Two drummers turned frontmen go deep on their craft, losing John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, and finding life after their legendary bands
ByHANK SHTEAMEROCTOBER 30, 2019
Ringo Starr is about to get into a bathtub with Dave Grohl, and he seems a little skeptical. “Is this some sort of bullshit?” the former Beatle says. But he steps in anyway. Soon the pair are chatting comfortably; as Grohl discusses the Foo Fighters’ recent tour, Starr hands him a rubber ducky, and instructs him to make a heart symbol with his hands to complement his own omnipresent peace sign.
Grohl and Starr have known each other since 2013, when Grohl spoke at a release party for Starr’s first photography book. Grohl later enlisted Starr to shoot band photos of the Foo Fighters for their 2014 album, Sonic Highways. Today, they’re close enough that Starr gives Grohl shit about his time moonlighting as the Foos’ photographer. “I didn’t feel you ever liked ’em,” Starr teases Grohl of the pictures he took. “What are you talking about?” Grohl replies. “We used ’em on the record!” “I wanted more praise and love,” Starr says.
Grohl learned to play guitar, his first instrument, by working through a Beatles chord book. Since then, his career arc has mirrored Starr’s in many ways. Both artists rose to fame as drummers in generation-defining bands, and went on to reinvent themselves as songwriter-bandleaders — Starr just released his 20th solo album, What’s My Name, and wrapped a tour with his All Starr Band, now in its 30th year. They’ve both stepped into other artistic areas outside music — Grohl as a director, Starr as an actor and photographer (his latest book, Another Day in the Life, just came out). Along the way, both artists weathered the loss of a friend and bandmate to tragedy.
As they talk over the next hour, their conversation is punctuated by constant table-drumming from both. “You see,” Starr says when it’s all over, “two drummers, they’ll blah their asses off forever.”
GROHL Can you explain skiffle to me?
STARR Skiffle is: One chord’s enough. Lonnie Donegan in England had several big hits, but actually it was from house music down South in America. If you paid a dollar, you could go into the party and that would help buy the booze and pay the rent. And it moved to England — how weird!
GROHL Was there a specific shuffle to it?
STARR Well, it still had sort of a swingy feel. [Drums on table and sings Donegan’s cover of the American folk song “Rock Island Line,” which set off the skiffle craze in 1956.]
In Liverpool, because we were all teenagers then, I did anything not to go in the army. So to save myself from that, I ended up on the railways. Then I got a job in this factory. My first band was in the factory with the guy who lived next door to me: Eddie Clayton, who was just a really cool guitar player. And I always wanted to be a drummer since I was 13, and my friend Roy [Trafford] made a tea-chest bass — a tea chest with a stick and a string — and that’s what skiffle was.
GROHL But you had no formal training?
STARR No. And we would play in the basement for the men at lunchtime. And if you’ve ever played a factory, that’ll make you grow up. It’s “Get off!” There’s no “Very nice, boys.” Yeah, that’s how I started, and then we introduced a few more people to the band?.?.?.?and then I moved to Rory [Storm and the Hurricanes], which was out-and-out rock. And that was a great time for me, and it was a big band in Liverpool. In 1960, we got a job for three months in a holiday camp. And I left the factory, and the whole family had a meeting to try and convince me that “drums are OK as a hobby, son.?.?.?.?”
GROHL Oh, I had one of those too [laughs]. Who were your favorite drummers when you were young?
STARR Well, Cozy Cole is the only one I ever mention, but anything Little Richard did — people always feel it’s weird, but I never listened just for the drums. I listened for the whole track. [Another drummer I heard at the time] had a section going where the hi-hat was part of the fill! First time I ever heard it.
GROHL I think that the hi-hat is possibly the most expressive piece of a drum set, whether it’s opening and closing it or creating dynamics with it. And of course you’re famous…
STARR For slashing it! Where did that come from?!
GROHL I don’t know. You looked like you were cutting prosciutto.
STARR It just sounded good at the time.
Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone
GROHL With the bands before the Beatles, were you singing any songs?
STARR Yeah, with Rory. I’d do “Watch Your Step,” and I’d do “Alley Oop.” In Germany, all the Germans would always [say], “Spielen ‘Alley Oop.’?” You know, substances came into play in Germany — that was good. A lot of alcohol, of course, but speed came in, and that kept us up all night.
GROHL I bet. How many sets did you have to play?
STARR At the beginning, three. Bruno Koschmider had two clubs, the Kaiserkeller where I played with Rory and the Bambi Kino where the Beatles played. He closed the Bambi Kino and brought the Beatles to the Kaiserkeller. On the weekends, we did 12 hours between the two bands each trying to top each other. It was rock & roll gone mad. What a life.
