“Charlie’s good tonight”
And now there are two. Well three if you count Bill Wyman, but he split from the band thirty years ago.
This really fucked me up. In a way I’ve not felt since the death of John Lennon, which was also a surprise.
I knew Glenn Frey was sick. Bowie? As great as he was he was not one of the progenitors, one has to classify him as second or third wave. George Harrison? We knew he’d been going for treatment, we had our fingers crossed yet we were not expecting the best. But Charlie Watts?
The show must go on. That’s the music mantra. ZZ Top is still on the road. A band member passes and then the rest pick up and go. To the point where we now have ersatz classic rock bands on the road akin to the ersatz fifties acts in the seventies and eighties. Acts without one original member. One could ask why people go, but at this point it’s not about the mania so much as the songs. Memories. You close your eyes and the music sets your mind free and you go back to when your body wasn’t broken and your life was in front of you, which is no longer the case.
But we thought rock and roll was forever, that it would never die.
But that only seems to apply to Keith Richards. They say Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, but Keith got even a better deal.
You have to know the English sound in the U.S. was different from its home in the U.K. In the U.K. these blues-influenced groups had been a thing for years. While America was focused on bogus crooners, England was in the midst of a blues-revival, with bands everywhere, it was a nightclub scene. In America, we had discos, where people in jackets and ties still danced the Twist. Or maybe the Bossa Nova. And of course there was the folk scene. But this was long before Bob Dylan went electric.
And first came the Beatles. Fully formed. All the development was done off-screen. Vee-Jay had tried with their early material but they had failed. “Please Please Me”? “Love Me Do”? Those came after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in America, which even came before “She Loves You”! It would be like Stanley Kubrick’s first film being “2001,” but only bigger.
And after the Beatles we got a slew of nice boys in suits singing ditties, but those weren’t the Rolling Stones. The Stones were scruffy. There might be a tie, but chances were Mick Jagger might be wearing a turtleneck.
Then there was Charlie Watts.
The Stones were edgy and dangerous when musical acts were safe, upbeat and sunny.
And their records were not big hits. They didn’t immediately go to number one. “Not Fade Away” stalled at 48. “Tell Me” did better, it made it to number 24. And it was written by the boys. But to say the Stones were in the league of the Beatles would be untrue. The older set, the ones in leather jackets, cottoned to them. The alienated too. But younger boomers? The Stones were on the periphery. Until the fall of ’64, when “Time Is on My side” went to number 6.
But really, everything changed in the summer of ’65. One tune made the Stones legends. It blasted out of the radio speaker unlike anything we’d heard before, with distortion, with attitude, this was a group that was not going to be corralled, who were doing it their way, THIS WAS THE ROLLING STONES!
And then came a slew of number ones, Top Ten records.
But the Stones weren’t an album band until “Beggars Banquet.” Musos spoke of “Between the Buttons,” but the first Stones album I purchased was ” Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass),” with all the hits, in ’66. And I couldn’t get over “The Last Time.” That guitar sound!
Not that Keith Richards (sometimes billed as “Richard”) was the icon he is today. That didn’t happen until the heroin years in the 70’s, the news and the Annie Leibovitz photos. The Stones were a band with a frontman, unlike the Beatles where everybody’s identity was clear, the three axemen on the front line with the affable grinning Ringo behind.
Bill Wyman held his bass nearly vertically, and barely moved.
Keith sneered, but didn’t move much either. Ditto Brian Jones. Who did have that blond haircut that focused your eyes.
And then there was Charlie Watts. Who looked like he didn’t belong, like he’d stopped in to play a few licks on his way to his day job, in an office, with a dress code. And it was not only his clothing, but his visage, he was just keeping time, without making a show of it. And he had a simple kit when Ringo had a floor tom. It was all so simple.
And then came “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” Perceived as a bomb, it was better than that, but still a misstep. Yes, this was obviously the Stones’ experimental psychedelic album, six months after “Sgt. Pepper,” and it failed miserably in comparison.
But then came “Beggars Banquet.” A complete surprise. The Stones had gone earthy, they weren’t playing to the last row, listening you felt privileged to be in the room with the band. The subjects were dark. The instrumentation acoustic and spare. The lyrics were dark and meaningful. The word started to spread, this was a breakthrough.
