The formal dissolution of The Beatles was announced on April 10, 1970. And, with the end of the band, the story of Ringo Starr seemed set in concrete. You remember: Ringo, the last member of the band, shunted to the sidelines when the Beatles first recorded for George Martin but, in fact, an under-appreciated artist; his left-handed, backward fills and intuitive timing building the beat of modern rock music.
But there's a lot more. For forty years now, Ringo, sometimes derided, but with the consistent rhythm of a steady backbeat, has become the living embodiment of the spirit of the Beatles.
Listen to the albums Ringo has released recently -- culminating this year's "Y Not" (the first album he has produced) and last year's paean to his home town, "Liverpool 8." You will hear the story of the Beatles being told, and retold. How?
First, with the playful introspection exhibited through an intricate web of references linking one song to another. As the Beatles looked increasingly to their own lives and work for inspiration, their songs created an ever-growing structure of self-reference -- the lyrics of "Glass Onion," for example, refer to five earlier Beatles songs -- some of which refer, in turn, to others still. So when, in this year's "Peace Dream" Ringo calls on us to "try to 'Imagine'" what happens if we "Give Peace a Chance,'" he's continuing to weave a tapestry of meaning around their legacies.
By no means has Ringo become a songwriter in the class of John, Paul or George. But as Ringo himself has told us, "It does no good for you to play a pretty song like 'Yesterday' 'cause that's not what I need to say."
What Ringo needs to say through his songs is the second important ingredient of his legacy, namely The Beatles' message of love, cosmic harmony and the meaning of life. In "R U Ready," he invokes Jesus, the Buddha and a blues preacher to say that there will be someone to catch each of us at life's end. And can't you hear more than a hint of George, the most spiritual of the four, when Ringo intones the thought that "One and one is only one until you become one with you"?
And then there's peace and love. Ringo may be the last person on earth who regularly flashes the two-finger peace sign. Fully one-third of the titles on "Liverpool 8" contain the word "Love." On the new album, he sings "Love is the answer and the answer is coming on strong." For Ringo, that's no casual sentiment. He continues to believe that all you need is love.
Finally, it's not just the words. Rock music can't be reduced to the pixled or printed page and Ringo's recent music captures the sound of the Beatles. Sitar sounds, echo-laden vocals and even the songs of long ago to which "When I'm 64" long-ago paid tribute. Listen to "Give it A Try" from "Liverpool 8." Turn off your mind, as the band once said, and you'll hear John and Paul singing "oh yeah" gently in the background, George unveil a well-behaved guitar solo, circa 1962, and Ringo take a turn on his tom-toms. And tell me that the guitar solo from this year's "Who's Your Daddy" isn't an outtake from the tough version of "Revolution."
Even more tellingly is the sound of the real Paul singing a duet with Ringo on this year's "Walk with You;" a song that sounds like a conscious answer to their question from the '60's: "Many years from now, Will you still be sending me a valentine?" Now, they tell us, "When I walk with you, when I talk with you, everything will be fine."
A thousand years from now an archeologist may come upon the tattered remnants of our times. Imagine she finds The Beatles' catalogue of the 1960's and then, with faced with gaps in the historical record, re-discovers the later RIngo tunes, recorded forty years after the release of the group's final album. Would she conclude that the Beatles, after a fervent period of creativity in the 60's, continued on occasion to make music together in the succeeding decades, free of rancor, long-lived and practicing the love that they preached?
That wouldn't be a true history of the Beatles. It would, however, be a better one.
Jonathan Sallet turned eighteen the day The Beatles dissolved; for this birthday he's receiving his first set of drums.