Ringo turns and faces the light
Ringo Starr is still reveling.
But nowadays it isn’t in the hot-flash of the Beatles spotlight. Starr’s been cruising about in the sun. He’s been exploring new ventures for the what-if of it at a down-tempo pace one could even call leisurely.
It’s marked him -- for the better.
You can intuit this at first glimpse, by his sun-warmed skin -- slightly tan; his trim physique; a tossed-off ease with which he moves about this West L.A. studio and zips through a rehearsal for his upcoming All-Starr Band tour, his annual on-the-road foray with a cavalcade of rotating musicians that’s now in its eighth incarnation.
That hunch is confirmed after just one spin through his new album, “Ringo Rama,” a recording that has soaked up more than a little of Starr’s sun-drenched “peace and love and harmony” optimism.
This afternoon, Starr and a five-piece band, led by “Ringo Rama” co-producer Mark Hudson -- impossible to miss in beret and cobalt blue goatee -- run through an amiable version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Hudson intermittently prods: “I want more David Lee Roth. Ringo? Can we do it one more time?”
Standing before the ensemble, hand to headset, Ringo shrugs, “Sure,” and he’s off down memory lane, his step light, as wide-eyed and unencumbered as those ageless lyrics.
The band wraps up this mini-session with something jaunty, “Memphis in Your Mind,” from the new album. The song struts to a close, a cascade of rollicking guitar and piano. Starr punctuates it all with an air-drum flourish, a beatific smile and a wink.
A man of second chances, protracted silences and career detours and the master of flip retorts to explain away it all -- the former Beatle has had a taste of the varying degrees and layers of fame. “I always feel that some people are born [optimistic]. But I had to go through several kinds of joy and hell to get here.”
While his old bandmate Paul McCartney steadily grabs headlines, stadium tours, a mean share of the royalties and even knighthood, Starr, 62, has been content to be out of the fast-forward blur of pop life -- to live a full and colorfully creative life, but not at the breakneck speed and high profile that life in the most famous band on Earth demanded.
The ‘80s were marked by personal struggles: a marooned career, drugs and drink. The ‘90s were punctuated by staggering loss: His first wife, Maureen, in 1995, longtime friend Linda McCartney in 1998, and ex-Beatle and trusted confidant George Harrison in 2001 -- all died of cancer.
But Starr is a crafty survivor, who is now confronting much of what he’s worked to elude, if not by overindulging, through humor. “I have to learn to curb that, actually, because instead of looking at me, or the situation, I would be flippant. And I’m not so fast anymore. But I’m still sharp.”
Starr has enjoyed a very successful post-Beatle career, scoring several Top 10 hits, including “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.” His most recent studio album, 1998’s “Vertical Man,” sold 92,000 copies.
Standing back from all of it, says Starr, he’s been paring things down. “It’s been realizing once again that the dream that I had at 13 was to play the drums. And the dream that I had when I got the first set of drums was to play with great players. To realize this dream is still there and actually activated,” he marvels. “It’s not a secret. I had a few problems with substance abuse, and since then I sort of climbed out of that pit and into the light.... Then I ended up in the darkness, and now I’m back in the light.”
This particular on-the-road endeavor, the All-Starr Band, which arrives in Los Angeles at the Universal Amphitheatre in September, is one of Starr’s more trusty tonics. “The first band started with all people who were friends, from Dr. John to Levon [Helm], to Billy Preston. And since then it just seemed like such a good idea, we just started rotating the other musicians. The idea with the All-Starrs is that you have to have a hit to be in the band. And” -- he pitches his voice low, raising his brow over his trademark shades -- “I have several.”
Playing live, he says, has long been his salvation. “Sometimes it’s the most spiritual plane that you ever get to,” he explains. “If I was a guitarist, I could tour every day, but you need a guitarist and a bass player in front of you when you are a drummer. When I was a lad, I started out and I’d play, and we’d see these real old musicians of 30 and 40 and you’d say, ‘Why are they still doing it?’ ” he says chuckling. “And after you do it for a couple of years you realize, that’s why you do it: ‘Cause on certain nights there is nothing better. So I’m blessed as long as I can hold the sticks. I like being in a band. Other human beings are fun for me.”
Although his homes in Los Angeles and the south of France provide their distractions -- shopping for flowers with his wife, actress Barbara Bach, turning his face to the sun in L.A. -- music still has the greatest hold, a vise grip on both his imagination and heart. But over the years he has gravitated toward other creative expressions -- writing, painting and gardening. “I like to remodel my garden. Well,” he pauses, “it’s not like I dig the holes for the trees -- that’s because I have gardeners -- but we have this home in England where I’m completely redoing the landscape. And that came about because George has always been in my life. He started taking me around to all of these places that had great trees. Then he started buying me trees for presents. I got really interested in it. Also in the fact that we’ll plant them now and the grandchildren’s children will actually see them. It’s to put something back.” (Starr has three children from his first marriage, including the Who’s drummer, Zak Starkey, and three grandchildren.)
Starr knows that songs too can possess that ambient, timeless quality. If they are sturdy and well-constructed, they can serve as enduring tributes or living memorials. It was the challenge Starr faced when considering the gaping hole that Harrison’s absence left. On “Never Without You,” Starr reminisces about “limousines and bright spotlights,” weaving in sonic mementos plucked from Harrison’s canon. “At the time George had only been gone four months -- we had lost this friend and then we started backtracking. I was trying to get John Lennon and Harry Nilsson and,” he pauses, with a shake of the head, “it got really too silly and, really, it got a little morbid.”
Though they sober him, the losses don’t send him into fits of reprioritizing. “I’ve lost a lot of good friends, and I’ve lost them in bunches. But I don’t think because of that I’ve got to ‘do this now.’ You stay on your own path and keep rocking. That’s what will happen when I die.”
This is the part of the journey, Starr knows, where it’s easy to feel regret.
“I think the most things we regret are things you didn’t do. It’s an old saying, but it’s becoming very true in my life. I can’t regret the past. I just don’t have to live in it. It’s just how it was. When I look at it, [there’s] a lot of good stuff in it too. No matter how bad it got, in there was a lot of good stuff. “
Most days, “I just don’t let things get on top of me as much. I try not to rule the world. I think just getting up in the morning is a great achievement. Being able to start your day. Not being afraid of the light.”