New Again: Ringo Starr

Published November 11, 2015

Ringo Starr and Tom Petty are two of the most recognizable names in modern music history. Both have amassed followers for continuous talents showcased with various bands (which you probably already know, but just in case: the Beatles, the All-Starr Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, et al.), as well as on their own, and this week, both musicians have big news. Firstly, Petty poached musician and historian Warren Zane, who spent much of the ’80s in the band The Del Fuegos, to write his biography. The resulting volume (with a rather lackluster title “Petty: The Biography”) was published yesterday via Henry Holt and Company. Secondly, while Petty’s news is already out in the world, Starr announced today that a tribute album will be released on December 4, benefiting the David Lynch Foundation. The LP is a live recording of a concert that took place on January 20, 2014, when Lynch himself presented Starr with the Lifetime of Peace & Love Award. The ensuing show featured performances by Starr, Joe Walsh, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Head and the Heart, Brendan Benson, and more, that will be forever heard on Lifetime of Peace & Love Awards. While we wait for our copies of “Petty: the Biography” to arrive and the release of the concert’s recorded audio, we decided to revisit an interview between Starr and Petty from our June 1992 issue.

Ringo Starr talks with Tom Petty

Although it may seem like a long time since we’ve heard from Ringo Starr, he never really went away. He’s had his fingers (and drumsticks) in very many pies between his last studio album in 1984 and his current disc, Time Takes Time, just out on Private Music (and produced by, among others, Don Was, the man behind the boards for recent success by Bonnie Raitt and the B-52’s).  In the interim, Starr contributed to the Sun City album, made numerous TV appearances, and launched a tour with an “All-Starr Band” comprised of heavies like Dr. John, Billy Preston, Levon Helm, and Clarence Clemons. There have also been some battles: in 1988, Starr and his wife Barbara Bach underwent treatment for alcohol abuse, and a year later, the drummer went to court to block the release of a 1987 album made with Memphis producer Chips Moman, contending that his performance was not up to par. Starr won the case. In 1990, he worked with Tom Petty, recording “I Call Your Name” as part of a Liverpool tribute to John Lennon. Petty had also played on a song that was eventually cut from Starr’s new disc. Assuming no hard feelings, we asked Petty to interview Starr one morning at the Hotel Bel Air while they waited for breakfast.

RINGO STARR: Good evening. My name is Ringo Starr.

TOM PETTY: And I’m Tom Petty. Two seasoned professionals around the four-track. So you’ve made a new album, Ringo?

STARR: Yes. I’d like to thank you for being on one of the tracks that’s not actually on the album.

PETTY: Oh, I’m always on the ones they take off.

STARR: Well, listen, you used me as a fake drummer in a video, so we’re even.

PETTY: I haven’t got to hear the album yet, but I’m told it’s really, really good.

STARR: Oh, let me give you a copy. Here you go.

PETTY: Thanks. So, you play drums on the album?

STARR: I play the drums. I am the only drummer. I am the best rock drummer on the planet. I’m sure you’ll agree.

PETTY: You certainly are. No arguments there.

STARR: I’ve just been putting things in place since ’88, when I went into rehab. I’m getting back in the business. I’m straight enough to actually play and perform, and to put the first All-Starrs together. And we put out the live album from that tour in ’90. So in ’91, the natural thing to do was a studio album.

PETTY: Great. Are you going on the road?

STARR: I put another all-star band together for this year with Joe Walsh and Nils Lofgren from the last All-Starrs, plus Burton Cummings, Dave Edmunds, Todd Rundgren, Timothy B. Schmit, Zak Starkey [Starr’s son], and Ringo Starr.

PETTY: Wow. That’s quite a band.

STARR: That’s an orchestra.

PETTY: I saw your last one, you know. It was really nice.

STARR: Where? At the Greek [Theatre in L.A.]?

PETTY: Yeah.

STARR: I like it there. it’s a really good-size audience for me. I don’t want ot play those big stadiums like you play. [laughs]

PETTY: Well, that’s because you’re already rich.

STARR: I’ve just heard that you’ve got a new deal. You must be loaded.

PETTY: Well, I’m just doing interviews now.

STARR: So am I. that’s how well-off we are. Of course, Mr. Harrison, the billionaire of life, has just left town.

PETTY: Yeah, ol’ one-gig-a-year guy.

STARR: One gig every seven years.

PETTY: I heard you got onstage at [London’s Royal] Albert Hall recently with George.

