I was dreading the day, and now Charlie Watts is dead. Perhaps the coolest member of the Rolling Stones because he didn’t need to act cool or debauched or act anything for the limelight, just perch on his drum throne and keep it all together.
As Mick Jagger often said on stage, “Charlie’s good tonight, isn’t he?” Charlie’s good every time I hear him. People mean well when they call a solid drummer a “human metronome” or “human drum machine” but the complimentary truth is that Charlie is a human drummer period, pushing and pulling in all the sexy ways that can’t be programmed. His snare strikes behind the beat, his bass drum leads or syncopates, his hi-hat varies, his fills are tasteful transitions. Whether or not the casual listener cares about any of that, it’s significant, incalculable stuff that makes a band work and the songs resonate. All of it is instantly identifiable and intrinsic to the feel of the Stones.
In the early years, he’s an honorable timekeeper, alert to a creative deviation here and there, then somewhere around “Street Fighting Man” and “Stray Cat Blues” from Beggars Banquet, his synergy with Keith Richards’ rhythmic guitar finds a groove that would define the Stones for decades. It’s there on Sticky Fingers and Exile and the better parts of the mid-70s albums, and he’s in prime form on Some Girls. Charlie’s style gets even more distinctive with time; his drums are as much a color as any of the guitars on Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge. He opens Bridges to Babylon with a propulsive beat on “Flip the Switch” that could have come from no one else and closes the album gently in “How Can I Stop” (indeed). Then there’s 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, where he and the rest of the band sound so damn good on a bevy of blues covers.
Charlie also played straight man to the antics of his bandmates, occasionally smirking or rolling his eyes at such, but a brother to them all. He knew how to dress to the nines and carried himself likewise as a gentleman. He made it to 80, no tragic age to go, but it’s still sad. At the time of writing, I don’t know if The Stones will carry past a few already-scheduled concerts; for me, The Rolling Stones are over. You can’t do it without Mick or Keith, nor can it ever be the same without Charlie. To borrow a line from “Miss You”, it’s just you or no one else. Rest well, sir, and thanks for all the work.
[Keith Richards on “Street Fighting Man”: Charlie stuck with me on this track. I’m the rhythm player...not a virtuoso soloist or anything like that. To work together with the drummer, that’s my joy. This record is one of the examples of what can happen when two cats believe in each other.]