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You cannot pick your parents. This is one of life's few truths, and it propels us all into a biological crapshoot wherein some are truly born lucky -- and others just seem like they are.
Julian Lennon didn't ask to be born the son of Cynthia Powell and John Lennon 36 years ago in Liverpool, England, where John was about to spring a yet unseen form of pop-induced mania on an international audience, about to get cocky and comfortable with his own immense fame, about to develop into one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known. Julian also didn't ask to be the five-year-old boy left to his mother's care when his father, infected by the aforementioned mania, left them both (John divorced Cynthia in 1969).
But he did ask for some trouble when he set his sights on a career in music. Since his first foray into the realm of popular music, Julian has tried to make his way as a viable and individual artist while constantly being stacked up against his incomparable father. It's been a mammoth task, but after a seven-year hiatus from the music business, Julian Lennon has decided to give it another go.
Nearly four years after his father's murder, a 21-year-old Julian released the single "Too Late for Goodbyes," which became an instant hit with a still-bereaved public looking for a quick replacement for the bespectacled Beatle. Julian, after all, bore an unnerving resemblance to his father, and with the aid of the then-burgeoning medium of music television, record-company executives made sure everyone noticed the physical -- if not the musical -- similarities between father and son. Julian's debut album, Valotte, sold well in America despite critical jeers. However, on the three albums that succeeded it, The Secret Value of Daydreaming (1986), Mr. Jordan (1989) and Help Yourself (1991), the novelty had worn thin, and so had the music. Today the four-album catalogue is something even Julian himself regards with ambivalence.
"At the time of my first record, I'd just gone through the majority of my music schooling. I was just discovering new ways of writing," he says. "There was pressure. People trying to sell me a certain way, encouraging me to sound as commercial as possible. The truth is, I really did not know what was going on with my own career."
Julian's confusion heightened when he found himself under contract with Atlantic Records after his initial independent, Charisma, dissolved. The pairing was not a happy one. "During that time, I was feeling really frustrated with the people I was working with. There was a serious lack of support," he says. "My song 'Saltwater' [from Help Yourself] did really well in Britain and Europe, and in America, Atlantic just did nothing with it -- they did nothing. There were too many broken promises. I'd have endless meetings with the head of the record company, and nothing ever got done." Disillusioned and creatively tapped, he simply quit -- quit music as a business, hung out in Italy, entertained thoughts of life as a chef, read about karma, wrote songs. "I think [the career hiatus] was really a blessing in disguise," he says. "It gave me a chance to sit down, absorb and reflect on what had happened to me. I worked through most of it and have finally attained some semblance of peace."
The artistic result of these seven years of solitude came in the form of a new record, Photograph Smile, produced by ex-Roy Orbison producer Bob Rose and released on Julian's own Music From Another Room label, which he created to avoid label interference at any level.
"I literally control the day-to-day running of the business," he says. "I'm wearing more hats than I ever expected, but I've got ownership of my own work. I control what happens to it -- everything."
To those who have accused Julian of milking his obvious connection to pop consciousness, Smile will, initially, provide plenty of sneering fodder. The front and back covers both feature black-and-white photos of a very young Julian -- the same little boy familiar from books and newsreels and all of those attempts to anthologize the Beatles on video. A photo and dedication to Julian's stepfather, Roberto Bassamini, accompany a virtual open letter to his family, friends and citizens of the world: "It's been a long hard soulsearching ride up the river of happiness, sadness and love," it reads, "but worth every second in the end." The album's first song, "Day After Day," could have been a rejected B-side to "Fool on the Hill," with Julian assuming deliberate John-esque vocal affectations to a point that borders on satire. The lyric "You've been alone it's true/Daddy's work is never done" is relatively buried in the song, an otherwise straightforward loverly address. To hear Julian spin it, the packaging of Photograph Smile, as well as its content, was intended as a direct hit on preconceptions about his genetic inheritence.
"In a certain way, my life has been an open book, and I just didn't want to carry around all of that baggage," he says. "For the past ten or fifteen years, everyone has made certain assumptions about me as a person and as an artist. I figured I'd just get it out there, address it, air it, express it and move on from all of the bullshit."