Driving Force
Julian Lennon is on a journey fueled by his mission to uplift lives
by Dann Dulin

We all find ways to battle depression, anxiety, and sleepless nights. For musician and photographer Julian Lennon, the remedy is to take a drive with no destination. “Driving a convertible through the mountains or along the coast helps me. I take deep breaths and take in the fresh air,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve just got to ride the wave. There’s always a reason why. It’s just learning and trying to understand the causes—and then change happens.”

Julian, born John Charles Julian Lennon, knows about transformation. He’s reinvented himself many times: as songwriter, pop star, actor, Internet businessman, filmmaker, author, photographer—and philanthropist.

Born in Liverpool, England, Julian is the only child of John and Cynthia Lennon. He’s named after his father’s mother, Julia. Julian inspired three Beatle songs, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Hey Jude,” and “Good Night.” In John’s song, “Stand By Me,” he speaks out, “Hello Julian.”

He followed in his dad’s footsteps, even playing drums on John Lennon’s recording of “Walls and Bridges” at age eleven! Ten years later, at the age twenty-two, Julian was sizzling with his debut album, Valotte. The title song and another track, “Too Late For Goodbyes” shot into the Top Ten. In 1985, he was nominated for Best New Artist and the album went platinum.

Photo courtesy Julian Lennon

In 2007, Julian documented the music tour of his stepbrother Sean (John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s only son), with whom he’s extremely close. This adventure was the catalyst for Julian’s keen interest in photography and his life took a dramatic turn. His first exhibit, “Timeless,” took place in New York City in 2010. His new body of work, called “Cycle,” is a photo collection of people living on the border of the South China Sea. For the next year or so, the exhibit will travel the world to venues like Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and Berlin. I catch up with Julian at his Los Angeles exhibition.

As I view Julian’s extraordinary photographs on the walls on the second floor of Leica Gallery on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, I spot Julian through the mammoth picture window entering the gallery. About half way up the stairwell, he spies me looking at him from above. He extends his hand upward and I extend mine down toward him. He nods, “I’m sorry for being late.” (Actually, he’s right on time.) Julian is immediately vivacious, gracious, and charming. His welcoming smile is radiant and contagious.

Photo by Jennifer Gross

We had planned to talk in the gallery, but it’s quite noisy. Julian finds a quiet place, the VIP room on the first floor, in the back. His effervescent publicist, Kim, makes sure we are comfortable and supplies us with bottled water. She closes the sliding smoked glass doors as she departs.

During our interview, Julian apologizes several times for mumbling and for not making sense due to his lack of sleep. He has suffered from reoccurring insomnia most of his life. This exhibit has put a strain on him, having devoted six months to sorting through some 4,000 photographs to meet a deadline. He admits he’s exhausted and can’t recall the last time he took a holiday.

Though he works most days, it’s his life force. Julian’s dedication is expressed through his photography and philanthropy. “I’m educated through my travels. It’s an opportunity for people who can’t travel to see in pictures what I have seen. That’s one of the reasons I do what I do,” states Julian, sitting next to me on the ebony-colored leather sofa
Julian’s other delight and passion is his philanthropic work. His interests vary, focusing on environmental, educational, and humanitarian issues. Reaching out to individuals living with lupus and HIV/AIDS, he’s been active with several AIDS organizations including amfAR, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and Fashion Acts, which was founded by members of the fashion industry in the U.K.

In 2009, he founded The White Feather Foundation, after receiving a white feather from an elder of the Australian Aboriginal group, the Mirning Tribe. “Dad once told me that after he passed, he would let me know that all was okay by sending me a message in the form of a white feather,” Julian explains in a lowered voice. “While I was on tour with [my album] Photograph Smile, I encountered the Aborigine who handed me a feather. It left me breathless.” Today, the white feather lies on a shelf in Julian’s bedroom at his Monaco home.

