Ringo Starr leans forward. "How're you doing, Johnny?" he says, addressing the tape recorder as if it were a medium to another world. Then he straightens up and loudly exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke that floats toward the cathedral ceiling. "He's watching over us, you know."
The omnipresent specter of John Lennon notwithstanding, it's a bright, warm afternoon in Beverly Hills at the house Ringo calls home during the 161 days he's allotted by the Department of Immigration to live in the United States (he splits the rest of his time between London and Monte Carlo). He shares the twelve-room, two-story house — an eclectic concoction that manages to compromise the austerity of a vaulted, neo-Gothic mansion with the coziness of a gingerbread cottage — with his fiance, actress Barbara Bach, and her two children. Although the house is rented, complete with decor, there are a few personal touches. Strings of Christmas lights still encircle the front door. The room overlooking the backyard swimming pool is crammed with oversize stuffed animals, a piano, stereo equipment, various percussive instruments and a set of drums. The Buffets and Picassos covering the walls of the front living room belong to the absentee owner; Ringo's only addition to the artwork sits on the baroque mantelpiece over the fireplace — an enlarged color snapshot of Ringo lounging with his leg around Barbara's neck. Dramatic, high beamed ceilings and a massive hand-carved, pewlike settee are bathed in amber sunlight streaming in from a courtyard filled with oranges fallen from overladen trees.
Ringo sits cross-legged on the floor, elbow propped on a coffee table. He takes long sips of brandy and chain-smokes Marlboros. Dark glasses mask bloodshot eyes — souvenirs from an all-night session in the recording studio. Even with gray streaks in his hair and beard, forty-year-old Ringo Starr still resembles the sad-eyed clown of the Beatles. Three fingers and one ear are studded with the rings that earned him his nickname, and he mugs and lobs quips with the same irreverent energy that turned Beatles press conferences into vaudevillian routines.
A scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about John Lennon's tragic death lies on the coffee table, a sign that things have changed irrevocably. An occasional note of cynicism creeps in and out of Ringo's conversation, and it occurs to me he seems almost stoic, considering the number of friends and associates he's lost in recent years: Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager (1967); Mal Evans, the Beatles' road manager (1976); Marc Bolan of T. Rex (1977); Keith Moon of the Who (1978); and, besides Lennon, Peter Sellers, Mae West and Bill Haley within the past year.
"Bill Haley was like my dad," Ringo recalls. "When he came out, I was fourteen or fifteen, and he was probably about twenty-eight. But when you're fourteen or fifteen, anyone at twenty-eight is like your dad."
Ringo was on far more intimate terms with fellow drummer and drinking buddy Keith Moon. "My best friend was Keith," he says, fiddling with his cigarette lighter. "Moonie was the madman...." Ringo looks away, shaking his head, obviously uncomfortable pursuing this journey any further. "It's all a part of life, which makes absolutely no sense," he says with a world-weary shrug.
As fatalistic as he sounds, Ringo is not exactly resigned to accepting these misfortunes with eulogies and regrets. A security guard is on duty around the clock at his L.A. home, and Lennon's murder has brought out Ringo's anger and impatience with a world where Beatlemania still lives — and kills. He refuses to view any Beatles-related entertainment as a tribute. "It's all rip-off to me," he says adamantly. "Like that show Beatlemania. They didn't call it Kennedymania or any other mania did they? No! And I Want to Hold Your Hand. It always amazed me that Steven Spielberg got involved with that movie, though I know from one meeting with him that he was a Beatles freak."
Ringo nearly spits out the last two words. Since Lennon's murder, the star-struck celebrity hounds and fans once tolerated as a weird yet benign breed have lost their innocence for him.
"You know," says Ringo, "a sixteen-year-old kid in the Miami airport said, 'Well, at least the rumors that you're [the Beatles] getting together will stop now.' That blew me away! But the kid was right. I'm sorry that's what it took. I mean, I never wanted it to go to that extreme for the rumors to stop. But of course, they probably never will. There's already all this crap going down about us doing a memorial album for John. It's like all that get-together stuff. It's silly, you know? It used to drive us mad. Some smartass would spout out that he's got this idea to get us together, and it would be international news. They'd fetch up the most extreme reasons. For the queen of England. Well, sorry about the queen! For the boat people. Sorry about the boat people! But it doesn't matter how many times we deny it, it'll still go on. Anyone who wants to be a little hero or make a small name for himself can say he's getting us together, and he'll get an hour-long show on TV. Even if there's only one of us left, they'll say he's getting together with himself!"
