Ringo Starr turning 70: Fab drummer talks about life, music
Sixty-four was yesterday. The age bearing down on Beatledom this year is 70.
Boomers may wince, but Ringo the eldest hits that milestone on July 7, and plans to mark it by flashing a two-fingered peace sign at noon and playing an evening gig at Radio City Music Hall as part of a summer tour with his latest All-Starr band. Take heart, though: He's not missing a beat as he embarks this week on a three-week promotional tour for his just-released Y Not album, his 15th solo outing.
Starr is a wisp of a man yet far from a relic. The longtime vegetarian looks to be in his late 50s, dresses sharp (in all-black on a recent Sunday morning, save for the pink-orange trim of his sneakers) and still doles out quips that are only slightly less cheeky than the classics from John Lennon, who would have followed him to 70 this October.
ALBUM REVIEW: Starr gets help from friends on 'Y Not'
When kidded about the relative scarcity of rings on his person — just three tiny hoops on his left ear and a pair of thin bands on one finger — he says drolly: "I didn't think that talking to a person who still has a (cassette) tape recorder that I'd need to bring my rings out. I don't wear a lot anymore. I can wear several, but not the full hands. I'm leaving that to Snoop and all those guys."
Those two bands, however, represent the core of his post-Beatles life: nearly 29 years of marriage to former model/actress Barbara Bach, 62, who went through a midlife struggle with substance abuse with him in the 1980s One of the bands "was my grandfather's, and it was huge and we cut it in half and Barbara has the other half," he says. The other "was sort of an engagement ring that Barbara bought. I never take them off."
There's no secret to the couple's longevity, says Starr, who shares homes with Bach in Los Angeles, England and the south of France. "I'm just blessed that she puts up with me. I love the woman. She loves me. There's less down days than up, and we get on really well. We do spend a lot of time together. That's the deal."
The love song Mystery of the Night (co-written with Richard Marx) on the new album appears to be most obviously directed to her, "but they're all about her, really. Mystery of the Night is really interesting because I always feel it's Andrew Lloyd Ringo — 'Mystreee of the Niiight ...' — I can't help myself from going into that mode!" he says of his theatrical outburst.
Y Not continues a tradition begun on his last solo album, 2008's Liverpool 8 (which sold more than 31,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), in which Starr includes an autobiographical song about his early life. This time it's The Other Side of Liverpool, which portrays his lower-working-class upbringing in "a cold and damp" city where the only way out was "drums, guitar and amp."
"It was a tough, violent neighborhood," Starr says of The Dingle, then softens that a bit: "If you fell over in the street as a kid, everyone in that street was your mother and would come out and look after you. It's like fantasy now. But the thing I wrote this song for is that people believe I was born, joined The Beatles and then lived in a mansion."
Starr finds that correcting that impression is easier via a two-verse song than by writing an autobiography. "I have no real intention of ever writing a book. It's brought up every now and then, and people will offer you a lot of money as long as you tell them how John Lennon really was. It's always that.
"I could do 12 volumes before I ever got into the band. I have more life than that, but they only want to know about that one."
Beautiful melodies together
That career-long frustration thankfully hasn't soured his relationship with his remaining mate, Paul McCartney, 67, whom Starr invited to play on Y Not during the sessions in his L.A. home last year. "He's still one of the finest, most melodic bass players ever."
Sir Paul played bass on Peace Dream (which contains a reference to Lennon's 1969 "bed-in for peace" in Amsterdam), and then unexpectedly offered a cute twist for the single Walk With You, a Starr-Van Dyke Parks ode to friendship on which McCartney echoes Starr's vocals one beat behind.
"I had this little idea for a harmony on one of them (Walk With You)," says McCartney, "and I said, 'You probably don't want this, but let me show you this idea.' And he liked it, and so I ended up singing some harmonies. He's great to work with. He always was and always will be."
And, he's great to seek counsel from, says another Y Not player, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, a longtime friend and, since 2008, Ringo's brother-in-law. (He's married to Barbara's sister Marjorie.) "When I'm flustered by something, be it relationship, personal life or career, I'll just go to Rich," his insider's name for Richard Starkey. "In fewer words than most people, he will give me his take on it. Straight-across truth. I really value that."
Starr later chuckles at the idea of being a font of calming wisdom. "I'm not tall enough! No, I think it's just a part of life, because I go to other people when I'm confused. The biggest downside of Joe Walsh being a brother-in-law is that I always have to pick up the check."
By most accounts, Starr has retained the genial, peace-loving personality that he often displayed in The Beatles in the 1960s and which made him an instant favorite in America (and the beloved voice of the narrator on Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, a 1980s cartoon series imported from the U.K.).
"There is an Everyman quality about Ringo, and always has been," says Beatles scholar Martin Lewis, who has been producer and marketing strategist on multiple Beatles projects, including the beaming of Across the Universe into space by NASA in 2008.
"He came out of incredible poverty and was a sickly child, yet you don't see bitterness from him. He's a magnetic character, and people want to hang out with him. The majority of the people on the album just feel like family. That's what Ringo enjoys."
And that spirit informed the recording of the album. Y Not, the first solo project on which Starr was the primary producer (following a split with his old production team), "was the most enjoyable record I've made in my life," says veteran producer/engineer Bruce Sugar, who lent technical assistance and played alongside guests such as Dave Stewart, Ben Harper, Edgar Winter, Joss Stone, Gary Wright, Steve Dudas, Don Was and Benmont Tench. "There was no drama, tension or egos involved. It just seemed to come together."
Starr set "a fast and furious, exciting pace, catching it in the moment," says Harper, whose band Relentless 7 will accompany Starr on his appearances. "He was very clear in the sounds and moods he wanted to set."
Walsh notes that his friend's confidence in his singing voice "was way, way up, and he went and nailed it," and that his drumming technique is "as good as ever — a human metronome playing the fills we all know and love, aging very gracefully."
The latter accomplishment comes despite the fact that Starr doesn't practice, and that he had surgery to remove blockages in both shoulders four years ago — "repetitive drumming syndrome," he half-jokes. "I've never practiced because there's no joy in just sitting there and hitting the drums. I need melody; I need to bounce off a bass player, a guitarist, the piano player.
"I love when there are other human beings in the room. I'm not behind a big glass thing, separated. You need to feel that emotion off each other that you can't get otherwise in a studio."
A love of art, especially music
Starr says he also needs diverse creative outlets to keep him engaged when he's not making albums or touring with his All-Starr band. (The 11th version of the group, featuring Winter, Wright and Rick Derringer, kicks off an 18-date summer tour June 24 in Niagara Falls.) In the 1970s it was acting, now it's art — a selection of his photos appears inside the album.
"I am always painting," he says. "I love photography. It's easy to take shots. But if you have to choose, it's music. I love music, I love playing."
He concedes it has been difficult learning to deal with a Beatles past that will forever overshadow his solo work. (Though of the four, his solo career got off to the fastest and most successful start.) But he has achieved acceptance.
"To try and say, 'Look, I'm doing this now,' is a hard job," he says. "People always have that (earlier) image of you. I was just coming down in the elevator with some lady with a 2-year-old kid, and the big difference now is she said, 'Oh, I've got to tell my mother!' It's a part of life now."