FEATURE | By Love Nguyen
Music’s All in the Family for Lennons
I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that my father passed away recently from Covid-19, but this will be my first father-son interview. My brother texted me that he didn’t believe in coincidences, when a cross appeared in the clouds, the day I received the fateful news.
As I take with me the positive memories from his life, I find myself adrift in the strands of this beautiful relationship between Tom Lennon and his son, Ted, (one of five children) as they share their musical histories with me. As we sit, (outdoors and apart), I witness them finishing each other’s sentences and inside jokes, mirroring each other in every delightful way. Even their homes have a similar touch of coziness and warm hospitality. How I would love to be reincarnated as a male Lennon.
The world that they have created is one that feels welcoming, and that can instantly be felt in their music. The Lennon world, like their music, is imbued with folklore and love.
Tom Lennon was born in 1946 and grew up in a musical family of 13 siblings near the iconic Venice canals. It was an era where: the canals were occupied by beat poets and artists; fuzzed-out day trippers frequented the Strip; and velvet-clad serpents jammed during late night recording sessions that echoed throughout the Canyons ‘til dawn or whenever the drugs wore off.
By day, Tom worked in the mailroom at MGM studios, where he and his fellow co-workers started a rock n’ roll cover band called, “The Other Half.” They opened for the lesser known band (at the time) called the Doors.
Tom’s band rode the wave of American music culture and were getting their own following and press, but then he was drafted for the “War” (Vietnam), and got replaced on guitar by Randy Holden, who later played in the psych band Blue Cheer (which I love, and saw later in Brooklyn). With him, they made original albums but later disbanded soon after Tom’s return.
When Venice started to commercialize, Tom, who worked at a sourdough bakery then, took the opportunity to transfer up to Oxnard to break upwards and onwards. He envisioned baking bread alongside clam diggers and crabbers in northern California but made it only so far as Ojai.
The Lennons’ first came to the Valley of the Moon in the 1930s to visit their great uncle, who owned an apricot orchard in upper Ojai, before settling down here permanently in the 1970s. When Tom moved his family here, his cousins, “The Lennon Sisters,” became household names due to their singing appearances on the popular television show, “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Tom’s father became the Vice President of the entity and he was able to buy instruments off the show at cost. They made their way into his recording studio in Ojai, where he invited his cousins to record albums.Tom also recruited them to perform at benefits in Ojai, knowing that their fame would bring more energy and funds.
What made Tom stand apart from all of his siblings was that he was the first one in the family to learn an instrument. He passed this along to his son Teddy and turned him onto formative albums that you can still hear playing at his house, including a carousel of Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
“Some of my earliest musical memories with my dad were out at the Channel Islands, singing songs around the campfire,” Ted said. “He made it fun by doing a kind of call and response where all of us kids would get involved and have our parts to sing. Like the song, ‘Zombie Jamboree*’ we’d sing, ‘Back to back, belly to belly’. There was also a ‘spitting song’ where we would all spit in the fire when he’d say, ’Spit!’ They were all classic, timeless folk songs that made you feel good.”
Ted moved to New York in the aughts to push his own music out into the world and found himself at CBGB’s gallery playing one night. He invited friends and, in a moment of stagefright, stowed himself away into the bathroom and turned out the lights. Centering himself, he realized, “You gotta just go out there and try your best.” They say that New York is where you cut your teeth. “It was a good place for me to study being a performance artist. I just stopped caring what others thought. Everyone’s just doing their own thing.”
Tom said, “I found that Ted had matured while away and he returned playing as my equal.” When he was a cheesemonger at the famed Dean & DeLuca deli, his co-worker spotted Elvis Costello. “She pointed him out to me and asked if I was a fan. I waited ‘til he left the shop because I didn’t want to bring any attention to him inside. I rushed after him and told him I grew up listening to his records as a kid. I played him my newest song that I recorded the night before. He listened to the entire song on my headphones, which was like five minutes. Halfway through, he took the headphones off and asked, ‘This is you?’ in a flattering way. He liked my voice and where it sat in the mix, then gave me advice on considering the addition of a Hammond organ to the song and invited me to come check out his show that evening in Brooklyn.”
Ted returned home to Ojai, remembering the timeless feeling of the canyons and its closeness to the ocean. When he moved back in with his parents, he played his father some of his new music. “He just immediately started strumming along to my songs on the ukulele. My dad’s got this sense of rhythm that’s like a train movin’ down the track. It sounds like a drum. I think that’s what Thom Yorke said about Jack Johnson.” Johnson was been a friend to the Lennon family years before he gained notoriety. In 2005, Jack invited Ted to open for him at the first Food For Thought benefit concert at Libbey Bowl. “It was an unadvertised show that sold out. The only tickets were available that day at the Ojai’s Farmer’s Market.” Ted’s self-titled album was recorded in their living room live on a quarter-inch analogue TEAC reel to reel from the 1970s. The release got the attention of a product manager at Universal Music Japan, who signed Ted for two albums, “Water & Bones” and “The Taste of Time.”
Ted and Tom together toured the albums in Japan in 2006 to 2008. They opened for Jack Johnson in Tokyo in front of 15,000 people and were invited to play the Summer Sonic Music Festival, a two-day festival in Osaka and Tokyo where they shared the Beach Stage with Devendra Banhart, The Flaming Lips and Metallica headlining later that evening. “It was an awesome experience. Everyone loved my dad.” Tom added, “I spent my 60th birthday there, and I stayed up later than Ted the night of my party!”
Sometimes one may wonder if living comfortably in Ojai, if you’ll miss out on intellectual conversations or lose your cosmopolitan aspirations for travel or sophistication. Listening to Ted and Tom’s music, you can hear that none of those things matter. They’re emulating a lightness of being in their world that feels wholly fulfilled in their songs. It’s like the simple satisfaction of seeing the stars at night or sitting down for a meal and a joint with your best friend. Take it easy. Life’s happening right here and now.
In Ted’s song, “So in Love” (2015) featuring Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat, you’re reminded that the beauty of falling in love is what life’s worth living for. There’s plenty of creative productivity here. Ted’s new song on Spotify, “Animals,” has a David Byrne, calypso vibe. It’s a place to escape to that sounds sunny and carefree. It goes down easy with coconut water. He’s also currently working on a new music project called “We Are The Neighbors,” which also hosts a podcast. “It’s an exploration on thought and sound with some of the local artists, philosophers and characters in the Ojai Valley within, like, a ten-mile radius.” I hope his father Tom will make a guest appearance in that garden of delights.
* “Zombie Jamboree” was thought to have origins in the song, “Jumbie Jamboree” by Conrad Eugene Mauge, Jr. a calypso song that came from the Carnaval culture in Trinidad. “Jumbies” were evil spirits that caused wild dancing in their victims.