To be honest, I've never considered the people surrounding John Lennon to be of much importance. My fascination has always been with John himself. I've long considered him to be an extraordinary talent, superior to each of his mates in that band we called The Beatles.
The tragedy of his death in 1980 left a black hole in the music industry, and I have often found myself wondering what John would be doing musically today if he had survived that fatal December night. It's impossible to say, of course, but I suspect his future might not have been all that different from what we might see, if only we opened our eyes.
So the couple married on August 23, 1962, and the Lennons' son, John Charles Julian Lennon, was born at 7:45 am on April 8, 1963, in Sefton Hospital.
The marriage lasted until 1968 when, after some bitter negotiations between John and Cynthia, a divorce was finally granted on November 8.
Life after John was never easy for Cynthia. She was married and divorced twice more, until she finally married Noel Charles in 2002, with whom she remained until his death in 2013.
Following John's death and her third divorce from John Twist in 1983, she changed her legal surname back to Lennon and has remained Cynthia Lennon to this day. I'm not sure the change was a sentimental gesture. After all, there surely must be more fame and fortune in being a Lennon.
With her financial well-being always seemingly in something of a disarray, she began auctioning off the memorabilia of her life with John, including a personally drawn Christmas card from John to her that fetched £8,800 at Christie's in August, 1981, as well as antiques from Kenwood, the family home. Another set of items, including some of John's drug paraphernalia, brought over $60,000 for her in 1995.
I have always thought of Cynthia Lennon as something of a victim in the history of John Lennon. She was, after all, seemingly too easily displaced by the other women in John's life, primarily I suppose, by Yoko Ono. For Cynthia, divorce must have signaled a significant "missed opportunity" to enjoy the richness of life in the inner circle of The Beatles. To be banished from that kingdom must have been heartbreaking indeed. Still, to sell off her memories of her days with John seems a little crass as something of a financial grab at all that was left. Then again, I suppose you do what you have to do, and when opportunity knocks, you answer the door.
Sadly, Cynthia Lennon passed away from cancer on April 1, 2015, at the age of 75.
Even when it became common knowledge that John was indeed married and had a child, there seemed to be some kind of emotional gap between father and son. In a 1980 interview, just before his death, John remarked:
John went on to cite Julian as one of the "ninety percent of the people on this planet" who resulted from an unplanned pregnancy:
These are not the usual loving words between a father and a son. It appears as if John held a longtime resentment over doing the "right thing" by marrying Cynthia.
When Yoko Ono came onto the scene in 1967, precipitating the break-up of his parents' marriage, Julian was firmly ousted from his father's life. Just five years old at the time, Julian must have found this new turn of events confusing and painful. John and Julian didn't see one another for months, even years, at a time.
Paul McCartney felt so sorry for the young boy that he wrote "Hey Jude" to cheer him up soon after Cynthia and John divorced.
Ever since those early years of his life, Julian has been fighting to be acknowledged. He is asked about his father wherever he goes and his own musical talent — he is a songwriter, guitarist and singer — has been overshadowed by the awe in which John is held. The irony of being criticised as somehow trading on the established reputation of a man who was virtually absent from his life must have caused Julian to feel a certain amount of resentment and exasperation.
After the divorce, despite the millions John was making, John kept Cynthia and Julian on a financially-tight leash — they got a yearly maintenance allowance of £2,400 (in 1968, about $5,800 US).
Things got worse when John was murdered and Julian was just 17.
The crowning blow seemed to have been that Julian wasn't named in John's will, and it took Julian 16 years — and the threat of a prolonged court case — to persuade Yoko to hand over any of the Beatles's millions.
So, while Sean and Yoko enjoyed an inheritance of £200 million (over $310 million US), Julian is believed to have received £20 million ($31 million US) in 1996.
No one would argue that the award of that amount of money is pocket change, but Julian has always said the thing that hurt most was Yoko did not allow him to keep any of his father's possessions. He has since bought back items from auction houses, including the postcards his father sent him from around the world.
Julian's bitterness over the relationship that he had with John extends beyond financial and sentimental concerns. In fact, Julian has openly admitted that the way his father treated him made him decide against having children of his own:
He would like to have children now, but while he has been engaged twice — to socialite Lucy Bayliss and actress Olivia d'Abo — he has never married and is currently single.
For a time, Julian made something of a name for himself as a musician. In 1984, he enjoyed immediate success with his debut album
, produced by Phil Ramone. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1985, and generated two top ten hits, the title track "Valotte" and "Too Late for Goodbyes."
|Julian Lennon's "Valotte"|
After his initial success, however, his career took a downward spiral, culminating in a 2011 release of a so-called "comeback album," Everything Changes.
