“Valotte” – Julian Lennon, 1984.
Without exception, the first reaction anyone has when hearing Julian Lennon sing is “wow, he really sounds like his dad.” Released a mere four years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, “Valotte” would not sound out of place on Lennon the elder’s final album Double Fantasy. The entertainment press of the day, as skilled as their contemporary counterparts in crafting stories from smoke and nonsense, immediately started running rumors that the three surviving Beatles were planning to reunite and begin recording again with Julian standing in for his father. Paul McCartney shrugged them off of course, pointedly asking why Julian would ever want that. Every son stands in the shadow of his father, and Julian (and Sean) Lennon are within the umbra of one of the most famous and beloved musicians who ever lived. Julian writes in the introduction to his mother Cynthia’s book John that strangers approach him constantly and tell him that they loved his dad. To him, though, John Lennon wasn’t the larger-than-life rock god who gave the world the Beatles and Imagine, he was a flawed, often absent and cruel parent, and the relationship was complicated until the moment John died and remains so long afterwards.
As I expect Julian does from time to time, I envy those friends of mine who can still ring their dad up and kvetch about the Jays and the Argos and how the kid is getting along in school. For all but eleven of my years I’ve tried to manage a relationship with someone who is not here. The lack of resolution, of closure, can at times feel like a wound that begins to bleed again just when you think it’s finally scabbed over. From the moment you enter the world, you have this aspirational model waiting to show you how it should be done. (For some, you have a cautionary tale waiting instead.) Legacies are a difficult birthright, a yardstick by which every single thing you do will be measured, evaluated, and just as often, judged. When the legacy is invisible, the task is even more difficult. You’ll never be able to ask him if he’s proud, or, conversely, on a bad day, you’ll never be able to shove it in his face and say, look what I did without your help.
In his youth my father was a high school football hero fighting off women with a stick. I was a quiet geek whose tongue would knot itself in the presence of a breath of perfume. In career he was a civil law barrister and solicitor with his own practice. I am… well, incredibly not. There was a moment, maybe a couple of years in high school, where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I figured out what courses I should be taking to ready myself for the inevitable university degree and law school, and yet, it isn’t as if in my spare time I was watching L.A. Law or Law & Order obsessively, or hanging out at the local courthouse watching proceedings, or tracking down my late father’s attorney friends and asking them if I could fetch coffee and read amicus briefs in their offices over the summer. I was watching movies, writing Star Trek fan fiction, drawing James Bond comic books, playing drums in my hometown’s world-renowned marching band and trying and failing to work up the courage to step up to the plate with girls that I liked. It was fairly obvious by my graduating year that law was not where my passion lay, despite the caveats of my grandmother (the other one) that a law degree was the golden ticket. She’s not entirely wrong, and there are moments when I think I should have just gone ahead with it. Hindsight and all that. And since any success I would have would be compared to my father’s anyway, maybe it should have been an apples to apples comparison.
When the sons of John Lennon decided to go into music, they were walking into it fully understanding of the comparisons that would be made, and that the success of their father was an impossible benchmark. At the risk of sounding a bit trite, they had to be doing it for love, and because they were driven by a desire to express their own creativity and personality, not to merely offer a pale imitation of what had gone before. Even with your father present and guiding you, a son always has to forge his own path. On occasion that path can venture through dark territory, and perhaps it will never lead to a place as prosperous as that achieved by your dad, but it will, at the end, be your own. In the music video for the other single release from that 1984 album, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Julian performs with his band while a silhouetted figure, strongly implied to be John, dances in a brightly lit doorway attempting to distract him. Eventually Julian stops looking and continues to go his own way instead. Rightly or wrongly, it’s his choice, as it is for the rest of us.
Had I tried to be more like my father, it’s arguable I might have had a more financially rewarding career, more options now for experiencing more of the world and giving those closest to me more options with theirs as well. Would that translate to a better life? The people I know who are wealthy certainly don’t seem like pillars of joy. Maybe we’d be happiest of all sitting on a pebble by a river playing guitar. When we truly commit to our life and become willing to accept the consequences of our choices whatever they may be, the shadow of the father fades away. I think about this in the context of being a father myself and knowing that at the very least, my son will have a better life than his birth dad’s, and every opportunity to exceed my achievements as well. But none of that matters so long as at the end of it all, he can look back and say that he was happy. I guess that’s the irony that becomes apparent only when you get to the other side of the divide between having a parent and being one. You expend so much energy in thinking you’ll never live up to your father’s impossible standard only to find that he never wanted you to in the first place. He always wanted you to be your own man, and to pass the same lesson on to your own son. That’s how you make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it.