“I think ‘Yellow Submarine’ has defined everyone in the world’s life at some point. I’m sitting there singing it with my five-year-old, I think for the same reason, even though we’re 45 years apart.” – Dave Grohl
GROHL I ask [about you singing] because your band, correct me if I’m wrong, seems like the first band to popularize the idea of the drummer singing one of the band’s songs. Had that really happened before?
STARR Well, no. I was doing it before, so it wasn’t strange when I started doing it in the Beatles. The first two songs I recorded with the Beatles were Carl Perkins songs, ’cause I liked that easy rock, and then we found country songs, stuff like that. And then they’d give me a song. I started writing songs. And it’s interesting, I wrote better after we broke up.
GROHL Well, I can imagine: If you’re in a band where everyone’s an amazing songwriter?.?.?.
STARR It was hard. “I’ve got this.” [Sings “I’d like to be?.?.?.,” from “Octopus’ Garden,” and laughs.]
GROHL Well, that’s the famous old joke: “What’s the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out?” “Hey, guys, I got a song I think we should play.”
STARR Well, yeah, and I used to write songs and I’d present it to the boys, and they would be rolling on the floor laughing, because I’d just rewritten another song and hadn’t noticed it!
GROHL Well, when we went to that 50th anniversary of The Ed Sullivan Show that you played[in 2014], when you stepped out to do “Yellow Submarine,” I honestly think that was the biggest reaction of the entire night.
STARR Yeah, yeah.
GROHL I really think that that song has defined everyone in the world’s life at some point, or just become a moment. I’m sitting there singing the song with my five-year-old, and we’re singing it I think for the same reason, even though we’re 45 years apart.
STARR I think I got to the kids early with that song, because around about two, two and a half, they all start: [Sings] “Yellow submarine.” And all of my grandchildren have stood behind the chair I’m sitting in, at one moment in their lives, and they’re going, “We all live in a yellow submarine.” Like, “We know who you are, Granddad” [laughs].
GROHL This is a weird question, but what do you remember about recording the middle bit where everyone’s in the engine room of a submarine?
STARR We were just in Abbey Road for the [remastered] Abbey Road album release. If you look where the stairs come down, [that’s] where we used to hang out and huddle with each other. There’s a big door, and I went and opened that door and just shouted from there. John was saying, “What we do, Captain?” or something. We were just all shouting and put it on. So that’s [why] it felt echoey. We did what we did!
I think I was telling you that story with the Abbey Road album cover. We sat for days talking about it: “Let’s go up Everest and do the cover!” “Let’s go to a volcano in Hawaii!” “Egypt, the Pyramids, yeah!”?.?.?.?“Ah, fuck it, let’s walk across the road” [laughs]. We didn’t dress up like it’s a photo shoot; that’s how we dressed for that day. But it worked out well.
GROHL Love has always been a theme with the Beatles. At the beginning?.?.?.
STARR Oh, all love songs.
GROHL There were love songs, like, to a girl.?.?.?.
STARR “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
GROHL But at what point did it turn into this more universal, sort of spiritual idea of love?
STARR Probably ’round about ’67, going into the Revolver album. I mean, you know, we were growing up, we were changing, we were smoking dope! And things unclouded, and I think that made big changes and we were used to being in the studio, we knew how to do that.
GROHL So I think that the sign of a great drummer is knowing who that drummer is within eight bars of the song. I think that’s the goal. I think a lot of it has to do with being self-taught, because you were just doing what came naturally to you, so you weren’t restricted by any of that stuff. To this day, when we’re in the studio — I’m sure every band in the world, if they want that fill — they say, “Hey, do a Ringo thing right there.”
STARR Well, that’s high praise coming from you, Dave. It’s like, not knowing has really helped me a lot. Even from starting, the kit was set up right-handed. I sat behind it, didn’t care I was left-handed. So I did it the best I could in a left-handed way, which, in the end, was great for me ’cause I suddenly had my own style. And the style was: There’s always a couple of seconds before I can do a fill. The only thing I do is write with my right hand. I’m a left-handed golfer.
GROHL [Laughs] That’s gotta be slang for something else.
STARR “Oh, you know, Ringo’s a left-handed golfer.” “Oooh! I thought he’d given all that up.”
You surprised me so much, when we went to that before-Grammy party [in 2016]. Who were you playing with, was it Beck?
GROHL Yeah, yeah.
