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Ringo Starr Is Reborn

With a lot of help from his friends, Ringo has gotten his act together and taken it on the road

Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr during Ringo Starr Announces 1989 'Concert For All Generations' Tour at Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood, California, June 29th, 1989

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Mommy! Daddy! Ringo Starr is here! Ringo Starr is here!” Josh Fishof, the six-year-old son of concert promoter and sports agent David Fishof, is in a frenzy. He’s running around his family’s Manhattan town house, sounding the alarm that the British are coming — Ringo and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Lee, have arrived for dinner.

As it turns out, Josh is thrilled not because he’s a Beatles fan — after all, the band broke up thirteen years before he was born — but because he knows Starr as the inch-tall character Mr. Conductor on the children’s television show Shining Time Station. Starr is here for a party to celebrate the announcement of his first tour since the days when he was Fab. Even in this era of just saying no, the affair is an atypically wholesome rock & roll evening: It’s kosher (in keeping with Fishof’s Orthodox faith) and alcohol-free (in keeping with Starr’s recent postrehab habits). Some members of Ringo’s All-Starr Band — former James Gang and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons and E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren — are chatting down-stairs near a platter of kosher shrimp substitute in the shadow of a gargantuan projection TV; Todd Rundgren, who’s not on the tour, is upstairs tinkling away on the Claviola that’s next to the fireplace, above which hangs a Chagall. Though the air conditioning isn’t keeping things nearly cool enough, the mood is relatively festive. Rightly so, since the evening is celebrating Ringo’s return to musical activity after what he characterizes as “a long time during which I did a tremendous amount of absolutely nothing.”

Earlier that morning, Starr and most of the All-Starr Band — Walsh, Clemons, Lofgren, R&B keyboardist Billy Preston, former Band bassist Rick Danko and former Band drummer Levon Helm — assemble as a group for the first time at the elegant Upper East Side hotel serving as their current base. (The two other band members, New Orleans piano great Dr. John and famed session drummer Jim Keltner, have other obligations.)

After breaking bread together, the band members head downtown to the Palladium for the press conference announcing the tour. Broadcasting live to a national radio audience, Westwood One’s Dick Bartley stands before a banner that reads, DIET PEPSI PRESENTS A CONCERT FOR ALL GENERATIONS: RINGO STARR AND HIS ALL-STARR BAND, and explains that he is about to announce “an unprecedented event in rock history.” (Bartley used the same words at the press conference for the Who’s reunion tour only weeks earlier.) Then a Pepsi executive presents the band with tour jackets, which prominently feature the Diet Pepsi logo.

Reporters meekly approach the mike to offer up a series of rather mundane questions — two reporters seem particularly concerned with whether or not Ringo will be performing “Act Naturally” in the show. The fact that nearly all the questions are directed at Ringo — who looks like Bono’s hip uncle, with his black vest, white shirt, greased-back graying ponytail and, yes, several rings — suggests that the ex-Beatle’s star power remains largely undiminished. Things only get interesting when a stuttering representative of the controversial New York City DJ Howard Stern asks a number of intentionally in appropriate questions, including one about how Ringo reacted to the recent trade of New York Met Lenny Dykstra. “I was shocked,” Starr says, deadpan.

Throughout the event — which he opened by saying, “We’re going on tour. Thanks very much. Goodbye” — Starr flashes his understated wit. He also tries, without much success, to divert the spotlight to his talented colleagues, and more than once he reassures the crowd that he and his musical pals will “play all the hits you all know and love.”

Those words bring a big smile to David Fishof’s face. Fishof is a hulking thirty-three-year-old who, in addition to serving as an agent for athletes like New York Giant Phil Simms and New York Met Keith Hernandez, has made millions in the last six years by putting together nostalgia shows jampacked with songs that we’re all supposed to know and love — the Dirty Dancing tour, the Happy Together Tour and, most notably, the unexpectedly successful 1986 reunion tour by three-quarters of the Monkees.

But in the mathematics of the mainstream rock industry, one Beatle is still more impressive than three Monkees, and Fishof knows that this tour could become his great leap forward from rock’s profitable but unprestigious minors to the big leagues of respectability. After last summer’s Dirty Dancing tour (which was sponsored by Pepsi’s Mountain Dew), Pepsi approached Fishof and asked him to come up with a package for this summer. Fishof — who received a flat no two years ago when he checked on Ringo’s availability — decided to try again. His timing could not have been any better. Just a few months before, in October, Ringo and his second wife, Barbara Bach (whom he’d met on the set of the 1981 comedy film Caveman), had checked into an Arizona rehab center to clean up their acts, and for the first time in years, he was itching to get to work.

“David did a very smart thing,” says Starr. “He asked. No one else had for so long, and thank God, for once I felt up to the effort.”

Fishof flew to England early this year to meet with Starr. Their discussions dragged on for months, nearly breaking down entirely a number of times. Originally, Fishof envisioned a package show — “a sort of rock & roll circus,” he says — in which Starr would serve as a crowd-pleasing ringmaster. But as the tour began to come together, Starr got more and more involved in planning its content. As long as a decade ago, Starr spoke publicly of his desire to tour with a musical revue featuring some of his favorite rock pals. “Yeah, I talked about it,” Starr says, “but that’s about all I did. Because of the way I was living, it got nowhere. Or to be more precise, it got to me and Harry Nilsson and Dr. John sitting in a bar, out of out heads, talking about it. I couldn’t pull it together. I couldn’t pull myself together.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. David Fishof hasn’t heard the quotation before, but his concert tours have been an extremely profitable counterargument anyway. And this summer, Fishof has a high-profile chance to prove F. Scott wrong one more time. Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band are a remarkable aggregation of undeniably talented musicians, an aging pack of mad dogs and an Englishman who have among them confronted nearly every demon that can torment a popular musician who’s a little less popular than he used to be. Some have been dropped by record companies. Some have dropped wives and have paid dearly for doing so. Some have lost family and friends. Some have developed expensive bad habits. And at one time or another, most of them have lost touch with whatever put them on top in the first place.

This tour, then, is more than just another nostalgic piece of family entertainment hitting the sheds this summer in order to plug soda and keep a group of aging rock stars in the black. It’s also Ringo Starr’s attempt — with more than a little help from his friends — to get back to the business of being a musician and entertainer instead of merely an A-list celebrity.

After the press conference ends, the band is led into waiting limos, which will take them back to the hotel for a hectic day of meeting the press. This sort of scrutiny is something Starr hasn’t exactly invited in recent years. Once the car is on the way uptown, Ringo takes a deep breath, lights a cigarette and puts his arm around his daughter.

“This sort of thing is part of the game, isn’t it?” he says “One can’t afford to go out and fail silently.”

“Hey, I think you did great up there, pal,” says Joe Walsh, a close friend of Starr’s who has also become nearly as well known for his fun-loving, boozy persona as for his considerable music skills.

“Joe, coming from you that means absolutely nothing,” Ringo says, with a laugh. Ringo seems a bit surprised by the sort of questions he’s been asked recently. “One lady the other day wanted to know if I was going to sing ‘I Am the Walrus,”‘ he says. “I had to say, ‘Sorry, darling, that’s not exactly my song to sing.’ Then there’s these people who keep asking and asking if George and Paul are going to be coming along. I mean, if they were coming along, I hardly think we’d be billing it as Ringo and His All-Starr Band.

“I also notice when people ask about the Fabs, they always talk about me and the boys, Even today, people asked about me and the boys in this band. Boys. Boys. Boys. You know, in my entire life I don’t think I’ve ever been called a man.”

Starr smiles, and it appears as if something about the morning’s proceedings reminded him of those chaotic days in his last touring band — the Beatles. “What time do we get to Cincinnati, boys?” he says in a heavily Liverpudlian accent to no one in particular.

Uh-oh,” Ringo says quietly as the limo pulls up to the hotel entrance. “There’s the lady in black. She was here last night too.”

Outside the car a less-than-Fab-looking foursome of fans awaits Starr’s arrival. A lady wearing too many layers of black clothing for this hot, humid day approaches Starr and asks him to autograph a copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, and he obliges. Then it’s upstairs and to work. Before heading off to tape Late Night With David Letterman in the afternoon, Starr and an ever-changing assortment of his band of merry men are to spend much of the day riding the hotel elevators, going suits to suite to do interviews with Westwood One, Entertainment Tonight, The Reporters and Good Morning, America. As Starr gamely goes about answering the same questions — many of them about either his largely wasted decade of substance abuse or the state of his relations with the other surviving Beatles — the others stand by in case they’re needed. Ringo talks vaguely about his tour and points out that he’s been nominated for an Emmy for Shining Time Station. “I’m up against Mister Rogers,” he says proudly.

Between interviews, the band members shoot the breeze about their recent vacations, Beatles trivia, the generous sexual habits of one major female rock star and, of course, their kids. Clemons takes great pleasure in showing off photos of his son with a saxophone, calling him “the Little Big Man.” Later, Clemons — who says he will fly to San Francisco tomorrow, to play with the Grateful Dead, as “the Big Dead Man” — whips out his camera to get a photo of Starr in his Dead shirt so that he can show it to the band.

Ringo’s most constant companions throughout the day are Lee, his purple-haired daughter by his first wife, Maureen, and Joe Walsh, whose affection for Starr is clear as he hangs out with him and offers him moral support.

Walsh and Starr first met in the Seventies at a meeting of what Starr calls the Jim Keltner Fan Club — a series of secret superstar jams at Los Angeles’s Record Plant that also included members of Rolling Stones. The pair grew closer when they coproduced Ringo’s 1984 album Old Wave, which was released only in Canada and Germany. Though Walsh was put on standby earlier this summer by Pete Townshend in case his services were needed by the Who, he says he’s confident that he’s doing the tour of the summer. “The only way to do this,” he says, “is to be the best fuckin’ band that there is this summer, and there’s no doubt in our minds that we will be.”

Starr has talked to the band members about keeping sober and drug-free on the tour (which Starr calls “the Pepsi and water tour”). Walsh, who admits he and some of the other band members have had their share of problems with substance abuse, says he thinks the band can send a good message out to the kids. “It’s real easy to OD,” says Walsh. “Anybody can do that. Jim Morrison drowned in a bathtub. How macho is that? It’s a lot harder to stay alive and deal with reality. And it’s important that some of us veterans show young people that you can age gracefully and end up with enough brain cells to enjoy the royalty check.”

Toward the end of the afternoon, Starr sits on the couch of his elegant suite, which overlooks Central Park, and lights another cigarette to relax. His brief moment of calm is disturbed when the phone rings.

“Ah, good,” he says as he looks at the phone and lets out a tired chuckle. “The first ticket sold already.”

Then he turns back and says, “Just don’t ask me why I’m doing this.”

In fact, Starr is quite clear about why he’s hitting the road. It’s not because of money — “I’ve got enough of that stuff,’ thanks,” he says — but because now he can. “I’m finally capable of doing what I do,” he says. “I’m a drummer, not a plumber. For so long I wasn’t functioning. I was a mess. Alcohol was my drug of choice. You could get it any time anywhere you went — anything else you dealt with, you have to wait on someone else to bring it over. I couldn’t have done any of this before October. Just look at what I’ve done in recent years: I showed up and played at about ten live shows of other people, I did a couple of albums, one of which could only get released in Canada and Germany, and I did Shining Time Station. That’s about it. folks!”

In addition to drinking, Starr confesses he was also dealing — cards, that is. He was spending plenty of time in Monaco, the site of one of his two homes. (The other is in England; he recently moved out of his home in L.A.) “I used to live in a casino,” he says., “See, you go in the casino, and it’s free booze. And I was such a good customer that they used to let me put the waistcoat on and deal blackjack. That’s how often I was in.”

Starr’s jet-setting high life took a toll on his solo career, which peaked in 1973 with Ringo, an infectious pop album that featured the smash hits “Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” and “Oh My My.” On that album, Ringo — joined by an impressive batch of musicians that included the other three former Beatles as well as future All-Starr Band members Danko, Helm, Preston and Keltner — showed he was more than just the funny guy who sat behind the Ludwigs for the biggest band of all time.

But later albums were less impressive, despite the occasional strong track. By 1984, no label would even release Old Wave in the United States. “It was real disappointing,” Starr says sadly. “That’s when I really started to throw in the towel. To have been a Beatle and go through that was not easy.”

Starr picks up a Ringo doll with a bizarre Afro-Mop Top hairdo that some one has brought him and begins to inspect it for accuracy. “Well, I never had that hairstyle,” Starr says as he smiles and props the doll on his knee. “But it’s not a bad likeness.”

Fans constantly ask Starr to sing such memorabilia. In light of the killing of John Lennon, you might expect it to be difficult for Starr to deal with fans, but he says this is not the case.

