The Anchor

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I wonder if Charlie Watts, Tom T. Hall, and Don Everly ever met.…

It’s hard to write tribute posts for the biggest stars because others can do it better. There’s no point in my aggregating a bunch of the stuff I’ve read about Charlie Watts in the last 24 hours either, since you have likely read most of it, too. It is, like it was after the passing of Little Richard and Glen Campbell, like trying to drink from a firehose. It becomes overwhelming and you can’t absorb anymore.

But I feel obligated to write something, because the Stones have been part of my life and my music collection from the beginning. I bought “Brown Sugar” on a 45 in 1971, and the first real album I ever owned (as distinct from a couple of K-Tel compilations) is Hot Rocks: 1964-1971. After that, however, I didn’t know much about the band beyond what I heard on the radio; not until relatively late in life did I go back and closely listen to entire albums from the 60s and 70s and start collecting bootlegs. I am one of the heretics who likes Black and Blue. I never saw the Stones live; on their 1981 American tour, they played in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a couple of hours from where I went to college, and why we all didn’t go I can’t remember. In the years since, I have listened to a fair amount of live Stones and am generally underwhelmed by it; they always sound vastly better to me in the studio.

At their peak—and your list of peaks will vary; mine include Let It Bleed, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Sticky Fingers (“Brown Sugar,” “Bitch,” and “Dead Flowers” above all), Exile on Main Street (“Tumbling Dice” above all), “Heartbreaker,” “Start Me Up,” and yes, Black and Blue—they lived up to the incredibly outrageous title of The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Some critics tried to tear that reputation down while the Stones were earning it; two generations of music fans born since their heyday don’t necessarily buy it either. But go and listen to your own list of peak Stones and tell me it’s not true.

I spent some of this morning listening to isolated Charlie Watts drum tracks. It’s the nature of drums that we often don’t notice them, or we only pay attention on a solo or when a fill rises to the front of the mix, but on the isolated tracks, you can hear the things a masterful drummer does that a listener may perceive only on an unconscious level. For example, you don’t necessarily notice that Charlie’s drums on “Start Me Up” are practically martial, or how similar are his tracks on “Gimme Shelter” and “Honky Tonk Women.”

Everybody knows that being in a rock band was basically Charlie’s day job. His real passions were playing jazz, breeding horses and dogs, and watching cricket. He had never missed a Stones show in 56 years, however, and so the Stones’ plan to go out without him this fall was a much bigger deal than the reporting of it indicated. Based on some of what I have read, the Stones’ tours the last 30 years depended on Charlie; had he not been willing to go (or had not received the compensation he sought; since he was not a songwriter, his financial participation in the Stones was different from Mick and Keef’s), they might never have happened.

So here in 2021, he must have been a lot sicker than we knew, although the rest of the Stones clearly knew.

A remarkable fact about Charlie Watts is that he did not partake in the smorgasbord of sex and drugs that surrounded the Stones; that any young, rich, talented, indestructible man of the 1960s could resist such temptation is hard to imagine. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that Charlie had trouble with heroin, when it wasn’t fashionable anymore. And while Bill Wyman slept with literally thousands of women and Mick’s bedpost has hundreds of notches, Charlie married Shirley Shepherd in 1964 and when the day job was done, he went home to her and their daughter Seraphina. And as much as those of us who have worshipped at the Stones’ altar for all these years are saddened by his passing, our loss is nothing like theirs.

So here’s to a real one, indispensible to the creation of an unparallelled body of art but always on his terms, and a firm anchor in the eye of that crossfire hurricane. It’s a cliché to say we shall not see his like again, but, well, you know.

7 thoughts on “The Anchor

  1. CharlieG

    Yours is the best “tribute post” I have read so far. Most of the others neglected to mention his hobbies and family life and many other factors that made him different from Mick and Keith.

    Thanks again for adding your insight to the many articles and posts I have read.

  2. LEO Edelstein

    Jim, your points of view are always worth reading!
    Saw the Stones in fall, 1964, Milwaukee Auditorium.
    Maybe 2,000 young fans, I remember loving “Tell Me You’re Coming Back To Me.”
    In the late 60s, “Jumping’ Jack Flash” got me jumpin’.
    Whatta wonderful variety of tunes to enjoy!

  3. Thanks for not mentioning the anecdote about Charlie punching out Mick Jagger. Twitter was altogether too fond of that story yesterday, as if it were the moment that defined his entire career or something.

    Swing and rhythmic feel are hard to put into words – harder to describe, I think, than singing or guitar playing. That may explain why it’s hard to write about Charlie Watts.
    How do you capture pulse?

    This is an old-man opinion, but the pop music I encounter nowadays all seems to have a strictly defined rhythm – whether computer-generated, or someone playing closely to a click.
    I wonder how much room there is in mainstream popular music for *pulse*, for variability, for ebb and flow, for picking it up a little as you head into the chorus.

  4. Wesley

    Excellent tribute as always, jb. Charlie Watts got the job done without seeking the spotlight, grounding classics like Emotional Rescue providing a steady, clean, authentic beat in records that’s been sadly missing the last decades. He didn’t need headlines and didn’t make them, just got the job done and done well. While some in the public might have underrated for an apparent lack of flair in contrast to his fellow band members, all of whom overflowed personality, his peers certainly didn’t, based on many numerous and heartfelt tributes I’ve seen so far.

    This is weird how this death hit me, since I do respect and often enjoy The Rolling Stones, but not to the extent of many other people I know. I guess because the core group has always been around (Brian Jones was before my time, as the kids would say), I took them for granted. Losing Charlie has made me a little teary-eyed, like he was someone I never took enough time to appreciate. But I know many others did in his life, and throughout all the turmoil that’s been happening since–man, I’ve lost track where to even start–I’ll take comfort in knowing that Charlie no doubt had a fine and very fulfilled life.

  5. Tim Morrissey

    Last time I saw the Stones live was at Camp Randall Stadium in ’88 or ’89. Lenny Kravitz opened for them. The group of young people seated in the row below us all fired up joints when the concert started, so I had a decent contact high for the entire show.

    Your piece is excellent – as others above have pointed out. You told me some neat things that I didn’t know about Charlie. Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful and insightful piece.

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