Predictably, reviews for his 2011 album all included references to John. Britain's 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."
magazine's review was somewhat 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 exist 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."
Unabashed by the reviews, Julian has 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.
In recent years, he has focused on photography as a creative outlet and has exhibited his work across the United States.
I think it does help that Dad was never a photographer so I am judged by the work alone. The fact that the photographs were taken seriously gave me goosebumps.
One Of Julian Lennon's Photographs
To see Julian's photography collection, please visit his official website at http://www.julianlennon-photography.com. His photographs are really quite stunning.
Living in the shadow of John seems to have been especially hard on Julian. Clearly, feeling rejected by one's father is a direct line to a neurosis that, I suspect, only years of therapy might resolve. Nevertheless, Julian has accomplished much as a Lennon.
Did that name accelerate what fame Julian has achieved? I should think so. Through it all, however, Julian did seem to get the proverbial short end of the stick, at least emotionally.
And, yes, you might be thinking that John was a little insensitive towards his son, although some might argue that John was simply trying to reinvent himself after the break-up of The Beatles and had resolved somehow to negate, by whatever means necessary, the past life he had led.
I am not making excuses for John's behaviour, but I am always quick to believe that there is more to every story than anyone outside that story can honestly know.
Now, let's be honest. When one mentions the name, Yoko Ono, the haters come out from under the layers of Beatles' sentimentality.
She is, in the eyes of many, the woman who broke up The Beatles.
She is, in the eyes of so-called music experts, the screeching banshee of recordings that bear little, if any, resemblance to music.
She is, in the eyes of others, the arrogant and manipulative caretaker of John Lennon's legacy, purloining his art and music from the world for her own self-interest.
She is, in the eyes of some art collectors, reportedly a cheat who has sold fake pieces of art, supposedly created by John, but allegedly created, modified, and/or even signed by Yoko herself.
She is, however, the woman John loved and cherished beyond all else.
There are at least two stories that tell how John met Yoko. One has them meeting on November 9, 1966, when John went to the Indica Gallery in London. There, Yoko was preparing her conceptual art exhibit, and they were introduced by gallery owner John Dunbar. John Lennon was initially unimpressed with the exhibits he saw, including a pricey bag of nails, but one piece had a ladder with a spyglass at the top. When he climbed the ladder, John felt a little foolish, but he looked through the spyglass and saw the word "YES" which, for John, was refreshingly positive. Most concept art he had encountered was typically "anti" everything.
John was also intrigued by Yoko's exhibit, "Hammer A Nail." In this piece, viewers would be asked to hammer a nail into a wooden board, thereby creating the art piece. Although the exhibition had not yet opened, John wanted to hammer a nail into the clean board, but Yoko stopped him. Dunbar asked her, "Don't you know who this is? He's a millionaire! He might buy it." Yoko supposedly had not heard of The Beatles, but relented on the condition that John pay her five shillings, to which the Beatle replied, "I'll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in."
In a second version of John and Yoko's first meeting, as reportedly told by Paul McCartney, she was in London in 1965 compiling original musical scores for a book on which John Cage was working, a book entitled Notations. McCartney declined to give her any of his own manuscripts, but suggested that John might oblige. He did, giving Yoko the original handwritten lyrics to "The Word."
However the two actually did meet, they began corresponding and, in September, 1967, John sponsored Yoko's solo show at Lisson Gallery in London.
When this correspondence intensified, Cynthia caught wind of it and asked for an explanation for Yoko's telephoning their home. John reportedly told her that Yoko was only trying to obtain money for her "avant-garde bullshit." That much may have been true, but there was definitely something else connecting John and Yoko.
In early 1968, while the Beatles were making their famous visit to India, John wrote "Julia" and included a reference to Yoko in the lyrics of the song: "Ocean child calls me." The reference is supposedly to the translation of the Japanese spelling of Yoko's name.
Then in May, 1968, while his wife was on holiday in Greece, Lennon invited Yoko to visit. They spent the night recording what would become the Two Virgins album and presumably doing what lovers do.
The story follows that, when Cynthia returned home early and unannounced, she found Yoko wearing her bathrobe and drinking tea with John in the front room of her home. From that point on, the dye was cast, and John and Cynthia divorced in 1968 to open the way to John's marrying Yoko in Gibraltar on March 20, 1969.
The couple spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam campaigning with a week-long Bed-In for Peace. They planned another Bed-In in the United States, but were denied entry to the country. They held one instead at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, where they recorded "Give Peace a Chance." The famous couple often combined advocacy with performance art, such as in "bagism", first introduced during a Vienna press conference, where they satirised prejudice and stereotyping by wearing a bag over their entire bodies.