Ringo has never been one for getting together only with himself. "With a Little Help from My Friends" is his past, present and future theme song; a large circle of musical acquaintances turned his post-Beatles recordings into supersessions. His new album, Can't Fight Lightning — the label and release date of which are being negotiated — boasts contributions from Stephen Stills, Ron Wood, Harry Nilsson, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Ringo and Peter Sellers remained friends long after the film in which they starred (The Magic Christian, 1970) was forgotten. And Ringo hit it off so well with Mae West during the filming of her ill-fated comeback in Sextette (1977) that the reclusive sex symbol made a rare appearance at one of his parties.
Ringo smiles at the recollection. "She walked pretty slowly, but she came. And all these mad rock people just began kneeling around her, going, 'Wow! It's Mae West!' Everybody got off on her. I mean, if you don't get off on Mae, who can you get off on?"
For several years, partying was a way of life for Ringo. While Lennon settled into a quiet, private life in New York City, Ringo gravitated toward L.A.'s music colony. Following his 1975 divorce after ten years of marriage to Maureen Cox, he began carousing with Keith Moon, Alice Cooper and Harry Nilsson and went through a period that one of his friends refers to as "the mad, mad days. He was a real lost soul there for a while. Barbara's definitely been a steadying influence on him."
Ringo first met the thirty-one-year-old model-turned-actress from Long Island a little more than a year ago when she was assigned to play his love interest in Caveman, his latest cinematic venture. By the time shooting was completed, Ringo's interest extended into real life. Barbara soon accompanied him on a trip to London, where, one fateful rainy day, he demolished his Mercedes 350SL. Miraculously, he and Barbara emerged from the wreckage unharmed, and they say they've been inseparable since then.
"Last spring, we were on the Caveman set in Mexico for two and a half months just as friends," he says. "Then suddenly one Sunday evening — flashes of light! It clicked, and we've been together ever since.
"Caveman is my first leading role," he continues. "I haven't been in a movie in years, cause I'd had enough of just coming on a set for two or three days, doing vignettes like the ones in Lisztomania and Sextette. So I really enjoyed the chance to go from a weird weakling to the king of the castle in Caveman. I'm the hero, you know. And believe it or not, it's a family movie. There may be one or two scenes where we get a bit rough, especially when I'm trying to rape Barbara, but it's done in a comic way. I get a knee slap in the head and things like that. And I also get to punch the hell out of John Maruszak [the football-star-turned-actor] — all 280 pounds of him! It's very slapstick, and there're only fifteen words in the vocabulary. So there's a lot of miming and grunting. They'll be able to understand it even in China!"
Ringo's bow in what he calls "the first silent talkie" may fulfill — almost two decades and thirteen films later — the promise of his much-acclaimed acting debut in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (1964). It wasn't the first film designed to capitalize on music idols' popularity, but it was probably the best. Critics who had yawned and snickered through Elvis Presley's parade of flimsy Hollywood vehicles raved about the film's inspired whimsy and hailed Ringo as the Charlie Chaplin/Harpo Marx of the Sixties. Just as Lennon was dubbed the writing Beatle upon publication of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, Ringo soon became known as the acting Beatle. It was all a fluke, according to Ringo, and he claims he never consciously pursued acting to compensate for his relatively low profile as a creative contributor to the Beatles' music.
"When we were asked if we'd like to make a movie, we said, 'Are you kidding? Of course we'd like to. Doesn't everyone want to make a movie?' I just happened to be the one who enjoyed movies the most," he explains. "I used to get to the set early, and I'd say, 'Put me on camera, man! Put me in front of it. I have a good time here!' But they only put me up front in the next one [Help!] because of how I came across in the first one. I sort of became the one who always got into trouble. You know, kids never forgave me for pressing the button that shot me out into the Sea of Holes in Yellow Submarine."
While Ringo is speaking, the sound of a child crying grows louder from an adjacent room, and Barbara enlists his help in dealing with a little domestic crisis. It seems that earlier in the day, a stray cat infiltrated the compound and killed a pet bird that belonged to Barbara's eight-year-old son, Gianni. Now he's become attached to the feline intruder and refuses to let the housekeeper take it away. Barbara dispatches Ringo to make peace.
"To me, Ringo is definitely Richie," she says during his absence. "Ringo is the public figure, and Richie is the man I live with. You see, I really knew very little about the Beatles. I didn't follow them. My favorite musicians were Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, but music just wasn't my thing."
