PEOPLE gets backstage with the rock legend on his All-Starr Band's 30th anniversary tour

By Jordan Runtagh
August 19, 2019 11:10 AM
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Ringo Starr
Scott Robert Ritchie

Ringo Starr does jumping jacks on the edge of the stage as he sings “Yellow Submarine” to an audience of one: me. It’s the day before he’s due to kick-off the North American leg of his All-Starr Band’s 30th-anniversary tour, and the group are rehearsing at the very un-rock ‘n’ roll hour of 10:30 a.m. Yesterday was the first time they’d played together since they wrapped a string of Japanese dates three months earlier, but the 14th incarnation of the ever-evolving supergroup sounds as tight as ever. A handful of sound technicians and crew jog busily around the empty Colosseum Theater at Caesar’s Palace in Windsor, Ontario. Tomorrow, every one of the 5,000 seats will be filled, but presently I’m the sum total of the crowd. I applaud as the song comes to an end, grateful for a socially acceptable way to vent my excitement. It’s not every day you get a private show from a Beatle.

For the All-Starrs it’s just another day at work — and boy do they love their jobs. To date, there have been 47 members of this joyous traveling show, which has spread the gospel of peace, love and boogie to untold millions around the globe since 1989. Past players include rock luminaries like Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, Sheila E., Billy Squire, the Who’s John Entwistle, Cream’s Jack Bruce, Edgar Winter and Rod Argent. Today Starr is joined by Toto guitar great Steve Lukather, Santana/Journey singer-keyboardist Gregg Rolie, Men at Work guitarist Colin Hay, one-man funk machine Hamish Stewart of Average White Band, Kansas multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham, and Starr’s enthusiastic sparring partner, drummer Gregg Bissonette. Their fun is infectious.

The band break for lunch, and Starr ushers me to his dressing room. Leaner and livelier than his 79 years should possibly allow, he’s clad in the casual rock star uniform of jeans and t-shirt. However, an earring in the shape of a small silver sword reminds me that I’m speaking to the newly dubbed Sir Ringo, bonafide Knight of the Turntable. Ever the English gentleman, he insists I take the cushy chair of honor.

Complimenting a Beatle on his musical performance seems a bit like saying “Nice doodle!” to Rembrandt, but I offer my congratulations on a killer rehearsal. Amusingly, he admits to a slight case of nerves as opening night approaches. “There are always butterflies,” he says. “We all know how to play. We all know how to do it, we’ve got to just get it down. Everybody on stage loves what they’re doing. That helps. We haven’t played together since April, so we’re getting to know each other again onstage.” The years of history certainly make it easier to reconnect. Lukather, Rolie, Bissonette and Ham have all been with the group since 2012, making their tenure nearly as long as the Fab Four’s entire career. This time out, former All-Starr vets Stuart (2006–2008) and Hay (2003, 2008) are the new guys, subbing in for longtime members Todd Rundgren and Richard Page.

After the Canadian launch, the 30th-anniversary tour will bring the group from New York’s Pier 17 to L.A.’s Greek Theater and nearly everywhere in between. One highlight is an open-air show at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the site of the original “Peace & Love” fest, Woodstock, on its 50th anniversary. Even more thrilling for Starr is a return trip to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, which has hosted the country icons who first inspired him as a boy. “I sat in Liverpool listening to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash when they were young guys. So to be on at the Ryman is perfect,” he says with a note of wonderment. “You don’t know where you’re going in life, you know what I mean?” For a man who inspired multiple generations, it’s touching to hear him speak of his own heroes. At age 19 he even tried to immigrate to America solely to be close to Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. “The plan fell through because they gave us more forms to fill in, and as teenagers we did not want to fill in any more forms! But I could’ve been waiting for ‘the boys’ [the Beatles] to play Houston to go and see them. Strange, the path of life.”

