He's chippy, edgy and as touchy as a 15-year-old. Ringo Starr talks to Vicki
Woods about life since the Beatles
John Lennon knew early on that a working-class hero was something to be. Which
is why he became one, to the despair of his Aunt Mimi, who raised a
grammar-school boy in a tidy semi-detached house in the hope that he'd grow up
to be John Birt or somebody. Mimi, an early aspirer to the upwardly mobile
classes, hated guitars, drainpipe jeans and George Harrison's speaking voice
("A low Liverpool voice - a real whacker"). She hadn't yet met Ringo Starr; his
voice was worse.
These days, he tones down to rockocracy mid-Atlantic for public use, but he can
still pull out all that sing-song cadence and the lorra-lorra pronunciations
and the baffling flipped vowels (so that "Her hair" comes out as "Hair her"). I
boggled for only a second when he told me the late Linda McCartney was "very
Goering" (she was, of course, "caring").
Ringo wasn't the wittiest Beatle, but he was blessed with a great slowhand
delivery, a deadpan, lugubrious face and a surprisingly loud, deep voice for
such a little body. He employed (and still does) that peculiarly northern
emphasis that makes a flat statement comic. I asked him at one point where he'd
got his funny badge from, hoping he'd say it was a New Age gift from George
Harrison or someone. He peered down at it, gave me a look and said, "Well, yer
buy 'em in shops", with such Ringo-ish bemusement that I fell about laughing.
He talks in song lines now, instead of Liverpool pub gnomicisms, and they're
slightly more tiresome (unless you know the songs). He will fix you with his
glittering spectacles, cock his head and say: "Well. . . Yer Know it Ain't
It certainly ain't easy interviewing him. He's 58, and as touchy as a
15-year-old. He's giving press (as they say) only because he has a new album
(Vertical Man) to promote, not because he feels it is time to come to terms -
at last - with the way his old band changed a generation.
He doesn't like to talk about the Fabs. He likes to talk about Ringo solus.
He's a global superstar and he acts like one: chippy, edgy, aggressively ready
to biff aside questions he doesn't want to answer, while being perfectly happy
to share the icky, Californian stuff about how his beautiful wife has a glowing
soul and a forgiving heart. All the things I really wanted to know - "Do you
mourn John Lennon every day of your life? Do you just miss being a Beatle? Were
you jealous of those three explosive talents? Is that why you drank and drugged
your way into total dereliction for 10 years? Do you mind that Paul has a
knighthood and you haven't?" - would appear to be unaskable, even when dressed
Money is another touchy subject for a Monégasque tax exile with a bit in the
bank. He and his wife, Barbara Bach, have a plethora of houses, but for the
past nine years they have lived mostly in Monaco. "That's where we're resident.
Here [in Britain], you're allowed to stay three months and in America you're
allowed four months. We have families in America and in England. That's why we
have this triangle - Monaco, LA, London." The careful multi-millionaire and the
council-house boy from the Dingle come together in the belief that if you keep
moving, the tally man can't catch up with you.
When I asked him how he enjoyed being the 11th-richest rocker in Britain (Q
magazine, August issue; Sir Elton John is ranked third, while Sir Paul
McCartney is the toppermost of the poppermost), he batted the question away
with impatience. Ha! How would they know? He is fantastically wealthy, though -
the original Beatles money helped along by odd bits and bobs such as Thomas the
Tank Engine and the millions that came out of the Beatles' Anthology.
He drops largesse on various personal-interest charities, including Sharp, the
addiction-and-recovery programme that rescued him and his wife from their
10-year-long alcohol problem, and various cancer charities here and in America
(his ex-wife, Maureen, died of leukaemia in 1995). He doesn't direct his money
towards any grand public purpose, unlike George Harrison (ninth richest, bless
him), who subsidised Handmade Films until it went bust. But he does what's
expected when buttonholed, like the nicer sort of lottery winner.
He had been well buttonholed for a charity gala I attended in Cannes in April -
one of those £1,000-a-plate dinners with Champagne and truffles as big as the
Ritz (hurrah), but first you have to sit through a lengthy charity auction
(boo). I didn't pay for my plate, but then neither did Ringo, I imagine.
It was a very satisfactorily A-list party. There were starry guests (Elton
John! Ringo and Barbara! Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder and Sharon Stone,
shimmering in couture and borrowed diamonds!) and a heavy cadre of bodyguards
in dark glasses from Harry Winston the jeweller, keeping their eyes firmly
fixed on the sparkling cleavages (one minder per cleavage).