STARR ’Cause I’m so used to you?.?.?.?like, I would tell [his son] Zak [about the drums], “You don’t have to hit them all.” But you have to hit them all, the way you play. And you played straight, and I’d never heard you play straight, and you were beautiful!
GROHL Thank you. Thanks, Ringo.
STARR I was expecting [drums furiously on table].
GROHL I think that growing up and learning to play by listening to the Beatles and a lot of early rock & roll, I got really into the groove before anything. As much as I loved crazy punk rock and really fast things like that, to me the most important thing always was either the feel or the swing or the simplicity of a song where it’s just meant to make everybody move.
STARR I always thought that’s what we do: Drummers hold it together. I never play over the vocals. If he’s singing, he doesn’t need “Drum Boogie” [Gene Krupa’s 1941 standard]. And I don’t do solos; I’ve just never enjoyed solos.
GROHL Well, I remember we talked about this. I think we were talking about practicing.?.?.?.
STARR I never practice [laughs].
GROHL Nor do I! Because I don’t like playing alone. I only like playing when there’s music.
STARR I’ll play with you all night, but on my own, after two and a quarter seconds, I’m like, “Ugh. That’s not what it’s about.” When I’m doing shows, and people hold up their little seven-year-old: “This is Tommy. He loves you, and he’s taking drum lessons.” And I always say, “I hope he’s not taking too many!”
GROHL So, explain [your] book.
STARR Another Day in the Life, an expression we all know and love. What do you do on the road, on the downtime?
GROHL Honestly, I sit in my room and I write music.
STARR OK, well, I sit in my room and take photos of spoons and put them in my book, and take photos of an eagle that landed on my balcony. It’s also pictures of leftover food. Whatever’s going on at the time.
GROHL I think some people are born with a restless creative spirit.
STARR A gene.
“No one can doubt Nirvana. The man [Kurt Cobain] had so much emotion. That’s what I loved. I’m an emotional guy. I don’t think anyone who listened to music with any courage could doubt him, because he was courageous.” – Ringo Starr
GROHL A gene, and I’ve always been that way. When I was young, I would go out into the backyard and find pieces of wooden sticks and make these elevated highways that my cars would roll down. And then I’d learn how to multitrack with my cassette deck, so I’d take a cassette and record a guitar part and then take that tape, rewind it, play it, and put a drum track with pots and pans [with another tape deck]. So I’ve always been that way. I almost felt like I was just a hyperactive kid that just needed to do something all the time.
And honestly, we’re similar in this way. I worked in a furniture warehouse. I never imagined that I’d become a famous musician. I played in bands. I would go on the road, come back, beg for my job back, go back to the factory, and I was happy with that. So when the whole Nirvana thing blew up, one of my first feelings was, “Wow, I don’t have to?.?.?.?”
STARR “.?.?.?go back to the factory!” But we don’t know: That first record you had, that could’ve been the first and last, you know what I mean?
GROHL It could’ve been!
STARR “Love Me Do” could’ve been the first and last, but it went on. And there’s interviews of us, like, “Well, you know, it’ll probably last about four years.”
GROHL When the first check came in, my dad said, “You realize this isn’t gonna last, right? You have to treat every check like it’s the last one you’re ever gonna make.” He scared the shit out of me. It worked!
Ringo, what did you think when you heard Nirvana?
STARR Absolutely great, and the man himself [Kurt Cobain] had so much emotion. That’s what I loved. I’m an emotional guy. No one can doubt Nirvana, ever. And who knew he’d end up where he ended up. I don’t think anyone who listened to music with any courage could doubt him, ’cause he was courageous.
I don’t know the end story, and it’s not about him, and we lose a lot of people in our business early. And you think, “How harsh must it have been?” I mean, “Why don’t you call me?” You never know. This is the famous 27-year syndrome. A lot of them went by 27, like it’s that number — what, had they got it all in by then? Or maybe that’s just the way God planned it; I don’t know.
When John went, I was in the Bahamas. I was getting a phone call from my stepkids in L.A. saying, “Something’s happened to John.” And then they called and said, “John’s dead.” And I didn’t know what to do. And I still well up that some bastard shot him. But I just said, “We’ve got to get a plane.” We got a plane to New York, and you don’t know what you can do. We went to the apartment. “Anything we can do?” And Yoko just said, “Well, you just play with Sean. Keep Sean busy.” And that’s what we did. That’s what you think: “What do you do now?”
The interesting thing is this guy Jack Douglas, the producer, brought this track of John’s to me [“Grow Old With Me,” from Lennon’s 1980 “Bermuda Tapes” demos] just this year; I’d never heard it. So he’s still in my life. And so it’s on the new album. But why he gave me this CD is [because] at the beginning, John says, “Oh, that would be great for Richard Starkey.”