Ringo reappears; his diplomatic mission has not been successful. "Will you go talk to him for a minute?" Ringo asks Barbara, who starts for the other room. "He doesn't understand the cat's not staying. I told him if he keeps making a noise, I'll put him upstairs or in the music room. Ah," he sighs, his voice full of sweet sarcasm. "Kids are so wonderful."
Ringo should know. He has two sons, fifteen-year-old Zak and thirteen-year-old Jason, and a daughter, ten-year-old Lee. They reside with their mother, Maureen, in England, and haven't yet met Barbara's two kids from her marriage to Italian businessman Augusto Gregorini — Gianni and twelve-year-old Francesca. "Barbara's kids go on holiday with their father when mine come on holiday with me," Ringo says. "But this year we'll get them all together."
Barbara's back, and all's quiet once more on the home front. "Darling," she says, "we were just discussing how I didn't follow the Beatles."
"She was into Dylan and the Stones," he deadpans, flicking his cigarette at the ashtray.
"But I remember I did see one of your movies," she adds. "Which one was it, darling?"
"Oh, the one with David Essex — That'll Be the Day," he says. "I could really relate to that one, because that was how I was."
This 1973 English film about the Fifties rock scene in London cast Ringo as a streetwise Teddy boy and earned him his best notices since A Hard Day's Night. It was no coincidence that in both movies he was basically improvising on his own personality.
"Claude Whatham, the director, was fabulous," Ringo says. "He told me, 'Look, you don't have to learn all the lines. Just get to know what's happening in the script.' He let me ramble on all I wanted because people write lines for you that you'd never say, and they always sound crazy. So I did my own dialogue. I love it when they let me go off on me own."
It's no surprise, then, that Ringo's favorite directors are such mavericks as Frank Zappa and Ken Russell. In 1971, Ringo impersonated Zappa in the cultish calamity 200 Motels. "I played the naughty Frank, who used to tape conversations and write songs around them and force his band to sing them," laughs Ringo. "Naturally, I, like everyone else, thought Frank was a real weirdo, but when you get to know him, he isn't. He's probably one of the straightest men I've ever met."
Ringo worked with Ken Russell on Lisztomania (1975), which featured the Who's Roger Daltrey as an oversexed Franz Liszt and Ringo as an anachronistically pop pope. "I still haven't seen it," says Ringo, "but I thought Ken was great. I mean, I was playing a pope in 1784 or so, and one morning I walked onto the set a bit under the weather, so I had me shades on. And Ken says, 'Hey, let's use them!' He'll go for anything, and you need that."
Ringo's freewheeling attitude toward filmmaking has made for a colorful yet erratic and uniformly uncommercial film career. But it fits Ringo's philosophy of acting naturally and learning by doing. Childhood bouts with peritonitis, pleurisy and other physical maladies totally disrupted his education, and he still shies away from formal training.
"I never studied anything, really," he says. "I didn't study the drums. I just joined bands and made all me mistakes onstage. I feel I learn more from professionals than from going to school. I don't particularly want to go to a class when I can get up with someone who knows his gig and can teach me. I learned a lot from some fine actors, like Richard Burton [Candy, 1968] and Peter Sellers. I felt that was the best 'school' I ever went to."
In the same spirit, Ringo has made a few forays on the other side of the camera. A couple of experimental shorts aside, his first venture was Magical Mystery Tour (1967), the Beatles' psychedelic TV movie. "Magical Mystery Tour is not my movie," he hastens to explain. "John, Paul and George wrote more of it than I did, but I shot a lot of it. There's a scene with George where I put him in my living room and projected slides on him. It's nothing new. It was done back in 1926 or so. But I happened to be a camera buff, and I had all these funny lenses, and I think it came out fine. Naiveté isn't so bad, really."
Ringo tried his hand at directing and producing films for the Beatles' Apple Corps., which was itself a kind of corporate exercise in naiveté. His first and only directorial project was Born to Boogie (1972), a documentary concert starring Marc Bolan of T. Rex. "It was one of the nicest times of my life," Ringo says. "I love directing, because you just shout, 'Get me this, get me that, move that over there!' It's total control. But I never want to produce again," he says, bringing up his difficulties as producer of The Son of Dracula (1974). "It's such a headache. Everyone shouts at you! Even though the producer has the authority to shit on everyone else, he's also there to be shat upon, especially if he's as naive as I was.
