All this Beatle hoopla inspired me to find an interview that I had the opportunity to do with Ringo Starr a handful of weeks before his 1998 release “Vertical Man” hit the shelves. I wrote the bio that went out with the album and spun some of this into a Pop Quiz for the San Francisco Chronicle.
I was quaking in my Keds about this interview.
By 1998 I had been writing about music for just about 10 years, had already spent hours upon hours on the phone, in the studio, backstage, on the bus, etc. with some pretty famous folks, and I was becoming extremely jaded about “celebrity” musicians. They’d all been coached up and knew the safe answers. Finding a connection was damn near impossible with these people.
That’s how I went in to this interview. I did my homework. Listened to “Vertical Man” a bunch. Composed a handful of questions. And then I sat down on a couch with a Beatle.
I flippin’ froze.
In part because of his celebrity, but mainly because he was one of the most down to earth, friendly, comfortable, humble, pleasant people I’d had the chance to interview.
So, some of these questions were prepared. Others – the more clichéd ones – were born out of pure survival reaction.
Here’s the transcript from the interview done on 13 April 1998 at one of those satellite t.v. studios that are all over Los Angeles. Some of it’s been cleaned up. Some of it hasn’t, because most conversations are not grammatically correct.
I’m the Dummy. Ringo is, well, Ringo.
DUMMY: How did playing live with the All-Star Band influence the writing and recording of this album? [Ringo had been out with Jack Bruce, Peter Frampton, Gary Brooker, Simon Kirke for about a year.]
RINGO: Yea, well… it does actually. In 1989 I sort of got back into the music business and one of the reasons I got back in is [that] I put the first All Stars band together. It’s actually progressed from that every other year, or every two years, I’ve put that together…more and more realizing that’s what I do. You know, I am a performer. I play drums, but I do need people on the front line. It could get pretty boring, just me being up there on the drums (Laughs).
So, last year, people were talking to me about doing a record. I was really not like, ‘Oh I want to do a record.’ I like playing with a live band and I’ve got my act and we’re fine. So, anyway, I thought, ‘Okay, well it’s time, let’s do an album.’ I’d heard a track written by Edie Brickell and Mark Hudson. A mutual friend said, ‘Why don’t you get together and see if you can write and see how it works?’ We didn’t know if it would work. They came over to the house. I knew them, but we’d never worked together, so we thought we’d see what’d happened. They came over on a Saturday and it went so well and it was so comfortable, and that’s half the battle … We were sort of tailoring it for me, because it was going to be my songs.
Mark had a little studio. [He said,] ‘Let’s go and demo them.’ We went down to the studio and demoed them. Then we listened and said, ‘these are not demos, these are tracks. Let’s do it.’ That’s how it started. I did a couple of weeks and then I put the All Stars together to tour America last year. After that tour, I came back into the little studio. We were writing and we were just having so much fun — writing and recording. So, I did a couple weeks, then I had to go to Europe, then I came back and did a bit more. So, over the year that’s how it evolved. Actually if you listen to the album you can listen to it evolve. It started very, very simple and it gets, complicated is the wrong word, but more interesting (Laughs) as it went on. That’s how it happened and I’ve never had so much fun. We were in not a real studio, but it is a real studio. One day we had Steven Tyler, Steve Cropper, Mark Hudson, Steve Dudas on guitar and myself in an eight-foot room and it was fun. So, the whole atmosphere was like that all the way through. There was no red light and there was no big glass surrounding me.
D: Right, doing take 27.
R: There was none of that…there was absolutely none of that take 27. The drum tracks were always live. I know they overdubbed a bit of bass and guitar, but the drums, that’s what you got and because I was playing really well because of the tour and the more you play, the better you are. So, I don’t know what else to say…we had a lot of fun, the songs are great, they’re tailored to what I wanted to say today and I’m playing well, and there was absolutely no pain.
D: This is quite an eclectic bunch of performers.
R: Well, the thing is we had this open door policy — if you walked in the door, you were asked to play (Laughs). We didn’t organize anything. Alanis Morissette came to say hello, it was like there was no struggle, there was an absolute pause waiting for her. We just happened to be doing that track, so I said to her, ‘Would you like to do this?’ and she said yes, which was great. Steven was phoning from all over Europe, he wanted to come and have fun with us, Tyler. Of course, we went to England to put Paul [McCartney] on, because I just felt his bass playing, and his singing of course, his harmonizing on the track, would have worked. And I always feel [that] if ever I do a record anyway, I like him on it and I like George [Harrison] on it. George yet again plays one of the most moving guitar solos on “King of Broken Hearts.”
It was basically the three of us — Mark on bass, Steve Dudas on guitar, me on drums — putting the backing tracks down. Then, we augmented that. Joe Walsh came in and overdubbed a couple of parts for me, which was great. But, I asked him, he didn’t pass the door. Ozzy Osbourne passed the door. He was in the same studio. Scott Weiland — we did this big chorus part for a song called “La De Da,” and he was in the next studio doing his thing so he came in. We had another part for his high voice, so he came to Mark’s studio to do that. We only asked, we weren’t twisting anybody’s arm. (Laughs) If they came, they came. That was great. It was really easy, there were no obstacles, things just kept working out and working out, that’s why we kept doing it. Seventeen tracks. There’ll be 13 on the album plus the bonus tracks. (Shrugs) It’s all new to me, this bonus tracks stuff, I just play the album. (Laughs). But, that’s what they’re saying, so we’ll go along with it.
