“My whole life is a strict schedule of working on art and music,” Sean Lennon says while signing posters for a fan give-away at the New York offices of Capitol Records. “It is not strict, but I play every day. It is about the work in the end. That is what separates good artists from great artists. A good artist might make a good record, but to make a better record you have to keep working and working. That is where will and discipline comes in. My dad was incredibly motivated and super ambitious. I wish I had half the will that guy had.”
LITERATE LAD: “Nabokov has influenced my writing as much as Jimi Hendrix has.”
Although he has recorded two solo albums — the new Friendly Fire and 1998’s Into the Sun — and released a disc of remixes and outtakes (1999’s Half Horse Half Musician, all Capitol/EMI) and collaborated with musicians as varied as John Zorn, Ryan Adams, and Thurston Moore, people still see Sean Lennon as a rich kid slumming with similarly endowed rock-star offspring (Harper Simon) and Hollywood types (Bijou Phillips, Lindsay Lohan) using Manhattan as a playground for their experiments in film, music, and scene shaping. Granted, Sean bears the weight of the Lennon mantle, and that may account for the low profile he’s maintained. But it does take confidence to return eight years after your debut album to appear with an 11-piece band on Late Night with David Letterman, as he did last month, performing the melancholy Friendly Fire single “Dead Meat.” Lennon is certainly aware of his special status. But he hasn’t let it mess him up.
“Most of the people I hang out with are not famous,” he asserts, decked out in a chocolate-brown velour suit and Beatle boots. “But it is only the famous friends that you hear about. You hang out with a famous person and everyone thinks that is your only friend. So that idea is completely misleading.”
He adds that he’s been far from idle. “My record is not the product of somebody who has been sitting around all his life. Not to sound arrogant, but I work very hard at what I do. And I don’t want to be lumped into a group of progeny of rock stars or people that are brought up with wealth. I don’t feel that I am related to them in any way other than by proximity. I have been working as a professional musician since I was 17. I’ve toured the world 10 times. People don’t realize that because I am not a famous musician — I am a famous son of a legend. But I am not famous as a musician, which is fine because the circles I run in are very alternative.”
The largely autobiographical Friendly Fire tells a slightly different story. It’s dedicated to Lennon’s friend Max LeRoy (son of Tavern on the Green owner Warner LeRoy and grandson of Wizard of Oz director Mervyn LeRoy). Lennon, LeRoy, and Bijou Phillips had been caught in a love triangle, and Max died last year in a motorcycle accident, before he and Lennon had a chance to reconcile. Friendly Fire is accompanied by a DVD of short films, one for each track. Lennon is joined by Harper Simon (Carly Simon’s son) and Phillips (daughter of the Mamas and the Papas’ John) on Friendly Fire; Lindsay Lohan, Carrie Fisher, and Asia Argento appear on the DVD.
But once you get beyond the star-studded scenery, Friendly Fire hints at Lennon’s true talents as a singer, songwriter, and musician. (He’s touring behind the album beginning this week; he’ll come to the Paradise on December 16.) From the grandiose “Spectacle” and “Headlights,” the latter with echoes of Marc Bolan, to the lovely harmonies of “Would I Be the One,” it holds together without overreaching. The dreamlike quality of Lennon/McCartney classics like “Across the Universe,” “Julia,” and “I’m Only Sleeping” are obvious reference points, just as the multimedia nature of the two-disc set reflects Yoko’s influence on her 30-year-old son.
Lennon says he’s found inspiration elsewhere as well. “Nabokov has influenced my writing as much as Jimi Hendrix has. Tom Jobim and Debussy, Picasso, Miró. The æsthetic of Godard’s films is the basis of everything I do. On some level, when I am writing songs, I am imagining a Godard film that has never been made. I don’t just draw my inspiration from music, and that is true of most artists, you are amassing a huge garbage pail of inspiration in your head that is really diverse. You gotta see Contempt, man, I mean — Brigitte Bardot naked? C’mon, dude.”