January 17, 1977 12:00 PM

“My 6-year-old daughter asked me once, ‘Daddy, you used to play in Paul McCartney’s backup band, didn’t you?’ ”

Little Lee Starr may simply have heard it wrong: back then Daddy was into rings, not Wings. Of course, Lee’s is not the first generation of Beatle-maniacs to patronize Pop. Ringo Starr, now 36, was often considered a journeyman among geniuses, “expected,” he recalls, “to do my funny fills on the tom-toms” while Lennon and McCartney caught their breath between those ineffably wizard cadenzas. Even if Ringo was the most vulnerable, cuddly and riotously deadpan Beatle to his fans, he was to critics a Fab Fourth in musicianship. “I was always underrated,” he grumbles today, but admits that “I was embarrassed by my little songs. I’d write tunes that were already written and just change the lyrics, and the other three would have hysterics tellin’ me what I’d rewritten.”

Ringo inadvertently summed up the postparting depression of his early solo career in the title of his own 1971 hit It Don’t Come Easy. Of late, to grind the Sgt. Pepper mill, things are gettin’ better—with a little help from his friends like Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton and old partners George Harrison and John Lennon, who all joined Ringo in the studio for his latest and most accomplished solo LP, Ringo’s Rotogravure. For the first time Ringo is also considering a personal tour this year. “I’m lazy, but I’d like to try it three days a week for a month.” Simultaneously he’ll awaken his dormant film career with a cameo role in Mae West’s Sextette.

The other departure in Starr’s life is to “leave England forever”—fleeing an 83 percent tax stranglehold by shuttling between two sunny tax shelters. As a resident of income-tax-free Monte Carlo, he lives in a 30th-floor two-bedroom apartment high over the Mediterranean; and, as a legal “nonresident” in the U.S., he can spend as much as half a year in his rented cottage nestled in the Hollywood Hills without obligation to the IRS for his international earnings.

Ringo’s self-exile was complicated by his 1975 divorce from Maureen, his ex-hairdresser wife of 10 years and mother of their three children, sons Zak, 11, and Jason, 9, plus Lee, who all stayed in England. The anguish of the breakup has been greatly soothed by Ringo’s live-in love of the past two years, Nancy Andrews, 29, a striking Alabama-born former Vogue, Mademoiselle and TV commercials model. “She flashed her eyes once,” he says, recalling their first date, when he invited her to a studio session, “and I’ve been in love with her ever since.”

There was a time, Ringo remembers, when he and the boys joked that ” ‘you couldn’t rock after 30,’ but then you get there and you stop laughing.” Hair and beard streaked with gray, he strides heavily in riding boots around house and pool like a brooding baron, hands clasped behind his back. His eyes, like two unevenly set azure stones, angle downward, giving off a still-warm but weary glow even when his own offhand wit extracts a smile from his somber face. “I’m bound to get a bit weird at 40,” he predicts.

For now, he and Nancy stay young by indulging Ringo’s fancy at the blackjack tables in Monte Carlo and by living in a leisurely flow of days into nights and back into days in California. “L.A. shuts down at 2 a.m.,” he says, “and this place opens up. It’s like open house at Ringo’s.” On any given night Clapton and his lady, Harrison’s estranged wife Patti, might show up, and the men will sing pub ditties till 9 a.m. “I had been coming to California for seven years,” says Ringo, “and didn’t know where the ocean was in relation to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That’s heavy.” L.A. fans are gentler now, he notes. “They say, ‘Hey, Ring,’ but they don’t hassle or run after me.”

Most nights Starr stays home, with Nancy as the cook of the house. “I’m easy to please,” Ringo explains. “Fish, meat, nothin’ fancy. I don’t need your curries and chop sueys. Sometimes Nancy and her friends go on a rampage to a Mexican restaurant on girls’ night out. I don’t go. Garlic and onions kill me. I prefer cognac.” Afterward, she says, “We just curl up on the couch and watch TV or read—I’m into really cheap Gothic novels and Richard [the Christian name still employed by Ringo’s intimates] reads sci-fi.” They own some 200 hours of TV and feature-film cassettes—like Creature from the Black Lagoon—which reflect Ringo’s escapist passions. “I don’t like to sit there and worry if I’m gettin’ the story right. I want to be totally absorbed and taken away.”

