Ringo Starr, that is, Richard Starkey—still “Ritchie” to his wife and friends—bounded into a room at Los Angeles’s Sunset Marquis Hotel like an aging hippie sprite. Before he parked his lean, slight frame on a couch, he sized me up from behind rock-star shades. In stylish black jacket, fitted jeans, and sneakers, he looked nothing like the 79-year-old grandfather he is. There was a barely perceptible nod. And then: a raised arm, his elbow inches from my face. Ringo’s preferred manner of greeting, apparently, is a wordless elbow bump. And off we went.
He was days away from releasing a new album—What’s My Name, the 20th of his solo career, on October 25—as well as a new book of photographs, since he’s also something of an amateur shutterbug, but we’ll come to all that in time.
The idea of time has always seemed like a silly construct within the context of the Beatles’ story. Consider: Ringo was the oldest of the Fab Four, and yet it was all over and dissolved in the bitterest and most public of spats before he’d turned 30. The Beatles dominated the hit parade (and, sure, the planet’s pop culture) for only seven or eight years while they existed, yet to their fans it also felt, and still feels, like a present-perfect state of pop supremacy. When have there not been Beatles, or Beatles songs? Their music is a thing of the past, constantly re-discovered by successive generations in the present. The heights they climbed were also without precedent at the time, fueled by young fans who adored them. Yet they themselves were young, too, even at the end.
When have there not been Beatles, or Beatles songs?
When Ringo was just 29, the band’s majestic tour de force of a swan song, Abbey Road, was already in the can. (It’s a notable album for many reasons, one of which is that it features Ringo’s first and only drum solo with the group.) Abbey Road also makes the case for the Beatles’ unusual relationship with time, and how they’ve always seemed to exist just outside and somewhat removed from it. Because here was Ringo today, looking like a tanned version of himself that was 10 or 15 years younger, musing how it was “Far out, far out!” that the new, remastered Abbey Road package was back on top of the charts half a century after the original album’s release. According to Spotify, its users have so far streamed the Beatles music almost 1.7 billion times in 2019. Even Drake has an arm tattoo of the cover photo of the Beatles traversing the Abbey Road crosswalk outside their studio.
I mentioned to Ringo that I’d been to the studio in London two weeks prior—in fact, just before he and Paul McCartney were there for a private bash to celebrate the Abbey Road reissue. He immediately started reminiscing about the record, punctuating his sentences with a laugh. (This is how Ringo does interviews. Answers questions, veers off on tangents, intersperses them with random memories, and laughs freely at his own jokes. Sometimes all in the same response.)
“Let’s Just Walk Across the Road”
“We’re sitting there talking about the cover of the album, and it’s like: we should do it on Everest! We should go to Hawaii to the volcano! Oh, sod it. Let’s just walk across the road,” he said.
“It still holds up. I think it’s a fine, fine record.... A lot of tom-toms, you know. Well, on the remaster, people are saying, ‘Oh, you can play drums!’ Because if anything was [turned] down, it was usually the drums.… But that, particularly side two, has a lot of tom work. Because I’d got a new kit, and it had carved heads. Always before that was plastic heads.… There’s a lot of tom-tom, whatever the song, ha ha ha.”
Ringo’s public persona has always been that of the cheeky, happy-go-lucky entertainer from the Dingle, an inner-city neighborhood in Liverpool, who was the last to join the Beatles. And who, after all this time, promises in the title track from his new album: “Nothing stays the same, but I’m still in the game.”
A Lennon Demo
“I’d wanted to play the drums since I was 13, at 18 I got the opportunity,” he said. “I learned with every band I was in, and it’s still a thrill for me. I love to play. There’s just a joy in my heart.”
“Drummers, we all do this”—he put both hands on the table between us and started tapping out a basic rhythm. “But if you listen to ‘What’s My Name,’ that is straight from the 60s. I mean, I just purposely did that type of drumming, which is like bah-bommm. You know? It’s like, the fills—no one could really understand how you did it, but they didn’t realize I was left-handed, not right-handed. I play whatever comes. I know how to play the straight patterns, and my art is what I put in.”
