“Here, these should work in that thing.” My mother announces as she walks into the room, referring to the cheap Walkman knockoff in my hands.
It is a tawdry device, constructed of transistors and gears and bright red plastic — but it is mine. And for a child of that time it is an arcane passport to a wider world.
A cardboard box rattles as she unceremoniously plunks it down to the floor. Curiosity piqued, I promptly upend the carton, dumping its contents out onto the shag carpet to begin sorting through a good thirty or forty different cassettes. My father is out to sea, and has been for quite awhile.
It is 1979, and I am seven years of age.
I stack the tapes, sorting them into rows of interesting and uninteresting. The eight tracks are discarded immediately once I realize they won’t fit into my player. The various and sundry names emblazoned across their covers are a testament to weird. A treatise as to why my tastes in music are broad and varied. Janis Joplin sitting next to Dionne Warwick. Iron Butterfly atop Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. James Brown’s Superbad. A whole assortment of Bill Cosby live performances. And at the last, I dig out something by someone called the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
This looks interesting, and so I pop it into the player and press the button. Later in life, I would turn my back on some of this music. I would don the black and sneer at the sixties and seventies. I would embrace nihilism and stripped down power chords. The music of my father’s generation would grow to seem silly. Ridiculously optimistic. Corny, even. But right then and there in that room? It was wonderful and strange and a way to connect with a man I never got to see enough of.
Those albums were magic. And I still have them to this day.
Let’s be honest here. No one cares what I think about Ringo. His membership in what was likely the greatest rock and roll band of all time means that there are billions of words set down chronicling all sorts of minutiae on his life and career. Nothing that I have to say is going to either add to nor detract from the fact that he’s the most recognizable drummer in the history of music. Ringo is Ringo. For all the good and bad that comes with that.
His live show at times echoes Vaudeville. He employs a shtick and a patter that is both hokey and endearing. His All Star Band is packed with dusky musicians who were luminaries through three decades, and the set list is greatly influenced by this. That we have to sit through numbers by Toto or Mike and the Mechanics is the price one pays in order to hear him rip through the songs we love. “Yellow Submarine” is anthemic. “Back Off Boogaloo” is great fun. Hearing him on classics like “It Don’t Come Easy” or “What Goes On” is akin to stepping back in time. And of course, “With a Little Help from My Friends” is a large part of why people are willing to drop sixty to a hundred and eighty bucks to see his show.
At one point I noted a gentleman — white ponytailed and joyously hammered, sporting a shirt that proudly proclaimed “I saw the Beatles Live and I’m Still Here to Brag About It!” There’s a deep truth in that. At 77, Ringo is in astonishing good shape — but the years keep rolling past and who knows how many times one might get to hear these songs from him before he’s gone?
To watch Ringo sit behind that iconic drum set, obviously having a blast? It is a study in the lessons of time. In perseverance. In survival. And of redemption. He wasn’t always the corny old grandpa we saw on that stage. And certainly it bears noting in these days where it seems like every few hours another beloved icon is revealed to be mortal, venial clay with horrible stories as to their treatment of women or others less privileged than themselves, that for all his likability, Richard Starkey — like most rock stars of his era, spent decades racking up all manner of sins. He was a junkie. He beat his wife. He engaged in serial womanizing. He was not always a kind or decent man in his private life.
To be honest, few of the names on those cassettes from my father are without stain. James Brown was an awful human being. David Crosby was wretched for most of his life. Bowie and Page engaged in behavior back then that today would undeniably result in jail time. And Cosby? I can’t listen to those tapes anymore.
But where those men failed, and in some cases continue to fail today, Ringo seems to have managed to achieve a certain level of grace. There’s maybe something to be learned here. When he realized his bad behavior, he apologized. He made amends. And he became a better person. Redemption is more than just saying you’re sorry. It’s about accepting fault and walking the walk. It’s about truly changing bad behavior. I can still listen to his work today, largely because he grew up to be a good man.
At a point in the show, after he and the group trotted out “Bang the Drum All Day,” Starkey remarked that he loves that song because he still gets to bang on the drums all day. The unsaid part of that is that he gets to do it to this day because he was a Beatle and he can do what he wants. That he still wields so much power in his day-to-day and chooses to be decent is a bright point in the world. That he wasn’t always decent and that he seems to have well and truly become a better person? That’s a miracle.
And it’s the kind of miracle we desperately need here and now.
. . .
By the close of the evening when “Help from My Friends” segues into “Give Peace a Chance,” there’s a few brilliant moments where we’re all singing along. Where we all know how to be kind and beautiful to each other. Where we’re all Beatles. At the best of their days.
When everyone in the world believes in Peace and Love.
All photography by Jeff Hewitt. Click here to follow him on Instagram.