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Ringo’s Rhythm Without Blues

9 minute read

A word of advice for Barbara Bach: if the American-born actress is wondering about a Christmas present for her husband, she could do worse than buy him a thick pair of long johns. He’ll need them where he’s going. Not because he has become enfeebled by age or excess, far from it: at 67, Richard Starkey, a.k.a. Ringo Starr, the oldest member of the Beatles and — despite a notorious bout of overindulgence — one of the band’s two survivors, seems unstoppable. His musical output is prodigious. Next month, Ringo releases his 16th solo studio album of songs written and sung by him, and underpinned by his unmistakable drumming. And he’s also halfway through writing a musical, The Hole in the Fence, a meditation on childhood, with former Eurythmic Dave Stewart.

You remember Ringo. He was the comical one in the Beatles, lovable but expendable. He hitched a ride on the Lennon-McCartney express. Perhaps you believed he’d been knighted like Sir Paul. Maybe you assumed he’d retired. In fact, almost everything you think you know about Ringo is wrong, except that he’s endearing. Lean and boisterous in tight pants, T shirt, sneakers and funky sunglasses, he could be mistaken for a 50-something in the first throes of an affair with a younger woman. It is true that Ringo is enraptured by a younger woman, but he’s not trying to roll back the years to please his lady. His relationship with his 60-year-old wife, a former Bond girl, has been going strong since they met on a film set in 1980. The dark lenses are prescription, reveals his friend, the musician Keith Allison, but in other respects Ringo is simply dressing like the rock star he is, a charming and pampered idol who has rarely endured a cloudy day since alighting in tax exile in the principality of Monaco in 1976.

Ringo also has a house in Los Angeles, takes holidays in the tropics, and occasionally — and with evident reluctance — visits his spread in the Surrey countryside, south of London. He’ll be there later this month. “I’m going to England for Christmas with the kids,” he says. “It’s damp and it’s cold and it’s dark. I love the sun and the warmth, and that’s how I choose to spend my life.”

Surrey will seem balmy in comparison with his subsequent destination. On the evening of Jan. 11, on a rooftop in Liverpool, pinioned by the icy winds blowing in from the Mersey Estuary, the city’s prodigal son will launch a year-long festival marking its selection as one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2008 (the other one, Stavanger in Norway, is even colder). It will be Ringo’s first rooftop performance since the Beatles’ final gig atop London’s Apple Studios in January 1969. That day, enveloped in a scarlet coat and insulated by his thick mane of hair, he looked cold — and the moptop has long since been supplanted by a close-cropped style that will afford zero protection against a wintry Liverpool night.

Provided Ringo survives the opening ceremony, he’ll headline at a concert the next evening featuring fellow mainstays of the city’s music scene: the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, No Fakin’ DJs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pete Wylie, Ian Broudie, Shack, the Christians and the Wombats. That motley list tells the real story. Something about Liverpool, a chemical reaction between the irrepressible locals and the diverse influences that have slipped ashore in the city’s port, spurs creativity. High culture and low, from staid to avant-garde — it’s all come out of Merseyside. But nothing else has ever equaled the Beatles. Ringo and Paul McCartney (who will play there in June) are Liverpool’s greatest living cultural ambassadors, and Ringo in particular is seen as the embodiment of the city’s down-to-earth persona. “Ringo is exactly as he says on the tin,” says musician and activist Bob Geldof.

One thing it says on that tin is “baked beans.” Ringo never liked fancy foreign food, and in 1967 went off with fellow Beatles to see the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, carrying with him a suitcase full of baked beans. He left the ashram when he’d eaten the last can. He grew up in poverty. (“I was so poor,” jokes Ringo, “that I had to hop to school. We only had one shoe.”) He hasn’t been back to Merseyside since his stepdad’s funeral 11 years ago. Ask Ringo if he’s English and he answers, “No. I’m world.” If there’s a football match, he’ll root for England or his real passion, Liverpool FC; otherwise, he says, “I feel more American sometimes than most Americans.” His accent, unlike the man himself, still pays dues to his homeland, but also owes a few of its cadences to California. Yet Ringo sees himself as a typical Liverpudlian at least in one respect. “I bring humor to the fore,” he says. “It’s a defense. Give me an opening and I’m in. When I was a kid, you went to the pub and people would have some sort of quick retort to what you said. A lot of it would put you down, but it would also bring you up.”