Scott Robert Ritchie

His health, happiness, and remarkable productivity was scarcely imaginable when he first hit the road as a solo act in 1989. The All-Starrs were born in the wake of substance abuse issues that had crippled his career in the late-‘70s and most of the ‘80s. “I had a serious drinking problem,” he told PEOPLE when the band prepared to embark on their first tour. “I didn’t work or do anything. I wouldn’t go out, because you’d have to be in the car for 40 minutes without a drink … It got progressively worse, and the blackouts got worse, and I didn’t know where I’d been, what I’d done. I knew I had the problem for years. But it plays tricks with your head. Very cunning and baffling is alcohol.”

Ultimately Starr and his wife, actress Barbara Bach, checked into the Sierra Tucson clinic in Arizona for treatment in the fall of 1988. Upon his release five weeks later, he grappled with the difficult question faced by the newly sober: how do you fill the void left by drinking? The decision to restructure his life around music was helped along by tour producer David Fishof, who conceived of a series of dates featuring the drummer with a little help from his famous friends. Eager to get to work, Starr immediately threw himself into the project. The first order of business was finding a band. “I thought I’d just call a few people I know,” he explains, and his sizable Rolodex included some serious heavy hitters. For the inaugural class of All-Starrs he tapped Eagles guitarist (and future brother-in-law) Joe Walsh, New Orleans voodoo-rock king Dr. John, Rick Danko of the Band, one-time Beatles collaborator Billy Preston, and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band pros Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons. To hold down the beat while he played the showman out front, Starr hired not just one but two drummers: session giant Jim Keltner, and the Band’s Levon Helm. “I was like eight months without drugs or alcohol, that was about all, and we put it together,” Starr reflects now.

The All-Starrs made their debut on July 23, 1989 at the Park Central Amphitheater in Dallas. Aside from the odd one-off performances — notably at the George Harrison-produced Concert for Bangladesh shows in 1971, the Band’s 1976 Last Waltz farewell show, and the time he sat in with the Beach Boys at their 4th of July concert in 1984 — he hadn’t played live with any regularity since the Beatles finished their final tour in 1966. “I was very nervous,” he admits. “I ran on. I still run on! Three seconds before we go on, I want to go to bed. Then I ran on, grabbed the mic and I was home. I love the memory of the first show. I was fearful for a while, but it started the atmosphere that I’ve kept going. We all support each other.” More than one member of his entourage copped to tearing up as they watched the rehabilitated legend take his place behind his drum kit and bask in the adoration of the crowd. Starr was back where he belonged.

RELATED: Ringo on the Rebound

 

Despite the band’s rotation of big names, egos have always been kept firmly in check within the All-Starr Band’s circle. “He doesn’t allow drama,” says Starr’s longtime drum tech Jeff Chonis, one of the few to have accompanied the group at every show they’ve ever played. “He sets the tone, and it’s be respectful.” The group mocked any fears of excessive vainglory just a couple days into the first tour, when they played a memorable prank on Fishof. “Joe and Levon set up a fight in the dressing room,” Starr chuckles. A faux-frantic Clemons was dispatched to tell the tour producer that a band mutiny was unfolding. Fishof arrived to find the pair waving knives and jagged bottles at one another. “[Fishof’s] like, ‘Guys, guys, stop!’” But the bottles were props made of sugar, like those found on the set of old Western movies. Everyone burst into laughter at the sight of the terrified producer. “They went mad,” says Starr. “But on the road, you’re looking for stuff to do. That was a fun night.”

The inaugural class of Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band.
Henry Diltz

Though the tours have been largely absent of diva behavior, Walsh could usually be counted on for some rock star antics. A pioneer in hotel room destruction, the guitarist truly outdid himself the night he glued the furniture to the ceiling of his suite at the Ritz Carlton. “He carried a hot glue gun and glued the table to the ceiling,” recalls Chonis with a laugh. “And the lamp — plugged in, turned on  — and the ashtray with a lit cigarette in it. Then he took a bunch of Polaroids. The tour manager showed me.” The stunt came with a $4,000 price tag. “Joe came in for a sound check, and I just said, ‘Hey Joe! Have a nice time last night?’ He says, ‘It was worth every penny!’”

