R-I-N-G-O

He needs no introduction. And the All-Starr goofball still gets by with a little help from his friends.

The nerve of some people, consigning Ringo Starr to the ignominy of a Zeppo Marx! Does nobody take note of the fact that the Beatles toiled in obscurity for years, achieving true fabness only after their 1962 adoption of this big-schnozzled drummer? Would a pop band's resident loser sing lead on its most distinctive song, as Ringo did on "Yellow Submarine"? Would he carry its two finest movies, as Ringo did with Help! and A Hard Day's Night? And how to explain the varied and hit-riddled solo career launched by the drummer after the quartet's demise? Let aesthetically challenged partisans of John, Paul and George hang their heads in shame!

Now 63, the former Richard Starkey has retired the rock-star excesses that occasionally tripped him up in the past. His drug and drink problems are gone, as are his imprudent ponytail and acting career. Ringo Rama, a new alt-rock-flavored album, was released earlier this year on Koch. This week, the world's most famous drummer comes to town with the eighth edition of his All-Starr Band, a rotating revue of dubious VIPs from Christmases past that currently includes Sheila E., Paul Carrack (Squeeze) and Colin Hay (Men at Work). Meeting TONY in an uptown hotel suite, a T-shirt-clad Starr bounced into the room with the practiced cheer of a politician and the confidence of a Beatle.

Time Out New York: Ringo Rama is loud, brassy and contemporary. Would you say you had something to prove with the album?
Ringo Starr: I have nothing to prove anymore. The only thing I wanted to prove with the record is that we had fun making it. Playing with other players is what I enjoy. Of course, now I have to sit in a hotel room with you.

Thanks.
Hey, it's just part of the game.

In your tours with the All-Starr Band, have you found it odd to assume the role of both drummer and frontman?
No. In fact, it's great. When I was first asked to put a band together in '89, I had to think seriously about how I could do it. I can't play all the songs from behind my kit, and I didn't want to be the two-hour guy—the frontman for two hours.

On Ringo Rama, there's a ballad that I'm assuming is about George Harrison.
"Never Without You." It was written about how I miss him in my heart and in music. Eric [Clapton] plays on that song, because Eric and George were close friends. I just knew that he was the only guitar I wanted on there.

There's always been a perception that, after the Beatles ended, you remained closest to George.
I was. He was my good friend. I mean, we were all close, we all broke up, it's history. Paul and John had their...differences. [Laughs] John moved to New York and Paul was doing what he did. But George and I spent more time together.

You wrote your best-known songs with him, too.
Well, I was great at writing two verses and a chorus—I'm still pretty good at that. Finishing songs is not my forte. I have written songs with 26 verses, 'cause I didn't know how to end them! I started writing "Back Off Boogaloo," then took it to George to help finish off. Same with "Photograph" and "It Don't Come Easy."

What was the first song you wrote?
Um... [Long pause] "Don't Pass Me By." [Sings] "Don't pass me by / Don't make me cry / Don't make me blu-uuue!"

That's a pretty good start.
Not bad. And I actually wrote all of it! Then the second one was "Octopus's Garden."

What inspired you to begin writing songs?
Well, I was involved with these writers, so when you'd write something, you never thought it was good enough—it was very difficult to present your songs. Plus, when I first started writing, I didn't come up with anything original: I rewrote other songs. I'd say, "Look, I've written this song!" They would just laugh because I had rewritten some classic, yet again. I had to wait to find my own voice. It was the same for George. If you look at the Beatles' CDs, the first ones are all covers. Then it was Lennon-McCartney, and an odd one of George's—"Taxman" or whatever the early ones were. Then it was a couple of George's and one of mine. I think by now we would have had equal tunes.

Um...right. Did your bandmates really have to force you to take your only drum solo, on "The End"?
Yeah. They had those dueling guitars, and thought, Oh, let's put in a drum solo. I said, "Sure. As long as it's short." Last question! Come on!

Oh, last one?
What do you want me to say? You're carrying around a whole bookful of 'em, for God's sake!

How about two more?
Go on. I'm such a sucker.

The biggest acts in pop music have been Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and the Beatles. Elvis and Michael both went loopy. Why didn't the Beatles?
Because we had each other. Elvis was lonely. He may have had all those people around him, but no one was talking music with him, and I think Michael's going the same way. He's been around since he was born—the first time I saw him play, he was five. But now the personality is bigger than the music, and the things that he's doing in his life detract from his songs.

And unlike most pop stars, the Beatles seem as if they made unusually good husbands.
Yeah. I've been a husband twice! I met [my wife] 23 years ago. I was blasted into the fifth dimension when I saw her and I'm still there, even if we do have our odd bad day. Maybe all the Beatles got lucky and found women who love them. I know everyone has their fantasies about being fancy-free, but that just seems boring. I think we all learned that early on. Come on, one more question! I can't resist those big blue eyes!

How about an acting question?
Acting! What do you think I'm doing here? [Laughs wickedly and claps his hands]

You got me, Ringo! Well, it's been said that you don't consider yourself a very good actor.
No! I'm a personality that got away with saying some good lines. People ask, "Don't you want to do any more movies?" No. In the late '80s, I found that I wanted to put all my energy back into music, rather than spreading it out. I've discovered that I love being a musician and I love to play, so that's it.