An interview with Mike Edison regarding his new book about the Rolling Stones drummer
Full transparency: Mike Edison was the editor for my 2010 book, We Never Learn, and I’ve known him since way before that.
As an already knowledgeable rock’n’roll fanatic, he came up as a drummer through the early ‘80s New York hardcore scene, but eventually landed in one of the most underrated bands of all time, the Raunch Hands.
Scumming around that legendary NYHC scene, the members of the Raunch Hands found it – and the similarly slavish retro garage rock scene – restrictive, to say the least, and set out to reclaim the oiliest ends of seemingly forgotten mid-century American rock’n’roll and R&B, then dumped in poorly measured shots of Bowery punk and ol’ country honk. Today’s garden variety garage band assumes punk bands always appreciated Charlie Feathers, the Sonics, and James Brown, but Edison came up through and helped smelt the now-common understanding that ultimately it’s all about those three chords and sweaty hips.
Since the Raunch Hands finally flamed out in the early aughts, Edison has continued playing round town, cranking out a beatnik-blues bash with various Lower East Side cohorts under the Edison Rocket Train moniker, while becoming an author of some underbelly renown.
VIDEO: Raunch Hands Learn To Whap-a-Dang (Full Album)
But we come to praise his main inspiration, Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones genius drummer and ostensible topic of Edison’s newest book, Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters (Backbeat Books). It’s a breezy, fun, and sneakily informative read – less a traditional biography than a classic Edison screed on American rock and pop music, and how the Rolling Stones lived through and mashed it all around. And it is most definitely an expanded appreciation for a number of great studio drummers, with Charlie Watts as arguably the perfect amalgam of late century skins slapping.
So, how’d the idea for this book spring up?
I’ve probably wanted to write this book since I was fourteen and started playing the drums. I loved the Stones, also 1950s rock’n’roll. There was a ‘50s revival at the time, the American Graffiti soundtrack was really big for me. It was the first time I heard Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, and it made me insane, I was crazy especially for Chuck Berry. The Stones were still on the radio with “Brown Sugar” all the time – it was a few years old, but it was still huge, and you knew it was like the seedy adult version of what had begun in the 1950s, and this is what I loved. I think people thought I was a weirdo because I started searching out Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis records. Kids didn’t do that. Those people were considered your parent’s music.
But it all came together, and it fit when punk rock came in. Now I think everyone kind of gets it, but at the time, all the idiots I knew playing drums had these enormous drums sets in their bedrooms and were trying to cop Rush or Yes. Zeppelin was huge too, of course, and I love Bonham, and Keith Moon, too. He is the very opposite of Charlie Watts, and was maybe my first great inspiration. I saw Moon on TV blowing up his drums, and I knew I wanted to do that. But Charlie Watts, he was the guy. Moon was exciting, but you couldn’t dance to the Who.
Everyone said what Watts did was simple, but it was deceptive. There was no bullshit to it. Other guys played heavier, but no one swung harder. Even years later people were still blathering about these prog rock drummers who could play, but didn’t swing, didn’t rock or roll. I don’t feel like Charlie Watts needs defending, or needs me as a champion, but someone had to lay it down so the punters could understand. He’s the guy. He keeps the roll in the rock. He’s humble. He knows his job is to make the band sound great. He is the key, as much as anyone, to the Stones sound. I think I was destined to write this book.
I will assume you being a drummer, you wanted to represent for the, relatively, underappreciated center of the “World’s Greatest R’n’R Band?”
No one dances to the guitar solo. People need to be reminded. And dig it – no Charlie, no Stones. Keith says it all the time. They need him more than he needs them.
This is definitely not a strict biography of Charlie Watts though. So what would you call it?
It’s a wild-eyed appreciation, a gonzo history of the Stones, It’s a gas, gas, gas. Ha. The best book about drums and drumming ever written – or at least that was my goal. Not for drum nerds, but for everyone who loves rock’n’roll. I wanted it to read like listening to Exile on Main Street, or a stack of great singles, at least, not like a typical rock bio. I wanted every page to be exciting, or have a surprise. Sometimes I get worried some of the history of blues and early rock’n’roll drummers in the early chapters is too detailed, but everyone seems to love it because unless you are deep into it, you’re not really going to be hip to the gory details, and it is exciting stuff, no doubt. I love Nick Tosches’ book, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and he hits you with so many facts and discographical info, it can be dizzying, but it still burns. That was important for me to keep in mind. Just keep your foot on the accelerator during those parts.
What’s the first Rolling Stones song or album you heard? Or just an early memory of seeing/hearing them?
My friend’s father had Hot Rocks, an early greatest hits, which we discovered at the very same time we discovered marijuana. He also had George Carlin and Richard Pryor records. It was all this subversive shit we were being hit with at exactly the right moment. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar,“ “Street Fighting Man,” “Gimme Shelter” – all the really violent mean spirited Stones stuff was my favorite. All of it together formed us into the degenerate beatniks and punks and anarchist writers and artists we became.
VIDEO: The Stones perform “Gimme Shelter” on The Ed Sullivan Show 1969
Is there a particular early Stones song you heard where Charlie’s drumming really floored you?