"I didn't know that if you didn't get the crew home and in their beds by midnight, you couldn't work them the next day. 'Cause, you see, I'm a musician, and if we start working and it starts to cook, we'll keep it rolling for three days if necessary. But with this movie, it was my first time, it was my stupidity, and I don't blame anyone else. That's what life's about. You have to learn the tricks."
The Son of Dracula, starring Harry Nilsson as a schizoid vampire who yearns to go straight, missed the vampire craze by about four years. "It was probably the first movie since Gone with the Wind to premiere in Atlanta," says Ringo with a smirk. "We opened on Tuesday, closed on Wednesday, and we've been working on it ever since."
Suddenly Ringo pops up from the floor and does a double take at his empty glass. "I think I'll go get us a drink," he says. "I feel like I've been rattling me brain off here!"
He returns with more brandy and offers a defense of his choice of film projects. "Well, there're career moves, and there're things you just want to do. Most of the time I do things 'cause I just want to do them, which isn't necessarily right, but, you know, I like to have a good time!"
But even Ringo Starr has a hard time landing the kinds of roles he wants, and like every actor, he gripes about typecasting. It seems that Ringo's only cinematic incarnation as a villain occurred in a 1972 spaghetti western called Blindman. Unfortunately, few English-speaking people have ever seen Ringo's portrayal of a Mexican outlaw who rapes a girl and stabs her father. It was so outrageously violent that it's never been screened in the United States or England.
"It was over the edge!" he chortles. "There's a scene where all these women are running through the desert trying to escape from us Mexican bandits, and we're just sitting on our horses picking them off with rifles. It's fabulous! That's why I did the picture. It gave me the chance to be a baddie. You see, I don't mind comedy, but I don't like being put in a pigeonhole, either. I'm like someone who played in a TV series for too many years. Try to do anything different, and you get, 'Oh, no! You're so-and-so from whatever.' I'm still fighting that kind of thinking.
"You see," he says, snuffing out his cigarette with a defiant jab, "what I have to combat is the original image of me as the downtrodden dummy. It's still in everybody's minds. You don't know how hard it is to fight that tag. I've been caught in this trap for almost twenty years now. But it hasn't ruined my life. I know what I am, I know what I can do. But what am I going to do, take out a newspaper ad or a billboard and say, 'I'm not really like that'? People always latch on to the first image and refuse to let go. It was the same with John [Lennon]. Because he had this rapier wit, they said he was nasty and things like that. But John was the kindest person I ever knew. He was the only one of the four of us who would give his soul. The three of us would hesitate, but John would give you anything without hesitation. And I loved the man dearly. We were friends all the time.
"I love the other two, you know. We're friends, and there's no real problem, but we have arguments and little fights. We did when we were touring, and we do now. But nothing like the newspapers make it out to be."
If there was one gesture that altered Ringo's image in the public eye, it was the way he braved the mobs outside the Dakota to console Yoko Ono the morning after Lennon's murder. While Harrison and McCartney issued statements from behind closed doors in England, Ringo immediately flew with Barbara to New York from their vacation in the Bahamas. It was a reaction so simple and direct that it took on a heroic dimension. It suddenly seemed to give Ringo a stature he'd always been denied by both Beatles critics and fans — and sometimes even by the Beatles themselves. In one of Lennon's last interviews (Playboy, January 1980), however, he offered this reevaluation of his friend and former partner: "Ringo was a star in his own right in Liverpool before we even met.... He would have surfaced with or without the Beatles." Today, Ringo doesn't mind being immodest enough to agree.
"I'm most creative as a drummer," he says. "I'm probably the best rock & roll drummer on earth. I say that now because I used to be embarrassed to speak up for myself. I was often ignored because John and Paul were songwriters, and then George started writing. I wrote my little songs, too, but I didn't write anything to compare with theirs. 'Don't Pass Me By' was the first track I ever wrote that was recorded. That was my song. But imagine, I was in this band with the greatest songwriters on earth at the time! I used to fetch in my little songs, and they'd all have hysterics because all I was doing was writing new words to old tunes. They'd be on the floor laughing! So I had to get to the point where I could say I'd written a definite song — something that was not a rewrite of a Jerry Lee Lewis song."