Not that most people noticed. “Sympathy For the Devil” might be iconic today, but it was not a hit single back then, you heard it on FM rock stations, but most markets still didn’t even have one of those, and many listeners were still focused on singles on AM.
But by time “Let It Bleed” was released in December of ’69, momentum had begun. This was an album band. Bigger than anybody else but the Beatles. There was more FM rock radio. You heard “Gimmie Shelter,” and once was enough, you were closed. But it was more than that, mostly “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which made the Chelsea Drugstore famous. “Let It Bleed” rocked harder than “Beggars Banquet,” it was slicker, but it sacrificed none of the darkness, none of the danger. It was the complete opposite of the sunny second side of “Abbey Road.” And critics and the press circled and with the band on the road at the same time, the tsunami began. Not every ticket was sold, but word was these were the shows.
And one thing you’ve got to know about the Stones is it’s just them. They’re really no different today from how they were in the clubs in the early sixties. There are no hard drives, no hidden players, sometimes it takes them a while to get up to speed. But when they’re going, you can feel the humanity, they never sacrificed it, and that’s what drew us to them.
So in the fall of ’70, they released a live album, not long after the “Gimme Shelter” movie that chronicled the disaster at Altamont. Which the hard core went to see in the theatre. Which ultimately became iconic, back in an era when every band did not have a documentary.
But “Ya-Ya’s” evidenced a new band. Brian Jones drowned and was replaced by Mick Taylor, a lyrical player truly responsible for the band’s second peak. And the live album was…
We were not expecting this. This was not “Live at Leeds,” energy and near perfection. “Ya-Ya’s” was coarse. It was a concert recording. And the truth is your mind fills in so much at the gig, and if you listen to the tape after, and it was tape back then, it’s rarely as spot-on as you thought it was. And the highlight was the covers, of “Carol” on the first side and “Little Queenie” on the second, and at the end of “Little Queenie” Mick Jagger uttered the above words.
Suddenly the focus was on Charlie Watts, whereas it had never been before. This was the era of the flamboyant drummer. Ginger Baker. Carmine Appice. And Ringo was Ringo. Charlie Watts was just part of the ensemble, he didn’t show off, he just kept time, but with this one thrown away line Mick made us notice, realize, that Charlie was not only a member of the band but he mattered, and he was having a hot night, and Mick realized this.
Our knowledge of the players and their playing was growing. But the truth is most listeners were not experts. We started to learn about rhythm sections, the importance of the bass and drums, but really in most bands those were secondary players, the singers and the flashy guitarists got all the attention.
And yes, we heard raves about the overplayers, but Charlie Watts?
With the legend boiling on the stove, then the Stones released the piece-de-resistance, “Sticky Fingers,” the album that not only fans had to own, but everybody had to own. “Brown Sugar” was as ubiquitous as “Satisfaction” six years before. And it had been six years, during which the sound had changed and most bands were history, some of the British Invasion acts were already doing oldies shows, but not the Stones.
And the Stones came back in ’72 with “Exile on Main Street,” which took most people decades to fathom, and went on a cleanup tour that made headline news. This was the self-professed “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” on the road, the Beatles were gone, no one else was in their league, they were gods. The original four plus Mick Taylor.
But then Taylor left.
And Bill Wyman dropped out.
They were replaced, but then we realized how integral Mick Taylor was, Ronnie Wood is good, but not transcendent, which Taylor could be.
Wyman? Let’s just say it was an economic issue. He was replaced by Darryl Jones. Skilled, but not Bill. Somehow there was this magic between Charlie and Bill. No one put them on their list of best players, yet they represented the bottom of the best band, they’re what drove it forward, like a freight train.
And there were more albums and more stadium tours and…
Keith fell out of a tree, and it took him a while to come fully back.
Chuck Leavell was now the musical director.
And Mick? He was hanging with the glitterati and Keith put him down but there was no one else left, no original band from the original era, never mind with this many hits.