Room trashing was never really Starr’s thing. These days he keeps busy on tour with photography. It’s a passion that first began during his tours with the Beatles. “There’s only like five photos of me from age 1 to age 17. When I joined the Beatles and got some money, we all got cameras. I seemed to be the one using them the most. We all took photos, everybody. John took photos, George and Paul took photos. I just kept it up.” These vintage shots formed the bulk of his 2013 photo-memoir Photograph, but more recently he’s graduated from film to digital photos. “I’ve turned into one of those people now, I mainly take phone pictures. There’s like 2,500 right now on my phone.” He opens the camera roll on his touch screen and shows me some of his latest. There’s a serene cloudscape over the Detroit River outside his hotel room (“I just looked out the window and I thought, ‘I’ve got to shoot that.’”) and a whimsical fish-eye self-portrait taken through the reflection of a lamp in his room. “That’s pretty cool. I’m going to post that later,” he says, acting as his own social media manager. “The people who know me on Twitter can tell when I’m on tour. They see these crazy pictures. I send them pictures of spoons, or a face in my dinner.”

This fall he’ll release some of his favorite images in a new book, Another Day in the Life. Like the man himself, the photos are warmly funny and, occasionally, gently profound. Collections of stars, peace signs, flowers, food and even electric plugs blend together with shots of superstar friends and exotic locales. It’s a fascinating glimpse at life from a Beatle’s point of view, with commentary that adds fresh perspective to the commonplace.

The moon is a frequent subject of his photography. Given the recent 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I ask if he watched as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. He hadn’t, which is understandable, considering it occurred around dawn London time. Plus, the Beatles were deep in the midst of recording Abbey Road and previewing an advance cut of the documentary that later became Let It Be. Obviously, he had his hands full. Instead, he recalls a moment he shared with an astronaut (“Who shall remain nameless.”) in the ‘70s. Starr had asked the space man and his NASA colleague to advise on a proposed studio he was looking to build in Los Angeles. The scheme never came together, but it gave Starr the opportunity to ask the one thing everyone wants to ask an astronaut. “I said, ‘Man, what was it like when you were up there, and the earth was round?’ He said, ‘Oh, we were too busy.’ I said, ‘What? Too busy?!’ It blew my mind.”

Speaking of busy, Starr’s got a rehearsal to get back to. I let him eat his health bar lunch in peace.

Ringo Starr and the All-Starr Band: the 2019 class.
Henry Diltz

The word “family” occurs with astounding frequency when the musicians and crew speak of their stints with the All-Starr Band. “We’ve been together a long time,” Starr tells me. “I do feel it’s like a family.” And this family clearly has a patriarch. Many bandmates cite the Beatles’ iconic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 as their musical awakening. Yet they do a good job of keeping any hero worship at bay, maintaining a healthy level of respect and cheerful irreverence. Starr holds court during rehearsals from his familiar perch on the drum riser, setting the tone for jovial camaraderie and playful teasing with a steady stream of dry one-liners between songs. Together, they riff on each other’s accents and nonsense words with lightning-fast comedy that can only be called (sorry) Beatlesque. A minor tech flub elicits an impromptu version of “If I Only Had a Brain.” A computer reboot sets Starr off on an improvised version Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me,” rechristened “Reboot Me.”

After launching into their “With a Little Help from My Friends/Give Peace a Chance” finale for a desolate house, the band calls it quits for the day. Starr offers me one of his signature “elbow bumps” — a hygienic alternative to shaking hands, which he prefers on tour — and departs. As the stage clears, I can’t resist an up-close peek at his famous pearly Ludwig kit. As I stand atop the riser, I stare out at the empty seats in front of me. I can’t help but visualize the rough and ready crowd at the Beatles’ old Liverpool haunt, the Cavern. Or the television cameras at Ed Sullivan’s CBS studios. Or the grand-stand lights at Shea Stadium, where the Beatles shattered attendance records. Or the tops of London buildings on a cold morning in January 1969. With a little imagination, it’s a hell of a view.

