Q&A: Ringo Starr

The former Beatles drummer talks about his new solo album 'Vertical Man'

Ringo Starr in concert, Chicago, May 9th, 1997 Credit: James Crump/Wireimage/Getty

IT WAS MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS ago today that Ringo Starr seemed to disappear from rock & roll into a boozy haze of celebrity and bad habits as his post-Beatles solo career went adrift after a promising start, which included the classic Ringo album. Remarkably, since he re-emerged with the first of his ongoing All-Starr tours in 1989, Starr has made a heartening comeback – one that continues now with Vertical Man, an album that's star-studded but nonetheless extremely lovable, very much like the drumming man himself.

Is the album called Vertical Man because, after some of your lost years, it's a pleasant surprise to find you're still vertical?
Well, some days I'm surprised, you know. I saw a quote in a book of quotes that my stepdaughter Francesca went through. It said, "Let's hear it for the vertical man, because there's so much praise for the horizontal one." I thought, "I'm going to write that down." The title's not just for me – it's for all the people on the album, all the people who are out there still trying to do something.

Some of the guests on the record, like Steven Tyler and Joe Walsh, have been through their own recoveries – is Vertical Man driven by a twelve-step beat? 
I don't think we set out to make a twelve-step record, but with where I'm at now, the songs are directed where I want them to go, and the direction now is positive and up more than negative and down.

When you had Alanis Morissette in the studio, did you offer any advice on handling Alanismania? 
We were working and chatting and laughing, so there wasn't any chance to, like, get down, but, you know, it's always difficult. I always feel blessed that there were four of us. At different periods in those early days, we all went mad, but the other three were there to say, "Excuse me, come on back." The solo artist doesn't have that. Paul still doesn't look at me as a Beatle; he looks at me like, "Here's this guy I've been working with for years."

Here's a familiar question: What do you call your haircut? 
That wasn't my question. It was George's, and I think he called his Arthur. I do my hair myself now. I can't be bothered sitting in those chairs and having a guy snip one hair at a time.

Well, it looks fetching. 
I can do yours in four minutes.

You sound very engaged on the new album. What keeps you hungry? 
I'm doing more now than I've done since the early Seventies. From there, I faded out with lack of interest and a lot of medication. Ever since the first All-Starr tour, I'm just excited about music again. And my chops are back – you play a lot better if you play a lot. It's great to get back, because that was my dream. At thirteen I wanted to be a drummer and nothing else. And that sort of got lost in the madness for a while.

Besides the obvious financial windfall, what was the biggest upside – and downside – of the Anthology experience? 
We didn't do it for that consideration. We've turned down billion-dollar offers. For me the biggest upside was the three of us hanging out at George's, just sitting around having fun – that's what work should be. The saddest part was the initial "Free As a Bird" – trying to get it together, because John wasn't there. But we got to know each other again. We put a couple puppets to bed.

Tell me about your new song "Puppet." 
I had just finished an All-Starr tour, and we were going to record again, and Mark Hudson called up and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Well, I'm putting the puppet to bed." Like the Ringo guy was going to bed. He said, "That's such a cool line." Then I thought, "You can relate that to a lot of things." We all have puppets in us, and there's a lot of strings people can pull and that we pull ourselves. Like doing "Love Me Do" on the new album. I'd always been like, "Well, you can't do a Beatles song." Well, I'm sorry, but I was one, I am one, and it's really just me doing the song my way.

You're singing great – do you feel more confident now? 
I feel more comfortable now. I'll never be Pavarotti. And that's OK.

Hey, I hear he's a lousy rock drummer. 
Yeah.

Do you run into kids who don't know that your band was bigger than Leonardo DiCaprio? 
No, the only time I run into that is when parents throw some kid at you. And they're saying, "There is Ringo Starr – he's with the Beatles." "Well, who is that, Mom?" But, you know, with the Beatles stuff, it's unending. We've got a new crop of ten-year-olds all the time.

Have you learned to live with being an icon? 
I don't get up in the morning saying, "Good morning, icon." Barbara [Bach, his wife] never calls me an icon, and certainly my kids don't.