The cymbal hits on “Gimme Shelter,” and then later, “Some Girls.” What he was doing on those songs, even the things that seem simple , the so-called punk stuff, is very complex, very subtle, totally unpredictable. It goes back to the bedroom losers still trying to figure out how to play like Neil Peart. This was like jazz, it was punk, but it swung, and was totally impossible to learn. So much of it was counterintuitive. Charlie’s playing had so much heart and personality. It was so much bigger than people who were trying to be Big.
You claim “Satisfaction” as “the first punk song.”
It was certainly the first punk rock song to get mainstream attention. I go into great detail in the book, there is like a 700-word footnote that talks about Link Wray and the Who and the Trashmen and a bunch of other stuff. Would the MC5 ever have landed on “Kick Out the Jams” without “Satisfaction?” The big point is that the song isn’t about being satisfied, it is about not being satisfied, it is about frustration. And that riff! And if you heard them play it live in 1966 (there is a playlist with it on my website btw), it is just relentless bashing. Nothing came close.
[Click link to Mike Edison’s four Charlie Watts “box set” playlists ]
So the chapters on the Some Girls period of the band – even as a little kid at the time, I recognized there was something creepy about the disco record burnings, and the general reactionary mainstream freakout over disco and punk. And you give a pretty efficient understanding of the dumb and yet sometimes understandable reactions of that late-70s situation. I also felt like both disco and punk at least at their inception – were outsider music, and there’s actually some commonality between the two scenes. Would you agree with that?
The disco most people heard was already sanitized – Saturday Night Fever was huge, of course – and a lot of people went in for it because it was candy-covered. It was a fashion statement, too, against dirty blue jeans and concert jerseys and burnout arena rock culture. Most people in suburbia had no idea it had come from a druggy or highly sexualized black and gay and Latino underground. It was shopping mall culture, at least by the time it was on television. Like hip-hop, by the time it was used to sell Pepsi, it was no longer an underground movement.
Of course hip-hip grew in a thousand directions and there is still great art coming from those original seeds that were planted in the Bronx, but disco ate itself pretty quickly. And the punk rockers, we were the real freaks. I knew a girl in high school who got spit on because she had purple hair. Another dude got beaten up for wearing a Ramones shirt by some asshole metal heads who were convinced that punk rock was for “queers who couldn’t play music.” There was a lot of musical fascism in the late ‘70s. A lot of angry jocks.
I think you did an excellent job of showing how the Stones just went ahead and somehow mashed both sounds into their own on Some Girls. You write about “Miss You” being a good example of the Stones sometime habit of chasing a trend. So what’s a bad example?
Their Satanic Majesties Request, and every other time they tried to sound like the Beatles before that. “Lady Jane” or anytime Brian Jones played the recorder or got near a mellotron. And later, when Mick wanted to work with hip-hop producers because he thought that’s what they had to do to stay relevant. Epic fail.
So past that late-70s “musical fascism” phase you mentioned, as a budding garage/trash/punk musician into the early ‘80s, did you ever get any grief from punk pals about your wide taste in r’n’r, disco, “old shit,” etc.?
Oh my god, when I was on tour with Reagan Youth in 1883 and 1984, all anyone wanted to play in the van or anywhere was Minor Threat or the Misfits or GBH or MDC or I don’t know fucking what… they thought I was some kind of a Nance because I liked Elvis. Thank god they didn’t know I was secretly listening to Miles Davis, or the Stones, for that matter. I would have been lynched.
Who were some early punk bands you saw in bars that inspired you as much as the Stones did?
Well, that being said, it is hard to explain just how good a live band the Dead Kennedys were in those days. It was amazing how well they played and how much they could excite a crowd. But they were not the Rolling Stones. At some point it wasn’t even about the music, it was just caterwauling against the system. After a while it got tiresome. The Bad Brains were astonishing. Does Motorhead count? I loved the Sex Pistols record, still do. Whenever I play it, it’s still a lot like hearing Chuck Berry for the first time. But most of the punk rock bands lived in a very specific time and couldn’t move past that. It’s cool, it was a youth movement.
The Ramones are indelible, and I think mine is the first book to call them virtuosos, but once they found that sound, there wasn’t a lot of evolution. The Stones are tied directly to all these things I love – James Brown and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley – and they invented the future. They took Chuck Berry and some Delta blues and came up with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. That was like splitting the atom. And then they did Exile on Main St., and on and on. Some Girls was so good it caught everyone off guard, as they were supposed to be over the hill by then.
Some Girls is often framed as a quintessential “’70s New York” album, yet it was recorded outside Paris. What are your thoughts on that conundrum?
They were living in New York, mostly, I think. It was probably hard for them to record in a big city – the studio in Paris is really outside the city. They could hunker down there and not be bothered. “Shattered” has got to be the ultimate New York song, up there with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” They fucking nailed it.
Right around the time of that classic tune, you worked for a pulp porn imprint for a bit, right? Might be a weird question, but were you ever able to tie the Rolling Stones (or any rock n roll world theme) into one of those novels?
A magazine I worked for published the Polaroids of Chuck Berry with a bunch of naked white women. Does that count? I was there when some dude brought them in to the office. That was a good meeting.
VIDEO: Mike Edison in his late night TV ad for Sympathy For The Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters.