"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."
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