The next morning, I meet Starr upstairs in his hotel suite. Show day is finally here, and nerves have given way to excitement. “It’s a lot of hard work, the rehearsals, and then the joy arrives,” he says. He’s just come from his morning meditation, which is as much a part of his routine as eating breakfast or brushing his teeth. “I just feel it starts my day off so much better. You can slow that brain down. Somebody once said, ‘Our eyes open and a Ferrari goes off in our heads.’ It’s true. It settles me down. Meditation is a spiritual practice. I’ll always thank Maharishi. He gave me the mantra that I still have today.”

For years he’s been actively involved with the David Lynch Foundation, an organization that teaches meditation to at-risk individuals. He asks me if I’m a meditator, and I admit that I struggle. Graciously, he proceeds to give me a quick “Meditation for Dummies” lesson. “You can just sit there and breathe in and out through your nose. Focus on that till you stop the madness,” he explains. “Some days it’s like magic.”

One thing he doesn’t practice every day is music. “I never hit those drums unless I’m playing a show or there’s musicians around,” he says. But musicians usually are around when he’s back home in L.A. Friendly drop-ins often lead to spontaneous recording sessions in his guest house studio. “Some people are just passing by and if I know you, you’re on. I can use you,” he says. “That’s what you can do when you’re at home. You don’t have to book a studio or anything. You say, ‘Oh, let’s go do it.’” A new album is in the pipeline, featuring appearances by past and present All-Starr band comrades like Lukather, Ham and Walsh, as well as bassist Nathan East and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. “I like to hang out with writers and musicians, so I’ve been co-writing all the songs.”

The collaborative process suits him well. After all, there’s a reason why he tours with the All-Starrs and not as a solo artist alongside a revolving crew of anonymous session musicians. Given the choice, he’d rather be one of the boys in the band. He laughs when I ask him about the one and only drum solo he ever played, “The End” on Abbey Road. “All 13 bars! They forced me to do that one,” he exclaims before playfully banging out the part on the table with his hands. “I’m just not a drum solo drummer. I want to be in the band. I want to say, ‘Let’s go!’ I hold them all together and they can go mad. I’m crazy about very few drum solos I’ve heard. It’s just not a thing I’m interested in.”

Abbey Road has been on his mind lately, with the expanded 50th-anniversary edition due to be announced in a matter of days. “People always love the Beatles,” he says, smirking slightly at the understatement. “Part of the new [Abbey Road] package has, like, Take Two of ‘Octopus’s Garden,’ say, and we actually put out Take Four. Well, people are interested in all of that! And it’s interesting now with the remastering. People are telling me, ‘Oh, you can play!’ Because they can hear the drums [better] now.” Recorded while tapes from the band’s January 1969 Get Back (later Let It Be) project were mired in creative limbo, Abbey Road would be the last album the Beatles ever recorded together. “If it hadn’t been for Paul, we would’ve made a lot less records because he’s the workaholic,” Starr says. “John and I would be in the country, hanging. The phone would ring and we’d know. It was telepathic! ‘He’s calling us again!’ ‘All right lads, should we go on and make a record?’ But Abbey Road, to me, is a lot of fun because of ‘Bathroom Window’ and songs like that.”

His second solo composition in the band’s catalogue, “Octopus’s Garden” was inspired by an unscheduled trip Starr took with his then-wife, Maureen, and his children in the middle of tense sessions for what became known as ‘The White Album’ in 1968. “That time was pretty stressful because I had left the Beatles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I said, ‘I’m going with Maureen and the kids.’ We went off to Sardinia on Peter Seller’s yacht. We ordered fish and chips and they brought us octopus and chips. ‘Octopus? Man, we’ve never eaten octopus!’ Later on, thanks to some ‘Bob Marley products,’ I was hanging out with the captain. He was telling me about how octopuses make these gardens. They go around the ocean finding shiny things and putting them in front of their cave. It was like, ‘Whoa, that sounds good.’ That’s how I wrote ‘Octopus’s Garden.’ I wanted to be under the sea then, but it was just a down time. It was beautiful because [the other Beatles] were sending me messages: ‘Come on home.’ When I got back and I went to the studio, George had put flowers everywhere. It was beautiful.”