And going to see the Stones is different from going to see any other act. They’ve got production, they were one of the first to use it on a grand scale. But at heart it’s just a little old rock and roll band, rooted in the blues, trying to catch fire every night on stage.
But how much longer could they keep doing it?
Mick had a heart problem. He looked fortysomething, but the truth is he was seventysomething.
And then Charlie Watts had to drop out of this year’s tour. We bought the story, he would be fine, he just wouldn’t be ready for the shows. It was Charlie, but this had happened with other bands before. And Charlie was not known as a limit-tester, living the wild life.
AND THEN HE DIES??
My phone started going wild, I went into shock. This was unexpected and this was final. Charlie Watts gone? THEN IT’S NOT THE SAME BAND!
Jagger made solo albums. He tried to say he didn’t need the Stones.
Keith was pissed, but he followed in Mick’s steps, with the X-Pensive Winos.
Sure, Charlie put out jazz albums, but they were seen as a side effort, indulging his whims, his desires, they were not made for the mainstream nor did they connect with the mainstream. Charlie was really only one thing…THE DRUMMER FOR THE ROLLING STONES!
And his hair went gray then white, but he never changed. He was a rock, physically and in his playing. Somehow you thought he’d quit like Wyman, being the elder statesman, but he hung in there, and if you were up close and personal you realized it wasn’t as effortless as it looked, Charlie was sweating, he was putting in the effort, he cared, he was the driving force of the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band and he knew it. He didn’t have airs, but he knew how important he was, that he was the linchpin, and without him the sound wouldn’t be quite the same, there would be no band.
And to a great degree there no longer is.
Sure, Mick and Keith can still go on stage and do it, but now less than half of the original band is involved, it’s them and backup players, hired guns.
HOW MUCH LONGER CAN THIS GO ON?
We thought since it had gone on this long, it would go on forever.
But that turns out to be untrue.
There are only two Beatles left. So many others have passed. But it seems most before their time, as a result of misadventure. But now we’re getting to the point where natural causes, health problems not engendered by the road, are coming into play. No one lives forever, not even Rolling Stones. The music does, but those who made it do not.
But it gets worse. Despite how important this music is to us, it’s not anywhere near as important to subsequent generations. And the truth is the Stones never sold that many records anyway, it was a live act, and when the band can no longer play live?
And as great as the records were and still are, live you can feel it, you can’t sit there passively, the music penetrates you, you’re lifted physically and emotionally, it’s a religious experience.
And Charlie Watts was one of the gods delivering it to us.
And he knew it, but he saw it not as stardom, but as a job. That he was useful and he was needed. Laying down the beat for the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.
And it starts with the beat. Without it there is no rock and roll.
Which means Charlie Watts was one of the foundations of rock and roll. The rest was built upon his efforts. He came first. Without him there was nothing. As we learned in Florida just recently, without a solid base the whole structure falls apart.
And then we have the aftermath. The shock, the denial, the anger…
We’re not quite yet at the depression. We are far from the acceptance, we don’t ever want to accept it. This is our generation. Turns out we didn’t die before we got old. We survived, and in many cases flourished, just like the Stones themselves. And one can look at the passing of Charlie Watts and contemplate your own mortality, but really it’s a crumbling of your interior superstructure, these heroes and their music kept you going. They added structure to your life. And if that’s gone what do you have left?
But not live.
It’s got a backbeat, and you can’t lose it.
Today we lost rock and roll’s backbeat.
Charlie, you were humble, you never slacked, you gave it your all and we realized it. We hope you knew.
We certainly did.
Responses from Bob’s readers. Please note, these comments are not edited for grammar or content.
Over the years Simple Minds have worked with the Rolling Stones on a number of occasions, mostly at various European festivals. It’s always an honour, albeit surreal. How come? Duh…Because they are the f*cking ‘Rolling Stones.’ And whilst others might refer to them as “Rock Royalty etc.” – on a good night I have found myself thinking that what I was witnessing was more comparable to genuine ‘Zen Masters.’ A mere quirk of fate – you don’t have to do anything to be born into royalty. Whereas be ‘a master’ at anything? I don’t need to tell you that it takes colossal effort and sacrifice.
