On Time Takes Time you seem a lot more comfortable making music that sounds Beatlesque yourself.
Well, yeah, but that's Don Was's input, too. I was getting a bit crazy there for a while because it was sounding not so much Beatles-ish but just like that flower-power period. And with that period you can't help think about us. Personally, I always think of Procol Harum. Everyone else thinks of me and the Fabs, but I think of Procol Harum, because to me "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is the ultimate Sixties record. But yes, there were definitely times in the studio when we were getting pretty close. And I got a bit strange about it, but then Don said: "Look, all the people I produce want to sound like that. And you were there." And I was. So that really cooled me out.
Don Was said it wasn't until he went into the studio with you that he got a sense of how important you really were to the Beatles, how invoked you were in the record-making process. Do you feel your contribution is misunderstood?
Sure. I think that George and I were just so overshadowed by the whole Lennon and McCartney thing. I wouldn't call it the Lennon and McCartney myth, because it wasn't a myth. As far as writing, we should have been overshadowed – I think those two were absolutely the finest songwriters in the world when they worked together. But it wasn't just writing, you know. If you listen to what George was playing, all his solos are really interesting and important. My drums are really the basis for a lot of those tracks. Paul is the most melodic bass player in the world, and John was a brilliant rhythm guitarist, despite the fact that he didn't have any real sense of timing. So musically, we were all very important.
Another great thing is that there was no real musical ego problem. There were a lot of other ego problems, but whoever had the best idea got their way. No one really stood on the cliff saying, "Fuck you, no." Anyway, the fact remains that I was involved in those records. I think that's the answer.
Do you feel the need to keep up with all the Beatles books that continue to come out?
To me they're just a lot of books I haven't read. I have enough memories of my own – I don't need those of people who weren't there, thank you very much. Some guy wrote a Ringo book never having met me. I was offered a fortune to write the book, and I spoke to these people, and they didn't really want my book, they wanted the Beatle Book. So I thought, flick it.
But does it bother you to see John Lennon become an icon for people like Albert Goldman to attack?
John wasn't an icon when he was still here. He was a man, you know. An amazing man. But that's what happens. If James Dean were still around, maybe he'd be a fat old man. It's harder for those who stick around.
Is that why Paul McCartney has done so much press trying to change the perception of him as the lightweight of the pair?
Yeah, but that's Paul's problem. He wants to be known as the arty one, the one who did it all – which I think is not true. But it's also not true that John did it all, either. You'd have to ask Paul about that.
You played with George onstage recently. How would you describe your relationship with him at this point?
Friends. Old friends. We're not close like we were. I mean, I love George, but we don't hang out with each other. If I'm upset or hurt or happy or whatever, he's not the one I call anymore. Neither is Paul. But if I'm in London, we'll have dinner. And the other day when I was doing interviews at the Bel-Air Hotel, he happened to be there, too, and he popped in on an interviewer. The guy didn't know what hit him. He said, "So, what's your question?" And the guy didn't say anything. So we're pals from way back, but you know we're not as emotionally close as we used to be.
In the tense postbreakup days, you had the reputation as the one everyone still liked.
Well, I was easy. I would go to everyone's house. Nobody was ever that angry at me. And it was an interesting place to be, in between those feuding writers, even though that wasn't as bad as people say. But they were fighting for position more than I was. Also, I was a people pleaser who always wanted things to be cool and happy even when they weren't.
Last time I talked to you, however, things were tense with you and Paul McCartney. How are things now?
They're up and down. Right now they're okay. I'm not really close to him anymore. I sent him a copy of the new album. Linda calls Barbara a lot. But basically things are the same as they were.
Is it safe to say that the tensions come down to money?
The tension is certainly around money. We haven't brought Yoko into this yet. Since John died, the four of us have been arguing about Beatles-related business. And now the three of us and Yoko have these meetings with all our lawyers and accountants and business people. We've been having these meetings for twenty-two years. It's getting better, but it's slow. Of course, we're not even there at these meetings. We tried that once years ago, and it didn't work.
