Charlie Watts: The Rock of the Rolling Stones

I was recently involved in a discussion about Led Zeppelin’s least understood and appreciated album, In Through the Out Door (a topic I covered exactly a decade ago for a feature entitled “Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Don’t”), and although no sane person with working ears would ever doubt the brilliance of John Bonham, I found myself pointing out that one of his most impressive performances occurs during a song that not only didn’t require bombast, but the opposite. The song in question, the loved/loathed “All My Love” (and put me firmly in the former camp when it comes to this song). Check it:

I wrote:

And Bonzo. There’s nothing he plays on this song that a competent high schooler couldn’t duplicate note for note but it would never sound ANYTHING like him; that touch, that feel; and I adore how the song should actually be a beat slower (to work as a “ballad” or whatever) but Bonzo propels it from the jump, and it’s a half-step faster, instilling urgency as opposed to bathos.

Which brings us to the late, great Charlie Watts.

It’s understandable Watts never got the attention or credit he deserved, what with the larger-than-life characters (and egos) that stood center-stage; plus, how often do drummers not named Bonham, Moon, or Peart get equal approbation? More, it would be exceedingly difficult to identify a more restrained, less ego-driven icon than Watts. Finally, he was about flair, not flash, and it’s for his restraint and taste (and always impeccable touch) that he must be understood, and celebrated.

As such, the comment about Bonham, above, applies to virtually everything Watts did. Certainly, he has some all-time, for-the-ages performances, but his super power was subtlety, taking near-perfect songs to the next level where they become Rolling Stones songs.

Exhibit A, “Wild Horses.” Indelible; unimprovable. But give this one a spin (for the hundredth or thousandth time) and really listen to Watts, and how he sharpens the edges, cleans the corners, and brings the entire proceedings into sharp, solid focus.

One difficult thing writing about music is it’s so much easier (and more effective, not to mention honest) to just roll the tape. Appreciating Charlie Watts is simple enough, but properly appreciating him is the difference between a domestic light beer and a Guinness, perfectly poured, preferably in a coal-warmed bar in Dublin.

Q: Why is Charlie Watts, so difficult to describe to non-musicians, one of the premier, first-tier drummers in all rock?

A: Check out, just to list some extremely low-hanging, very tasty fruit, “Get Off My Cloud,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (was there a better drummer on slower songs and ballads?), “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” and, of course, “Paint it Black.” I mean, the riff heard ‘round the world gets all the love, but try to imagine the band’s breakout tune, “Satisfaction,” without Charlie’s driving, insistent propulsion?

Want to get yer ya-ya’s out? Put this is in your pipe and smoke it. (One of the all-time live performances from one of the all-time live recordings featuring one of the all-time great album covers featuring you-know-who. My very long appreciation of this album, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, here.)

Not unlike Ringo, it’s easy to overlook the one ostensibly making the least amount of noise (with their instrument; with their mouth), but once again, it’s all but impossible to imagine The Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts — something neither Mick nor Keith have ever hesitated to acknowledge.

It’s not that the cameras love Mick Jagger (though they certainly do); it’s that he mugs the cameras so he can mug into them — and who are we to complain? What would you do; what could you do if you were blessed with such superhuman charisma? It’s not even personal, it’s strictly business. Keith, too, wants that love, but he doesn’t need it like Mick does, which is one reason everyone loves Mick but worships Keith. What really makes the Stones work, and arguably why they’ve endured through the decades, is that all the supporting players know their roles, and were mostly content to operate behind the scenes, stoking the coals and greasing the engine.

Charlie Watts served as the reliable, impeccable, reticent timekeeper, and he made that train run on time, every time, since the early ’60s. By far the least flashy member of the world’s flashiest band, Watts was a pro’s pro (he was the Rock of the Rolling Stones) and seemingly the most secure and self-contained superstar in rock history. He’s arguably the least appreciated, too, but he passes the ultimate test: cue up any of the group’s best songs and try to imagine them without his solid, impeccable support.

I’ve always loved this clip for a number of reasons. One, it closes probably the greatest pop culture documentary of its decade; two, it shows the best band in the universe at the absolute peak of their powers, fully aware of how untouchable they were at that time. It’s also a succinct mini-documentary of the different personalities: Jagger unable to help himself from being self-conscious — but also adorable and irresistible; Keef being Keef: just too cool to even open his eyes, happy to let his blissed out lip synching (and his snakeskin boots) speak for him, and then the man who couldn’t be less impressed with the charade, old Charlie. The cameraman has the Glimmer Twins right there, every impulse must be screaming: turn the focus to them (!), but he stops at 2:01 and lets the lens stay on Watts for a full 50 seconds. Those 50 seconds show us how unaffected, disarming, and authentic Charlie Watts always was. At the end of the day, the two most camera-friendly icons of an era are passed over for a long, loving close-up of the drummer who needed nothing and gave everything. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Rocks Off” may not be the best opening track from any album ever, but it’s definitely in the Top One.

