Watching not just the Beatles but the Beatles' children grow older is one surefire way to be astonished at the quick passage of time. Julian Lennon, the most famous Beatlekid of them all, turns 50 on April 8, which would be cause enough for gasps or sighs, for those of us with a "where did the years go?" mindset. It's all the more breathtaking when you consider that "little" Julian has now lived a decade longer than John did.
Sorting out where Julian stands in the Lennon family firmament as he enters his sixth decade is as puzzling a prospect as ever. Just as friendly relations among the surviving ex-Beatles always seemed to be in an on-again, off-again mode, the same holds true for many of the Fab Four's children and past or present spouses and in-laws. The recurring rifts between Julian and his mum Cynthia Lennon on one side, and Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon on the other, represent one of the most intriguing divides of all.
In 2010, at least some of the polluted water seemed to be under the bridge, when Julian opened a photo exhibition and, at the opening night, four people posed for a photo-op that most Beatles fans thought would never happen: brothers Julian and Sean with their mothers Cynthia Lennon and Yoko Ono. Hell, it seemed, had frozen over.
At that point three years ago, reconciliation seemed to be in the air. Julian seemed to be sorry that he had publicly expressed his disdain for how Yoko had handled things over the years. "I think the key point to all of this for me at least has been Sean," he said at the time. "If I hurt Sean’s mother, then I hurt Sean.”
But a year after that, in November 2011, Julian felt pushed to the breaking point again by being excluded from some gala Fab Four occasions, and used his Facebook page to post his disappointment: "Wow... Snubbed at Macca’s wedding, snubbed at the anniversary of LOVE in Vegas! Snubbed at Macca’s wedding reception in NYC... Snubbed at George Harrison’s film premiere... What have I done to be ignored in such a way? I was not invited to ANY of these events... I thought we had a relationship ... Obviously not... Gimme some truth... Maybe now it’s time to tell the Truth... I & My Mother will NOT be eradicated from history... How dare they."
Shortly after posting that, the ellipses-loving singer deleted that bitter message and substituted a more resigned-sounding post: "Rising above... Always have, always will... And better for it... I luv you Mum... Thank you."
Still, the message about Lennon family relations was clear: To paraphrase his biggest hit, it may not only be much too late for goodbyes, but much too late for good vibes.
In an April 2012 interview with the London Express, he explained that he'd considered the rapid succession of non-invitations to be "laughable. I really did think it’s just too funny to be real. I try to look at it in a lighter way; otherwise I would be at war with everybody." On the subject of the McCartney wedding, the subject of Paul's song "Hey Jude" said: "I am not going to say that we weren’t close because he certainly was around at certain times of my life that were important. The wedding? Well, OK, but at least maybe the reception. All of my friends, who are mutual friends, went. I don’t want to dwell on it. He did get back to me saying someone obviously made a huge mistake and I accept that. I’ll leave it at that.”
As for his occasional bursts of public combativeness, he added, “I think I could handle things a little more delicately but I also don’t want to candy coat things. I don’t want to fight with anybody but there are some things I have to stand up for. That comes from Dad and it comes from Mum. She is not going to take any s--- from anybody, especially given what’s she’s been through in her life.”
Julian may have felt particularly vulnerable in 2011. It was then that he released his first album in eight years, Everything Changes, which was met with mixed reviews and generated no hit singles. The album wasn't even released in America, but there is a plan to remedy that situation. Lennon entered the studio again last summer to record some additional tracks for the album with the idea of giving it a full international release for the first time as well as reissuing it in Europe.
One of those new tracks, "Someday," featuring Steven Tyler on backing vocals, is coming out via iTunes on April 8 to commemorate Julian's 50th birthday. (This follows Lennon being invited to sing backup on the opening track of Aerosmith's album last year.)
Julian certainly hasn't seemed to have his heart too deeply in music since the turn of the decade. That was a far cry from his ubiquity in the mid-'80s, when he followed his platinum debut (Valotte) with a gold follow-up, had two inescapable top 10 singles, and was one of MTV's first breakout stars.
In recent years, he's focused on photography, and had another exhibit open this year at L.A.'s Sunset Marquis Hotel.
“I think it does help that Dad was never a photographer so I am judged by the work alone,” he told the Express last spring. "The fact that the photographs were taken seriously gave me goosebumps." He acknowledged the difficulty of seeing his popularity as a recording artist wane. "Yes, I have had a few knock-backs. Too many to mention. Pulling myself back up on the horse, time and time again, over many years, has been tough...I have been close to quitting on numerous occasions, especially when after the release of an album the comparisons begin without people having even listened to it."
