Thoughts on Ringo Starr and Muhammad Ali

Flower

He may be only my second-favorite living left-handed Beatle, but I’m stoked that Ringo Starr is bringing his All-Star Band to Bangor this month (Wednesday, June 8, at the Cross Center). The Dave Mathews Band is on the waterfront that same night, and as I wrote in an earlier post, traffic is likely to be nightmarish. It doesn’t matter to me, though, because I live within walking distance of both venues.*

Some scoff at Ringo’s contribution to the seminal rock band of the Sixties. He got lucky, they say; he rode to fame on the coattails of his more talented band mates. There are hundreds of better drummers, they claim, and thousands of better songwriters.

Ringo didn’t write many songs, but almost every Beatles album has a “Ringo song” on which he sings lead vocal. On some it’s a Lennon-McCartney gem: “With A Little Help From My Friends” or “Yellow Submarine.” On others, it’s a goofball cover like “Act Naturally.” I love “What Goes On?” from the British Rubber Soul, on which Ringo shares a writing credit with John and Paul.

One Ringo original keeps popping up in my consciousness, though: “Don’t Pass Me By,” from the White Album. Like everything else on that record, it’s eclectic and a little bit weird. A fiddle noodles along throughout. And it contains this inane lyric:

I’m sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair
You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair

What? You lost your hair? That’s the best rhyme Ringo could come up with? No wonder he didn’t write many songs. Compare it to the Beatles’ other noteworthy car-crash song, “A Day in the Life,” which spawned a worldwide rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car and the band was covering up his death.

The canon of car-crash songs is vast and varied, but the template for the genre is found in songs such as “Tell Laura I Love Her,” by Ray Peterson and “Last Kiss,” by Wayne Cochran. Both song come from the 1950s and the aftermath of the death of James Dean. Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking, if mangled, corpse.

Why do we romanticize the car crash? We don’t mythologize plane crashes and train derailments. More than thirty thousand Americans die in road accidents every year, and while that number is down from a high of 45,510 in 2005, I can bet that the bulk of those deaths were not at all romantic.

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I was in the middle of writing this week’s post when I heard that Muhammad Ali had died. How can Muhammad Ali be dead? He was so much larger than life. I was an upper middle class white boy, and I loved Muhammad Ali. He made a brutal sport beautiful. He composed poems about his opponents. And he called the war in Vietnam for what it was, at great personal cost, long before public opinion came around to his side.

He had a singular moment in Maine, too. Perhaps the most famous Ali photo of all was taken at the Colisée in Lewiston as he stood over Sonny Liston after knocking him out in the first round of their rematch.

Shortly after I moved back to Maine from the west coast in 1999, the Maine Sunday Telegram (jumping the gun by a year) ran a rundown of the Top 100 Maine Sports Stories of the 20th Century. Reading it, I chuckled. The Ali-Liston fight was number four, behind two high school basketball stories and something I’ve since forgotten.

Only in Maine, I thought, would high school basketball be considered, especially in retrospect, more important than a world figure authoring a signature moment of his career.

Among the many images circulating online in the hours after Ali’s death were photos of him with the Beatles. It’s the month before Ali’s first fight with Liston, in 1964, and the Fab Four are on their first tour of America. They are all between the ages of 20 and 23 with the whole world ahead of them. Ali is a head taller than all of the Beatles. In one photo, he has picked up Ringo in his arms and holds him like a rag doll. All five beam for the camera.

An era is passing. Only two of the five exuberant young men in that photo are left, and one of them will be in Bangor Wednesday night.

* Full disclosure: I’ll be working as an usher at the Cross Center for the Ringo show. I hope to see a few of my friends, and a little bit of history.

 

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