“C’mon, I’m not going to answer that,” Ringo Starr says, exhibiting an atypical testiness when I ask him about Paul McCartney’s recent candid confession that he, John Lennon, and three of Lennon’s friends participated in a group masturbation session. “I mean, I wasn’t even there. What am I supposed to say?”
But Starr did once say that “it doesn’t matter; whichever one of us does something, we all have to answer for it,” and we do have a bit of history, so I decide to press my luck.
The words “but Paul said…” are barely out of my mouth when Starr interrupts.
“Well, Paul says a lot of things,” Starr says, his irritation palpable. But then he lets out a hearty laugh, an indication that all’s well, but also that he’s ready to move on.
In fact, Starr has been moving on for nearly fifty years, since the demise of the most famous rock and roll band in history. He enjoyed a string of hits in the aftermath of the Fab Four—surprising everyone, including John, Paul and George—and was the only one of them to entice all three of the former Beatles to contribute to a solo project. He also racked up an impressive roster of film roles, before his career and reputation took a nosedive in the 1980s, the result of “monumental” alcohol and substance abuse, as Starr, now thirty years sober, recalls.
“I’m blessed,” Starr tells me, reflecting back on those days. “You don’t know where you're going in life. It’s one step at a time.”
The long road back began with his first All-Starr Band tour in 1989, which featured members of The Band, Beatles’ compadre Billy Preston, and Dr. John, among others. He’ll tread the boards again this year, with the latest edition of the band.
“I had the last version of the band for five years, and then, this year, I changed half of the band,” Starr explains. “I kept Steve Lukather there on guitar, because he’s great. (“Steve has got a great autobiography out right now, make sure you write that in your damn article,” the ever-loyal Starr reminds me later.) And Gregg Rolie on keyboards. And we still have Warren Ham, who plays everything. I kept the right hand part of the stage, and I changed the left side.”
Starr chuckles, but gets serious when it comes time to talk about his first love: drums and drummers.
“I’ve had drummers alongside me so I can go down and do ‘With A Little Help…’ and everything,” he explains. “And I heard Gregg Bissonette did seminars on me, so I thought, ‘Well, I'm going to get him in.’”
So does Bissonette—who’s played with everyone from ELO and the Bee Gees to Spinal Tap and Steve Vai—sound anything like the real Ringo Starr?
“No, he sounds like someone else completely,” Starr says, with a laugh. “I don’t know why I hired him. He sounds nothing like me. But he’s a great guy. We listen to each other. Other drummers, they don’t care what’s happening. They just want to be like…”
“The boss! That sort of behavior has nothing to do with me,” Starr says. “I play for the singer and the song.”
Incredibly busy, certainly for a 78-year-old ex-Beatle who could no doubt rest on his laurels, Starr also has a third book out: Another Day In The Life, which follows 2004’s Postcards From The Boys, and 2015’s Photograph, and features photographs by Starr, along with reminiscences of the times, places and people included.
“This is a way of putting my life out there, because if I were to write a memoir, there’d be five volumes before I got to The Beatles, and that’s all publishers care about anyway,” Starr explains. “So I’m going at it this way, through photographs, and through quotes with the photos. And this is, I feel, a better way for me to do it.”
While Starr has contributed intimate, fascinating text to each of his books, the photos are the real draw. They offer a bird’s-eye view into the life of one of the most famous men on the planet, where he just as often enjoys the mundane things in life as he does rubbing elbows with his famous friends.
“I play the drums and I love taking photos,” Starr says. “It’s something I’ve done for many years. Even in the sixties when we were touring, I loved taking pictures. It gives a release to be able to do several things, which people like to call artistic. So it’s part of the man himself. Part of my life. They’re part of me, the things I love to do. You know, I’m not a photographer. I’m just a guy who takes photos. But if you look at any of my photographs, from back in the sixties, you’ll see that I loved to see where you can take it, you know? One of the thrills in Magical Mystery Tour, I think, is when I shot George with the prism lens. In those days, prisms were very weird. But that’s gone by the wayside, because now we all use our digital phones.”
Still, the ease with which the iPhone has allowed us to capture the moment, Starr says, is a blessing.
“I’d like to be technical and say, ‘Well, I do this and then I do that,’ but that’s not my personality,” Starr explains. “I just do this. [Laughs] I mean, if you’re looking at the book, there’s a picture of a crab walking on the beach. It was there at that moment. Or if I’m in a room with people, it’s not like I’m setting it up to take the picture. I don’t do that. It’s just like, ‘Oh, let’s take that picture.’ It’s something that seems good at the time. But they’re all things that happened that I didn’t set up, because I always have an iPhone handy.”
Starr also carries two important things with him from the heady days of Beatlemania.
“I don’t really follow it anymore, but I still love country music,” Starr confesses. “Just recently, I did a gig with my pals, Joe Walsh and Don Henley, and Chris Stapleton was there. He’s like old rock-country, so I love him. And I love the old boys in country. But back in the fifties and the sixties, I just loved country music. I just loved the sentiment of it. And I love rock and roll too. And I love the blues. I’m not on one little path musically. I try to get into all sorts of different music. But country music is really my first and greatest love.
He also still meditates, something he learned from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with his fellow Beatles, when they visited him in India in early 1968.
“I’d like to say I’ve done it every day since we went to India, but that’s not true,” Starr confesses. “But I meditated this morning. I said in the book, about the color yellow, that Maharishi taught me that when you meditate, you put a white piece of cloth, say, and you send out your spirit and send out the bad thoughts. The first time it’s just a little yellow. Then you dip it in again, and it comes out a little more yellow. And then, after a while, it’s very yellow, and that’s what meditation is about. You have to do it. So I do my little bit, and my little piece of cloth is getting very yellow.”
Those days also gave him the catchphrase he’s become so synonymous with in recent years.
“Well, ‘peace and love,’ I mean, is from the sixties, and, you know, I truly believe it, and I wish the whole world was living in peace and love,” Starr says, turning serious. “But, as we all know, it isn’t. But, you know, my part in it is I just go, ‘peace and love,’ and if anybody does it with me, for that second, two people have thought, ‘peace and love.’ So it sort of goes out like the pebble in the ocean, you know? The ripples go out and out and out. ‘Peace and love.’ You can’t beat that.”
And Starr has no plans of slowing down or retiring anytime soon, as he makes clear as we wrap up our interview.
“I like to say that as long as I can play, I’ll play,” Starr says. “That’s a great thing about being a musician. I mean, I may end up in a blues band, playing very slow, but look at B.B. King, as an example. I Ioved that B.B. King, man. He was sitting down. But hey, I’m sitting down already! [Laughs] But, I mean, we can do it. And, you know, let’s not talk about Tony Bennett! Look at him, still at it! And so great.”