A few years ago, Julian Lennon went to see Paul McCartney, whom he still calls “Uncle Paul”, play at London’s Hyde Park. The finale of course featured Hey Jude.
The Youtube link brings up its first live rendition (The Beatles’ lead and backing vocals were recorded live, not the instruments) on David Frost show, 8 Sep 1968.
Click here for an associated article, an edited extract from Paul McCartney's new book "The Lyrics" published November 2021, that includes Paul's last memories of John.
How did it feel to hear tens of thousands of people joyfully na-na-na-ing along to a song that was written to console Julian after his father, John, left his mother, Cynthia, for Yoko Ono? Incredibly strange, I’m guessing.
“Oh yeah,” Lennon, 58, says via Zoom from his home in Monaco, before his new photography exhibition. “It’s a weird one,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s goose bumpy. It’s a song I love to hear and hate to hear at the same time.” McCartney didn’t just write it for him, he points out. “I think Paul cared a great deal about Mum too, and how that all fell apart.”
The Liverpool-born Lennon often gently redirects me towards his mother, even though our conversation inevitably revolves around his father. His nose and voice in particular have so much of John in them, and he talks about him frankly and with an admirable lack of self-pity.
In interviews from years ago his anger about John’s absences and hurtful comments was palpable. “But I don’t want to be that bitter person with a cloud over my head, just hating people. Life’s too short for that, you know?” he says. Now “the forgiveness is there, no question about it, because I see what he went through, which was something unique. Nobody really knew, apart from Elvis and a few others, how that would really affect you.”
For all his faults, John wrote at least two songs, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Good Night, that were inspired by Julian.
Time and again, though, Lennon circles back to Cynthia, even when recalling the day of his father’s death, when Julian was 17.
“I used to sleep in the attic of the house that we were in, and the chimney fell in on the roof at the time of his passing. Mum was in London with Maureen Starkey (the former wife of Ringo Starr) and she had told my stepfather (John Twist, the third of Cynthia’s four husbands) not to mention (Dad’s death) to me. But I said, ‘Why are all the curtains closed?’ There were hundreds of press outside the house. I kind of forced him to tell me and then the only thing I wanted to do again was shield and embrace Mum. Because she’s the one that had a long-lasting relationship with Dad, not me.”
We rewind to the fallout from his parents’ split. In May 1968, Cynthia returned from a holiday to the family home to find her husband and Ono sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring into each other’s eyes. The divorce was finalised in November of that year, when Lennon was five.
Cynthia died of cancer in 2015 with Julian at her side.
Still, missing a father for much of his life has left a gap that he seems to have largely filled with work. He regularly stays up until four or five in the morning in his studio, beavering away on projects. “I get to do a bit of everything,” he says, and it’s a handy portfolio career. Yes, he’s had the advantages of his surname and an estimated £20m ($36m) from his father’s estate, which he secured after taking legal action, having been originally left just £100,000 to share with his half-brother, Sean, John’s son with Ono.
Yet he has real talent as a musician, releasing six albums between 1984 and 2011 and having a Top 10 hit in 1991 with Saltwater. Another “pretty deep” album is due later this year. He has also written children’s books and made the documentary films Whaledreamers and Women of the White Buffalo.
Yet at the moment, photography is the thing. He started doing it seriously after shooting Sean (photographically Ed) on the latter’s concert tour in 2007. Since then, he has had shows in London, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the site of his new one, Vision, which is also viewable online.
He has a good eye and a way with his subjects. One intimate shot, of Bono’s bandmate the Edge scribbling song notes, is called Paperback Writer. Lennon, like his interviewers, can’t quite shake the shadow of the Beatles. He has known U2 for 20 years. They had a security guard in common; you know how it is. It took a while to get close to them, he says. “The boys are very guarded.”
He must know that feeling, being unsure about strangers’ intentions. “I’ve always been relatively guarded. I’ve probably got the same friends around me that I’ve had for the past 40 years.” It’s less members of the public he is wary of than “the industry itself, the management, the labels”.
His dad didn’t trust organisations, either. “Yes, but I could say the same thing for my mother too. My distrust came more so from her. He had people around him. She was left on her own. She was a quiet one, but a smart one. It was all about protecting her and trying to do the same for myself because of some of the crap that I’ve been through.”
That includes an interview his father gave to Playboy shortly before he died. “Sean is a planned child, and therein lies the difference,” John said. “I don’t love Julian any less as a child. He’s still my son, whether he came from a bottle of whisky or because they didn’t have pills in those days.”
Hearing that must have stung for the teenage Lennon, yet he doesn’t show resentment towards Sean. “We’re thick as thieves,” he says. “I love him to pieces. There’s no step or half-brother in there, he’s my blood, and from the moment he was born I’ve always put a wall up, protected him as best as I can. He’s a better musician than I ever was because he practises. I do too many other things; that’s my problem. We’ve been talking about one day doing a bit of work together.” Last year was the 40th anniversary of John’s death and what would have been his 80th birthday. Did that bring a lot of stuff back? “Not really, to be honest with you. It’s a weird position for me, having been a fan, but having had him be Dad, and a dad that was never there. What he achieved, what the boys achieved, is staggering, but time is irrelevant in many respects. He was here, he’s now not here. It doesn’t matter what year it is, the feeling is still the same. It’s a love lost.”
Did he see Yesterday, the film that imagines a world in which the Beatles don’t exist? “I loved it,” Lennon says. “Except for the part where they revisited Dad.” He’s talking about the sequence featuring a digitally recreated John as an old man, living in a cottage by the sea, untouched by music or stardom. “It just didn’t seem to sit well within the film as a whole,” he says.
Is it true that John’s shortcomings as a father put Lennon off becoming one himself? “Well, yes,” he says. He’s single now, but “I still intend to have a family at some point”. He’s in touch with Ono, sending cards and presents at birthdays and Christmas, and the same goes for McCartney, who was more present than his father during parts of his childhood.
“You can see a lot of photographs of me growing up — around the time of Magical Mystery Tour he was just as relevant (as his father).” They have been trying to find a time to meet up so he can hear the stories. “There’s an insight from him that obviously no one else has,” he says with a smile. “And having a song written about you by him — boy, that doesn’t happen very often.”
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