Charlie Watts was quiet, dignified and the soul of the Rolling Stones

I WAS standing at the back of the stage at one of the Rolling Stones’ concerts at Wembley Stadium in the Nineties.

Charlie Watts, perhaps looking for a partner in crime, or maybe because he was just being cheeky, looked back at me and winked.

4

Charlie always thought that being a rock star in the biggest rock and roll band in the world was slightly ridiculousCredit: Redferns

He wasn’t being disrespectful, wasn’t being rude, he was just being Charlie.

Because Charlie always thought that being a rock star in the biggest rock and roll band in the world was slightly ridiculous.

And Charlie, who died on Tuesday aged 80, refused to let success go to his head. In 1986, after 25 years on the road with the band, he told an interviewer, in his inimitable deadpan way, “It’s been five years of work and 20 years of hanging around.”

Charlie Watts took everything in his stride, including being a drummer in a band that played rock music. He much preferred jazz, and right up until the end of his life played in a small jazz band as a side hustle.

He was always the reluctant Rolling Stone, the last one to grow his hair in the Sixties, the only member of the band who wanted to continue playing jazz and rhythm and blues rather than get involved in the brand new world of pop.

He was also the first to marry, making an honest woman of his girlfriend Shirley, in 1964, just as the band were on the cusp of global fame.

True to form, he didn’t really tell anyone, as that would have been tantamount to making a fuss. And Charlie rarely made a fuss.

Only once did he make such a fuss that it made the papers.

After Mick Jagger rang Charlie up one night and asked, “Where’s my drummer?”, Watts got out of bed, shaved, put on one of his bespoke suits, put on a tie and slipped into a pair of freshly polished Oxfords.

Then he went to Jagger’s room, punched him in the face and told him, “Don’t you ever call me your drummer again. You’re my f*ing singer!”

He was still so angry when he woke up that he told the band’s guitarist Keith Richards that he had a good mind to go back to Jagger’s room and do it again.

Thankfully, he didn’t.

In fact, in later years, as the relationship between Jagger and Richards became more fractious — a war of attrition that was exacerbated by Jagger’s determination to pursue a solo career, and by Richards’ fondness for heroin — Charlie became the band’s mediator.

Charlie was more of a Rolling Stone than all of them

He had always been the one member of the band who everyone else listened to, the one who was most grounded, and the one who could always see the big picture.

Jagger was the global superstar, hobnobbing with royalty, appearing on magazine covers and appearing in the gossip columns of the newspapers.

Richards was the rock and roll hero, the guitar king who enjoyed his reputation as the man that drugs couldn’t kill. While Watts remained the real core of the band, the beating heart. He kept time, for sure, but he also kept the soul of the band close to his heart.

And when there were arguments between the Stones, they were always resolved the same way. “What would Charlie think?” That’s what they would say.

Because Charlie was more of a Rolling Stone than all of them.

And they knew it.

Because Charlie could swing. He had a way of drumming that was completely particular, without being wildly idiosyncratic. He wasn’t a wildman drummer like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham or the Who’s Keith Moon, and instead took his style from the kind of drumming he really liked — jazz drumming.

Plus he always played just a little behind the beat. He says this was because he always followed Keith Richards, and as Keith always played just a tad behind the beat, that this determined his style.

But it was more than that.

Charlie’s style was never to anticipate the groove, but to slightly play with it, making his style ever-so nonchalant.

This is what gave the Rolling Stones their groove. Their sound. Their style.

Because while the Stones made some of the most demonstrative rock and roll records of all time — just think about the extraordinary riffs contained in Honky Tonk Women, Tumbling Dice, Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Start Me Up etc — they were always rather aloof, espousing a kind of “come and get me” quality.

They were big records, but they were never in your face, never desperate for attention. A Rolling Stones record didn’t have to convince you to like it, which is why the Rolling Stones became the band they were.

Of course Charlie had his indulgences. Having eschewed drugs for years, in his fifties he irrationally decided to take up heroin, something which he put down to a midlife crisis.

But he soon realised how ridiculous he was behaving, and he stopped it. He also quit drinking and smoking at the same time.

