Ringo Starr is a Beatle who, famously, has gotten by with a little help from his friends: A rare breed of rock star who has not only embraced his often singular peace and love persona among the genre’s more hardened elders, but parlayed it into a beloved second act with his 1-800 band, the All-Starrs. This idea of friendship — or rather, this sincere idea of friendship — intersects well with the month Starr is having. His new EP, Zoom In, enlists every musician in his Rolodex imaginable, including BFF/brother-in-law Joe Walsh, Dave Grohl, and that other chap from Liverpool. Additionally, Starr decided to release a photo memoir to celebrate just how great he and his pals are, Ringo Rocks: 30 Years of the All Starrs 1989 – 2019, which caps off a full year in quarantine. (Also, the man is 80 years old???) Ahead of Zoom In’s March 19 release, Vulture was honored to Zoom with the man himself, where we discussed everything from how his friendships have influenced his career to the “sliding doors” moments that could’ve changed it all.
What’s been your secret for maintaining peace and love during a year that’s been, at best, like a journey through hell?
Some days it’s a journey through hell in my home too. [Laughs.] I have things I do to pass the time. Some days I’ll be down and moan to myself, Oh, I can’t go on tour. That’s a real positive thing to do, clearly. [Laughs.] So I decided that I wasn’t going to do that anymore and get up and do stuff. I decided I wanted to make an EP. Not an album, just an EP with a few songs. I have a huge EP collection of my own. I love it because you can really get into a small amount of tracks, and that’s what the kids love now. They love EPs! And not only that, they love cassettes. That’s the weird thing about that. A couple of years ago I threw my cassette player away thinking I’ve got to move on. And now they’re dragging me back. So to do this and hang out with a few musicians with masks on is great.
But also, besides music, I have a little art room where I do projects. I’ve been blessed to be able to do that, and I also have a small gym where I can work out. I have a trainer three days a week and work out on my own two or three days a week. I’ve bummed up my hamstrings so I’ve got to take it easy. That’s what happened, really. I decided I’m not going to sit around and be miserable. If I’m doing something and doing it all at my house, it’s not like I’m going anywhere. I think I’ve been out of my house eight times over the past year, only to go to Joe’s or my children’s houses. That’s all. I’m serious about staying alive and getting to live another day.
The celebration of friendship has been an integral part of your career, which culminates nicely with “Here’s to the Nights.” To reverse-engineer a question from its lyrics: What do you recall as being the most memorable night you can remember with the friends you won’t forget?
There’s a lot of them I don’t remember that would’ve been very memorable. [Laughs.] With the other three guys, we had many memorable moments together. I’m not writing a book or anything, so it’s important to keep certain memories to myself. But one of the great memories was that, wow, it all just worked out so well. We gelled as a band and we supported each other. Even now there’s talk of those bad moments — which there were, I mean, there were some bad moments. But if you did the counting, we played to the best we could with each other. No one ever said, “Oh, yeah, fuck — er, sod — him.” I’m really proud of those moments where we never stopped supporting each other.
The other side of that coin is that two of them aren’t with us anymore. [Pauses.] It still hits me hard. John’s been gone 40 years, for God’s sake, and George is gone 20 years this year. That was a big loss for me. Only when these anniversaries come up does it really get to me. The rest of the days I just get on with what I’m doing. I’ve lost a lot of pals. Harry Nilsson was my best friend in Los Angeles, God bless him. That’s life. Let’s lighten this up a bit, baby.
What has been your own evolution with uniting music and friendship? I’m curious if the term “musician’s musician” is something you’ve always embraced, or if it even means anything to you.