John would later chronicle the events of their honeymoon adventures in the Beatles' song "The Ballad Of John And Yoko."
|The Ballad Of John And Yoko|
The marriage of John and Yoko seemed almost fairytale in nature, until someone bit the poisoned apple. Strained by the threat of deportation that John faced because of drug charges filed in Britain and Yoko's separation from Kyoko — her daughter from a previous marriage to Anthony Cox — the couple separated in 1973, with Yoko pursuing her career and John living between Los Angeles and New York with the couple's personal assistant, May Pang. This "affair," such that it was, apparently began and continued with Yoko's blessing. The eighteen months that John spent away from Yoko are often referred to as the "lost weekend."
John with May Pang
By December, 1974, John and May Pang were considering buying a house together, and he was refusing to accept Yoko's phone calls. The next month, however, he agreed to meet Yoko, who claimed to have found a cure for smoking. After the meeting, he failed to return home or call Pang. When Pang telephoned the next day, Yoko simply told her that John was unavailable, being exhausted after a hypnotherapy session. Two days later, John reappeared at a joint dental appointment with Pang, stupefied and confused to such an extent that Pang believed he had been brainwashed. He told her his separation from Yoko was now over, though Yoko would allow him to continue seeing Pang as his mistress.
I'm sure that all this reads like a mystery novel, with plot and sub-plot twisting and turning into one another.
The end result was that John ended his affair with Pang, he and Yoko renewed their relationship, and on October 9, 1975, Lennon's 35th birthday, Yoko gave birth to a baby boy, Sean.
After Sean's birth, John retired from recording to become a househusband to care for his newborn son, and he spent nearly five years solely involved in Sean's upbringing.
Eventually, John emerged from retirement, and in October, 1980, he released the single "(Just Like) Starting Over," followed the next month by the album, Double Fantasy.
The cover art to the album said it all. John and Yoko were reunited, in love again, and the future seemed to be opening brightly before them.
Despite the ongoing cynicism of their critics, John and Yoko shared something special. You can't put your finger on it, can't capture it in a single word, phrase or image, but it was there regardless — palpable, certain, and seemingly, once and for all, unshakable.
As John once admitted in an interview:
When I was singing about "all you need is love," I was singing about something I hadn't experienced. I'd experienced love for people in gusts, and love for things, trees, things like that, but I hadn't experienced what I was singing about.
Perhaps this animated interview, from the PBS Blank on Blank series, tells their story best. The episode, "John Lennon And Yoko Ono On Love," comes from interviews conducted between 1969 and 1972 by Howard Smith, and features the voices of the Beatle and his spouse explaining their relationship a few years after they had met. The interview has been whimsically animated by Patrick Smith.
|John Lennon And Yoko Ono On Love|
Sadly, just as his music career seemed to be resurfacing with more energy than ever, John Lennon was shot and killed on December 8, 1980.
The fairytale was over.
Or was it?
Following John's death, Yoko went into complete seclusion for an extended period, but she would return to public life in a manner that she had never successfully accomplished before. She became the driving force that would not let the memory of John Lennon wither away. The body was gone, but the spirit of John Lennon persevered.
To this day, Yoko works to preserve John's legacy, funding and maintaining Strawberry Fields in New York City, the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland, and the John Lennon Museum in Saitama, Japan.
Individually and under the Lennon and her name, she has made significant philanthropic contributions to arts, peace, Philippine and Japan disaster relief, and AIDS and autism outreach programs.
She has remained on the forefront in activism, inaugurating a biennial $50,000 LennonOno Grant for Peace in 2002 and co-founding, in 2012, the group, Artists Against Fracking (the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas).
Moreover, she has embraced Cynthia and Julian as part of the "Lennon family." She has reconciled her differences with the other Beatles, significantly Paul McCartney, and she was instrumental in the release of "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" for The Beatles Anthology in 1995.
All this, and she also continues her own artistic pursuits, performing around the world.
As of 2013, her net worth was estimated at $500 million, making her one of the richest women in the world.
Would she have been so rich if she had never met John Lennon?
Of course not, but the point is moot. She did meet him, loved him, cared for him, and suffered a great loss because he was taken from her in such a brutal manner.
Would she give up all her fortune to have John back, alive and well?
I don't know ... what do you think?
Well, here I am, back where I began — with Sean.
No one loses a father, especially a famous father like John, without that loss having some impact on one's emotions, thoughts, hopes, aspirations ... basically one's whole life.