It’s an introduction and announcement, but also a declaration: The Beatles are (long) gone and we are the greatest band in the world, hear us roar.

This also caps a decade of growth only matched by the Fab Four in terms of humble if ambitious beginnings, where world-class talent combined with restless creativity and a desire to grow, stretch, absorb, and channel seemingly everything into a vision that’s at once singular and elastic. To go from mediocre and very white covers of classic blues singles, paying more dues (and second fiddle to the Fab Four), to finally putting the jigsaw pieces together on Beggar’s Banquet and then through the looking glass for the Holy Trinity of Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and, of course, Exile on Main Street. They matched the Beatles blow for blow, but outlasted them, and if you give ‘67-’69 to Lennon/Mac, you have to contend with the Stones in ‘70-’72. Who’s better? Who cares. Not sure any band put together three albums in a row that can stand with the Holy Trinity, pound for pound, song for song, sound for sound.

There are so many songs that could be said to showcase (illustrate?) what made the Stones so special (take any number from the Holy Trinity, and dozens upon dozens before or after) but “Rocks Off” is like the sonic flypaper that reveals seemingly every influence they mainlined, their inimitable ability to combine glamor and gutter, deep, deeply felt blues and raw rock, unabashed aggression, seduction (always, always about the fucking with Jagger), and — no pun intended — dissatisfaction, a shrug for the charade of fame (“the sunshine bores the daylights out of me…”) and the reality that we’re all alone, no matter how famous we are (“I only get my rocks off when I’m dreaming.”). This joint grooves for days and stays groovy; it’s impossible to ignore, it gets everything moving.

And driving it all, that irresistible beat? Charlie MF Watts.

What a relief to be mere mortals; we not only can sit back and bask in the glory of the gods amongst us, we also don’t have to go into battle. Sure, there are some for whom genius is sui generis and it unspools seemingly without effort (Paul McCartney, though I’d be the last to deny his work ethic and the lifetimes of industry he displayed all throughout the ’60s, if not beyond, still, by his own account, has just been able to tap into a Mozart-esque vibe and channel these gifts that arrive from some great beyond); for others, it’s earned, and while we understandably envy the wealth and fame, how many of us would want to log serious hours beneath the underground, where the real shit goes down, and then emerge, hours or months later, with material like “Sway”?

Did you ever wake up to find

A day that broke up your mind

Destroyed your notion of circular time…

It’s almost impossible, aesthetically: it’s a romp but it’s also a descent into the sludge; it’s a short, guided tour of a narcotic comedown — the edge taken off with cigarettes and whiskey; it’s a survival manifesto (I mean Holy Shit!: “Ain’t flinging tears out on the dusty ground / For all my friends out on the burial ground”), and a statement of purpose: rock stars don’t have business cards or resumes — they have albums and concerts. I half-believe that most folks, had a drop of Keith’s sweat fell on their tongue in the studio during the ‘Sticky Fingers’ sessions, would have expired on the spot.

One of the enduring glories of Sticky Fingers is how a band can take such dark, occasionally disturbing material and make it sound like a house party. If you read the lyrics of “Sway” or “Sister Morphine” (or “Brown Sugar” for God’s sake), you’d think this is a kind of poetry that would give Baudelaire pause, a vibe that makes both Dylan and Lennon look like boys about to drown in the kiddie pool.

Speaking of St. John…..there’s an insecurity about Lennon, the original hippie flashing peace signs while driving a Rolls Royce; as though he’d spray some mud on his face for the photo shoot but then clean up right quick for afternoon tea. One might be tempted to say the same about Jagger, but — and here’s the document that proves it — you simply can’t fake this; you have to be living like a naked and raw nerve to create music that sounds like a naked and raw nerve. Jagger, for all his prancing and posing, undoubtedly got in the filth, wallowed around, and discovered he not only enjoyed it, but *needed* it. More, and miraculously, he was brave enough to do multiple tours of duty; he was strong enough to bear witness, and the material from ’69 — ’72 is his diary from the trenches

Incidentally….eternal props for the egregiously uncelebrated Mick Taylor. Newsflash: that’s all MT on this track (Keith, as ever, supplying the best backing vocals, but not slinging here): one of the great rock solos and possibly the best rock guitar outro of the ’70s (ever?): an absolute tour de force of expression, through the glass very darkly. Brutal, bloody, beautiful.

Oh, and — as always — holding it all together, with perfect time and incomparable touch? Charlie MF Watts.

The essence of Charlie Watts? Right here.

Q: How can you epitomize “less is more” and show off at the same time?

A: Tumbling Dice.

(Plus: it’s not showing off if that’s just how you roll. When you have it, you do it. It stays done. That’s genius.)

That’s a legacy: always doing exactly what was needed, no more and no less, every single time.

He will be missed. He won’t be forgotten.

Rest in peace, Charlie.

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net