“I honestly think I understand the fans,” he says. “I remember following Johnnie Ray around Liverpool. He went into a restaurant, ordered a meal and was eating, and I said to a friend who was with me, ‘Look, he’s eating like a real person.’ So I remember what it’s like from the other side. Even at the rehab center, where the people were great to me, every one had their one question about the Beatles. Everybody gets to ask one.”

These days, many people’s first question is about his relationship with Paul McCartney. Starr, George Harrison and Yoko Ono are involved in a lawsuit against McCartney resulting from a deal McCartney cut with Capitol in the Seventies giving him a higher royalty rate on Beatles records than his former mates. At the press conference, Starr suggested things were okay among the threesome, although he did refer to McCartney’s single “My Brave Face” as “My Old Face.”

“We do talk,” Starr says. “But we haven’t spoken for a while because he thinks we should drop this case and I don’t think we should. The Beatles were four people, and what we did was we split the records equally. It was the four of us — no one was bigger than the others. That was always the rule. He got his money for writing, that’s separate, but on those records all four of us worked our hearts out, and so for that we deserve to split it equally.

“And I don’t think it’s any redeeming factor for Paul to tell your magazine that it could’ve been the Beach Boys records that he negotiated for in his dealings with Capitol. That’s his opinion, and he thinks we’re dummies ’cause we didn’t think of it. Well, I’m afraid if that’s that’s what being a dummy is, then I’m glad I am one.”

But certainly the three surviving people who lived through Beatlemania from the inside — and who have more than enough money already — should be able to sit down and talk it out. “We do talk, although not lately,” says Ringo, a bit sadly. “But we couldn’t work this out because we didn’t find out about Paul’s deal until five years later. Paul has all his reasons, and they’re in your paper last week, and now this will be in next week’s. We have all sat in the same room and talked, and things have seemed to be getting better, but then — what’s the line in ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’? — ‘negotiations break down.’

Starr shrugs and puts the Ringo doll down.

There’s Nooo Business Like Shoooow business!”

Two weeks after the press conference, Rick Danko is standing in a robe and sunglasses near the Jacuzzi on the rooftop of a luxurious Los Angeles hotel, singing into the Hollywood Hills. It’s the morning of July 7th, Ringo’s forty-ninth birthday and the third days of rehearsals for the band, which will kick off the tour on July 23rd in Dallas. Danko — who’s had his share of rough spells since the Band’s farewell concert, the Last Waltz, in 1976 — says he’s having the time of his life.

In order to assure that the tour is of a style befitting a former Beatle, Fishof has taken Clarence Clemons’s advice and signed on some veterans of Bruce Springsteen’s seasoned road crew to oversee operations, including tour director George Travis and tour manager Max Loubiere.

The tour arrangements so far seem first-class — the best hotels, a private Viscount plane — and Danko, who’s played hundreds of unglamorous club dates in recent years, seems more than satisfied with how things are going. “The band’s great,” he says, smiling. “The hotel’s great. Of course, I could stand here and complain that the water in the Jacuzzi isn’t as warm as it should be, but then I’d be a real rock & roll asshole, right?”

As Danko dries off and gets ready to go to rehearsal, a tattooed pool attendant approaches him and asks if he’s in a band.

“Well, I was with the Band,” Danko tells the kid.

“Which band?” the kid asks.

The Band,” Danko says again.

“Oh, yeah, my dad made me go to The Last Waltz with him,” the kid says. “But I wasn’t into rock then.”

A half-hour later, Ringo and the All-Starrs assemble at the S.I.R. rehearsal studios for a noon photo session, to be followed by a full day of rehearsal. As the band members straggle in, they wish Starr a happy birthday. A few members of the group — some of whom have taken to calling their band the Ringoburys — break into a brief chorus of the Beatles’ “Birthday.” Billy Preston — who has known Starr since his days playing on the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions and who is serving as the tour’s musical director — is quietly playing an R&B organ riff on the right side of the stage, while Joe Walsh hands out bumper stickers bearing his motto, How Ya Doin? Jim Keltner enters and presents Starr with a wicker basket that appears to hold two bottles of champagne. Starr thanks Keltner but seems a little confused by this alcoholic offering.

“No, Ringo, take a look at the bottles,” Keltner says. Starr lifts the basket and pulls out two bottles of sparkling soda, then gives a big bearhug to Keltner — his drum partner of choice since they first played together at the 1971 benefit concerts for Bangladesh.

Finally, Ringo jumps onstage, sings, “Happy birthday to me,” then addresses his troupe. “Gentlemen, you know why we’re here today,” he says. “We’re going to work on the monitors now so that we don’t sound like shit later.”

