No one could cogently rebut the assertion that the greatest recorded rock and roll album of all time is the third solo album by former Beatle Ringo Starr. And after a year of COVID, no one would even try.
Titled simply Ringo (although I always wished the title was followed by an exclamation point), it is an album of no particular highs or lows, of relentless cheer and compatriotism. And those are qualities we required, qualities that we interpreted as joy, in the year of COVID, when the correspondence of comfort and high art was finally apparent to all. And so, with COVID, Ringo was able to achieve its deserved pantheonic position.
But what are we to make of the offhanded way that Mr. Starr, at the end of the album, breaks our hearts? Well, more on that in a moment.
Ringo fails to appear on any well-known best-albums lists. (I know—right?! If you don’t believe me, check, as an example, Rolling Stone magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of all Time.”) Nor does the album (or any other Ringo Starr album) contain the greatest single song in rock and roll history, “It Don’t Come Easy,” which Ringo released by itself in 1971. (At some time in the future, I will devote a thousand or so words to the song’s luxurious and contrapuntal optimism.)
Yet Ringo is, as its opening track is titled, “The Greatest.”
Every song strolls. Some songs saunter (“Six O’clock”). Some stride jauntily (“Have You Seen My Baby?”). But no doldrum plodding or exhausting dashes for Ringo! Be cool, everyone! We’ll get through this year!
Ringo’s friends come out to play. If we couldn’t see our friends this past year, at least we could listen to Ringo hanging out with George Harrison and Klaus Voorman and Paul McCartney and Jim Keltner and John Lennon and, gosh!, it’s a who’s who of Ringo’s buddies (except, alas, Harry Nilsson and Marc Bolan).
Ringo’s singing is an inspiration for the limited. Ringo’s legendarily nonexistent vocal range and doleful tone here become the joy of a karaoke singer knocking it out of the park on the best night of his life, and as such a promise that once we shake off this COVID thing we all will hit our own heights without even needing to break through our own oh-so-palpable limitations.
All good. All bucking us way up in a year of way down. But down we tumble at the end, pushed over a cliff with a wink and a salute by Mr. Starr.
“Ah!” we think, reading the title of the final tune, “You and Me, Babe,” and hearing the strolling pace, the twining guitars. “A song of togetherness!” we think. “A song of enduring love!” we think. “What an upbeat way to send us on our way!”
Then our doubts begin to sprout. Is the pace a bit slow to be called cheerful? Are the guitars like a melody disappearing in the wind?
And then Ringo sings.
He sings, “For you and me, babe, it’s time that we part.”
And for SIX VERSES Ringo hides behind the fiction that he is merely parting from his date at the end of an evening, when he is REALLY BREAKING UP WITH HER.
For six verses, he calls her BABE—an appellation not of lost love but of “wait, who was that again?”
And when Ringo calls out, “Goodbye everybody,” is he not really dismissing all of US? After all, aren’t WE the ones who have strolled with Ringo thus far on this album?
Then, THEN, comes the thank-you section of the song, in which Ringo tosses out the names of all the lovely people who helped make this album, in essence saying HE WILL NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN.
The song’s outro is Ringo’s repeated “bye-bye.” We imagine him tipping his cap and disappearing into the mist, leaving us with the certainty that, when COVID fades, when we are finally able to leave our homes, when we are finally able to mill among people once again, we will still be, finally and forever, alone.
Robert Fromberg’s memoir, How to Walk with Steve, is forthcoming from Latah Books. His magnum opus on Vladimir Nabokov and Jacqueline Susann recently appeared in Talk Vomit. On Twitter: @robfromberg