Lessons We've Learned: Ringo Starr On Peace, Love And Life
Peace and love - two words that collectively form the signature tenet of rock and roll’s most enduring ambassador for global harmony: Ringo Starr.
They preface every greeting he makes, conclude each message he shares on social media, and are manifest in the double-fingered salute he’s perennially seen posing with. A messenger of hope and compassion, his convictions have sustained since The Beatles (that popular group that he was a quarter of) so heartily propagated the importance of love and its all-conquering power back in the ’60s, and are still so prevalent now.
‘What’s My Name’, the iconic drummer’s 20th album which is released tomorrow, is permeated by positivity, and a vitality that only comes with personal contentment.
Recorded at his home studio in LA, and created in the company of his closest friends and collaborators, it’s the sound of an artist rediscovering and relishing the privileges of a life dedicated to music, and consequently exploring the freedoms with which that has blessed him.
He’s unashamedly romantic in the radiant Beach Boys-like ‘Magic’, written in collaboration with long-time All-Starr Band guitarist Steve Lukather, and even more so when interpreting ‘Grow Old With Me’ - a heartfelt track developed from a demo that John Lennon had recorded in 1980 while writing his ‘Double Fantasy’ album (though it wasn’t included), and for which Ringo reunited with former bandmate Paul McCartney, who provided the song’s bass and backing vocals.
Such infectious idealism clearly spread to those who worked with Ringo, and whose tracks offer the most immediately buoyant messages. Songwriter Sam Hollander helped write ‘Thank God For Music’, an ode of gratitude to the healing power of song, and led ‘Better Days’, a contemplative note of encouragement based on an interview he had read with Ringo in Rolling Stone. “Tomorrow’s just behind the setting sun,” it reassures, “and the better days about to come.”
And while on the face of things ‘Life Is Good’ is a title that fully supports the impression of Ringo - who earlier this year celebrated his 79th birthday - having attained spiritual quietude, the lyrics - composed with Gary Burry - do suggest that it wasn’t the smoothest journey in pursuit.
“I’ve had bad days when things go wrong,” Ringo sings, and it’s this confession that fuelled the overriding question that lingered in Clash’s mind ahead of our meeting with Starr: just how easy is it for him to maintain an optimistic front given the abiding antagonism in the world today?
Our interview is the last one scheduled in an afternoon that finds Ringo comfortably holed up in a Central London hotel, talking to the world’s press about ‘What’s My Name’, and Another Day In The Life, the third in a series of books he has produced that presented his photographic works, this one themed from the unique perspective of his life on the road, which offers a unique insight into the transient lifestyle through which Ringo has sought stability.
And so, finding himself face-to-face with arguably the most famous drummer on the planet - certainly the most famous drummer to be knighted - Clash’s Editor-In-Chief takes the opportunity to delve deeper into Ringo’s prevailing ethos, and find out exactly where that mindset finds him now.
In ‘Better Days’, you sing: “We’re only getting happier”. Do you find that with age comes happiness and satisfaction?
No, I think I had a lot of happy days - not as a teenager, but after that. There were certain periods of my life that were really happy, but then life is life: you have some downsides to it. But I think if you listen to the song, it’s all about where you were - it’s like a mini biography, ‘Better Days’, which Sam wrote. He wrote that from an article in Rolling Stone. I have had my ups, and I have had my downs, but better days keep coming in. And right now, we’re in the middle of a much better day!
Are you an optimistic person by nature?
I am optimistic. I’m not a pessimist at all, really. ‘It will be good’ - I have that attitude. I do.
‘What’s My Name’ sounds like a happy album, largely - I think you sound happy on it!
Well, it was a lot of fun making it - even if it’s a sad song, we had fun making it, because we’re playing it, and I’ve got great players coming into play for me. Also, it’s still strange; I’m the producer, so I have to tell them what to do! (Laughs) And the players I have, I don’t have to tell them much at all, because they’re all pretty established and they know what they’re doing.
You’re the boss?
Mmm. In a way. I like to be one of the band, you know? That’s where I like to be. That’s the position I like to be: in the band. I love being in a band, and I’ve been doing the All-Starr band for 30 years now, and they get their songs, and I get mine.
Is that why you are still so proactive and prolific with your work, because you’re in a happy place and creativity is a good outlet?
Yeah, but when you say it like that, it’s like you’ve never had a bad day - well, you do have bad days. Life is life. I tend to want to think now that if life is good, it’s gonna be like that forever, and if I’m having a bad day, this too shall pass. It will change. I don’t get in the mire with it, you know?
You’re a photographer as well as a musician. Do you think this allows you a unique personal perspective on life, seeing things through your own lens?
Well, it narrows the focus. (Laughs) You know, usually there’s a lot going on, and you can dial in. But actually, I’ve loved cameras since the ’60s. The first book was all about camera shots, and now Another Day In The Life is mainly phone shots. If you look at it, it’s like being on tour: there are lots of food on plates, things in spoons, birds on the balcony, just flying - I had nothing to do with it, it was just like, ‘Ooh, wow.’ So, you’re on tour, and you have those two great hours where you play, but there’s a lot of other time where you’re travelling, or you’re sitting in a hotel… Even in the dressing room, you’re waiting sometimes - you have to be there early for all the reasons - and I look for something to do. One of them is I just, ‘Ooh, let me take a shot of that,’ or, ‘Oh wow, see that face?’ So, it’s busy.