To Julian, the feather represents both peace and communication. The elder asked Julian to bring awareness to others about the importance of the whale in the Aboriginal culture. Lennon later produced the documentary, Whaledreamers, which portrays the kinship between Aboriginal peoples and the ocean mammal. The film’s message is that we must embrace all living things in their natural beauty, while maintaining a clean and nurturing environment. It has won several awards and was screened at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. (In April of this year, Julian launched his children’s book, Touch the Earth, about hopping aboard the white feather plane for a voyage around the planet to marvel at the vast beauty of the natural world and to gain a greater appreciation of its vulnerability and of our duty to preserve it for future generations.)

The Foundation partners with many other organizations, including those working to provide clean water in Africa, assisting the Haitians who are still recovering from a devastating hurricane, and providing HIV education and healthcare in Ethiopia.

When an earthquake struck Nepal, Music for Relief (Julian is an artist partner and advisory board member) came to the aid of its people. Julian announced that he’d match donations, dollar for dollar. They raised over $100,000. To honor Lucy O’Donnell, who inspired the Beatle’s song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”—Julian brought home a nursery drawing of his classmate Lucy and called it “Lucy, in the sky with diamonds—Julian released a tribute song called “Lucy.” Fifty percent of the profits funded lupus research.

Photo by Deborah Anderson

Julian sits on the edge of the sofa where he remains for the entire interview. He’s clad in gray cord pants and a black T-shirt with sunglasses clipped over the neckline, making the shirt look V-neck. A dark navy-colored vest, brown leather workboots, and one small simple looped earring complete his attire. His style of dress is intentionally understated. Julian shuns the limelight and does not like to be in front of the camera. One could say he’s a public recluse.

Julian recently visited Ethiopia and Kenya and witnessed the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic. “Mothers and their babies…” He grabbles with finding the correct words. “You clearly see the mental and emotional effects that the epidemic has wrought on the people. They don’t see much hope…I spoke to some girls and I listened to their stories about what was going on in their lives,” he notes while fidgeting with his leather wristband and baby bracelet that spells out “Fuck Cancer.” “Two major issues were rape and murder. Theses kids get up at five or six a.m. and walk two hours to school in the dark. After school they walk home in the dark. This is when they are most at risk.”

He sips his water. “When these girls get home, they clean the house, gather firewood, boil water, and then do their homework. They get a couple of hours’ sleep before repeating the schedule the next day.”

It’s tough for boys too. “They need to be sorted out big time in this macho society. They are not nurtured—a major element of life,” the former waiter and dishwasher attests. Some of the students told him that they aspire to be lawyers and doctors, and then return to their community and educate the locals, especially on sexual practices. “These kids want to be educated!” Julian emphasizes with passion, briefly leaning back against the arm of the couch. Heeding their pleas, the White Feather Foundation built dormitories and a guardhouse.

Access to health clinics is another concern. “Of the few that do exist, most are falling apart and lack essential supplies. Many people walk miles and miles to receive medical care. When they arrive they wait for hours just to be seen by a nurse, and possibly get some treatment if they’re lucky.” Music For Relief and Julian’s foundation are presently working to provide mobile units that will go into villages on bikes and scooters to deliver essential medical services

Julian’s Twitter feeds are mainly about supporting causes and casual self-help quotes. “I am fortunate…and blessed,” he declared on a recent feed. “We all need to render assistance in any way we can. It’s that simple….”

Julian’s mum instilled in him the need to give. She also taught him the importance of integrity. “My mum always said that you just kill people with kindness. There’s no need to be mean, nasty, or cruel to anybody.” He pauses. “Mum was my rock.”

Cynthia died in April 2015, seven days before Julian’s birthday. It was the most devastating, the single most tragic event in his life. Cynthia had been diagnosed with lung cancer only months before her death. She passed away at her home in Majorca, Spain, at the age of seventy-five. In her honor, Julian recently launched the Cynthia Lennon Scholarship For Girls, which will provide four years of educational support to students in Africa.

Cynthia’s death overwhelmed Julian with immense grief. “I didn’t handle it well at all. I threw myself into denial. I couldn’t believe that she was gone. After her diagnosis, Julian reached out to preeminent doctors for natural healing techniques, discovering many types of treatments. I had never heard of some of these treatments,” he shrugs releasing a halfhearted guffaw, “but it was a bit too late.”

