It’s taken me a moment to come to terms with the death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. I never met him, but, like many of us, I grew up with him.
My mother’s younger sister lived with us for a period of time when I was four or five years old. I still remember the LPs of the Stones, the Beatles, and the Lettermen–of all unlikely combinations–in the living room, stacked and leaning against the sofa leg.
As I matured (relative term), I followed the band’s exploits–musical and otherwise–through detailed and colorful articles in Rolling Stone magazine. At the tender age of twelve, I marveled at the actual metal zipper that was embedded in the Stone’s Sticky Fingers album cover. I was, not surprisingly, prohibited from buying the record by my concerned parents.
As the seventies went by in an adolescent blur, 1981 found me at my first Rolling Stones concert in Houston. I had no idea what to expect, given the dangerous legacy of violence at Altamont years before and the general ‘anything can happen’ atmosphere that had permeated all Stones’ concerts before and a few times since.
My friends from college had come in for the event. Someone had acquired decent but not great seats toward the back of the Astrodome. Someone else had the idea of just bribing the security guard at the floor entrance to see if we could get in and stand with all of the other fans.
It turned out to be a great idea. We handed the ticket-checker-person twenty dollars a piece and were waved through to the floor of the arena just as the lights dimmed and the guitar riff from “Under My Thumb” pierced the air.
Predictably, the place went nuts. Mick was in fighting form, sporting football pants, an athlete’s endurance and agility, and a master showman’s prowess. Two and a half hours later, they had left it all on the field, as sports fans say. Mick fell to his knees at the end of the final encore, exhausted and triumphant.
Somewhere before the finale, he had introduced the band. Appreciative applause went up for Billy Wyman and other members of the troupe. The surprising reaction came, however, when Mick turned and motioned to Charlie. “And on the drums…”
And that was all anyone could hear him say. Because the crowd exploded. Charlie half-stood behind the drum kit, acknowledged the tens of thousands and then sat back down. But they–we–would not stop. The cheering continued. The crowd loved this man.
I experienced the same reaction in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium in 1997. A friend who worked with the band obtained 8th row seats for my wife and me. Times had changed. Instead of screaming teenagers, Hells Angels, and bottle being thrown at the stage, we sat among movie stars, record executives, and politicians. Instead of marijuana, it was the whiff of Cuban cigars burning that was most noticeable.
The show, once again, was world class. The reaction to Charlie Watts, again, was remarkable.
He was, without a doubt, an incredible and innovative drummer. But he was not a rock star. He did his job for more than half a century and was no less capable at the end of his career than at the start. That can’t be said of very many people.
In an industry that wood-chips relationships and spits them to the wind, he was married to the same woman for decades. Unlike his bandmates, who lived rock and roll, Charlie only played rock and roll. And jazz.
And then he went home to a private life, a country gentleman raising horses.
I think people admired that workmanlike attitude amidst all of the ego and crazy that is part and parcel of the entertainment industry. They liked the way he dressed: elegantly and with style, as if to point out the distance between him and the rough-and-tumble, tie-dyed and leopard-print world he was obligated to inhabit.
A final story about the man might be most revealing. A friend of mine ended up at the Hollywood Hills home where Mick Jagger would stay when he visited Los Angeles. Charlie and other band members were there, discussing the stage decor for that same 1997 tour.
My friend looked down at Charlie’s magnificent two-tone spectators, luminous and luxurious in brown and white leather. “Oh my god,” she blurted out, “Those are incredible.”
“Thank you,” replied Charlie, looking down and seeming to be surprised that the shoes were actually his. Then he looked up at her and said, “Would you like a pair?”
My friend was stunned for a brief moment, then politely declined, but thanked Charlie just the same. A little moisture came to her eye when she shared the story with me, so many years ago. She was there, at the lunch, with rock royalty. But she wasn’t an heiress. She wasn’t a groupie. She wasn’t anybody, or ‘somebody’ in terms of music, movies, or money.
She was working for the catering company, serving lunch.
It’s a memory like that…that makes you miss a man like that.
And we do miss our friend Charlie.