they’d wink in time. There was something very comforting about that.”
Sean had been oblivious to everything late on the night of Dec. 8, 1980. Initially he could make no sense of what greeted him the next morning.
“I remember someone telling me my mom wants to talk to me, and sensing the very strange atmosphere in the house and these crowds outside. My mom is sitting in bed, and I swear I remember seeing a newspaper and almost understanding something about the headline. I remember her telling me, ‘Your dad’s been shot and killed,’ and the thing that felt most important to me was that I didn’t want her to see me cry.
In retrospect I find it very sweet that we were able to mourn with everybody, but at the time it was terrifying. So I remember walking slowly out of the room and it being hard not to cry, and as soon as my mom couldn’t see me, running down the hall and bursting into tears and slamming the door. I think for days I cried.”
In the terrible days that followed, there were times when the 5-year-old felt completely alone. “My mom seemed very tired—I’ll put it that way. She stayed in bed a long time. I remember different people trying to comfort me. But my mom and dad didn’t really maintain family relationships. They’d ‘burned a lot of bridges,’ as my mom would put it. So it’s not like we had a lot of other people around who were like parental figures. My dad was gone: That was it. Everyone else was just an employee.”
Years were to pass before he pieced together who [his father] had actually been. “When I was a kid I did feel jealous of the world for having known and spent more time with him than I did. But in a way the experience of someone that you can get through their work is not comparable to the experience you can get just from sitting on someone’s lap. And that’s reality—the way the light hits someone’s hair, the sound of their footsteps in the hallway.”
As Sean grew older, he found the best way of coming close to John was through music. “I remembered him playing the piano, so I started playing too. And when I did I always felt like I was communing with him.
[The songs] I loved when I was a kid were ‘Watching the Wheels’ and ‘Woman.’ Oh … ‘Woman’! It just sort of shimmered. I remember knowing that he wrote it about my mom and feeling love, almost like a golden light, the love he had for my mom.
That song broke my heart after he died. Double Fantasy was all over the radio; you couldn’t get away from it. It was like a knife in my heart. It took me a good 10 years before hearing his voice wasn’t an incredibly difficult thing.”
And, he admits, it still is. “If I’m at a party and someone casually puts on Sgt. Pepper, it’s hard for me. I can’t just hang out, drink wine, smoke cigarettes and listen to those songs.
My mom doesn’t really understand why I don’t want to meet those who worship John Lennon, why I don’t want to go to the John Lennon Museum. It just hurts too much. If I owe it to my mom to do it, I’ll do it because I love her the most. But I have the music and the memories, and that’s what is precious to me. I have him in my heart.”