Fab drummer talks about life, music
By Jerry Shriver
Sixty-four was yesterday. The age bearing down on Beatledom this year is 70.
Boomers may wince, but Ringo the eldest hits that milestone on July
7, and plans to mark it by flashing a two-fingered peace sign at noon
and playing an evening gig at Radio City Music Hall as part of a
summer tour with his latest All-Starr band. Take heart, though: He's
not missing a beat as he embarks this week on a three-week
promotional tour for his just-released Y Not album, his 15th solo outing.
Starr is a wisp of a man yet far from a relic. The longtime
vegetarian looks to be in his late 50s, dresses sharp (in all-black
on a recent Sunday morning, save for the pink-orange trim of his
sneakers) and still doles out quips that are only slightly less
cheeky than the classics from John Lennon, who would have followed
him to 70 this October.
When kidded about the relative scarcity of rings on his person just
three tiny hoops on his left ear and a pair of thin bands on one
finger he says drolly: "I didn't think that talking to a person who
still has a (cassette) tape recorder that I'd need to bring my rings
out. I don't wear a lot anymore. I can wear several, but not the full
hands. I'm leaving that to Snoop and all those guys."
Those two bands, however, represent the core of his post-Beatles
life: nearly 29 years of marriage to former model/actress Barbara
Bach, 62, who went through a midlife struggle with substance abuse
with him in the 1980s One of the bands "was my grandfather's, and it
was huge and we cut it in half and Barbara has the other half," he
says. The other "was sort of an engagement ring that Barbara bought.
I never take them off."
There's no secret to the couple's longevity, says Starr, who shares
homes with Bach in Los Angeles, England and the south of France. "I'm
just blessed that she puts up with me. I love the woman. She loves
me. There's less down days than up, and we get on really well. We do
spend a lot of time together. That's the deal."
The love song Mystery of the Night (co-written with Richard Marx) on
the new album appears to be most obviously directed to her, "but
they're all about her, really. Mystery of the Night is really
interesting because I always feel it's Andrew Lloyd Ringo 'Mystreee
of the Niiight ...' I can't help myself from going into that mode!"
he says of his theatrical outburst.
Y Not continues a tradition begun on his last solo album, 2008's
Liverpool 8 (which sold more than 31,000 copies, according to Nielsen
SoundScan), in which Starr includes an autobiographical song about
his early life. This time it's The Other Side of Liverpool, which
portrays his lower-working-class upbringing in "a cold and damp" city
where the only way out was "drums, guitar and amp."
"It was a tough, violent neighborhood," Starr says of The Dingle,
then softens that a bit: "If you fell over in the street as a kid,
everyone in that street was your mother and would come out and look
after you. It's like fantasy now. But the thing I wrote this song for
is that people believe I was born, joined The Beatles and then lived
in a mansion."
Starr finds that correcting that impression is easier via a two-verse
song than by writing an autobiography. "I have no real intention of
ever writing a book. It's brought up every now and then, and people
will offer you a lot of money as long as you tell them how John
Lennon really was. It's always that.
"I could do 12 volumes before I ever got into the band. I have more
life than that, but they only want to know about that one."
Beautiful melodies together
That career-long frustration thankfully hasn't soured his
relationship with his remaining mate, Paul McCartney, 67, whom Starr
invited to play on Y Not during the sessions in his L.A. home last
year. "He's still one of the finest, most melodic bass players ever."
Sir Paul played bass on Peace Dream (which contains a reference to
Lennon's 1969 "bed-in for peace" in Amsterdam), and then unexpectedly
offered a cute twist for the single Walk With You, a Starr-Van Dyke
Parks ode to friendship on which McCartney echoes Starr's vocals one
"I had this little idea for a harmony on one of them (Walk With
You)," says McCartney, "and I said, 'You probably don't want this,
but let me show you this idea.' And he liked it, and so I ended up
singing some harmonies. He's great to work with. He always was and
always will be."
And, he's great to seek counsel from, says another Y Not player,
Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, a longtime friend and, since 2008,
Ringo's brother-in-law. (He's married to Barbara's sister Marjorie.)
"When I'm flustered by something, be it relationship, personal life
or career, I'll just go to Rich," his insider's name for Richard
Starkey. "In fewer words than most people, he will give me his take
on it. Straight-across truth. I really value that."
Starr later chuckles at the idea of being a font of calming wisdom.
"I'm not tall enough! No, I think it's just a part of life, because I
go to other people when I'm confused. The biggest downside of Joe
Walsh being a brother-in-law is that I always have to pick up the check."
By most accounts, Starr has retained the genial, peace-loving
personality that he often displayed in The Beatles in the 1960s and
which made him an instant favorite in America (and the beloved voice
of the narrator on Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, a 1980s cartoon
series imported from the U.K.).
"There is an Everyman quality about Ringo, and always has been," says
Beatles scholar Martin Lewis, who has been producer and marketing
strategist on multiple Beatles projects, including the beaming of
Across the Universe into space by NASA in 2008.
"He came out of incredible poverty and was a sickly child, yet you
don't see bitterness from him. He's a magnetic character, and people
want to hang out with him. The majority of the people on the album
just feel like family. That's what Ringo enjoys."
And that spirit informed the recording of the album. Y Not, the first
solo project on which Starr was the primary producer (following a
split with his old production team), "was the most enjoyable record
I've made in my life," says veteran producer/engineer Bruce Sugar,
who lent technical assistance and played alongside guests such as
Dave Stewart, Ben Harper, Edgar Winter, Joss Stone, Gary Wright,
Steve Dudas, Don Was and Benmont Tench. "There was no drama, tension
or egos involved. It just seemed to come together."
Starr set "a fast and furious, exciting pace, catching it in the
moment," says Harper, whose band Relentless 7 will accompany Starr on
his appearances. "He was very clear in the sounds and moods he wanted to set."
Walsh notes that his friend's confidence in his singing voice "was
way, way up, and he went and nailed it," and that his drumming
technique is "as good as ever a human metronome playing the fills
we all know and love, aging very gracefully."
The latter accomplishment comes despite the fact that Starr doesn't
practice, and that he had surgery to remove blockages in both
shoulders four years ago "repetitive drumming syndrome," he
half-jokes. "I've never practiced because there's no joy in just
sitting there and hitting the drums. I need melody; I need to bounce
off a bass player, a guitarist, the piano player.
"I love when there are other human beings in the room. I'm not behind
a big glass thing, separated. You need to feel that emotion off each
other that you can't get otherwise in a studio."
A love of art, especially music
Starr says he also needs diverse creative outlets to keep him engaged
when he's not making albums or touring with his All-Starr band. (The
11th version of the group, featuring Winter, Wright and Rick
Derringer, kicks off an 18-date summer tour June 24 in Niagara
Falls.) In the 1970s it was acting, now it's art a selection of his
photos appears inside the album.
"I am always painting," he says. "I love photography. It's easy to
take shots. But if you have to choose, it's music. I love music, I
He concedes it has been difficult learning to deal with a Beatles
past that will forever overshadow his solo work. (Though of the four,
his solo career got off to the fastest and most successful start.)
But he has achieved acceptance.
"To try and say, 'Look, I'm doing this now,' is a hard job," he says.
"People always have that (earlier) image of you. I was just coming
down in the elevator with some lady with a 2-year-old kid, and the
big difference now is she said, 'Oh, I've got to tell my mother!'
It's a part of life now."