Other memories, particularly of Charlie? Well, we once shared a studio complex in the centre of Manhattan during the mid eighties, and although the rooms we worked in were of course seperate, we nevertheless shared the main area where they would all hang out for hours, to the extent I always wondered how the Stones ever got any work done?
To say that they could not have been friendlier, even encouraging, is an understatement. As individual characters they were as impossible not to love, as it is impossible for me not to love ‘the feel’ of say, Gimme Shelter,’ ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ in particular.
Years later, backstage at a festival site in Belgium, I was delighted to be greeted by Charlie who informed me that he was having ‘A good old fashioned cup of English Breakfast tea’ – with China teapot and all – “If you fancy joining me?”
I certainly did fancy joining him. What a pleasure that was!
Rest In Peace Charlie Watts.
In 1989, I was asked to join up with The Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels Tour, as their tour photographer. I had worked with Keith and Ronnie before but didn’t know any of the other guys. I kept a low profile, doing my job and not bothering anyone. About a week in, while waiting in line for dinner at the buffet, I heard a voice from behind me say “Hey Paul, we have a day off in your home town next week. Can you show me around and help me find a place to buy a suit?” I turned around and was face to face with Charlie Watts. Now….anyone who knows me knows that I know ABSOLUTELY nothing about suits, but I did my research and on our off day, I called down to the concierge and ordered up a car and driver, called Charlie and he and I spent a lovely morning shopping for suits in Chicago!!
A week later we were in NYC, doing a 4 night stand at Shea Stadium. After sound check, I wandered in backstage and saw Charlie and his lovely wife Shirley sitting on a couch. He called me over and asked if I could do him a favor. Of Course- what do you need? Seems that Shirley wanted to grab a basket of apples and go outside and feed the police horses on the street. Would I accompany here and keep her safe? Once again- Of Course!! So Shirley and I went out to the street and fed the horses. Most likely none of the cops on horseback had any idea who she was, but it made Charlie so happy to see Shirley happy.
Every time I would see him after that he always asked me how my business was doing, and how my health was.
All in all, in 40 years of photographing musicians, I have never met anyone who was as nice (and classy) as Mr. Watts- also never met anyone his equal as a drummer!!!
Thanks, Bob, for the insight into Charlie Watts and his place in the rock pantheon.
My high school band opened for the Stones in Dayton, Ohio, on their second US tour in November ’64.
The converted barn the promoter used for the show only had one “dressing room” for the bands. Brian Jones wasn’t even there. He had gone on to Chicago to prep for the next day’s recording session at Chess. Mick sat back in a folding chair with a hat over his eyes the whole time and Keith noodled in the corner with his guitar up to his ears as there was no practice amp. Charlie and Bill, on the other hand, were so nice and chatty and outgoing the whole time. They discussed gear and performance venues in the UK compared to the US with us and how much they were looking forward to recording in Chicago and so much more. Sadly, we were too cool to have a camera with us. But the memory is etched in my mind forever regarding the classiness of Bill and Charlie.
Like everyone, I am very upset at Charlie’s passing. He had a major impact on my life. I was born and raised in Toronto. As a young itchy teenager, my claim to fame was having pictures of Charlie Watts with my grandfather in Liverpool. He was a gunsmith and dealer in antique firearms. I was told that Charlie bought many items for his private collection from my grandfather, and visited my grandparents in Liverpool frequently.
The visits were well documented as my grandfather was also an avid photographer. Growing up in 70’s Toronto and having many pictures of a Rolling Stone made me a cool dude! I learned from my dad, that Charlie was a lover of history, and he was very interested in the American Civil War and The Wild West.
Fast forward… I fell into the music business, and it became my thing. In 1994, I was the in house promoter/venue manager for Toronto’s RPM, and the soon to open Warehouse. Rumours were swirling about a Stones club gig, and what venue would be fortunate enough to get it. One glorious life changing day, my phone rang and it was Arthur Fogel from CPI. He asked me to hold a date for The Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge Secret Warm Up Gig!!!!! It was made very clear that if the word leaked out, the gig would be cancelled. I kept it a secret for two weeks, and later I received a call that Michael Cohl wanted to do a private walk through of the venue. We met and it was a go however it had to remain a secret.