Their L.A. home and most furnishings are rented—except for the stereo and video gear and two Gene Autry posters. Ringo laughs off reports that he’s broke—and therefore plumping for the overhyped $50 million Beatle resurrection. “I’m no billionaire—Rockefeller, he’s really loaded—but if you think the Beatles didn’t save any money, you’re insane. Broke is relative. I’m just the biggest spender. I’m 30 companies, you know, multinational. We’re in everything from dentist chairs to vending machines, but I don’t talk about it.” His business managers confiscated all his credit cards but one “because I used them like water. I used to spend them on jewelry, cars and my toys.” “And me,” Nancy adds.

“My divorce had been happening for years,” he says. “It can break your brain. I overreacted to the responsibility of marriage and kids for a long time, but now I’ve adjusted. I’d like to have children with Nancy.” As for Ringo’s appeal, she exclaims, “I am so attracted to his mind that he just takes my heart away. He’s fast, sharp, psychically the most aware man I’ve ever met.”

Nancy, who had herself been married for four years, says when they first met he’d just sit in his hotel room with the remote-control TV. “He told me, ‘I’m a manic-depressive.’ So I became a clown and wouldn’t let him stay that way too long. It took him a long time to come out of it.” Even now, she adds, he’s “moody and supersensitive”—like last July when, “feeling vaguely insane and drinking some new drink,” he shaved his head bald. “It was a time when you either cut your wrists or your hair,” he explains, “and I’m a coward.”

Ringo grew up a lonely, sickly only child, and he has always had a deep personal stake in successful fathering. “My father [a house painter] left when I was 3, my mom [a barmaid] worked and my grandma looked after me. I’ve always had that ‘I’ll be the father’ thing, and the main brain damage of divorce has been the kids,” he frets. “They freaked out at first,” he goes on, “but they got over it quicker than I did. Maureen and I are still friendly and I see the kids whenever I want.” Ringo bought them all a home minutes away from his 80-acre Tittenhurst Park mansion, picked them up from school and had them weekends. Now they can visit weekends only when he’s in Monte Carlo. “The school is very understanding and lets them out Fridays.”

All three children spent last summer in L.A. with Ringo and Nancy, and they returned for the Christmas holiday in Lake Tahoe. “Nancy is great with them,” says Ringo, “and they think the world of her.” (Maureen, he cheerfully reports, is “involved with someone.”) On parenting, Ringo sounds like rock’s Dr. Spock—dispensing theories but no advice. Like Paul McCartney, he’s firm about discipline. “I’ve beaten my kids and made them learn to say ‘excuse me,’ ” he says. “But as for TV violence affecting them, bull. We only want what we’re denied. I bought my kids all the guns, cowboy outfits and rifles I could when they were small, and they’re over it. I hate suppression. If my kids grow up killers or priests, that’s that.”

Ringo scrupulously avoids dictating musical taste at home. As a result, eldest son Zak “likes some Beatles tracks he’s heard,” sighs his father, “but he prefers Alice Cooper and Kiss.” Indeed, Daddy resists any temptation to reminisce about the Beatles and be engulfed by the memories of his gloriously prolific younger days. Even when the McCartneys visited last June during the Wings tour, and when Harrison and the Lennons were in town for the Rotogravure recording sessions, says Ringo, “only 2 percent of our time was spent in nostalgia. We don’t back off from it, but it’s not like those were the only days of our lives.” He does have a Ringo-esque theory of it all, though: “I always thought we were five. Us four—and we weren’t the greatest players—and something else: magic!”

As for a second coming, “We did talk about it,” Ringo levels, “but there’s no interest now. If anything, we’d do an album first, then prepare for a tour for six months, and we don’t have that kind of time. And we wouldn’t do it for the money. We were never into that.” What were they into? “We never wanted to be dictators, presidents or kings,” Ringo says. “But we did what we wanted to do—we revolutionized the world of music.”

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