Being Ringo: A Beatle’s All-Starr Life
Much of Ringo’s vitality comes from 34 years of marriage to Barbara Bach Starkey, a Bond girl who he fell in love with on the set of Caveman. (Bach was told her co-star would be a short Englishman, and she assumed it was going to be Dudley Moore.) Caveman is an underrated — no, seriously — comedy where Ringo plays Atouk, a puppy-dog prehistoric man not unlike the puppy-dog drummer walking alone, kicking stones along the Thames in A Hard Day’s Night. Sure, Ringo will tell you Hard Day’s director Richard Lester gave him screen time because he was the only one who showed up, and his brooding silence is only because he was too hung over to remember his lines. Not bloody likely. Ringo had a vulnerability that the other Beatles lacked.
“I don’t want to bring in the violins, but we all came from hardship,” says McCartney. “All of us except for George lost someone. I lost my mum when I was 14. John lost his mum. But Ringo had it worst. His father was gone; he was so sick they told his mum he wasn’t going to live. Imagine making up your life from that, in that environment. No family, no school. He had to invent himself. We all had to come up with a shield, but Ringo came up with the strongest shield.”
Part of that shield was playing the fool; part of that shield was booze. It led to a lost decade of L.A./London/Monte Carlo partying where Ringo woke up many mornings wondering, “Why are the birds coughing so loudly?” But he’s been sober for 26 years, and there’s one essential thing that keeps Ringo young: the sticks and the drum kit.
“I’ll play with any other musician all night, but I can’t do it on my own,” Ringo told me as we drove to what he estimated was somewhere between his 800th to 900th gig with the All Starr Band. “I don’t find any joy in sitting there by myself.” Adds friend and band member Todd Rundgren, “He always plays with a second drummer. I think it was comforting on the first solo tours, but now it’s a habit.”
Every night before a gig, Ringo stands in the wings, and when his name is called, he bounds onstage: a sequined Liverpudlian leprechaun. “He is Peter Pan, his face lights up,” says Barbara. “He’s a boy again when he plays. It doesn’t matter how far he has to travel to get to that stage.”
Ringo is an only child. He’s lost two of his surrogate brothers — Lennon and Harrison — and his best friend, singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, far before their time. He’s watched his solo career get nutty high — seven Top Tens between 1971 and 1975 — and then slide into oblivion. Now he’s reached a comfy groove in his golden years with a band that has included everyone from Billy Preston to Levon Helm to the Mr. Mister guy. Ringo is still here, a kiddish look of resigned wonder on his face at how he has outlasted his friends.
“Some of us made it to the other side,” says Ringo in a rare somber moment. “Others didn’t. Who knows why?”