He animated the Rolling Stones, pumped the band’s blood.
August 25, 2021
Charlie Watts—who, since 1963, had played drums in the Rolling Stones—died on Tuesday, in London, at age eighty. No cause of death has been offered publicly, although a few weeks ago the band announced that it would be touring the U.S. without Watts for the first time in almost six decades. It was odd to ponder the Stones minus Watts, even temporarily. It’s clichéd, maybe, to refer to a drummer as the heartbeat of an ensemble, but the Stones have long been defined by groove, rhythm, a kind of loose-limbed swing—Watts animated the band, pumped its blood. He wasn’t the sort of player you could phone in a replacement for. A representative for the group said that Watts had undergone “a procedure” that was “completely successful,” but nonetheless needed time off to recuperate. I hadn’t wanted to hear it as a portent, and so I didn’t.
Watts was born in London in 1941. His mother was a homemaker, and his father drove a truck. As a teen-ager, he collected and studied 78-r.p.m. records by American jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, and Charlie Parker. In 2012, Watts told my colleague Alec Wilkinson that he created his first snare drum by purposefully disassembling a banjo: “I didn’t like the dots on the neck, so I took the neck off,” he said. He’d heard a drummer named Chico Hamilton, who had performed with Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon before founding his own quintet in Los Angeles. “I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand,” Watts recalled. He eventually enrolled at Harrow School of Art and took a day job as a graphic designer. He was earning good money performing in various jazz outfits around London, and so it took some effort for the Rolling Stones to recruit him. Watts didn’t agree to join until they could guarantee him a salary of five pounds a week. (“We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts,” the guitarist Keith Richards later wrote in his memoir, “Life.” “We cut down on our rations, we wanted him so bad, man.”) Rock and roll was still a relatively new music—it had been only a decade or so since Black musicians from Mississippi and Tennessee had started mixing up elements of rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and jazz, performing with a kind of lunatic urgency—and Watts wasn’t especially well acquainted with its particularities. It didn’t matter. He and the Stones instantly became foundational to the genre.
Watts expressed little interest in celebrity, and, though he struggled with addiction in his forties (heroin and amphetamines), he didn’t aspire to a debaucherous life. He quietly married the sculptor Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1964, and they had a daughter, Seraphina, in 1968. When the Stones weren’t on tour, Watts and Shepherd bred Arabian horses on a farm in southwestern England. Onstage, he provided a staid counterpoint to Mick Jagger, who squirmed around in jewelry, leather, and fur, magnetic, flamboyant, electric. One got the sense that neither could exist without the other. There is a gleefully oft-repeated story that, apocryphal or not, seems to neatly encapsulate their dynamic: at the end of a night out partying in Amsterdam, a drunken Jagger called Watts’s hotel room and demanded, “Where’s my drummer?” Watts rose from bed, shaved, changed into a sharp Savile Row suit, slapped on some cologne, and knocked on Jagger’s door. When Richards opened it, Watts walked past him and spat at Jagger, “Never call me your drummer again,” then punched him in the face. Richards described the aftermath of the event in “Life”: “Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon and began to slide toward the open window and the canal below it.” Richards grabbed Jagger by the lapel of his jacket before he disappeared out the window entirely. It took Richards twenty-four hours to talk Watts out of punching him again. Watts wasn’t anyone’s hired hand, and he knew it.
Drumming is often ugly—belligerent and combative, all jerky elbows, exaggerated grimaces, and sweat-soaked shorts—but Watts looked so beautiful when he played. His style was not animalistic but, instead, almost pointedly reserved. His posture alone suggested a preternatural elegance. He quickly became known for his effortlessness and discipline, the way he never did too much—there is always poetry in restraint, and one miracle of Watts’s playing was how it called so little attention to itself. It’s possible to find Watts’s isolated drum tracks online, if you’re into that sort of thing. They’re not always perfect in the technical sense, but they are deeply perfect in other, less quantifiable ways. My favorite is from “Sympathy for the Devil,” the opening track from 1968’s “Beggars Banquet.” The beat—inspired by samba—is constant, hypnotic, and vaguely malevolent. It feels as though a spirit is being conjured. Every time I hear it, I get the sense that something very dangerous or very exciting is about to happen.
Trying to make sense of Watts’s virtuosity now, I’m tempted to talk about the particular way he made contact with the snare (“Charlie Watts’s snare sound is the Rolling Stones,” Bruce Springsteen once wrote), or the influence of radical jazzmen such as Parker and Mingus, but to linger on those things feels like a funny kind of evasion, a way of deliberately shirking the essential mystery at the center of his work: Why did Charlie Watts sound so much better than everyone else?
In 1993, Watts gave a rare solo interview to Matt Lauer. (Lauer was filling in for Bob Costas on “Later with Bob Costas,” the late-night talk show.) Lauer asks a dumb question—Does Watts think the Stones are the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band?—and Watts responds with the appropriate amount of antipathy. “That’s the sort of thing that critics, those people. . . .” he begins, before changing course and gently demurring, “It’s better than being the worst, innit?” Nonetheless, the amount of pure vitriol he applies to the word “critics” has always made me laugh. It makes sense that Watts would have regarded the practice with some degree of skepticism. What made him so incredible was what people like me tend to call “feel”—it’s a feeble way of applying language to something that can’t really be explicated. Watching Watts play is still one of the best ways I know to check in with the riddle and thrill of art—to witness something miraculous but not to understand it.