John Lennon said that Ringo was the one to worry about when the Beatles finished. He was not wrong. Trauma and bad behaviour were what followed. Then things started to get better

He has been, by his own admission, a drunk, a wife-beater and an absent father. His first wife, the wife of his Beatles years, died painfully of leukaemia in January; more recently, his only daughter, Lee, now 24, has had surgery on a brain tumour. For Ringo Starr, now 55, life without the Beatles has not been easy. He has been dogged by personal tragedy, much of it self inflicted.

No matter. Ringo, with his Mr Punch nose and hooded eyes, with his droll asides and lugubrious charm, will always be the lovable one, even if Ringo in the flesh, especially in his heavy drinking years, has often proved a much tougher, more awkward person to encounter. Years before the band's break-up, he had a reputation for grumpiness among the Abbey Road engineers, as if he resented the lack of respect the world always showed him.

Indeed, he was never the world's greatest drummer, though his heavy, muffled style is instantly recognisable; but his relative lack of competitiveness, in a group bursting with ego, made him indispensable, the perfect foil and go-between. It was Ringo who was sent to Scotland in 1970 to dissuade McCartney from breaking up the Beatles (McCartney listened, then kicked him out); Ringo whom the others helped out with songs when he started a solo career; and Ringo who had far more rightful claim than Lennon to the angry autobiography of Working Class Hero.

Born Richard Starkey in the Dingle, one of Liverpool's poorest neighbourhoods, Ringo was separated from his father, a docker, when he was only three. He spent a year in hospital with peritonitis when he was six, and, at 13, a further two years away from school with a lung disorder. He never returned, signing on as an apprentice pipe fitter by day and practising at night on the drum kit his stepfather, a house painter, had given him - as a child, he had always played the tin drum in the annual Orange Day parades.

Lennon reacted to the difficulties of his (middle-class) motherless adolescence with a scouring wit; Ringo chose to clown his way out of misfortune. Yet the insecurities of being a working-class Liverpudlian left their mark. Even when the Beatles started to make it big, Ringo still demanded his wages in cash in a brown envelope at the end of every week. Now he may be worth as much as pounds 30 million, and has a web of companies disappearing into the Virgin Islands to protect his interests, but it has been a hell of a ride getting there.

In the years that immediately followed the Beatles break-up, an initially fruitful solo career did not survive the tide of Beatles nostalgia. Despite hits like "Sweet Sixteen" and "Goodnight, Vienna", Starr became the first solo Beatle to have his music turned down by a record company, EMI, which had produced the Beatles. Rendered aimless without the Beatles' musical purpose and sense of destiny, he rather publicly disintegrated, and spent much of the Seventies in a haze of Brandy Alexanders pursuing epic drinking benders with Marc Bolan and the singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, a legendary boozer who also became Lennon's brandy-buddy during the latter's "lost weekend" period of the mid-Seventies. Nor has he fulfilled the acting promise he showed in A Hard Day's Night, where his performance was hailed by some critics as "Chaplinesque": one movie, Blindman, a spaghetti Western filmed in southern Spain, closed barely weeks after opening in New York.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his private life suffered. By now, he had three children - Zak, Jason and Lee - none of whom were prospering at their expensive schools. His relationship with Zak, 29, and Jason, 27, both drummers now, has been difficult. Jason once said, "being Ringo's son is the biggest drag in my life. It's a total pain." In 1987, he was fined for stealing a car radio, and, in 1989, for possessing drugs. Lee, after a stint at drama school and working in Tower Records in London, ran a boutique, Planet Alice, selling Sixties clothes, first in London, then in Los Angeles.