The gala was hosted by Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax movie mogul, to raise
money for AmFAR (Aids research). "Harvey!" said Ringo, shaking his head. "I met
him at dinner at Elton's house. He said, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' I said,
'Well, I'm packing for LA cause we're flying out.' He said, 'Right. 'Cause
we're doing this gig - you know, for chari-dee - and it'd be great if you would
get up and play'."
Sharon Stone was celebrity auctioneer for the evening. "I thought she was
excellent," said Ringo. "What a good-natured girl. She was drawing them out,
pulling all that money out, and you wouldn't take offence."
Miss Stone raised $1 million from her heavy-walleted audience before she came
to the last lot: "A one-off, unrepeatable jam session with Sir Elton John
[cheers] and Mr Ringo Starr [cheers, stamps and hoots]." Bidding began briskly.
"So Elton got up for his hundred grand, and then I had to make the statement,
you know - I said I wanna hundred and ten."
It was duly bid; the charitable superstars sat down to instruments left by the
paid musicians who'd been on earlier, and Elton hammered the piano into Great
Balls of Fire. Those of us in the cheaper seats clapped our hands, of course,
while the rest of them rattled their jewellery, and Elton said to Ringo, "How
about one of yours now?" So with a bop, a bop, and a bop-bop-psssssh!, they
thundered into Twist and Shout.
Ringo looked blissfully happy (even while Harvey Weinstein, grinning all over
his face, was doing a murderous interpretation of John Lennon's vocals). He was
completely at home on the borrowed drums, roared on by a home crowd of fellow
celebs in borrowed diamonds. What Ringo likes doing more than anything else in
the world is drumming. Live. On stage. No wonder he crashed into aimless misery
when the gigs stopped coming.
Drummers are not generally reckoned to be the lofty intellectuals of the rock
music world. All the Irish jokes in rock, the changing-the-lightbulb jokes, are
about drummers. Ringo presumably knows the other joke as well: the one about
him not being the best drummer in the world, heh-heh, "not even the best
drummer in the Beatles".
But he's a great rock drummer, drummers tell me. Inspirational. His driven bass
and hammering style was as "steady as a rock", George Martin always said. He
has influenced generations of drummers, especially in the States, where the
Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was hugely hyped and watched
by 73 million people.
Ringo was a revelation to young American would-be drummers, whose only
influences up until then had been jazz- or R & B-based. It wasn't just the
thrilling noise he made, or the way he held the sticks evenly in each fist (the
"matched-grip style", apparently, as opposed to balancing one like a
chopstick), but the fact that his Ludwig drum kit (he still gets them free) was
set high on a platform. American drummers were all sidemen before Ringo.
My friend in the music business points out that the Beatles' influence finds
its way even into "the new dance sensibility". Oh, yes? "Yeah, have you heard
the new album by the Chemical Brothers? They've used a bit from Revolver on the
last track - Ringo drumming from Tomorrow Never Knows."
Techno left Ringo cold. When he used to lend his studio to young musicians,
he'd watch the drummer coming in - "with a briefcase", he said, all faux
bemusement. "But it's all live-ing up again now. It's split: there's the techno
attitude and the band attitude, and I'm a band guy. I love to hold those pieces
of wood in my hands and play. I'm useless with a click track."
What's a click-track? "Click-click-click-click-click, in your ear. I can't play
with that because my soul keeps time. But for my son Zak, playing to a click
track is fine."
Zak plays on his dad's new album. He plays drums, obviously, and Ringo plays
drums too, and an impressive bunch of All Starrs play everything else. On a
cover version of Drift Away, Alanis Morissette sings in her wonderful,
40-year-old smoky voice. "She's 24," said Ringo. "I've got shoes older than
George Harrison adds some plangent guitar. Paul McCartney sings harmonies,
Steve Tyler of Aerosmith sings, Sly Stone's sister's choir sings. But (I have
to tell you) Ringo sings as well. His publicity people sent me a tape nice and
early, and I played it on the kitchen portable. My 20-year-old son was
shovelling down cornflakes (it being three in the afternoon) and I kept
fast-forwarding over Ringo's flat and curiously reedy pub warble to bits I
thought would interest him: that's Paul there, harmonising; oh, listen, here's
George's guitar bit again.