Julian and his mum, Cynthia. Photo by Rick Edwards

“The saddest words from her lips were, ‘I did this to myself.’ He takes a huge gulp. “That was really hard to take. It was true to some degree.” Cynthia had smoked all her life. “She was mostly comfortable until the last week. Then her body shut down.”

Julian missed her passing by fifteen minutes. He said his last words to her the night before, as she lay in the hospital bed. “I’ll see ya tomorrow Mum,” he said. She replied, “All right, love.” Julian speculates, “It was sort of a resigned response. I felt something was different.”

He claps his hands to make a point or perhaps to break the tension. “I don’t think she wanted me to witness her passing,” he observes. He places his thumb, which sports a silver ring, up to his lips. “I talk to her at night. She comes to me.” He shifts, wrapping his foot behind his calf. He turns his head away for a minute, looking down gazing at the cement floor and expels a sigh. “This plane that we live on, this existence is the weirdest thing in the world, isn’t it? I’m in awe of it and overwhelmed by it every single day.”

When AIDS first appeared in the eighties, Julian was a young rock star, maintaining a frenzied schedule and touring the world. “I’m a relatively shy person underneath it all,” he admits, his tone analytical, like an academic expounding on a theory. “I was not like most of the rockers at that time. My mates had one-night stands every night. It just was not my cup of tea. I wanted love and cuddling and mutual respect, not just a quick shag in the back of a van—excuse my French.”

STDs didn’t trouble Julian. He was more old-school. “I never just jumped into bed with someone. It’s usually a long mutual courting process,” he remarks evenly, adding that he always wears protection. Julian’s last relationship lasted ten years and that was a while ago. “I haven’t found the love I’ve been looking for. I’m waiting to be smacked in the face by it,” he riffs, shaking his head in resignation. He was engaged twice and both times the engagements were called off.

How does he broach the subject of STDs with dates? Julian offers, “It comes up naturally, through the growth of communication between two people. For me, it’s crucial to have an extended period before sex,” he persists, then tags on, “All the loves of my life are still my dearest friends. I just don’t understand the mentality of breaking up and…that’s it! You have a history together. How does that end overnight?”

Julian has been taking the HIV test for years. “When you’re in this business there are insurance issues. You have to go through rigorous tests at least once a year. For my first test, I was panic-stricken,” he recalls, tousling through his thick bouncy locks. Julian was not keyed into the epidemic in the eighties. He was touring and recording at a frantic pace. “It wasn’t until I saw the film Philadelphia that I became fully conscious of AIDS. The film had a deep impact on me. I had been running around the world doing rock and roll like a headless chicken. I was playing the ‘rock and roll game.’”

Julian’s song “Saltwater” relates to all our struggles, he says, and includes references to the AIDS epidemic.

I have lived for love
But now that’s not enough
For the world I love is dying And now I’m crying
And time is not a friend (no friend of mine)
As friends we’re out of time
And it’s slowly passing by…right before our eyes

We head back to the gallery and view one of Julian’s photographs. As he discusses the work, I think about Julian’s checkerboard life. He confronted his parent’s divorce when he was five. Then came long stretches without his father, the assassination, his exclusion from his father’s will, and his strained relationship with Yoko Ono (worthy of a Hollywood movie). He experienced all the highs and lows of the music business, but through it all, he persevered with his strong-willed durability.

Someone strolls by and politely asks for Lennon’s autograph. He obliges. When she leaves, I ask what got him through the rough times. “I don’t hold onto anger, for one,” he pronounces stoutly. Then he recites, as though in a trance, a combination of the Serenity Prayer and the St. Francis of Assisi prayer. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Make me an instrument of peace….let me bring love.” With his Modigliani face, Julian strikes a half-smile, his amber puppy-dog eyes looking off.

We bid farewell with a hug. Julian then swiftly cruises off to another interview at a local radio station, racking up mile after mile as an ambassador for compassion.

Thank you Susie Odjakjian!

For more information about the White Feather Foundation, log on to: whitefeatherfoundation.com.

Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @DannDulin.