Charlie Watts, core member of The Rolling Stones, passed away on Tuesday. I won’t comment on how Charlie was the coolest Stone – `cos honestly I have no idea about what’s cool and what’s not. I’m also not going to eulogize his jazz chops and swing, again `cos I know jack about technique. Nor am I gonna recount the story of how the drummer once knocked his singer out. For me, it`s hard to separate one Rolling Stone from the rest. For all the reported in-fighting, for nearly 60 years (!!!) they were a fucking tight, tight, eternally recording and touring unit, and despite their different personalities, that says a lot about all of them. At times they might have hated each other, but they were still best mates. Count yourself very lucky if you have friends like these.
When I was a kid, my old man never played The Stones. He`d sometimes stick in a cassette of The Beatles, and as a consequence the melancholy of McCartney ballads, like Michelle, and Yesterday, had a lasting impact on me. Their frequent rotation playing a part, for sure, in making me who I am*. But by the time I was 17 I was constantly at war with my dad, and in a two-fingered gesture, from a “stroppy, smart-mouthed, cunt”, John, Paul, George, & Ringo, were binned in favour of Mick, Keith, Bill, & Charlie**. I Wanna Be Your Man, Under My Thumb, The Last Time, and It`s All Over Now, each soundtracked the first time I fell in love. This was especially true of the relative innocent rush – bigger than Bo Diddley`s cadillac – of Not Fade Away, and She’s A Rainbow. We were not exactly unaware of the nasty, malevolent, misogynistic, edges as we sang along to the others. No female safe from Jagger`s scathing, sadistic, teasing, taunting, tongue. Drawing confidence from his considerable arrogance. Painting it black, playing with fire, horny with hormones, while harboring heartbroken crushes, in the confusion of adolescence and youth, as we raced around, “revived” mods and modettes.
Gimme Shelter spins and I`m back fumbling through spooked witching hour sessions parked on Lover`s Lane. An enthusiastic amateur unbuttoning, unfastening, unzipping, as Little Red Rooster`s cock crows. Coming Down Again`s angsty introspection serenaded the young alcoholic, my first dalliances with booze, speed, and weed. Winter found me more than elegantly wasted, comfortably, pretty much permanently, numb. You Can’t Always Get What You Want became an obvious anthem for me and my university drink and drug buddies. Hungover, pulling on the shirt, jeans and jacket, getting ready to do it all again. Enthralled by Primal Scream, and their rock`n`roll circus, I joined them exiled on Main Street. A lost and damaged dance to the ghostly gospel, the haunted New Orleans voodoo, of I Just Want To See His Face (a Tom Waits favourite). The mock Muscle Shoals spiritual of Shine A Light in particular, synonymous with my own coked-up, over, and out. A smile on my face, and a tear right in my eye, and the flies that I couldn’t seem to brush off.
Most of the time, on record at least, Charlie remains subtle, restrained – no mad Keith Moon moments, or Jon Bonham levee breaking beats. Only casually slipping in the odd fantastic fill – just to let folks know. However, there`s one Stones song where the rhythm undeniably takes centre stage, and that’s Sympathy For The Devil. A tune that after over 5 decades and counting continues to help kick-start countless millions of parties and raves. If ever a track were Charlie’s, then it`s this one. The lyric is Jagger borrowing from Baudelaire, and Mikhail Bulgakov. Showing off his then oh so fashionable taste for the occult, the esoteric texts and tomes he`d read, books he`d bought from Indica in Mason’s Yard. Charlie, inspired by bebop drummer, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, initiates a tribal, trance-inducing, tarantella, of frantic ride cymbals, cowbell, and bass drum bomb drops, that had even Bill Wyman shaking like a shamen, maracas, shekere, whatever came to hand. Embracing, encapsulating, the turbulent times, Sympathy sounds like a hippie campfire crashed by the Last Poets` righteous revolutionary insurrection. Coupled with Rocky Dijon’s conga-ed attack, the heady concoction – The Master & Margarita meets A Night In Tunisia – taps into something primordial, the evil in all of us, the phantom, shadow, that flirts with the demonic and the downright do wrong. The musical equivalent of cocaine.
Orchestrating his One Plus One project Jean-Luc Godard documented the evolution of the tune over two days in June 1968. Filming its transformation from a slow Dylan-esque ballad and accompanying folky strum. Godard famously clashed with The Stones – Jagger publicly called him “stuffy” – and he does his best to make the process appear boring, giving no clue as to how the tune jumped from a clipped soul / blues to the samba we’ve all screamed and shouted to. The best, funniest, bit in the whole pretty much unwatchable pretentious mess is when Charlie, arms folded – suited and chelsea-booted, boasting garms more like Steve McQueen than Mick and Keith`s burgeoning pirate / swashbuckler look – steadfastly refuses to join in the woo-woos.
Charlie Watts, thank you for the music, and the memories. Rest In Peace.
*I later learned that my dad had been a Stones nut – collected all the singles, queued outside shops on release days, but sold the lot when I came along, to provide for his young family. That Beatles cassette was taped from a friend. We had no vinyl in the house.
**When I reevaluated The Fab Four, The Stones, in comparison, well, they just sounded like noise. An amped up overdriven rebellious, fuck you, racket – paving the way for The Pistols, and The JMC.