It was just two days after what would have been John Lennon’s 79th birthday, which was as good an entry point as any into what’s arguably the centerpiece of the new album: Ringo’s cover of “Grow Old with Me,” a song John demoed a few times but never got around to recording properly. Lennon wrote it while on a trip to Bermuda in 1980, the final year of his life, and an unreleased version came to Ringo’s attention via Jack Douglas, who produced Lennon’s Double Fantasy and brought the demoed track up to Ringo after they ran into each other last year.
Had he heard this before, Jack asked Ringo, and, specifically, had he heard what John says on the tape, in an apparent aside to himself, right at the beginning of the song?
“I have no idea what’s coming,” Ringo said, recalling the first time he sat down to listen to the tape. “And I hear”—he imitated John’s voice—‘Oh, this would be good for Richard Starkey. This’d be great for you, Ringo.’
“It’s just very emotional. To hear his voice, and he’s mentioning me, and, you know, he’s been gone, God bless him, 39 years.... He didn’t turn this into a record. It was only ever him just trying it out.… I loved the song. It’s sentimental.... My endgame, really, is that every bride-to-be will force her husband-to-be—or, when he is her husband—to sing it to her. Ha ha ha! That’s the plan.”
“It’s just very emotional. To hear his voice … and, you know, he’s been gone, God bless him, 39 years.”
Ringo got McCartney to play bass on the song and provide some backing vocals for it. Likewise, the string arrangement at one point features a melody line from a George Harrison song (I haven’t been able to pick it out myself, but Ringo insisted it’s there), so it’s a Beatles reunion—of sorts.
The rest of the album is typical Ringo. Bouncy, breezy, not at all serious. Just a lighthearted good time, the same vibe he’s infused all of his records with since his very first solo outing, 1970’s Sentimental Journey. He’s not doing the same massive stadium tours as Paul, but lest it be considered too easy to dismiss the affection with which Beatles fans hold Ringo and the songs Ringo sang, consider something that happened just recently: A Toronto-based choral group called Choir! Choir! Choir! staged a gathering at the U.S.-Mexico border, with participants assembled on both the San Diego and Tijuana sides of the crossing. As a way of lifting up a message of community and love, hundreds of people sang—in English and in Spanish—“With a Little Help from My Friends.”
When he’s on tour, or at home, or in the studio, Ringo (much as he did in A Hard Day’s Night) takes pictures of basically anything and everything he sees—from the musicians he’s working with to birds and animals he notices, plus random things like spoons and objects that he has no idea what to make of. He flipped to an image in his new book of photos, Another Day in the Life.
“And this! Now you … what is this called?” (He waited for me to answer.) “Nobody knows! It’s one of those things you put in the middle of 45s. None of us know what it is!”
One page that caught my eye had a quote placed next to a photo of the four Beatles from the early days. It read: “Don’t walk ahead of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
“A lot of on-tour pics, or just things you see, and there are some selfies,” Ringo said, paging through the book. “Oh this, I love this…. Let me tell you about this eagle, I mean it’s freaky to me … I’m from Liverpool. You don’t see a lot of eagles, and I’m in Miami, and this thing just lands on my balcony! Well, you’ve gotta take a shot … and guess what, the next day, the bugger comes back again! On my balcony, it’s like whaaa! He’s moving in!… I had the room, he had the outside!… I take anything, that’s the point.... Most of these are taken with the iPhone.” (Ringo leans into my recorder.) “I HOPE I’M GETTING A FREE ONE AFTER THIS. The 11, or whatever it’s called. Anyway, I just take pictures.... This is the first All-Starr Band, we just celebrated 30 years and this is band members and—guess who!” He’d landed on a photo of him and Paul sitting together on a couch. He looked up and smiled.
Then he noticed the photo of Prince William knighting a kneeling Ringo last year, at Buckingham Palace.
“The Prince,” Ringo said. “You know, tapping me … coming from Liverpool, to be tapped, it’s like—that’s a long way to go, brother.”
Andy Meek is a writer in Memphis whose work has appeared in The Guardian and Billboard