Friday, July 4, 2014

Acting Naturally: An Interview with Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr (Photo by Kevin Winter)

Does the world’s greatest drummer really need an introduction? Not really. Who hasn’t heard of Ringo Starr? The one-time Beatle? The charismatic actor of A Hard Day’s Night and The Magic Christian? The Fab who right out of the gate, following the break-up of The Beatles at the end of the 1960s, defied all expectations by having, at least for a while, the best solo career of his fellow band mates? Despite a dark period marked by drug abuse, alcoholism, and artistic shiftlessness (while simultaneously being a decadent globe-trotting European playboy in the late 1970s through to the end of the 1980s), The Ringed One’s glory days are many, continuing even now, with the 25th anniversary tour of his All-Starr Band which kicked off at Casino Rama in Ontario on June 5. 

This time around, his group of ace musicians and former hit-paraders includes Todd Rundgren, Greg Rolie of Journey and Santana, Electric Light Orchestra drummer Gregg Bissonnette, Toto’s Steve Lukather and Mr. Mister’s Richard Page. Ringo plays the skins, but he also sings, often standing solo in front of his band with a microphone in hand, his once awkward vocal performance (John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to write songs for him to suit his limited range) now polished through years of practice and professional coaching. An old dog who is more than capable of learning a new trick. Just how old is he? Well, next week, on July 7, Ringo turns (gulp!) 74. And yet as the millions who saw him on television this past February, performing as part of the Grammy’s 50th anniversary tribute show honouring the Beatles where he was accompanied by Sir Paul, the only other surviving Beatle, can attest, age has not withered Ringo Starr, neither his drive or appeal. Not only is he touring, performing in Dallas tonight, Vancouver on July 15, Los Angeles on July 19 and other dates in between, he is presently working on a new record which he is producing himself and planning to release in early 2015. 

He is also the subject of an exhibition of self-portraits which opened at New York’s Soho Contemporary Gallery on June 19, with additional exhibitions of his art work on display now at the Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago and the Ocean Gallery in Stone Harbor, N.J. There’s also an upcoming TV special, Ringo Starr: A Lifetime of Peace and Love, a tribute concert featuring performances by Joe Walsh, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Brendan Benson, Bettye LaVette, Peter Frampton, Kenny Aronoff and others that will air July 13 on AXS TV. Taped in January in Los Angeles, according to a report in USA Today, the concert launched the Ringo Starr Peace & Love Fund , a division of the David Lynch Foundation, “which provides Transcendental Meditation instruction to tens of thousands of at-risk students in underservedschools, women who are survivors of domestic violence, and veterans with post-traumatic stress.” How does he do it? What is the secret of his success? A good attitude for one thing, he tells Deirdre Kelly in a rare one-on-one interview. A belief in the power of love, for another. Speaking of which, for his birthday on July 7, Ringo is asking fans to pause at noon, local time, to share in a “peace and love” moment. He’ll be participating in one of those himself, in front of the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. The reason? “I really do believe in all you need is love.” Here’s more of that conversation.

dk: Peace and love remains your mantra, suggesting you’ve never lost touch with your values, the values of your youth, that period spent with the Beatles and the Summer of Love. What keeps you positive?

rs: Life. I mean, I have a great life. And it’s also that I’m just like that. I love playing. I want to have fun. And so that’s what I bring to it all the time.

dk: Were you always like that, though? Haven’t you hit some valleys as well as hills along the way?

rs: Yes. We had a lot of, well, when we were teenagers, those were hard years. And then there were the great years. And then I had a trough in the middle seventies through to the end of the eighties. And then I came out of that, and we’re back on track.

dk: What brought you back on track?

rs: It’s just life brings you back, you know? In life, you know, there’s many paths, and sometimes you stay on the right one.

dk: You’ve taken to producing your own records, starting with 2010’s Y Not? and continuing with the one you are currently working on and will release in the new year as a follow-up to Ringo 2012. And yet when you were with the Beatles you never did involve yourself in record production. So why now, and how are you enjoying it?

rs: Well, let’s backtrack a bit. The writers we had in the Beatles were incredible and they had certain ideas of how they wanted their songs sung, so that’s how they produced them. And George Martin, of course, was the producer. I used to say, well I produce the drums. (Laughs) And so, you know, over the past 10 years I’ve been sort of co-producer, whatever record I’ve made. The direction of the record has always been my job: What I want to sing about, how I want it to feel. But I’ve always had a co-producer. But this time [with Y Not?] I just started. I actually called a producer, and said maybe I’ll need you to help me, and then I called him back and said, No, I’m having too much fun. I’m going to do it meself.

dk: On Y Not? you wrote a song, called "The Other Side of Liverpool," in which you say, I needed a drum kit in order to get out of there.

rs: Yeah, yeah.

Ringo with his parents Elsie and Harry outside of their home in Admiral Grove, Liverpool

dk: So I wonder when you write something like that, why haven’t you written more? Why haven’t you written a book about all you’ve been through?

rs: I’ve said this before, but after [2007’s] Liverpool 8, which goes from the factory floor to Shea Stadium, I thought, oh. Well, there’s the other side of Liverpool: growing up with my mother who was a barmaid and my dad who left me when I was small. So [Y Not?] became this personal record. I don’t really want to write a book because people were only interested, when they offered me a large amount of money to write a book, in only eight years of my life, from ‘62 to ‘70. They’re not really interested in the rest of it. In song, I can encompass all of my life. And you can say a lot more in two lines in a record than you can in a chapter in a book.

dk: Speaking of records, what’s your favourite Beatles song?

rs: Ah, well, that is impossible really. I’d like to say it’s "Hey Bulldog" or "[She Came in Through the] Bathroom Window" or "Paperback Writer." But you know what I mean? You can go on forever. "A Day in the Life"? You cannot say.

dk: Well, that’s like the rest of us.

rs: Right, exactly.

dk: The legacy? Yours and the Beatles.

rs: The thing that I’m proud of with The Beatles? It’s not our haircuts, it’s not the way we dressed, it’s the music. The music carries on. There are kids out there who have no idea about what was going on when we were coming up, but the music holds up.

dk: Yes it does. I have children and they send their love to you because they are new fans.

rs: Yes, well that’s what happens. With every new generation we get the fans.

dk: Does that surprise you?

rs: Oh, I don’t think you think of that when you are making the record. You are doing it for the time you’re living in, and then suddenly, 40 years later, there’s still kids buying our music. Because if you listen to the records they hold up. There’s not one Beatles record that I listen to and say, Oh god! You know? We did our best.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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