D: You mentioned earlier that this is what you want to say today. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician over the past thirty years?
R: Well, I think I’m more prolific now in the songwriting. But, there’s one line I think which encapsulates this album: “Let’s all get well together.” (Chuckles) That’s sort of what [the album is] about. It’s called the “Vertical Man” because I was reading this huge book of quotes that my stepdaughter, Francesca, won at school when she was fourteen or fifteen. I was flipping through it and I saw this quote, “Let’s hear it for the vertical man, there’s always so much praise for the horizontal one.” And I thought, ‘That’s a really cool thing, let’s hear it for now, not for later.’ A lot of the players I’m with, thank God, we’re all still vertical. For a few of us, it was touch and go there for a while. We’ve lost so many great players through the years, and we’re still standing, as Elton John says.
D: Is there a song, I know it’s like picking your favorite child, but is there a song that you feel that encapsulates the Vertical Man?
R: Well, you know, “Vertical Man” was the last song we wrote. It was always going to be called that, we didn’t have a song for it, but I just knew that’s what I wanted to call it. It was so organic, we were sitting around, Steve or someone was ca-chunging on guitar or something, then someone would throw in some bit of melody and that’s how it happened. I don’t know if any one song… There’s a song called “What in the… World.” I don’t really want to put it on one song, because there’s parts of all of ‘em.
There’s a track that will probably be a bonus track. It is a fun track, called “I’ll Be Fine Anywhere.” It was really great, because we were trying to write like this macho song about, “On a Saturday night, I’ll be fine.” Dean [Grakal], one of the writers, said, ‘Like the call from a girl?’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, we’re not waiting for a call.’ I was trying to say, ‘It’s great we’re on our own on a Saturday night and everything’s okay.’ That’s what life is becoming. It’s all okay.
There’s one called, “Puppet,” and that came about because I had just finished the tour and Mark called and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m putting the puppet to bed.’ You know, all the stage clothes and all the stuff you packed over the tour. It was like, ‘I’m home now and I’m putting Ringo away for a while.’ It really, in the end, meant a lot of puppets, a lot of old tapes in your head that you stick with, and I’ve tried to change a lot of those tapes.
Q: Every drummer I interview, almost every musician that I talk to, name you as an influence, name the Beatles as an influence. What kind of pressure is that?
R: No pressure.
R: No, no, really no pressure at all. I mean, I’m quite honored by it. They tell me that too, ‘If it hadn’t of been for you, I wouldn’t have played drums.’ Hey, don’t blame me, I was just up there doing my stuff. So no, I never take it as any real pressure. It’s like my son. I only gave him one lesson. When I went to give him the second one he said, ‘Oh, I can do that dad.’ I said, ‘Now you’re on your own.’ That’s Zak. Jason is a drummer, also. All you have to know is the basic rhythms, and in rock n roll there’s not a lot of them. The individuality is the way you play those and the fills. You’ve got to let people do that themselves. That’s like Clapton and his solos. You know it’s him. Or B.B. King. A drummer has that signature, too. When there’s a fill, ‘Oh, that’s Ringo or that’s Keltner, or that’s so ‘n so.’ A lot of the time, when it’s just like (gives a beat), just playing the rhythm, it could be anyone, but still people can pick out me (Laughs). They say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s you.’ I play weird. I’m always just behind. We only have so much room. We’re not guitarists. Keltner hits just before the beat, and I hit just after it. I’m the backhand side and he hits the front side. But, I’m not in to all that. Drums… I just like to hit them. That’s where my energy goes.
D: There’s a great line on the album: “My business is syncopation.”
R: Yeah, yeah. My occupation is syncopation. But, every time, my syncopation is different, because I can never play the same fill twice. I just can’t, never have been able to. Even as a Beatle, they’d say, ‘Oh, double-track that.’ I don’t know how you do that, because when I’m in a fill I’m sort of this blackout, just this pure me coming out and I can’t pure me the same, twice. So, that’s that.
D: Ah! Probably wouldn’t fly today with everyone using click tracks.
R: I hate click tracks. A lot of people I know like to use click tracks. Like my son is perfect on the click tracks. It makes me to edgy. I’m to busy in the click track to feel my own heart rhythm, my own soul beat. Anyway, I’ve got really good time. (Laughs) Jeff Lynne is click track mad. I did some tracks with him last year and convinced him in the end that we didn’t need it. ‘Let’s just play.’ And we did. But it’s the security everyone’s got into now, they don’t go in as a band anymore, they go in as a click track.