Some Beatles fans have been vocal in saying that Julian's interests would be better served by keeping quiet about his intermittent feuds with Yoko. But few would suggest that he hasn't had a right to grievances about the way he was treated by his father in the two decades when they both walked the earth...or afterward, since he was left out of his father's will. It's a chip that any sane disenfranchised son would have carried on his shoulder.
When Julian was born in 1963, the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, was still doing his best to keep John's marriage to Cynthia under wraps, lest the group's legion of screaming fans have one less lad to lust after. Not that John himself was ever in much danger of independently projecting an image of domestic tranquility or proud fatherhood before he left Cynthia--and Julian--for Yoko in 1967.
Even in 1980, in an interview shortly before he was murdered, John couldn't bring himself to wax overly sentimental about his first child, citing him as one of the "ninety percent of the people on this planet" who resulted from an unplanned pregnancy. "Julian is in the majority, along with me and everyone else. Sean is a planned child, and therein lies the difference," he said. "I don't love Julian any less as a child. He's still my son, whether he came from a bottle of whiskey or because they didn't have pills in those days."
There was little attempt to paint an illusion of father-and-son closeness. "It's not the best relationship between father and son, but it is there," Lennon said in '80. "Julian and I will have a relationship in the future. Over the years he's been able to see through the Beatle image and to see through the image that his mother will have given him, subconsciously or consciously...I'm just sort of a figure in the sky, but he's obliged to communicate with me, even when he probably doesn't want to."
"He was young and didn’t know what the hell he was doing," Julian told Record Collector magazine in 2011. "That’s the reason I haven’t had children yet. I didn’t want to do the same thing. No, I’m not ready. I want to know who I am first.” Hearing Dad's peace-loving stance perpetually celebrated got to Julian. "I have to say that, from my point of view, I felt he was a hypocrite," he told the London Telegraph in 1998. "Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces--no communication, adultery, divorce? You can't do it, not if you're being true and honest with yourself."
Julian has allowed that he is a "mother's boy," and Ono has cited that as the reason why she never got close to him: "Julian and I tried to be friends. Of course, if he’s too friendly with me, then I think that it hurts his other relatives. He was very loyal to his mother. That was the first thing that was in his mind."
John Lennon left his entire estate to Ono, leading to 16 years of legal wrangling before Julian settled in 1996 for unnamed amount which the Daily Mail reported was "believed to" be in the area of 20 million pounds. Cynthia Lennon remembers John being cruel in laying out his terms for the divorce settlement and child support, supposedly saying: "My final offer is seventy-five thousand pounds. That's like winning the pools, so what are you moaning about? You're not worth any more."
In her 2010 memoir, John, Cynthia also described years passing between some father-son visits. Shortly after "Imagine" was released, she wrote, "I picked up the phone to hear Yoko’s voice: 'Hello, Cynthia,’ she said. 'John and I have decided that if you wish to make contact about Julian, you should talk to me'...I had put up with a great deal from John and Yoko, but now they had pushed me too far. I was not willing to deal exclusively with Yoko and told her so. If John wanted to see Julian, I said, he could call me himself. Then I hung up…Surely, I reasoned, Julian meant more to him than some foolish agreement with Yoko about dealing with each other’s ex-partner. I was wrong. It was three years before John saw Julian again.”
Since receiving the settlement, Julian has become something of a John Lennon memorabilia collector. He paid 30,000 pounds, for example, for the coat Lennon dressed up in for the cover of Magical Mystery Tour. "The irony isn't lost on me that I am using his money to buy back his things," he said.
As he predicted, reviews for his 2011 comeback album all invoked Dad. The Telegraph dismissed it with a two-star review: "
This son-of-a-Beatle’s unenviable quest to be taken seriously as a songsmith in his own right seemed to have ended after the failure of 1998’s Photograph Smile...A lethargically-paced exercise in dogmatic, sub-Imagine agonizing about how terrible the world is, it’s hardly likely to help him emerge from his father’s shadow."
Record Collector magazine was more upbeat, saying that while "the genetic lineage is clearly detectable, Everything Changes offers enough of Julian as his own man to be judged on its own merits...The bottom line is that Julian Lennon’s new songs exists in a confident world of classily-crafted adult pop with smart lyrics and solid musical constructions, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ben Folds or John Grant." That critique even claimed a couple of the tunes were "more attractive than more than a few of Lennon Senior’s later efforts."
With even the good reviews drawing the inevitable family connection, it remains to be seen how much Julian has invested in the belated U.S. release of that album, or whether he's happiest trading in albums like Photograph Smile for actual photographs.