Ringo also grew estranged from his wife, Maureen, the hairdresser he had taken with him from Liverpool, and in 1975 she divorced him and went to live with Isaac Tigrett, the American founder of The Hard Rock Cafe. On the set of Caveman, a truly terrible film Ringo made in 1980, he met, and then married, Barbara Bach, a minor American actress who had been a Bond girl. She now shared his hard-living lifestyle, described in all its banality in the foreword to Getting Sober... And Loving It, a book on alcoholism edited by Derek Taylor, the former press officer for the Beatles, and his wife, Joan. "We used to go on long plane journeys, rent huge villas, stock up the bars, hide and get deranged," they write with admirable bluntness. Virtually every photo of the time shows Ringo with impenetrable dark glasses seemingly welded to his head to protect bloodshot eyes. To his friends, "Ringo was still Ringo, a lovely man"; to outsiders, particularly the journalists he had once amused, he could be prickly and defensive.

Eventually, in 1988, "Rich" and "Barb", as they prefer to be called, dried out in a clinic. He had become violent and was having blackouts. After one typical binge, he awoke to find his house in chaos: "I came to one Friday afternoon," he later recalled, "and was told by the staff that I had trashed the house so badly they thought there had been burglars, and I'd trashed Barbara so badly they thought she was dead."

Teetotallers now, they have ceased to be the typical tabloid couple, and their visits to Britain and their house in Knightsbridge are now infrequent. They maintain a flat in the St Lyons district of Monte Carlo, as well as another house in Los Angeles, where Ringo lives the life of a rich but reformed sinner: slimmer than he has been for years, working out at the gym, painting, vegetarian cooking (he makes a mean soup) and playing a bit of golf. He has also become a grandfather: Zak has a daughter, Tatia, the first Beatles' grandchild.

For his ex-wife, Maureen, it turned out less well. After contracting leukaemia, she had a bone marrow transplant from Zak. But this January she died in Seattle, with both Ringo and Tigrett, her second husband, at her bedside, each reportedly holding her hand.

Ringo still has a musical career of sorts. He toured in 1989 and 1991, and this summer did concerts in Japan and America with his All-Starr band, variously featuring The Who's John Entwhistle on bass, Billy Preston, an old Beatles colleague, on keyboards, Dave Edmunds and Nils Lofgren on guitars, and his son Zak as second drummer. But there is still no record deal. The feeling in the British record industry is that, without the Beatles, he's a spent force.

But at least he has managed not to fritter away all his Beatles royalties. "Don't worry about me" is his usual response to interviewers who wonder how on earth he has continued to fund his transatlantic lifestyle. He can be so confident because he has a quartet of trusted aides running his life: his long-term personal assistant, Joan Woodgate; a financial adviser, Hilary Gerrard, who sits on the Apple board for him; and the two lawyers who help Gerrard run Starr's interests, Bruce Grakal in Los Angeles and John Hemingway in London. Hemingway, a tax specialist living in France, is also a close associate of Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, and George Walker, the former Brent Walker chairman.

The quartet are famously protective, and their affection for Starr is palpable. Starr rarely speaks to the press now because of the rough handling he feels he and his children have been given, and his four aides generally follow suit. But between them, Ringo's team appear not only to have safeguarded his Beatles legacy but also added useful earners. Recently, for example, he agreed to appear in a Pizza Hut advertisement in America for $500,000. He also has an eight per cent stake in Britt Allcroft, the production company which makes the Thomas the Tank Engine videos and owns the cartoon's merchandising rights. Its founder, originally a freelance television producer, persuaded Starr to take shares as payment for providing voice-overs. Ringo has long since passed on the role to actor Michael Angelis, but the stake he has retained is now worth about pounds 5 million.

Yet there have been persistent rumours that Ringo is still strapped for cash and keen for this lucrative Beatles' reunion. There are no personal hang-ups. He has maintained good relations with George Harrison, whom he visits at his home in Hawaii, and he played with him at Harrison's Royal Albert Hall concert, in aid of the Natural Law Party, in 1992. There has never been a serious falling-out with Paul McCartney.

Ringo, Lennon once said, is the one I worry about if there is no more Beatles. As history proved, he was right to worry. But now he has got his old job back, Ringo may have found what he's been looking for these past 25 years

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