Way down the line when I was 13, I had a dream. Who knew where it came from. It was that I wanted to be a drummer. That’s all I wanted to be. I had to work in the railways, I had to work on the boats, I had to work in the factories. My granddad lent me the money for my first kit and I paid him back a pound a week. That’s how expensive it was at the time. Thirty-two pounds! And then I just started playing. I had no idea how to play, but I started playing and figuring it out along the way. I was lucky that the guy next door, Eddie Miles, my friend Eddie Clayton, and my best friend, Roy Trafford, formed this band together from the factory. We would only play to the men at lunchtime in the basement. That’s how we started. The Eddies could really play, Roy was guessing it, and I was thinking, Well, thank God I’m hitting this in the right place. From there I was in a couple of bands and traveled around Europe while still living in Liverpool. And one day, guess what, I was invited to join the biggest band in the world. You don’t know any of that will happen, you know? I was 13 and just wanted to play. This life I’ve been given is a mystery to me as well as many other people, but this is how it is. I loved every minute. And that all ended.
I’m sitting around for, what, 15 years after The Beatles broke up. [Laughs.] Making records and not going on tour. I had a moment of clarity where I thought, I’m gonna straighten up and get sober. Six months later, somebody out of the blue asked me to put a band together. That’s how the All-Starrs started. It’s interesting to imagine if I had emigrated to Houston to try to work with Lightnin’ Hopkins. I filled in the forms and everything. I love that it’s kind of like “sliding doors.” The doors closed, Oh, you just missed the train. The doors opened, Oh, you’re on the train. Life is really great. It has some downs but it has a lot of ups when you enjoy it.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the comedian John Mulaney, but one of my favorite things he’s said is that the friendship between you and Joe Walsh deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
I’m not familiar with the man who said that. But anytime they’re ready to induct us, we’re here! [Laughs.] I love Joe and we’ve known each other for a long time before he married Barbara’s sister and became part of our family. When I ask him to play now, we can’t refuse because he’s in the family. We get along very well and love each other. The four of us, with Barbara and Marjorie [Bach], we have a great family setup. Barbara and I will go to them to hang out, Marjorie and Joe will come to us to hang out. I love him.
You know, now that I’m thinking about it, I love it even more because I’m an only child. Then I was in a band where I got three brothers who I loved and they loved me. And then I met Barbara, the love of my life, and then her sister marries Joe, who was already such a good friend. It’s like, What! I’m surrounded by love. Then I’ve got my own kids and eight grandchildren and one great-grandson. I sit around the table sometimes when we have a party — like we should’ve had for my 80th birthday last year [in July] — and I’ll look around and think, Wow, all of these people are related to me, and I’m an only child. It’s a beautiful gift I’ve been given. I don’t even know if I answered your question because I kept rambling on about love.
Joe has reminisced that the first time he saw you was when The Beatles performed at Shea Stadium, and he was “screaming at the top of my lungs” with the rest of the girls. The only correct reaction.
You know what’s even crazier about that show? Joe was at Shea, Barbara was at Shea, and Marjorie was at Shea, and I was on the stage. It’s really weird how life can throw those moments at you. But the band was good and everybody loved us, and they still do.
I love watching All-Starr Band performances because, just as an outside set of eyes, it’s wonderful to see this collaborative spirit among famous rockers when egos could dictate otherwise. How does performing with the All-Starrs make you feel, and is that feeling different than your time performing with The Beatles?
The Beatles were definitely a different part in my life. I was in bands before The Beatles and then I was just there. Then it went mad, but we were making good music. That’s the four of us — and I can speak on behalf of the four of us on this. It was always about the music. We were serious about the music and it still shows to this day. You can still listen to our tracks and it’s not like, Oh, this is some miserable stuff. It’s on. You know what I mean? It’s good. Every track you can be proud of. You could like different tracks better or less but musically, we did the best we could and it works. Now? It’s all about the peace and love, baby.
You’re 80 years old but have the aura of someone half your age.
I’m 24 in my mind. [Laughs.] I think that helps. I’m sticking with the 24 number.
What’s the most ambitious thing that you have left to do?
It’s funny that you bring that up. Barbara and I were watching something last night and they mentioned how Mount Everest was opening up again for climbers.
Ringo. Do you really want to climb Mount Everest?
We looked at each other and I said, “Uh, I don’t want to climb Everest.” [Laughs.] Everest is not one of the dreams. I can’t really imagine anything at this point. It’s been a great life. As a kid I was a bit dangerous and now these are the results of it. So if I do everything right in my mind, I’m truly grateful. And that’s how I live now.