Though the set list is still coming together, Starr expects the show will feature almost an hour of him singing his Beatles and solo standards, with the rest of the concert divided among numbers led by the other band members.

“I love the idea of a band without an ego problem,” he says. “I’m not the fucking star — it’s just my name. If you show all these names to a Tibetan monk, he’ll probably recognize mine first. But these guys are my favorite musicians in the world, and the show is obviously going to be a complete group effort.”

But clearly a lot of fans will be coming to hear Starr sing. Will his voice be up to the challenge?

“The nice thing about my voice,” he says, “is that no one would notice if it broke down. Listen, I was never the greatest singer, but I can put a song across in my own way.”

The band starts off with Danko leading a moving, mournful version of Buddy Holly’s “Raining in My Heart.” The group’s sound is big, a tad rough, but soulful. Starr and Keltner, often joined by Helm (who also plays mandolin), provide a solid rhythmic foundation. “Don’t worry, I’m not refined like Jim,” Starr says to the band. “I just bash the fuckers.”

Next up is Dr. John, whose piano solo on “Such a Night” is so tasty it causes Walsh to break into a spontaneous moonwalk in his direction. Then Walsh steps up to the mike and after a few false starts leads the outfit in a rousing version of his FM chestnut “Rocky Mountain Way” that features some inspired guitar interplay between Walsh and Lofgren.

They order a lo-cal lunch (“A lot of us are on high-nothing diets,” Starr says glumly), and the short break stretches into an informal birthday party. Barbara Bach drops in with some gifts, including a dinosaur kaleidoscope, and works her way around the room, making sure everybody gets some birthday cake. Relatives of Preston’s and Lofgren’s also drop by. Just as Keltner is singing the praises of Starr’s drumming — “The guy sold more Ludwigs than anyone,” he says — Starr happens by, and Keltner tells him that when he played with John Lennon in the studio in the Seventies, Lennon told Keltner, “You know I only have one favorite drummer in the world. But you’ll do.”

“God bless ‘im,” Starr says. Keltner tells Starr how extraordinary his drumming is on a favorite Beatles bootleg of his. Starr changes the topic, explaining that while moving out of his L.A. house recently, he happened upon a big RINGO FOR PRESIDENT button. “I haven’t seen that button in years,” Starr says. “I actually got a million votes, you know. People actually got their parents to write me in.”

David Fishof drops by and gives Ringo a more recent indication of his popularity. Ticket sales, he explains, are generally strong, though there are a few soft markets, such as Detroit. Starr tells Fishof not to worry, because he’ll go on The Arsenio Hall Show the next week and claim that the Pistons will be opening for him there.

Walsh then takes the stage and hooks up a local radio station over the PA system in time to hear a DJ wish Starr a happy birthday and play “No No Song,” Starr’s jokey antidrug, antialcohol 1975 hit. Starr and Walsh stand arm in arm center stage and sing loudly along with the record. “No, no, no, I don’t drink anymore,” they sing. “I’m tired of waking up on the floor/No thank you please, it only makes me sneeze/And then it makes it hard to find the door.”

Soon the band gets back to work, something Clemons and particularly Lofgren — who are used to Bruce Springsteen’s more rigorous rehearsals — seem eager to do. Lofgren kicks things off with a strong new rocker he’s written, called “Being Angry Is a Full Time Job.” Finally, Ringo comes out from behind his kit, picks up a pile of lyric sheets, puts on his reading glasses and leads his All-Starrs in convincing if slightly shaky versions of “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” Levon Helm takes the band through a rollicking version of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” then Clemons’s “You’re a Friend of Mine.”

Around 7:30, things are winding down, and Alan Pariser, a Starr associate, places nine new video camcorders in front of the stage for each of the musicians so that they can contribute to a documentary on the tour. (A major-label deal for a live album of the tour was still in the works at press time, and there’s been discussion of a cable special.)

There’s still a lot of rehearsing to do before Dallas, but Starr says he’s confident things will work out. Indeed, his confidence seems to know no bounds. Back in 1981, Starr caused a small stir when he told Rolling Stone, “I’m probably the best rock & roll drummer on earth.” Looking back at the end of a nearly lost decade, would he like to amend his claim? “Yeah, let’s change it,” he says, with a laugh. “Take out the ‘probably,’ thank you. That was when I was feeling insecure.”

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