Two decades ago, Ringo Starr was unaware of who and where he was.
Back then, Ringo and his wife Babrbara Bach were regulars on the international party circuit, pinballing between Europe and the U.S., and living the nocturnal lives of heavy drinkers. All that came to an end in 1988, when they checked into an Arizona clinic and emerged as cleaned and sober.
These days, Ringo has healthier ways of filling his days and nights -- such as painting. "I love to paint," he says in an accent located midway between his native Liverpool and L.A. "A lot of my paintings are very childish-looking. You just go into another world. That's why I love it."
He also continues to make music. Ringo Rama, released in March, is his thirteenth solo record; this summer, it will be followed by a tour featuring a new lineup of his All-Starr Band. The album capably fuses a hard-rocking edge and the generosity of spirit for which its author has long been famed. All told, it stands as his best work since 1973's hit-filled Ringo, a comparison with which Starr happily concurs.
In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Ringo showed the intensity with which he now lives.
You've been sober since 1988. How are your days different now?
Then, we didn't have a lot of energy and we didn't do much. Now I have a lot of energy and do lots. I'm back touring, I'm making records, leading a full life.
I came across a quote of yours: "I've got photographs of me playing all over the world, but I've absolutely no memory of it." Is that literally true?
It's literally true. I played Washington with the Beach Boys, so they tell me -- but there's only a photo to prove it.
Quite soon after cleaning up, you went back on the road. . . .
It was eight months later. And it was very scary. The end of where I was at, drinking . . . I couldn't play. I was a useless human being, really. And I was sitting in our living room, only a couple of months sober, asking myself, "What do I do?" And a little voice said, "You're a drummer." I'd gone so far the other way, I had no idea what I was anymore.
How do you feel about Paul reversing the Lennon-McCartney writing credits on his live album Back in the U.S.?
I think the way he did it was underhanded. He's wanted to do it for years. I'm not going to tell you all his reasons; he'll tell you them. I thought he should have done it officially with Yoko. But he didn't. It was the wrong way to go about it.
Were you surprised by the success of the Beatles' 1? You would have thought the whole world owned those songs already.
Well, they do. But they don't own them in that order [laughs]. Who knows? We knew it would do well. We always do well.
The Beatles Anthology has just been released on DVD. What are your memories of that experience?
It was good for us. It was really weird: We all remembered going along the same path, because we were so close. One of my favorite parts is when they said to me, "What about the second time you played Shea Stadium?" I said, "What? We played it twice?" Unbeknown to me, when they'd asked George the same question, he'd said, "What? We played it twice?"
One of the good things for me, always, hanging out with George and John when they were alive, and Paul, is that I can sit with you and relate a million Beatles stories -- but I sit with them, and they were there, too. The only pity about the Anthology was that John wasn't actually there, so most of his observations were from a very different period, when he felt a lot of anger. I think that would have changed now. We'd mellowed a bit: We were hanging out with each other. The experience of the whole thing was incredible, but it didn't make us want to live together.
Do you sympathize with what seems to be Paul's feeling that John's reputation has been inflated since his death, and Paul has been left in the shadows?
I don't think John's been inflated. People keep saying, "Paul was on the fringe of this, that and the other." For me, the point of it all was John was the fringe. And it was his band. Whatever you want to think, he was the original member. He brought the other two in, and brought me in. Paul was the workaholic: If it hadn't been for Paul, we probably would have made a lot less records. John and I would be resting in the country [laughs], and Paul would say, "Do you want to come in and make a record?" [Wearily] "Oh, OK. . . ."
But I don't think John is getting anything he doesn't deserve. In Liverpool, Ringo airport would have been more fun -- but it's the John Lennon airport, and that's it. I just want a conveyor belt: "The bags from Malaga are coming up on Conveyor Belt Ringo" [laughs].
Has George's death been hard on you?
Yes. I still miss George. I still think about him, and I wave to him every morning: "How are you doing, George?" But, also, I do that to Harry Nilsson. Harry Nilsson was my best friend. We had great plans about how we were going to live in our old age. I was very angry when Harry died. He spoiled the plans. But you have to get over that and start living your life again.
Do you feel lonely without George?
Yeah. No one else experienced those eight years of absolute pressure, and the thirty years since. I love that line of George's: "We gave our nervous systems." So I feel lonely in that aspect of my life. It makes me a little sad, actually, even just talking about it.
When did you last see George?
I saw him in October. He went in November.
Was that an occasion when you had the opportunity to say farewell?
Well . . . we hugged and we loved. The only thing I ever want to say is I loved George, and George loved me, and we had a lot of time together. And that's it.
On Ringo Rama, there's a song called "Never Without You" about George.
Gary Nicholson started that. He's a country writer, and Mark [Hudson, the album's co-writer and co-producer] came back with four or five tracks of his from Nashville, and that was one of them. It was just so great, because of the opening lines: "We were young/It was fun/And we couldn't lose." It was the Fabs! That gave us everything else. George had just left us -- it was May, and he'd died in November. He was on my mind, and I wanted to write something to say, "I love you, George." I like the fact that it rocks on: It's not a ballad with lots of strings. And Eric [Clapton] came over with his guitar and his amp and did that incredible solo.
But that first verse was a gift: "We were headline news . . . Limousines and bright spotlights." That's what it was like, although in our case, which always makes me laugh, there was one limo between four. And we only ever had two rooms in a hotel. In the late Sixties, everybody I knew had their own limos and their own hotels. They couldn't stand each other. We always shared [laughs].
Does it ever flit across your mind that if the Beatles had gone back to touring in 1969, like the Stones did, you'd have opened up a whole new chapter?
Yeah. It's hard. I think the reason the Beatles split up was because we were thirty, and it was, "Hey, I've got married, I've got kids, I've got a few more friends." We didn't have the energy to put into it. If we had stayed together, we'd have all been in separate suites and our own cars. It wouldn't have been us, the boys, doing it.
One of the nicest stories I have is, when we'd finished touring for good, I remember calling my mum. I said, "We're not going to tour anymore." She said, "That's good, son -- but you'll play Liverpool, won't you?"