The big day came and all went well for set up and sound check. I met the Stone’s security people, and I decided to make the big ask. I gave them a brief outline of my deceased grandfather’s relationship with Charlie and I asked if it would be possible to say hello. I was not expecting much as I was sure Charlie had more on his mind than to say hello to some punter. Next thing you know, two very big men came and guided me to Charlie’s dressing room. He wanted to meet me!!!!!
I spent twenty minutes talking to a wonderful, humble, and passionate man about my grandfather, antique firearms, and military history. It was a day that I have never forgotten. I have met many rockstars. He was the coolest.
R.I.P. Mr Watts.
I worked a Micheal Cohl/TNA presents Rolling Stone show in Fargo on Feb 17, 1999 for the “No Security “ tour. Since I was working backstage and in the dressing rooms I had to meet the band, every last one of them. Their long time head of security, Jim Callaghan, took me to meet them and one after one I shook hands said hello and carried on.. Charlie being the gent he was started chatting with me , where I was from and so on. Exactly like I expected him to be. I was always a huge fan of the band but Charlie was the man. Loved his effortless style, always playing the hi hat on the 2 and 4 and always deep in a shuffle/jazz pocket. Even after 23 years and over a thousand concerts under my belt it’s still a highlight..after the show the band wanted to watch “ Fargo” so we had a huge rear projection tv shipped up from Minneapolis. Us and the crew sat and watched the film together. Later that night I had drinks at the Holiday Inn bar and Bobby Keys was there.. couldn’t have been more perfect.
I remember back in 1989/90 when “Steel Wheels” came out the Simpson’s writers put a poster in Lisa’s bedroom that said “Steel Wheelchair” tour.. that was 31 years ago! A lot of the critics thought the band should’ve packed in years before that! As we all know they were wrong, the band kicked ass for decades to come and likely will continue to do so for a few more with Steve Jordan on the kit.
We’ve had a lot of loss lately but this one surprised me the most because it was the loss of an “immortal”
Or at least he was to me.
All the best and keep the letters coming!
Four whole days
I sat outside the Stones rehearsal in 2013.
I heard Charlie and Keith put it all together piece by piece before anyone else arrived.
I saw Mick pose & primp – Keith ignore it and laugh – and even got into their private pre tour show at The Echo.
I’d seen The Stones many times before. But seeing the skeleton take its baby steps then become a full , stadium filling spectacle , was a real education.
Seeing me off to the side for such a long time , saying nothing and calling no attention to myself –
it was Charlie who came out to say hello.
It really was a GAS GAS GAS
Guitar / SAG
Truly one of the kings.
I worked as an assistant engineer on a jazz quintet radio session with him in 2006. I was just a kid, clearly nervous in the presence of royalty. He couldn’t have been cooler – joking with the crew, having a great time around jazz players, so happy to be talking about jazz and not the Stones.
I asked him if he knew Elvin Jones and he said “Oh Elvin was the best, real drummer, not like what I do”.
Two things struck me:
1. He played with FORCE. Even with a bebop style quintet, there was no mistaking that he played with clear confidence and intention. He generated a shocking amount of volume.
2. He smelled AMAZING. Obviously the best dressed in the room, but no one expects the drummer to be the best smelling individual on the session.
RIP to the legend.
Back in 2014 I got called to cover Charlie’s project The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie for Keyboard Magazine at the Iridium in New York City. I had a blast interviewing pianist Ben Waters before the show, so much so that he invited me back that night to catch the gig.
Afterwards I went backstage to thank him, and I immediately was standing next to Charlie in the club’s clandestine dressing room. Ben tells him, “Charlie, this is Jon. He’s a great jazz pianist.”
And suddenly, Charlie’s eyes lit up and his expression changed, as if I gave the password to the doorman at an exclusive after hours club. He immediately started chatting to me about jazz, and his favorite players and records. For a moment I was part of the band.
I’m sure I’m just one of countless admirers of his who he made feel special. But it made a lasting impression on me. Sometimes you meet your heroes and you wish you hadn’t. But Charlie was a giant on and off the bandstand. How many people can you say that about?
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