“He’s still got that bittersweet humor and is sharp as a razor,” says Stewart, who co-wrote and co-produced Ringo’s forthcoming solo album. Called Liverpool 8, after the postal code of the neighborhood where Ringo grew up, its title track chronicles his escape from the city in jaunty couplets (“I always followed my heart/ But I never missed a beat”).

On this and previous albums, Ringo defies the rock convention best articulated by Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out/ Than to fade away.” Ringo’s compositions convey an upbeat personal philosophy (sample line: “You’ve got to love every breath that you breathe/ Look at the sky and believe”). Unsurprisingly, such sentiments bear a distinct resemblance to the tenets of the 12-step programs devised to help alcoholics and drug addicts. He and his wife have been clean-living since they checked into rehab in Arizona in October 1988; cocaine and alcohol were reputed to be their downfall. Ringo says simply: “I was on my knees.” Allison maintains that the treatment changed more about his friend than his habits. For a start, that’s when Ringo’s sun worship started. “We spent so many years in the dark, during what I refer to as ‘the medicine years,'” says Allison. “The blinds were drawn and when the sun started coming up everybody was like a bunch of Draculas running for cover. Not any more. We both love the light.”

Allison recalls drunkenly telling an equally inebriated Ringo he loved him. Ringo recoiled, admonishing Allison: “Don’t get real on me.” Rehab unlocked Ringo’s emotions, says Allison. “Now it can’t get real enough for him. We talk about everything imaginable.”

Ringo still does have one visible addiction, though: making peace signs. “He’s always got two fingers in the air and is repeating ‘love’ all the time,” says Stewart, “but that’s because he’s been through so much.” Perhaps that’s why he’s been worrying lately about the public distress of the Grammy-nominated British singer Amy Winehouse, who has canceled a tour amid rumors of drug and alcohol abuse. “God bless Amy. She’s a great talent. And she’s going through a situation right now,” he says. “It’s a very public destruction … The good news is that there’s a lot more help around now than there was.” He was happy to read reports that another troubled British singer, Pete Doherty, had done a beneficial stint in rehab. “So you can do it. So God bless you, Pete.” But does Ringo enjoy Doherty’s music? “I’ve no idea. I’ve only ever seen him [in photos] coming out of a court.”

Nobody would accuse Ringo of being down with the kids. He describes his musical influences as “eclectic,” but rejects collaborations that might introduce him to younger audiences. “You can only be what you are,” he says. “Many times they’d like me to do these records with all these new bands and I won’t do it. Because I’m having a great time, I’m having a great career. I’m not desperate to be No. 1.”

Still, a little more recognition wouldn’t go amiss. So here it is, starting with his role in the Beatles. There’s a joke that Ringo isn’t the world’s greatest drummer — he wasn’t even the greatest drummer in the Beatles. Record producer Chris Thomas, who worked with George Martin on the Beatles’ White Album, begs to differ: “They were a great band and to be a great band you have to have a great drummer.” “Ringo rooted everything musically,” says Geldof. “He does beats when it’s necessary. These songs are all over the place and seamless simultaneously. If you listen to them, what he does is great, seriously great.”

Ringo’s post-Beatles canon rarely attracts such superlatives, although singles like It Don’t Come Easy and Photograph made the charts and won plaudits. So did his acting, most notably in the 1973 film That’ll Be the Day. He gave it up anyway. “I came to the conclusion that there are a lot of good actors out there,” he says. “I’m really just a personality who can learn a few lines.”

“The question isn’t what Ringo did post-Beatles. The question is what any of the Beatles did post-Beatles,” says Geldof. (Geldof’s assessment matches the broad consensus: none of them individually matched the Beatles’ stratospheric standard.) One thing Ringo won’t do is join Geldof in using his celebrity status to campaign for any causes. That, says Ringo firmly, was Lennon’s province. Ringo believes in leading by example or, as he says of his vegetarianism, “I am the campaign.”

What sustains him, he says, is “just working out, just eating carrots” — that, and his beloved Barbara, and music. “The dream at 13 was to be a drummer and then I got a kit of drums and it was to play with people and then to play with really good people, and that hasn’t stopped … I’m not an electrician, I’m a musician. And I still get great joy out of it,” he says. In Ringo’s world, the sun shines almost every day, and, if it gets chilly once in a while, some decent thermal underwear should keep him warm. (Please, Barbara: take note.)

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