By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Julian Lennon always understood why critics hated him and why, ultimately, his audience abandoned him. But, for God's sake, it doesn't take a genius to figure that one out: It's one thing to do a John Lennon impression from a distance, and something else entirely different -- and seedier -- to do it while standing in the man's shadow. Not that the son-of-a-Beatle was ever very close to the old man -- indeed, Julian was raised by his stepfather Roberto Bassanini, the man to whom he dedicates his new album Photograph Smile. But Julian was screwed from the get-go: He looked like his pop, sounded like his pop, only he wasn't his pop and didn't make his pop's pop.
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For that, he was never forgiven. Hence, Lennon became the ultimate novelty act, a parenthetical footnote in the thousand-page history-of-rock entry "Beatles, The." As in: "Lennon, Julian: Son of John and Cynthia, born April 8, 1963, Liverpool, England. Released debut album, Valotte, in 1984; hit single, 'Too Late for Goodbyes.' Dropped from Atlantic Records in 1991, after release of Help Yourself. Returned 1998 with self-released Photograph Smile."
All things considered, it could have been worse: Think Frank Sinatra Jr.; Wilson Phillips, now best known for Carnie Wilson's online stomach-shrinking surgery; the band Bloodline, which featured Robby Krieger's and Miles Davis' kids; or Ricky Nelson's boys, Siegfried and Roy. Or Jason Bonham, who has spent his entire adult life playing in Led Zeppelin cover bands -- as though it was his old man who wrote or sang "Stairway to Heaven." Or Ringo's kid, Zak Starkey, who inexplicably shows up on Who-related albums, among them ones from Pete Townshend's brother Simon (as in, who?) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing symphonic renditions of "My Generation" and "Pinball Wizard." (Someone really should remind Zak which band his father was in.) And speaking of Pete Townshend, his daughter Emma released a record in 1998 titled Winterland, which went copper in Belgium.
Some rock progeny have managed to elude the skeet-shooting range, among them Leonard Cohen's kid Adam, Loudon Wainwright III's boy Rufus, and Tim Buckley's son Jeff, who, unlike his father, died off-stage. Then again, nobody outside of the rock press has ever heard of these three fellows. Then there's Jakob Dylan, the spokesman for a generation...of frat boys and their girlfriends.
At least Julian, for whom Paul McCartney wrote the sympathetic "Hey Jude," had his one moment in the here-comes-the-sun in 1984, when Valotte was released. Julian's only crimes: He's the son of John Lennon, and his name ain't Sean. If only Julian made records that sounded like bad Beach Boys rip-offs -- then he'd get the respect he craves. If only Julian made a record people other than rock critics liked -- thenhe'd be signed to a real record label, instead of running his own. Such is the 36-year-old's lot in life: always the other Lennon, the wrong Lennon. If only, if only...
Talk to the guy long enough -- say, eight minutes -- and it's clear he sits somewhere between contentment and bitterness. He loves Sean like a step-brother, has made his peace with his old man's abandoning him when he was a child, and it's always Julian who brings up his father's name; it's always Julian who brings up the comparisons to "Dad's nasal tone." He has arrived at a certain conciliation with his legacy; he's comfortable with his last name now, no longer wearing it like sack cloth over a leather jacket. That, he insists, is why Photograph Smile -- a surprisingly charming disc full of baroque pop break-up and breakdown songs -- contains two songs that sound as though they were rescued from the John Lennon Scrapbook: "I Don't Want to Know," which is actually kinda Fab, and "Way to Your Heart," which literally breaks into a little "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" midway through. Depending on your generosity, the songs are either capricious asides or sad, failed nods to something the boy will never be. Julian, of course, insists it's all in good fun, a way of letting audiences know he's fine with being John's first-born. And yes, he does sound like his old man. So friggin' what?
"Without a doubt, 'I Don't Want to Know' doesn't fit the album at all in many respects, and I had to find a place where it would go," he says. "I mean, that was the toughest thing. But the idea behind that was that after so many years of the comparisons and the reviews, I said, 'Well, you know, whether people realize it or not, this is going to be very tongue-in-cheek for me to do.' The thing is as close to dad's nasal tone as possible. That's for the usual reviewers who said in the past that 'You sound just like your dad' or 'You sound just like the Beatles.' That was oh-so-constructive criticism. For the first time in my life and my career, I am saying, 'Well, you know what, yes I do sound like my dad. Now that we both understand this and realize this, let's move on, 'cause I certainly have.'"
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