Even though it’s one of the band’s most beloved albums, the tale of Abbey Road’s creation tends to get glossed over in Beatle lore. In the autobiographical documentary The Beatles Anthology, the sessions are reduced to a few minutes of the 10-hour series. I ask if he has happy memories of recording the Beatles’ studio swan song. “You know, that was when we had a bit of contretemps,” he says in measured tones. “There were a few harsh moments, but not on the music. After the count in we all gave everything, as we always did. That didn’t alter. It was a personal thing and it faded.”

Any squabbles long since behind them, Starr continues to make music with his one-time bandmate. Over the years they’ve regularly played on each other’s albums, with Macca most recently adding bass to Starr’s 2017 album, Give More Love. The stickman returned the favor in July when he got behind the kit for two songs on the final date of McCartney’s Freshen Up tour at L.A.’s Dodger Stadium. Starr’s crew always welcome the chance for the pair to reunite. “They love each other a lot,” observes Chonis. “They’re like brothers from another mother. And they have a lot of respect [for one another]. You look at all the stuff they went through together, and they’re the only two left.” McCartney gave Starr the ultimate birthday gift in 2010 by surprising him onstage at the end of a concert at Radio City Music Hall. The birthday boy was thrilled. “He couldn’t believe we kept it secret,” Chonis says. “He was really, really happy about it.”

RELATED: ‘If We Give Nothing Else, We Have to Give Love’: Ringo Starr Continues His Push for Peace on New Album

In addition to his Beatle brother, Starr shares an extremely close bond with Barbara, his sons Zak, 53, and Jason, 52, daughter Lee, 48, and step-children Francesca, 51, and Gianni, 47. When he’s away on tour, he stays in touch the same way most 21st-century clans do. “We’ve got a family text. It’s so great. We’re that sort of a family in the modern age.” He produces his phone and scrolls through the seemingly active thread, packed with photo updates and lots and lots of emojis. He ends each text to his children with a simple sign-off: “Daddy loves you.” I’m taken aback as the hearts and smiley faces fly by. For just a second, he’s not a rock star, but just a sweet dad who’s proud of his kids.

Then I notice the silver sword charm dangling from his ear lobe and have a brief “Holy s—, I’m talking to Sir Ringo f—ing Starr” moment. It’s a tribute to his character that these don’t occur more often. I realize I haven’t congratulated him on his knighthood, a chivalric faux pas if there ever was one. “That was a beautiful experience,” he says of the ceremony that took place at Buckingham Palace in March 2018. “William is such a cool guy — excuse me, a cool prince!”

His astonishing present and humble beginnings suddenly collide into one in my mind. I think of little Richie Starkey, the sickly kid raised in the grim aftermath of World War II by a single mother in Liverpool’s gritty Dingle neighborhood. What the hell would Sir Ringo say to that little boy? Is there anything to possibly prepare him for what life has in store? Any lessons to impart after decades of dizzying success on almost every metric imaginable? “You can’t tell him anything,” he insists, almost offended that I’d dare suggest he alter the space-time continuum. “It’s like what we were talking about yesterday. If I’d have gone to Houston it would have been another path. You don’t know. Maybe, ‘Don’t worry. Everything turns out fine.’ You just got to go along this path on your own. Try your best to do something you love.”

We end our interview so Starr can prepare for the night flight after the show. “Packing day,” he groans before crumpling with a comedic flourish. He hugs me goodbye and asks if I’m attending the show. “It’s gonna rock,” he assures me. Of that I have no doubt.

Hours later I see him again, preparing to receive a line of meet and greet ticket holders. Watching several dozen fans experience a major life highlight is akin to watching children open their dream gift on Christmas morning. Some yelp with joy, others laugh nervously, a few get teary and more than a couple quiz him on Beatles minutiae. Starr handles them all with charisma, care and skill honed from half a century of lopsided social interactions. His ability to make people feel special in 20 seconds or less just might be on par with his musical talents.