I don't think Sean is any different from the rest of us.
John's death had an impact on Sean, just five-years-old at the time, that most of us could not even contemplate.
Yoko still recalls the overwhelming sense of loss that the young boy was feeling:
Soon after John was killed, I started going for a walk in Central Park every morning. One morning I thought, "This is not right. I should take a walk with Sean." So I said to him, "You want to come with me?" He was overjoyed. But when we started out, he lay on the floor and closed his eyes and wouldn't move, he was so choked up. I said, "It's not like going for a walk with Daddy, is it?" He shook his head.
Sean finally went on that walk, but every landmark evoked a bittersweet memory of his frequent walks with John, and he recounted the memories to Yoko. "Each time he said these things, my heart was breaking," she remembers. "I thought, 'No more walks in Central Park with Sean.' I couldn't stand it. But Sean is a remarkable child. I think he understands very well what is going on."
As Sean grew up, it seems as if the world had great expectations for the boy. He was, after all, the favoured son of John Lennon, and as a result, he was often perceived as inevitably following in his father's footsteps.
Now that's a tall order, but the truth is that, from the age of five on, Sean was expected to become a musician, much like his father. I suppose he was too young to quibble with the dreams that his mother and others had for him, so, yes, he became a musician.
Here is a quick accounting of his career so far:
- At age five, he recited a story on his mother's 1981 album, Season of Glass.
- Throughout his childhood, he continued to collaborate with his mother, contributing vocals and receiving production credit on her solo albums: It's Alright (I See Rainbows), Starpeace and Onobox.
- At 16, Sean co-wrote the song "All I Ever Wanted" with Lenny Kravitz for Kravitz's 1991 album Mama Said.
- By 1995, Sean had formed the band IMA (with Sam Koppelman and Timo Ellis) to play alongside his mother on her album Rising.
- In 1996, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto were invited by Yoko to remix the song "Talking to the Universe" for a Rising remix EP, Rising Mixes. They met Sean and invited him to join them on tour as a bass player. This eventually led to Sean's contributing to their side-project Butter 08 and to his becoming a member of the group. He continued to play with them on tour, joining them on television and providing bass guitar and vocals on their EP Super Relax. Through his association with Cibo Matto, the young Lennon was approached by Adam Yauch (of the Beastie Boys), who expressed an interest in his music and persuaded him to sign a record contract with Grand Royal Records.
- In 1998, Sean released his solo début album, Into the Sun.
- In 1999, Sean's EP Half Horse Half Musician was released and featured new tracks such as "Heart & Lung" and "Happiness" as well as remixes of songs from Into the Sun.
- 1999 also saw the release of Cibo Matto's second album Stereo Type a. Sean stepped out of his traditional role as the group's bass player, this time playing a much wider range of instruments (such as drums, guitars and synthesizers). Despite being well received, Stereo Type a was the final Cibo Matto album and the group disbanded.
- In 2000, Sean contributed vocals to the groups, Del tha Funkee Homosapien (contributing a single stanza on the Deltron 3030 track 'Memory Loss'), Handsome Boy Modeling School and Jurassic 5.
- In 2001 on national television, Sean performed several classics by The Beatles, "This Boy," "Across the Universe" and "Julia" alongside Robert Schwartzman, Rufus Wainwright and Moby for Come Together - A Night for John Lennon's Words and Music.
- Then, after the demise of Grand Royal Records in 2001, and in the years that followed, Sean's musical aspirations stalled and he refrained from releasing any more new material.
Twenty years in the music industry clearly established Sean as a serious musician. However, his early music was definitely not like John's music. His music bordered, at times, on the experimental leanings of his mother's work. What it lacked was the popular appeal that his father seemed able to call up at a moment's notice. Perhaps, his lack of success in the mainstream brought about a disenchantment with his career as a musician.
Then, in 2006, Sean met Charlotte Kemp Muhl at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. She soon became his girlfriend/partner, and the two formed a record label, Chimera Music. Suddenly, his interest in music was renewed.
Chimera Music released a number of soundtracks for various films, but it was on Valentine's Day in 2008 that Sean and Charlotte premièred the group, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, during a live performance at Radio City. The duo, commonly referred to as "The GOASTT," host their music on MySpace and perform under the aliases of Amatla and Zargifon.
GOASTT released their debut single, "Jardin Du Luxembourg", on July 6, 2010, and their debut album, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: Acoustic Sessions, on October 26, 2010, both on Chimera, their own label.
After a three-year absence from the music scene, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is now releasing a new album, entitled Midnight Sun and expectations for the album are high.