Ironically, Ringo's creative juices as a composer seemed to start flowing just as the Beatles began drifting apart. At one point, as Ringo tells it, he was feeling so alienated and desperate that he found himself identifying with octopuses. "Things were getting a bit rough, and I'd left the Beatles for a couple of weeks because I couldn't take it anymore," Ringo recalls. "So I went on holiday with my family to Sardinia. A friend lent us a boat, and one day the captain served us some octopus for lunch. Naturally we went, 'Urrgghh-ah! No thanks. Have you got any egg and chips?' But I started talking to the captain, and he told me all about octopuses, how they go round the sea bed and pick up stones and shiny objects and build gardens. I thought, 'How fabulous!' cause at the time, I just wanted to be under the sea, too. I wanted to get out of it for a while. Of course, I ended up going back to the group because I couldn't play with anyone better. But that's how 'Octopus's Garden' came about."
Ringo roars into a guffaw that turns into a resounding burp. "Oh, excuse me," he says, cupping his mouth and directing his apology to the tape recorder. "I'm just burping, which is only human! Anyway, we used to get freaked out by what everyone thought our songs were about, because they'd make up all this madness. The Sunday Times in London brought all this analyzing into the establishment when someone wrote an article about the 'decading solances' [Aeolian cadences] in our music and things like that. We didn't know what the shit they were talking about. We just play guitar and drums. We're buskers. We don't read music. We just make it up, and if it feels good and sounds good, then fine. And if you learn a new chord, you put it in. I only played three chords, so I'd give a song to George, and he'd put in four more. Which is all right. He's my friend, and we help each other."
This noncompetitive attitude has characterized Ringo's solo recording career, which boasts six albums and such chart-topping singles as "It Don't Come Easy" (1971), "Back off Boogaloo" (1972), "Photograph" (1973), "You're Sixteen" (1974) and "Only You" (1974). While John, Paul and George asserted their individual talents by disassociating themselves, Ringo managed to maintain his creative ties with the other three. In fact, the supersessions for his 1973 album, Ringo, have been the closest approximation of a Beatles reunion to take place. John, Paul and George each contributed a song, and John, George and Ringo played together on "I'm the Greatest," Lennon's mock-Starr bio. Ringo tried to arrange a similar summit meeting for his new album.
"I asked all my friends to help on Can't Fight Lightning," Ringo says. "George did a couple of tracks, Paul's done a couple of tracks. But the real drag is that there were tracks made for me by John. I won't use them now, though. Well, I might. You never can tell. But they won't be on this album. The fun was going to be that we'd play together, you know? And we could play real well together — even in 1981."
Staring out the window at the falling darkness, Ringo downs the rest of his brandy and talks about the last time he saw Lennon. It was November 15th, in Ringo's suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Lennon brought over the tapes he'd done for Ringo and made plans to go into the studio with him in January. He was high about having finished Double Fantasy with Yoko. "And then the asshole appeared," Ringo says, sounding more bewildered than bitter. "There's no understanding it. You think about it, but I'm telling you, you never understand it. The world has lost a wonderful man."
As incomprehensible as it is, the dark side of Beatlemania was always there. George Harrison reveals in his autobiography, I Me Mine, that during the Beatles' first American tour in 1964, their rented plane was shot full of holes by jealous, shotgun-carrying boyfriends, and Ringo received a death threat before a concert in Montreal.
"We got off the plane in Montreal," Ringo recalls, "and a guy grabbed me by the arm and said, 'We just got this message.' So I had a plainclothes policeman sitting on the side of the stage ready to catch the bullet. Ridiculous! But things like that did go on. Yes, it was more than just playing that went on. It was a twenty-four-hour day. We used to have the whole floor in a hotel, and the four of us would end up in the bathroom because it was the only place no one else was in!"
For Ringo, the enforced intimacy created bonds of camaraderie that no amount of time or litigation can break. "They are my brothers, you see. I'm an only child, and they're my brothers. I've always said that if I ever spend all my bread, I can just go and live with one of them, and vice versa, 'cause we all love to spend it," he chuckles. "I always know there's a home for me with Yoko. She's taken a lot of shit — her and Linda [McCartney]. But the Beatles' breakup wasn't their fault. It was just that suddenly we were all thirty and married and changed. We couldn't carry on that life anymore. From 1961, '62, to around 1969, we were just all for each other. But suddenly you're older, and you don't want to devote all that time to this one object. It was time it ended. We stopped because we'd had enough. We'd gone as far as we could with each other. And I'm sorry, but I'm not here to re-create anybody's past. The Beatles finished in 1970. It's not the main force of my life anymore. Let's do the gig of today, not of yesterday."