"Sometimes I can't believe that it's been twenty-two years since the boys were together," says Ringo Starr as he sits backstage at the Variety Arts Center, in Los Angeles, shooting the breeze with two members of the band Jellyfish as they wait to shoot a video for his new single, "Weight of the World."
"Which boys?" asks Barbara Starkey – the former Barbara Bach, with whom Starr recently celebrated his eleventh anniversary – upon entering the room.
"The Fabs, dear," he says a bit quietly. "The Fabs."
Those boys – the Beatles, in case anyone in the world has forgotten – have a funny way of creeping into conversations with Starr. And though Starr is a warm and witty and altogether charming fellow, he can sometimes grow frustrated with the endless barrage of Beatles questions that come his way. During one of the interview sessions for this story, for example, he grew exasperated with a series of Beatles-related inquiries. "What is this," he asked finally, "a fuckin' Beatles interview?"
Photos: Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Beatles Exhibit
Now more than ever, however, the fifty-one-year-old Starr has good reason to want to keep things in the present tense as much as possible. The man with the famous backbeat is back on the beat in a major way. Time Takes Time – Starr's first new studio album to be released in the United States in more than a decade – is easily his strongest piece of work since 1973's smash album Ringo. The new album – produced by Don Was, Jeff Lynne, Phil Ramone and Peter Asher – is the latest example of Starr's remarkable comeback from years spent in what he describes as "an alcoholic haze." Three summers ago a Starr was reborn when he hit the road to tour with his All-Starr Band. Asked what he learned from that tour, he says, "I learned that I could stand on my own two feet again, without any substance in my body to help me."
Starr will spend this summer on the road with a new edition of the All-Starrs – guitarists Joe Walsh and Nils Lofgren return to the group, along with new additions Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmunds, former Guess Who singer Burton Cummings, former Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit, saxophonist Tim Cappello (best known for his work with Tina Turner) and Zak Starkey, Ringo's son, who's joining him on drums. "It seems like everyone's kid is in a band," says Starr, "so I figured why not have him in my band. Plus, he's a hell of a fine drummer. Must run in the family."
Over lunch the subject of Starr's influential drumming style is discussed, and I mention that as a child my first impression of him was the joy he seemed to take in playing as he smiled and bobbed his head. "I was really happy playing," he says. "But you probably saw me on TV, and because I wanted to be noticed from back there, I started nodding my head. Then they started doing it, too, so I just got bigger and bigger. But it's funny you should mention that because that was always my mom's line. She'd always say, 'You're only happy when you're playing drums.'
"Things changed, and now I'm happy a lot of the time," Ringo says with a smile, "I'm happy to say."
What's your goal for the new album?
The toppermost of the poppermost?
Yeah, the poppermost of the toppermost. Yeah, well, that's me. I'm from those days when there was no shame in Number One. This new album is a beautiful piece of work. I put a lot of energy into it and got a lot of help from some very cool people. If it doesn't happen, I'm not going to die. But I've done something I can be proud of – finally, you know – and I'm going to give it my best shot I'm talking about it I'm doing a video. I'm touring. I'm out here pushing, because I really believe in this. And that's a thrill for me, because it wasn't always so. I mean, it's not like I had a lot to say about some of those old records, like Ringo the 4th.
Time Takes Time is far and away your best album in nearly twenty years, since Ringo. Were you confident you had another strong record in you?
There's two answers to that one. For one thing this is the first time since the Ringo album that I put this much energy into making an album. After Ringo and maybe Goodnight Vienna, I started tearing it up and turning up less and less. That's going to show in anyone's art. For a lot of those albums, I was just in a hurry to get home – or, more often, someone else's home. The other thing is that – unless you're interviewing Paul or George – you're talking to a guy who's been in the business longer than most When you're around this long, you're going to have ups and downs. In my case, after the Ringo record it was downhill. But we're coming back now.
Does it seem strange to you that it's now been two decades since you first started making solo albums?
