One of Ringo Starr’s saddest expressions is captured in the Let It Be film. During “The Long and Winding Road,” there is a cut from a close-up of Paul McCartney’s earnest, bearded face to Ringo’s head and shoulders behind the drum kit.
Ringo is drumming while nodding in time, but it’s reminiscent of an inward sobbing, especially in retrospect. The breakup, which Starr later admits he never wanted, is nigh, but not here – yet.
Ringo has always been the Everyman Beatle. Affable and dependable, Ringo is us at our most likeable. Just five years prior to this somber music-making, our mates were running around London in A Hard Day’s Night. The following year, they went into hiding and then rescued “us” from kidnapping in Help!. But in 1969, we simply sit in a room, remembering a journey about to conclude.
To me, “Photograph” can be read as a follow up to the sentiments of “The Long and Winding Road.”
“Every time I see your face / It reminds me of the places we used to go,” Starr begins, concluding the first verse with acceptance of a harsh reality: we can’t get back. There will never be a reunion at “the door” about which McCartney previously sang.
“But all I’ve got is a photograph,” repeats Starr throughout the song.
We are all Ringo now.
Our lives at the moment are not much more than a series of photographs. Our social media is a stream of images and videos from previous times. Why bother to keep track of which day it is during social isolation? It can be Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday every single day when all you have is a photograph. We imagine the outside world. Who knows when we’ll get back to “places we used to go”?
“While my heart is broke, my tears I cry for you,” sings Ringo. His vulnerable everyman-ness is why “Photograph” resonates so — especially these days. In retrospectives over the years, he voiced love for his Beatle brothers and disappointment in the disbanding that he didn’t want – or at least in the way that it unfolded. We empathize with the injustice of being left with only a photograph when we feel powerless, too.
“Photograph” is a song about aloneness, but it was composed by George Harrison and Starr together beginning in 1971, a year removed from the official breakup and as the band’s notorious legal issues were ongoing. In 2002, Ringo performed the song (alongside Harrison’s son Dhani) at the Concert for George.
The irony of the song’s composition is compounded when we consider another sad Ringo moment, his memory of last seeing his friend. Through tears, the drummer remembers that George, ill and dying as he was, offered to accompany Ringo (whose daughter had a brain tumor) to Boston.
During these difficult days, sometimes we don’t even have a photograph. But we will always have our memories, bittersweet as they are. And that’s what makes Ringo’s “Photograph” all the more poignant.
Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images