The album includes 12 tracks:
- Too Deep
- Midnight Sun
- Last Call
- Devil You Know
- Golden Earrings
- Great Expectations
- Poor Paul Getty
- Don't Look Back Orpheus
- Moth To A Flame
In its review of Midnight Sun, NPR addresses the underlying dilemma of being John Lennon's son and trying to create music that is uniquely that of Sean and not a re-visitation of the work of John Lennon:
Imagine what it must be like for John Lennon's son to make music ... This has been the younger Lennon's greatest obstacle since his debut, 1998's Into the Sun - the prejudice against genetic good fortune and the presumption that he sounds, and maybe acts, like his famous father because it's the easiest way to his own fame. In the past, he hasn't done himself any favors by sometimes sounding eerily like the legendary Beatle, but that seems an unfair measurement. If people are willing to believe that "there's something in the water" in any given music scene, then surely the same allowance can be made for actual shared DNA. What son is not heavily influenced by his father, even one he may have only known for a short while?
Midnight Sun should go some way in dispelling those presumptions and prejudices. In places, it still sounds fairly Beatles-esque, but no more than many other bands of the last half century, and much less than Sean Lennon has before. Muhl's influence and contribution pulls him out of his own history and to places that he did not go in previous solo work, like the gloomy "Last Call" or twee "Johannesburg." The two have a natural and obvious chemistry, especially on the songs where her honeyed voice gives direction to his nasal searching.
So, although it may have taken him thirty-eight years to do it, Sean Lennon may finally be moving on with his music. He has always made a fairly valiant effort to carry his legacy forward in interesting ways, to explore his very personal relationship with his near-mythical father in a very public manner. But Midnight Sun is his own musical statement, in his own voice, and one of the best recordings he's ever made.
Now, don't be fooled. You will hear John's influence in Sean's music. I think that much is reasonable, if not unavoidable. I also think that Sean has no reluctance to be or sound like his father.
Consider how he recreated the famous Annie Leibovitz photograph of John and Yoko:
Left: John and Yoko's iconic Annie Leibovitz photo shoot on Dec. 8, 1980
Right: Sean Lennon's re-enactment with Charlotte Kemp Muhl, 2009
You see, unlike Julian, who seems to have spent his lifetime trying to step out from the shadow of his famous father, Sean seems ready to embrace the connection. And why not? Artists have aspired to approximate, equal, or transcend the work of the great masters from the beginning of time. If Sean Lennon's music comes close to the standard set by his talented father, then more power to him. Sound like John? Why not indeed?
Wait ... let me be even more blunt if not completely outrageous. As I stated at the beginning of this article, I often find myself wondering what John would be doing musically today if he had survived that fatal December night. This album is the answer. Midnight Sun is exactly the kind of album that John would be likely to produce if he were alive today. And people would be scooping it up without a second thought.
Hopefully, Sean takes such a contention, as hypothetical as it might be, as a compliment. I mean it as high praise — high praise indeed.
At thirty-eight years old, Sean seems to be just now discovering the courage to be who he is — a Lennon.
There are currently two videos available:
|"Moth To A Flame"|
I hope you enjoy the album as much as I did. If you're considering buying Midnight Sun, it is available from Amazon.
Some Final Thoughts
Lennon. Just a name, and really, not so uncommon. But somehow that name ignites a fire in the imaginations and the collective consciousness of people all over the world. The song, "Imagine," is as well-known as any national anthem. It has become, in its own right, an anthem for peace.
Lennon. Even younger fans, as young as primary school children, learn about John Lennon as a man whose music pleaded for peace and love among all the people of every nation around the world. John Lennon's life and his untimely death rank with the loss of such important cultural figures as John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and Mohandas Gandhi.
Lennon. Too often followed by the question, "Why?" Too often a reminder of that fateful December night in 1980. Too often, even as we celebrate John's life, we mourn his loss, our eyes glazing over as we drift into melancholy.
Lennon. The legacy of John Lennon will always be intact. Our memories of John will always be available to us through the gift of his music. Still, memories must not be confused with expectations. What came before must not be confused with what lies ahead. What accomplishments we have made must not be confused with what work has yet to be done to make the world a better place. Time moves on, and new voices must be heard.
Lennon. Letting go is never easy, but holding on to the past for too long can be crippling. We must not yearn for the comforts of yesterday, for fear that we may fail to find hope in tomorrow.
Lennon. Yes, just a name, and really, not so uncommon.
Resources used for this article:
© The Beatles On Abbey Road — Posted here on April 25, 2014.
Updated on April 2, 2015.