From an outsider's perspective, it seems so sad that money could divide all of you. Not too many people could understand what you all have been through.
Yoko will never understand it, either. She just happens to be holding me ransom right now, and there's nothing for me to do about it. She said no, and that's it.
What did she say no about?
She and Paul are mainly having one of their battles, and I'm brought into it because I'm one of them. It reminds me of the time American Express refused to give me a card, because John owed them money. So it's not just fans who lump us all in together.
Still, you're all cooperating with a documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper, aren't you?
Yeah, George Martin is producing the documentary. [It will appear on the Disney Channel this fall.] I did an interview in February in Aspen. George has done it. Paul's done it. And it's going to be interesting to see what happens, where our memories have taken us, especially since we all talked separately. Also, I just did an interview about the early days with Neil Aspinall, who runs Apple Records, in England.
Is this for a film?
For a series of videos that we're calling The Long and Winding Road. We're all doing it, too. We do the early years, the later years, our visits to the Ed Sullivan show, and the making of Sgt Pepper, because it's been twenty-five years. In that way you could say that we're really getting together. While we're cleaning out the files, the things I'd like to get out are the BBC tapes – all the stuff we played live on the BBC in our early days. It's been a problem, because they can't find the good tapes. We have a second-generation tape, which would still be cool by me because of what it is.
There were stories that you all met with Steven Spielberg a few years ago about making a documentary on the band. What ever happened to that?
I never met him. Basically, we did the film five years ago. Neil Aspinall put it together from what we had in the archives, and then we sent copies to several directors. And a lot of them got uptight, because we actually sent it to somebody else. So it sort of faded into the blue. But that won't happen now, because we're breaking it up into the videos. It's not going to be the life. It's going to be the life in periods. In the original cut there's a lot of airplanes, a lot of landings and takings off, because that's where the crowds were.
Obviously, events made it an impossibility, but back in the Seventies did you ever think you four might get back together?
There was only one time when we talked to each other about it. We had the most ridiculous offer in the world from a very rich person with a very huge syndicate, so we actually called each other up. And, of course, then we had all the crazies who wanted to put us on after the man-eating shark or whatever.
Did you want it to happen?
Yes, some days I thought it would be great, even though it was over, just to put it together one more day. And especially after the Ringo album became a smash, I felt more secure as a solo artist and felt like, hey, let's do it The playing would have been crazy. It would have been the biggest thing on earth.
You've already come out of the closet as the greatest drummer in rock & roll But for a long time you only seemed to play with Jim Keltner accompanying you. Why did you decide to go it alone for Time Takes Time?
Well, because I am the greatest drummer in rock & roll, you know. It's what I do. It's how I got here after all. And as much as I dearly love Jim – he's my favorite drummer – I thought it was time for me to take matters into my own hands.
For the new album you've signed to Private Music, an independent label mostly associated with New Age music. Do you miss being on a major label?
Not at all I absolutely love it I think the days of the huge companies are over. I think some of my resentments in the Eighties were because, all of a sudden, accountants were running the show. With Private Music, you have Peter Baumann [formerly of Tangerine Dream] running the thing, and he's an absolute bloody musician. What more could you ask for?
What did you learn from running your own label, Apple?
The dream was that no one had to beg. Because we had begged a little in our time. So we tried to set things right. And we put out some good stuff. But we gave everyone tape recorders and cameras, and they never came back. So then the dream was ending. People started stealing everything. We tried. That's the one thing we always did. We always tried.
In one of the best songs from the new album, "Weight of the World," you sing that "you either kiss the future or the past goodbye." Which are you kissing goodbye?
Both. If you get hung up in either one you're not living in the now. I'm driving a lot of people crazy because I won't live in the past. You can get lost in the past or the future. You're not going to get anywhere that way, because you've already been there or you're not there yet Me, I'm here right now.
This story is excerpted from Rolling Stone issue 634/635.
• Video: Ringo Starr Performs with Ben Harper: "Little Help"
• Photos: Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Beatles Exhibit
• The Real Story Behind the Beatles' Last Days
• The Lost Beatles Photos: Rare Shots From 1964-1966
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