STARR: That was such a good show. It was great because Joe Walsh opened, and Zak played with Joe. That was a real thrill to see. I went with the kids and my ex-wife and friends. I was there just to watch. The show went so well—George was just groovin’. He should have taken it on the road. I told him that. He should be doing what god wants him to do: perform. So then Joe sauntered off-stage and said [mimicking Walsh], “George wondered if you want to come on.” It didn’t take much coaxing, and I got up for the last two numbers.

PETTY: Well, Mike Campell [guitarist in Pety’s band, the Heartbreakers] was playing that night, and he said when you came on that he almost had to just sit down and dig the rhythm ’cause you’re a really great drummer. The human metronome, I call you.

STARR: B.B. King called me the human grandfather clock.

PETTY: [laughs] And what did Timothy Leary call you?

STARR: Whaaaa!

PETTY: I got George playing the blues last night. We were jamming. He’s a really good blues guitarist. In all the time I’ve known him, he’s never broken into that.

STARR: Thank god he’s playing the blues and not that bloody ukulele that he loves so much.

PETTY: Well, we went through a few years of that. I’ve got four ukuleles at my house just for emergencies, you know.

STARR: In case George gets withdrawal.

PETTY: What kind of records do you listen to when you’re at home? Do you still listen to the stuff that you grew up digging? I know you were a Johnnie Ray fan, weren’t you?

STARR: Yeah. I don’t listen to too much Johnnie Ray, or Frankie Laine. Nat King Cole, I like to put on.

PETTY: I’m going to do an album with Nat King Cole, I think. It’s bound to go. [laughs]

STARR: It’s bound to be a sensation. Gotta be. They’ll just cut you into the video.

PETTY: Can’t you see me? [sings] “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have made you…”

STARR: So anyway, you go to the record collection and what do you pick out? Ray Charles never lets me down. And, you know, I’m actually starting to play Sgt. Pepper. I don’t know why….I do know why. Because George Martin is doing a show, The Making of Sgt. Pepper, and he’s interviewing us all, and so I thought, I’d better play that record and see what it’s like. I was really knocked out again. I hadn’t played it in so long that the diversity of the songs blew me away. But it also sounds kind of naïve, really.

PETTY: Naïve?

STARR: Yeah. The production, and the state of the art in those days.

PETTY: Well, it’s great production, though. It’s a really good sound.

STARR: But the mix—stuff over here and stuff over there.

PETTY: But I like that.

STARR: I didn’t say I didn’t like it, Tom. [Petty laughs] I said it sounds naïve.

PETTY: Well, okay. Making any movies? Have you given up acting?

STARR: I haven’t really given it up. I’m just refocusing on being a drummer again. Back to the dream, you know, of when I was 13.

PETTY: Do you live in L.A. now?

STARR: Well, we’re residents of Monte Carlo, but we bought this home in Beverly Hills. And we’re living here because I’m working again. We also have a house in Aspen, of course, like everyone else. I’m sure you do.

PETTY: No.

STARR: Where are you? Telluride? [laughs]

PETTY: No, I can’t ski. I don’t know how.

STARR: You can if you come with me. I love it!

PETTY: But you’ve never broken a leg or anything?

STARR: I’ve never broken a bone in my life, or in my body.

PETTY: [laughs] So, what do you do when you get free time, Ringo?

STARR: Well, I usually come around to your house and watch you sleep.

PETTY: [laughs] Besides that, I mean. Do you have any other interests?

STARR: Right now, we’re unpacking. We’ve just moved into the new house. I really like to sit outside. Things are changing in my head, and I like to be out in the light. So we bought this house—a billion-dollar greenhouse, really. Windows everywhere, huge glass. One level. So, I hang around, make phone calls, watch the TV, play a record. Barbara’s in school studying psychology, and I’m here having fun.

PETTY: So she’s gone back to college then? Good for her.

STARR: I believe I mentioned that she was [getting] a Ph.D., which is totally wrong. That’s down the line.

PETTY: I’m thinking about going back to high school and trying to—

STARR: —learn to spell—

PETTY: —and to add, because I can’t help my kids with their homework. It’s embarrassing.

STARR: All mine have left school, bar one, and I could never help him with his work anyway. But I’m really thinking, if we have any long breaks, of checking out the UCLA curriculum and seeing maybe if I want to take pottery or—

PETTY: Bait casting?

STARR: Chewing-gum making.

PETTY: Are you serious?

STARR: I’m real serious. They have a million things you can do. It would be great to hang out and see what’s happening. So that’s another thing for the future. Anyway, Tom, let’s have a break, because breakfast is here.

PETTY: Okay, we must have done hours by now.

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE JUNE 1992 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

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