Thursday, August 26, 2021

Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts died on Tuesday at age 80. Along with bass guitarist Bill Wyman, were the “quiet” members of the group, laying down a solid rhythm for frontmen Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. From the beginning he was a Stone apart—married, an artist, gainfully employed, a very sharp dresser, more jazz than rock and roll and always a first-rate drummer. As a teenage Rolling Stones fan my attention was easily drawn to the more flamboyant members of the group but something about Charlie Watts always caught my eye. He didn’t seem to quite fit into the rock and roll lifestyle. He simply played drums well in what he called his “day job” and pursued his other interests, particularly jazz, as time and the touring schedule allowed. Somehow, he managed to ignore the trappings of celebrity and fame.

Even so, Watts wasn’t entirely able to escape the dangers of his work environment. He developed a heroin addiction in the 1980s that threatened to cost him his career and family. His addiction was bad enough that Keith Richards(!) told him he needed to get help. He did just that and continued to play with the band for the rest of his life. Funny thing about Watts’ drumming is that it stands out without being over dramatic. Listening to the Rolling Stones songs I don’t focus on the drumming—it’s part of a complete package that makes up the song but it’s also essential to the to the song. I’m not well-versed in all of the intricacies that define good drumming but I do know that Watts added heft and authority to the group’s music over six decades.

My interest in the Rolling Stones waned in the 70s and beyond as they became more of an institution and a large scale touring act. I think the last Stones album in my collection is 1973’s “Goat’s Head Soup”. I was much more drawn to their earlier, more hardscrabble music and thought their later music was more derivative than original. Even so, I was aware that the group never lost its appeal and, as the decades rolled on, continued to make outstanding music, completely reinventing the role of aging rockers and never simply falling back on their greatest hits of yesteryear. Those hits remained part of the act but never exclusively so and the Rolling Stones were always contemporary. Mick and Keith may have been out front gathering attention but Charlie was always behind them with a solid, creative beat.

Godspeed, Charlie. It’s been one helluva ride.



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