My son - whose preferred listening is those juddering gobbets of sound called
"dance" or "jungle" or something - crunched away manfully, but as the words
"Barbara, I lu-uv you" quavered out a second time, he picked up his cereal bowl
and closed three doors behind him. It does sound worryingly like somebody from
Brookside on a karaoke machine.
Maybe the wreckage of his nightmarish drugged-out years (black-outs,
room-trashing, fighting with Barbara) has taken its toll on the famed Ringo
voice. He has been clean of drink and drugs for a decade now, and has given up
his three-pack-a-day smoking habit, too. "Giving up's not that hard," he said.
"It's staying gived up that's hard." A Ringoism indeed.
But isn't there a terrible dichotomy for the rock rehab, I started asking; I
saw him blench at "dichotomy", but gabbled on before he could bat me out again:
I mean that rock is at its rawest when it's wrecked? "When I really, really got
wrecked, I couldn't play," he said. "For years, I just went downhill. We never
made records totally derelict. You got derelict and then you made the records.
Occasionally we'd have a. . . late night, and we'd make music and the next day
you'd think, 'What a load of crap'."
That doesn't address the dichotomy, though it does explain why coked-up people
are so boring. "You always think you're witty on alcohol and cocaine. You think
you're so witty that you decide to tell the same story over and over and over
and over and over again. To the same person. Heh-heh-heh. I meet people now. .
.. and I think, 'God, was I like that?' And a little voice inside says, 'Yes,
He seems to have adopted a zest for the ordinary, the quotidian, so far as that
goes for the high rockocracy. He works out, he cooks, he loves shopping for
vegetables. "Especially in Monaco - the markets every morning. Pick up the veg
and the fruit. . . you can see it all. Mediterranean living. I love it."
Casting about for an exotic, non-Dingle sort of fruit, I wondered how old he
was when he ate his first avocado pear. He said he'd never eaten an avocado
pear. "Oh, no. I eat asparagus now, though. But I tell you what - I have still
never eaten a pizza. To this day."
Does he buy art, I wondered. "I have some." Paul buys Rauschenberg, de Kooning
and Magritte. Elton buys Magritte and Erte and Picasso. David Bowie buys
Basquiat and Schiele. Ringo buys a friend of his called George Condo. "He's
quite well-known. I like to have art by friends - it's always more interesting.
I don't have any Rembrandts," he said. "I love Rembrandt."
I think he spotted me as a fellow art-lover and grew expansive, telling me that
two weeks ago, he and Barbara had walked round Bond Street and Cork Street,
visiting the art galleries that cluster there. "It's beautiful," he said. "And
everyone was so pleasant. Of course, I'm sure they expected us to buy
something, but they'd show us lots of pictures and tell us stories about them,
and I really had a good day."
He paints. He bought some canvases and had a few lessons. "It's very naive, the
way I paint, but you just get lost. It's a beautiful thing to do." One of his
paintings sold for $33,000 in a charity auction. "Outside of drumming, I like
to cook and I like to paint. But my absolute desire is drumming. I'm a drummer,
that's worreye am."
So, that's Richard Starkey, drummer, at 58: cook, artist, sentimental husband,
paterfamilias and doting granddad to Zak's 13-year-old daughter, Tatia (I was
impressed that he is modern enough to be able to tell me that nappies these
days are like "little underpants for babies - you just slip 'em on"). He asks
Zak, "How's the baby? 'He says, 'Dad, she's not a baby.' I tell him she'll
always be the baby to me."
His own daughter, Lee, has just moved back to London from Los Angeles after
surgery on a brain tumour. "She's got a clean bill of health. We're blessed. It
doesn't matter, all your fame and fortune, it doesn't help. If your daughter's
got something like that, it doesn't help, you know. There's no protection.
Things happen. Her mother died of leukaemia. You expect your own parents to go
- they're older. But my ex-wife was 50, Linda's gone at 56. Family things
happen, you know, it doesn't matter if you're the king, you're a Beatle or
you're a binman. You gotta deal with stuff."
Cue for a song line. "I Live My Life," said Ringo, cocking his head, " 'Cause I
Can't Live Your Life for You." Funnily enough, it's a line I happen to know (as
does my benighted son, of course, from having to sit in on my homework). It's
from La De Da, off the new album, but not a lot of people know that, and if my
contemptuous young friend in the music business is right ("Top 30, maybe. For a
week or two. But that's it. And it won't get any airtime") not a lot will.
Ringo Starr appears in concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on August 21, 1998. Box
office: 0171-771 2000. Buy his new album, Vertical Man, from iMFA