Beatles apocrypha tells us that during the height of the Fab Four’s early 1960s taking of America, Richard “Ringo” Starkey received more fan mail than John, Paul, or George. Whether or not this is is really true doesn’t matter because there’s that scene in A Hard Day’s Night where the mail bags just keep piling up. The point is that people like Ringo a lot. Famously and also truthfully, Ringo is a total goon, which is why the scene with all the fan mail never made sense to me until I had a kid. I didn’t get that. My two-year-old daughter does. She loves all The Beatles but prefers Ringo to the other three scamps. And it has nothing to do with any of Ringo’s intentionally kid-friendly ventures. Ringo’s inherent ringoness just works for her — even when he’s singing about infidelity and kissing boys — because he’s a funny man who makes funny noises.
In the film version of High Fidelity, audiophile Rob Gordon (John Cusack playing John Cusack) warned us about introducing kids to pop music: “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery, and loss,” he monologues. “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Because I graduated high school the year High Fidelity came out and because I love irony more than I love sanity, this once struck me as a real insight. It’s not. Sad songs bring adults joy. But it’s different with kids. Happy songs make kids happy. Ringo (usually) sings happy songs.
Ringo is Rock and Roll’s ambassador to children. He has been for roughly a half-century. Why? Because he makes rock music — even rock music about taking LSD — sound profoundly innocuous (which it arguably is by any modern standard). He keeps it simple and upbeat. He wants to delivery happiness and he has a talent for precisely that. Unfortunately, as Ringo got older he became painfully aware of this fact and lost his touch, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t get a few solid albums in, leaving behind an archive perfect for the perusal of an almost-two-year-old.
My wife and I are skittish about screen time, so my two-year-old has never seen moving footage of Ringo Starr or any of the other Beatles. Her knowledge of Fabs comes from their images on the sleeves of vinyl LPs and from, you know, their voices. In terms of music media, we’re basically raising a cave child and we like it that way. The point is, my daughter has never seen Ringo move around in that really cute and adorable way he does and she still loves him. The little Beatlemaniac’s favorite Beatle song is, bizarrely, “Honey Don’t,” a song sung by Ringo, that appears as the first track on the second side of the American LP Beatles 65. (For the regular UK releases, this song shows up on Beatles For Sale.) The song wasn’t written by the Beatles and is, in fact, a Carl Perkins cover, but Ringo sings on it and my kid can’t get enough.
The lyrics are mostly about a dude telling his girlfriend that he’d really prefer she not be “steppin’ around,” and urges her kindly not to cheat on him with the refrain “honey don’t.” This resonates with my daughter, not because she’s has an unfaithful partner (I don’t think she does, but it’s so hard to really know), but because she receives the same message frequently and in a more urgent tone. Honey don’t pull the cat’s tail. Honey don’t touch that electrical outlet. Honey don’t pick up the cat by her hind legs. Honey don’t!
My kid laughs hysterically throughout this song and riffs on it her spare time, which is all the time. She’ll say “Honey Don’t wears pajamas” or “Honey Don’t is over there.” as though Honey Don’t is a person. This is directly in line with the kind of loose-noun creativity exhibited by Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, which my child is clearly aware of because she’s very precocious. But, my kid’s favorite aspect of “Honey Don’t” is the part where Ringo says: “Rock on, George, for Ringo one time.”
The use of the third-person to address oneself is a common toddler behavior. It’s why Elmo speaks in the third-person and it’s why Ringo does the same. One of my kid’s other favorite Ringo-Beatle songs is “Boys” (a cover of the Shirelles), in which Ringo shrieks “All right, George,” before George proceeds to shred like the bad motherfucker he was. Ringo also says “Hey, hey” a lot in this song. A LOT. He also “talks about boys, now,” which seems like an odd imperative for my daughter to respond to but there you have it. Ultimately, the lyrics are basically irrelevant to how much fun Ringo is having just singing the song. It’s not really a song about “Boys,” it’s a song about Ringo saying words.
Toddlers who have started love saying silly words like “Hey hey” and “talking about boys, now.” Ringo doesn’t really sing lyrics. He makes Ringo noises. Ringo noises are great.
Before “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopus’s Garden,” the Beatles used Ringo’s vocals as a kind of kickass comic relief. (This is true of the songs “I’m Down,” and “Act Naturally,” too, which are also ones my kid loves.) Ringo’s ringoness in these songs was a way of saying, very clearly, hey these guys are just having a really good time, you can rock on one more time for Ringo, or anybody. And the what sells this empowering happy-go-lucky message is Ringo’s dopey, but honest, vocal delivery.
Later, in their career (basically after 1966), the Beatles and Ringo became very self-aware of this specific Ringo-is-funny-thing, which, now that I have a child who loves Ringo, I find to be a shame. I’ve played “Octopus’s Garden” for my daughter a few times, and I gotta say, she doesn’t like it as much as she likes “Honey Don’t” or “Boys.” And that’s because she senses that Ringo is “Being Ringo” rather than just being Ringo (this might be projection). This is why I’d argue that though “A Little Help From My Friends” is a better piece of art than the Beatles cover of “Act Naturally;” the latter is a purer representation of Ringo. I know the guy was an actual grownup in the Beatles and more experienced than all the other dudes at the start, but I can’t help but feel like Ringo loses his thing when he goes full schtick on “Yellow Submarine.” After that, there was nothing left to do but take a job on Shining Time Station. (He was pretty good on that show, for what it’s worth.)
When they are very young, children have excellent bullshit detectors. And I just know that my daughter knows there’s a difference between Ringo in 1965 and Ringo in 1969. Three years is a long time for a Beatle, but even longer for a toddler and her dad. She’ll be five in three years! Will she even like the Beatles anymore? If she’s in her Beatles For Sale phase right now, in terms of her attitudes, what will her (not-literal) White Album phase look like?
As a parent, I know there’s no way to see the future. But, I also know there’s a point where my daughter will start to truly join society, which means, like Ringo, she’ll play-up the parts of her personality that “work” and repress aspects of herself that don’t. This is part of growing up. We all become Ringos; imitations of ourselves. It’s just a question of when. Until then, she’ll be singing “Honey Don’t.” I won’t stop her.