I was in George Martin’s studio in Amsterdam and he was telling me, ‘They come in here and it takes them three days to do a bass line.’ Well I’m not from that era. I’ve always been playing with other people, and that’s how I learned. I got a kit of drums I couldn’t play, but I also knew a guitarist and a friend of mine played bass and could teach us bass, and we just played. And I learned… I made all my mistakes playing with people. But the business now is so driven by money, everyone’s trying to get it right. I don’t know, musically, what get it right really means. I know when I feel good when I play. There’s a closeness with musicians you only get from playing live, even in the studio it’s still playing live. For me, it’s what expands my soul.
D: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a hundred times already, but what was it like to spend the past year or two revisiting the early Beatles years?
R: Well, we’ve been doing it for five years. The first hurdle, of course, was the John Lennon hurdle because he wasn’t there.
We did little meetings together, then longer meetings, and then we did dinners. It just builds up like that. The three of us were actually working on this Beatle anthology and then we had the track “Free As A Bird.” There’s John singing out of the speakers, but he’s not here and we had to get over that.
R: Emotionally, yeah, there were highs and lows and the biggest low is that he wasn’t there. But we did, we went through every frame of our lives again and the interesting part was that we’d forgotten so much and we remembered so much. The director, Geoff Wonfor, kept saying, ‘It’s funny lads, you all remembered the same things and you all forgot the same things.’ (Laughs). So, the three of us had this selective memory. There are some fun bits, because we were interviewed separately. He’d ask us the same questions and we’d all come up with different answers. I’m really glad we did it now. It’s like okay, we put that puppet to bed, that’s gone now.
I do “Love Me Do” on the album and that was another puppet. ‘Oh, I can’t do a Beatle track.’ Yes, I can. I did that one because it was important. [Beatle-philes know this was the band’s first single and that Andy White, not Ringo, played on (most of) the single’s releases.) I put a lot of puppets to bed that day, I tell you. (Laughs) Whew!
D: There must be some joy in that.
R: Oh yea, well it’s great.
D: “Drift Away” is an interesting choice for a cover.
R: Yea, “Drift Away” was actually Mark’s initial idea, but it was my idea to have Steven Tyler play drums. I wish we could of photographed him when I said, ‘Well, you play.’ ‘But, but.’ ‘You’re a drummer, aren’t you?’ ‘Well, I haven’t played…’ I said, ‘Can you ride a bike?’ ‘Yea.” ‘Well, you can play drums. It’s the same — if you play, you can play.’ So, anyway, he played, and he was great. It’s a great song anyway. I had no resistance to doing the song, but I was just not going to say, ‘Give me the beat, boys.’ That’s not me. That’s why I wanted Steven to do it. Also, Alanis came that day, she’s on it. So, that’s how that came about. I wanted to do “Love Me Do” as a straight rock track, to put all my puppets away, because I always thought it was such a great track anyway and it was the first one we did. That’s why we did those two covers, it’s no real big story. We were trying to do new songs we had written, which we did. We did fifteen [songs] that we wrote and two covers. Isn’t bad.
D: (The night before this interview some celebrity was checking himself/herself – I can’t recall who it was – into rehab and there were scumbag gossip columnists all over the story. That’s what inspired this question.) Can I ask you a personal question? Your recovery hasn’t been hidden…
R: I have no anonymity. They had helicopters flying around the rehab. So far, so good. With God’s help, I’ve not had a drink in nine and a half years. That’s my whole story right there. And because of that, I’m doing this. I’m making records, I’m touring. I was so involved in just getting brain damaged, I wasn’t doing anything. I had great ideas, many notebooks filled with notes, some of them I can read and some of them I just can’t read, but I really didn’t do anything constructive, it was all just good ideas. Now I’m trying to lead a constructive life a day at a time.
D: Perhaps you’re delving into the music again is an expression of gratitude?
R: Oh I am truly grateful. I’m a grateful human being. And the album talks somewhat about that. I do feel that we should all get well together. I think we should have understanding and love and peace. I mean, peace and love has been my situation. You hear that in the song. I’m trying to promote that now: peace and love and understanding. If there is message, I don’t particularly like messages, because everybody takes whatever they take from whatever. That’s what this album’s about, it’s called the Vertical Man. Enough said, really.
D: So, your plans for this upcoming year? Will you hit the road again after this album comes out?
R: We’re rehearsing in a couple of weeks to do VH1 Storytellers with an L.A. band, then we’ll do the promotion of the record with the same band, then in July I put the All Stars together — Jack Bruce, Peter Frampton, Gary Brooker, Simon Kirke — and we’ll tour Europe. We’re doing 20 cities in a month. I’m like everyone else, on the stage it’s good. Not too much fun in the hotel or the airplane or the bus, but you got to do it. I’m up for it. I’m a musician and I’m really blessed, because in my life if I can hold the sticks, I can play. That’s the thing. I used to have it as a young man, I used to just wonder why those old guys were up there playing (Laughs), and now I know — it’s what we do. We can play as long as you want to.
That seemed like the right spot to end the interview. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to just watch and listen to him tell stories. But, truth be told, I’m not a crazy Beatle fan. I appreciate them. I’ve put them on for the Kids. But, I don’t know everything about everything. And, you know what? I don’t want to anymore. Feels like you miss out on the little things when you become an expert.
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