Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ex-Beatle Ringo never has let his Starr shine

Since the dawn of the '90s, Ringo Starr — drummer and clown prince of the Beatles, occasional actor, Monte Carlo resident and peace-sign-flashing ambassador of love, love, love — has quietly undergone a creative revival only slightly less remarkable than what Paul McCartney has achieved.

Both forever-Fab legends' latter-day catalogs stack up similarly. Each has been littered by one too many nostalgia-fueled live mementos, yet each also sports four solid studio efforts.

No one would ever suggest that even the strongest Starr set is the equivalent of McCartney on autopilot; his complete 1990-present output barely equals either the domestic bliss of McCartney's 1997 "Flaming Pie" or the darkened introspection of last year's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard."

By comparison, Ringo's records — from the unexpected comeback of 1992's "Time Takes Time" and 1998's "Vertical Man" to even more robust recent work like 2003's "Ringorama" and last year's "Choose Love" — are slighter, less inventive and lyrically substantive, more predictable overall.

Yet, as with his most popular album, 1973's delightful "Ringo," they are also more immediately enjoyable than just about anything any Beatle has put out since the release of "Let It Be" signaled the end of the most important band in the history of rock 'n' roll.

You recall the bittersweet joy of George Harrison's "When We Was Fab" or "All Those Years Ago"? Or the instant fun of John Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night"? Ringo's lovably retread albums are filled with buoyant ditties like those.

Mining Beatles' past
Consider his most recent title track, with its pepped-up "Taxman"-meets-"Hey Bulldog" groove, "Got to Get You Into My Life" horns, backing vocals lifted from "The Word" and self-referential lines like this one: "The long and winding road is more than a song / Tomorrow never knows what goes on."

Of course, if anyone's entitled to steal from the Beatles, it'd be one of its surviving members. It's funny: People (critics, mostly) get suspicious when Sir Paul cribs from himself or predominantly fills concerts with Beatles tunes, yet no one seems to mind when Ringo revives the '60s.

My guess is that's because we have much lower expectations of him — established, I think, because Ringo has sold himself short for so long.

True, he was never going to achieve the level of artistry and sophistication of his former band mates. In a way he was always odd man out: He was integral to the formula, but more often than not he was reduced to a sideman, given a goofy tune like "Yellow Submarine" or "I Wanna Be Your Man."

No wonder he walked out during sessions for "The White Album." No wonder, too, that the others simply carried on without him.

Sidetracked from music

Also contributing to Ringo being written off as the luckiest drummer ever: His musical development, slowed to a crawl thanks to nutty acting forays and a prolonged bout with chemical dependency.

Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising how rarely it's pointed out that he has co-written the majority of his own material since 1992. But I blame him for this lack of respect; he doesn't exactly try very hard to assert himself. The chief culprit: his insistence on embarking on still more tours with new editions of his less-than-stellar All-Starr Band.

Once upon a time such outings were welcome. Ringo had done nothing but peddle fond remembrances for years anyway, so why not enlist a coterie of similar players — guys such as Jack Bruce and John Entwistle and Joe Walsh to deliver two hours' worth of memories?

Those first few All-Starr tours were a treat, a sort of salute to rock's second bananas and a smashing value for your hard-earned bucks. But several incarnations later it has devolved into a parade of has-beens.

Worse, Ringo's routine at these shows has become just that — a dependable shtick that needn't be witnessed more than once. It's maddening how he cheapens his career this way, and for little reward: By all accounts these All-Starr outings draw smaller crowds year after year.

Why hide newer work?

I can't help but wonder: Why bother fine-tuning solid new albums if he's only going to devalue them by offering just a track or two (if that)? Perhaps he just doesn't have it in him to do a proper tour. He turns 66 on July 7. Age could mean he doesn't want to risk a more demanding tour schedule.

Or maybe he's just happy to stay the same ol' Ringo we know and love. It's surely easier not to challenge himself, but rather play the good-time, peace-and-love fool till the end, content in knowing that he's released a wealth of fine music readily available for those who'll take the time to look it up.

But it's still a shame, I think. At best, he's coasting on his legacy. At worst, he's doing that legacy a grave disservice.


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