Charlie Watts

“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 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.


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.


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?


And records.

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.

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