I recall a story he told me about the time he went to see singer Johnnie Ray in Liverpool as a teen. “My friend and I followed him because we were fans. He went into a restaurant in Liverpool and we were looking in the window. We said, ‘He’s eating, just like a real person!’ I think that helped me cope in many ways with the Beatles madness. You understood the fans because I was a fan. It gets crazy.”

The backstage area at the Colosseum is now buzzing with pre-show activity as fit-looking people with lanyards sprint in every direction. The smell of patchouli incense and the sound of stray guitar twangs fill the air. Steve Lukather limbers up his fingers with a bulky acoustic 12-string, serenading me with Byrds and Led Zeppelin classics. “Twenty minutes!” someone shouts, and the band start to congregate in the wings. Starr appears last, and they share a brief pre-show huddle. Then the All-Starrs hit the stage and start to vamp, while their leader stands alone in the wings, jogging in place and touching his toes like an athlete. A small flashlight points the way and he’s off, sprinting headlong onto the stage to the rockabilly roll of “Matchbox” — the Carl Perkins chestnut he made his own with the Beatles in 1964. The speedy entrance wards off stage-fright, and he instantly owns the room with the gravitas, humor, and ease of a seasoned and extremely beloved late-night host.

An appearance by Starr in any capacity has a supernatural effect on nearly all present. Regardless of age, gender, race, and practically anything else that may divide us, to see one of the Fabs perform their musical magic ranks up there with sunny summer days, newborn kittens, and carb consumption as one of the life’s unimpeachably Great Things. While almost none of the songs performed are less than 30 years old, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band is not a nostalgia act. “Nostalgia” implies something static, irrelevant, and vaguely frivolous. No, Starr and his merry band are much too vibrant for that, and the message of peace and love that they sing is just as relevant today.

Each All-Starr gets their moment to shine. The incendiary Latin funk of “Oye Como Va” showcases the band’s virtuosity, and allays any fears that the show would merely coast on Starr’s storied past. Lukather did justice to Santana (no easy feat) and keyboard supremo Rolie recreated his fierce part heard on the original recording. Lukather went on to lead the group through a trio of Toto hits—”Africa,” “Rosanna” and “Hold the Line”—while Hamish Stuart reveled in the funky groove of AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces” and “Cut the Cake.” Colin Hay offered perhaps the most surreal moment of the night: the chance to watch Starr gleefully sing along to Men at Work’s “Down Under.” Warren Ham plays the role of Captain Many Hands, impressively alternating between flute, sax, keyboards and percussion. Gregg Bissonette, hometown hero of nearby Detroit, pummels the drums for all they’re worth, filling the space between Starr’s laid-back shuffle.

The show goes by fast, and Starr sprints off-stage while the rest of the band lead the crowd through a few more chants of “Give Peace a Chance.” He stands in the darkened wings, catching his breath. He’s beaming, just like the fans at the meet and greet. For a moment it’s just the two of us. He sees me and we exchange peace signs. Then a tour manager appears, drapes a jacket around his shoulders, James Brown-style, and whisks him off to a car. He’s in the air by the time my head hits the pillow a short while later.

“Now you go and make sense of it all,” Starr had joked as we wrapped up our last interview. It’s quite a challenge. People have been trying to make sense of it all for over 50 years. How did this kid with a drum rise up to become one of the most cherished figures in popular culture? Starr is the last person who would attempt to answer that question. I think back to his astronaut acquaintance who had soared out of this world and glimpsed a perspective known only to a handful. Starr’s more like the star man than maybe he realizes. He occupies a place few can even comprehend and done amazing things that will never be duplicated. And we all want to know: What’s it like? What’s it like to be a Beatle? What’s it like to make history? What’s it like to make the world sing? What’s it like to make so many people happy? Don’t ask him — he’s too busy doing it.

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