By bringing them all together in a book, does it ultimately feel like reading a diary for you?
It is. It’s an autobiography in many ways, also. I don’t have the mind to do the autobiography - “On Tuesday, John said…” or whatever, “and then I got a train to Hamburg…” It’s not really me. I like to just put my stuff out in song - you can hear a lot about me in my songs. It is my album, so I direct where it’s moving, and ‘Better Days’ was Sam’s idea, but ‘Thank God For Music’ and the one with Steve Lukather, ‘Magic’, it’s on the beach, it’s a love song. So that’s how it is. And, at dinner, ‘Gotta Get Up To Get Down’. We were having dinner with Klaus Voorman, Joe Walsh, and Jim Keltner in LA, just having dinner, and that line came out. Immediately I knew it was a song, but then I found out there’s three songs out there with that title! (Laughs) The record label said, ‘Oh, you should change that title,’ but I was like, ‘No, that’s what it is.’
You enjoy the luxury of being able to record at home…
I do. I love doing it at home. The two things about that: I love being at home - I’m in my own space, there’s no big glass separation in the studio… I was working in LA at the Capitol Studios for Jenny Lewis - I played on a few tracks - and it was the first time I had been in the studio for, let’s say, three years, and I realized, ‘Ah, I love working at home.’ Though she is great - I mean, she impressed me so much. And, you know, I’m playing with Don Was and Ben Watt - all the people we know - and it’s good. I like to do it at home; that’s what I like to do. I paint also, at home.
So being comfortable helps?
Yeah, it does help.
You don’t have to clock on and clock off.
No. I’m at home doing this, and then I’m on the road. That’s how it works. I’m settled. Nobody wants to be on the road - we have to be on the road to do the gig. I don’t moan about the travelling anymore, because we have to do that to get the joy at the end of it.
Are there any disadvantages to recording at home?
No. Not for me.
I just imagined the frustration when the doorbell rings…!
Well, the bell doesn’t ring in the guest house! I mean, this hotel room is bigger than my whole studio! It’s a little space, but with ProTools and modern stuff, I can press a button and get anybody’s amp sound. (Laughs)
I recently interviewed Robbie Robertson…
Did he mention me? (Laughs)
No, but we were discussing how The Band’s second album was recorded in a house in LA and he was saying that recording at home wasn’t an accepted method in 1969, and his label had said that they were crazy. It’s like, why wouldn’t you make music in comfortable surroundings?
I know! Yeah. Well, you know, The Beatles tried that [for the ‘Let It Be’ sessions] in Savile Row. We built a studio. We were tired of [Twickenham studios], that big empty room - we’d all be in the corner - and we thought, ‘We’re gonna make it relaxing.’ So we had a settee, and we had big chairs, we had a fireplace, and so, ‘Alright, take one!’ (Mimes drumming.) And then, ‘Okay, play it back.’ And we went, ‘What…? What the…?’ (Makes cracking noises.) Shit was burning in the fire and cracking! We never even thought of it! (Laughs) So, we had to put the fire out! (Laughs) ‘Oh yeah, this is so great here!’ (Cracking noises.) ‘What’s on the track? What’s going on?’ It was the fire!
In ‘Life Is Good’, you talk about the lessons you’ve learned. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned that’s brought you to a happier place?
There’s always tomorrow. Yeah. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Like I was saying before: up or down, there’s always tomorrow.
It can be challenging to stay positive all the time.
Well, yeah. I think as a teenager there was no tomorrows; it was like, ‘Hell now, and it’s gonna be hell…!’ That’s just the space you go through, and I’m way out of that space now. I’m doing what I love. There’s nothing to bring me down about that. I love to play, I play with great people, I’m writing with people… Most of the 365 days, most of them on average are musical; I’m either touring or playing. I’m playing on eight other people’s records this year - because they can send the files! They send the files! I say, ‘Okay, let me see…’And that’s the thing, when you were talking about Robbie, they sent the files…
Do you mean the Playing For Change video that you both played on?
Playing For Change! What a great idea! And then they go to India. Music, it’s a great concept that we feel, but outside they can’t imagine. I can go anywhere and play with people, and people will play with me. Music, it doesn’t have those boundaries - unless you play jazz; I don’t play jazz, but… (Laughs) As human beings, musicians always seem to get along with each other.
In ‘Thank God For Music’ you call music your salvation. You were very lucky in that you found this thing that you were passionate about, and it did prove your salvation. Is that the role that music can play for people?
Well, if you love it like I do. I have to be honest and say there were a few years there where it wasn’t saving my soul, but it came back in the end. So, it’s big for me.
‘What’s My Name’ is released tomorrow on UMC. Get it HERE!
Ringo Starr: Another Day In The Life is out now, published by Genesis.
Words: Simon Harper
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