Yes, it is. Not to mention twenty-five years since that other album by those other guys – the one about the sergeant. And thanks be to God. I suppose I got that chance because the Beatles became such monsters. The thing is – and this always looks shitty in print – sometimes you get really tired of being famous. I've been famous an awfully long time. Most rockers get a five-year shot if they're lucky. In our day it was considered a one-year deal. There are some days when it just goes on and on. After the band broke up, I wasn't working. I wasn't doing what I love, which is playing drums and performing. I ended up as just some fucking celebrity. Someone in England put it so cruelly: They said if there's an opening of an envelope, he'll be there. That hit me. I thought, "Shit, yeah, this is what I'm doing now." I'd be at movie premières in London with my bow tie on and a bottle of cognac in my pocket mixed with some Coca-Cola, so people would think it was just soda. It got really sad. But things have turned around for me, and now I'm back in the game. And I'm thrilled with my contribution over all these years.
Photos: The Beatles Romp Through London in 1968
Still, there's often a hint of ambivalence that comes through when you talk about the Beatles. I'm reminded of that great line that you sing in "I'm the Greatest": "I was in the greatest show on earth."
[Sings] "...For what it was worth." Of course that was John Lennon's line. But sure, there have been times when I felt weighed down by it I'm still weighed down by it I mean, I'm sitting here, and I’m all excited about the new product, and you're still going to be asking me about those days. Everybody wants to talk about those days, and sometimes it gets heavy for me. Right now that waitress is not looking at me as Richard Starkey. It's Mr. Starr to her. It's the Beatle, not even the former Beatle. When I am the oldest man on the planet, and I'm wheeled onto This Is Your Life, it will be as Beatle Ringo Starr. This will never end. But that's cool, I suppose.
Being a Beatle seems a bit like royalty – a job for life.
Sure. Never get this wrong – I'm totally, honestly proud of the music that we made and the friendships. It was the best band that I've ever been in.
It’s the best band anybody's ever been in, I imagine.
Yeah, and remember, not many of us were in it. And those of us who were did a real fine job of it. I think we were actually putting on vinyl in those days a Western-world psyche in a really positive manner. It was amazing. It was big, bigger... than most things.
Bigger than Jesus, perhaps?
No, I'm not going to be the one to say that. [Laughs] I nearly said it.
Do you think a band could have that sort of cultural impact again?
Yeah, I do. I really do. They said that there would never be another Charlie Chaplin, another Sinatra, another Caruso, another Elvis. And there will not be another one of those people, but I honestly believe that there will be something musically huge. That's the difference, I suppose. Elton John was big, for instance. We were huge.
But could any group mean as much to people as the Beatles did?
The world made us mean so much. It's not like we were so socially aware early on. We just came here with silly haircuts, weird outfits, good music and an attitude. We were in our early twenties, and we liked to wreck hotel rooms and do all the wild things bands are still doing now like they just invented it. Of course, now it's dangerous to behave the way we did then. I have to explain this to my children. It sounds like macho bullshit, but when I was my kids' ages, the worst thing that could happen was the girl got pregnant. And that didn't even happen to us, that happened to her. Now the worst thing that can happen is you fuckin' die. That's what can happen now, kids. Drugs are the same. In my lost days, in the depths of fear, depression and loneliness, I used to tell my kids, "If you ever take drugs, let me get them for you." Now we sit and talk and I say, "You know, Daddy's changed." But I still tell them, if they get into trouble, at least they can come to me and I can take them to rehab. Because Daddy certainly knows where they are.
A lot of kids today still worship the Sixties from afar. Do you think they are mistaken to do so?
No, I love the kids that relate to that time, because it was a really important time to me, too. And a beautiful time, because what we did we tried to do with peace and love. Now along the way I got lost in a haze of alcohol and drugs. But thank God I'm still here, coming out of it now a day at a rime. And now I’m feeling like those days again. I loved that movement, and now I sort of feel like I’m back in it.
How do you feel about the artists like Jellyfish and Lenny Kravitz, who at times seem to want to re-create the music you were making in the old days?
I love 'em, too. I remember when my daughter, Lee, turned me onto Lenny for the first time. I took a listen, then went back to her and said, "It's lovely, dear, but isn't it a little bit Beatle-ish?" And she said, "Of course it is, Daddy."
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