GROHL Wow, you had never heard that?
STARR I well up every time I think [about it] — he’s talking about me. He says [imitates Lennon], “Hey, Ringo, this’d be great for you.” And I can’t help myself. [He chokes up.] I’m emotional now thinking of him 40 years ago talking about me on his tape and thinking of me. The four of us were great friends with a couple of side issues. And it was far out. So anyway, I didn’t know how to act. And then I got back to L.A., and I grieved, and then of course you always go through the grief.
And George, the same. [He tears up; his voice starts shaking.] I’m such an old crybaby. He’s laying there very ill — not long. And I’ve got to go to Boston, ’cause my daughter’s having an operation. And so I said, “Well, you know, I’ve got to go, George,” and he says, “Do you want me to come with you?” You know, he’s dying in a bit: “Do you want me to come with you?” How many people say great things like that to you, really give themselves?
And Paul McCartney plays on that song, “Grow Old With Me,” on your album.
STARR Well, I wanted that. Paul’s been on five or six of my CDs. If he’s in town, he comes and plays, ’cause he plays great. And I thought his playing would add to the emotion of this song. So the interesting point is that Jack Douglas wanted to put an orchestra on it. And I said, “No, quartet’ll be plenty.” So John wrote it, Paul’s on it, I’m on it, and Jack puts in a very recognizable George Harrison riff.
Dave, on the few occasions that you’ve performed Kurt’s songs since his death, has it helped you process the loss?
GROHL Well, I realized when Kurt died that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. It takes funny turns. You’ll be numb. You’ll remember the good things, then you’ll turn and remember some dark times. I stayed away from music for a while. I wouldn’t
even turn on the radio. And then I eventually realized that music was the one thing that actually made me feel better. And music was gonna help me through that. So I started writing songs and recording them by myself.
And it’s also difficult when one of your friends or someone that you’re very close to, in real life, has become something more than a human being to others. So you sit in an interview and someone asks you these questions that are really emotional, that you’d never ask another stranger.
STARR Yeah, yeah.
GROHL “How’d you feel when your brother died?” “How’d you feel when your family member died?” It’s just not something that you’d meet someone and say. So it was tough for a while, but I realized that it was important for me to continue with life, and the thing that saved my life was music. More than a few times before that, my life was saved by playing music.
I haven’t played those Nirvana songs more than a few times in the last 26 years. In some ways, they’re off-limits, unfortunately. There have been a few times — at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at a show maybe two years ago — that we got to play them. And it’s a funny feeling, because it feels like you’re back together with your friends from the band, but there’s just something missing. Like, we recorded a song with Paul once: me, Pat Smear, and Krist Novoselic. And it was such a trip for just the three of us to be playing again; it fits. It’s so easy. A couple of downbeats, and it sounds like Nirvana when Krist and I play together. Nobody else makes that sound. So the first 20 minutes, I’m playing with Krist and Pat again, and it’s like a dream. Then I realize, “Oh, wait, Paul’s here too.”
What is it like to lock in with Paul McCartney?
STARR Oh, he is an incredible bass player. The most melodic bass player and inventive bass player.
GROHL It’s funny, the few times that I’ve jammed with him, I think people forget about his musicianship because they’re so blown away with the Beatles side of things. And then he puts on the instrument, and you’re like, “Jesus, he’s fucking good.” He really is. I mean, like, the bass line to “Hey Bulldog,” what is that?!
STARR Where did that come from?
GROHL I don’t know! Outer space — it’s crazy.
You both have a knack for writing extremely catchy drum parts. Do you think of them almost like hooks?
STARR I don’t know where I felt the need to go [plays the “Come Together” beat on table]. It’s like, where’d you get that? I don’t know! But it worked. And John’s like, “Oh! OK.”
GROHL I think air-drumming is important because you’ve connected with someone that has no fucking idea how to play the instrument that they’re pretending to play, but you’ve made an impression on them in some way that’s just as musical as singing a song.
I had one person, who will remain nameless, say to me once, in a publishing dispute, “Yeah, but drumming isn’t songwriting.” And I said, “Fuck you! Why not?”
Nobody told me what to fucking play, and now whenever someone hears [air-drums the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”], that’s the intro to the song. I think that drumming as songwriting is very important — more than any sort of technical proficiency, to have it be as melodic or musical as all the other instruments. Just you doing that [“Come Together”] on the table, you know what fucking song that is!
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