Perhaps this is how it was always going to end, the quiet man of rock going out in the quietest way possible, dignified to the last

He bred horses, and kept warehouses full of things he was never going to use. He kept a bunch of fancy vintage cars, even though he couldn’t drive.

And he had a clothes obsession that kept a variety of Savile Row tailors in business for years. I knew his stylists extremely well for years, and I was bewildered by the amount of money Charlie could spend on clothes. Sorry, not clothes, suits.

Charlie never liked the slovenly nature of rock and roll, and when occasion demanded it, would always wear a suit rather than jeans and a T-shirt.

This was a manifestation of his genuine working-class roots.

His father, Charles, was a lorry driver, and his mother, Lillian, a housewife.
When Charlie spoke, he spoke in gentrified Cockney, not in the garbled Mockney used by so many rockers. Charlie was true to his roots. Genuine. A proper gentleman.

The one thing you’re not allowed to be in rock and roll is normal, and yet Charlie Watts was normal through and through.

In the 1980s a friend of mine moved back to New York from London. In London he had run the fashionable King’s Road store, Granny Takes A Trip.

In New York he found himself unable to find work, so he took a job as a sales assistant in the trendy Barneys department store.

A couple of months into his new job, the floor manager told my friend there was “someone here to see you”.

It was Charlie. They were old friends, and the Rolling Stone wanted to see how his old mate was doing. “He asked me how I was and wished me good luck. That’s the kind of man he was.”

This is a sentiment that appears to be shared by many people who knew him over the years.

Whenever someone famous dies, you can judge how people felt about them by the miniature obituaries that appear on Instagram.

The one thing you’re not allowed to be in rock and roll is normal, and yet Charlie Watts was normal through and through.

When Charlie died on Tuesday, the outpouring of grief on the social media platform was not just abundant, it was heartfelt.

Never have I seen so many posts about a person’s death, and rarely have I read such loving tributes.

The reason is simple: Charlie was the real deal.

“I’m not really a rock star,” he said once. “I don’t have all the trappings of that. Having said that, I do have four vintage cars and can’t drive the bloody things.

“I’ve never been interested in doing interviews or being seen. I do interviews because I want people to come and see the band.

“The Rolling Stones exist because people come to the shows.” After every tour he was asked whether he would retire, and up until his fifties he used to seem eager to hang up his drumsticks.

But as he became of pensionable age, he appeared to relish the prospect of carrying on until he dropped.

“I’ve thought that the band might stop a lot of times,” he said.

“I used to think that at the end of every tour. I’d had enough of it — that was it. But, no, not really. I hope [when it ends] that everyone says, ‘That’ll be it’.

“I’d hate for it to be a bloody big argument. That would be a real sad moment.” In the end, there was no argument. Charlie just quietly bowed out.

When the Stones announced a few weeks ago that Charlie would not be accompanying them on their forthcoming American tour as he recovered from an unspecified medical procedure, there were rumblings that Watts was actually far more frail than anyone thought. And so it proved.

However perhaps this is how it was always going to end, the quiet man of rock going out in the quietest way possible, dignified to the last.

Charlie, we’re going to miss you. We’re all going to miss you.

The Stones announced a few weeks ago that Charlie would not be accompanying them on their forthcoming American tour as he recovered from an unspecified medical procedure

4

The Stones announced a few weeks ago that Charlie would not be accompanying them on their forthcoming American tour as he recovered from an unspecified medical procedureCredit: Terry O’Neill / Iconic Images
Charlie had a way of drumming that was completely particular, without being wildly idiosyncratic

4

Charlie had a way of drumming that was completely particular, without being wildly idiosyncraticCredit: TWITTER/KEITH RICHARDS
He was always the reluctant Rolling Stone, the last one to grow his hair in the Sixties, the only member of the band who wanted to continue playing jazz and rhythm and blues

4

He was always the reluctant Rolling Stone, the last one to grow his hair in the Sixties, the only member of the band who wanted to continue playing jazz and rhythm and bluesCredit: Getty
Paul McCartney pays tribute to the late Charlie Watts

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here