A lifelong Stones fan comes to grips with the loss of the band’s mighty engine
I always like to say, “My mom got me into The Beatles, but I got myself into the Rolling Stones.”
The “Waiting On A Friend” video was the first of many gifts given to me in the early years of MTV Music Television, which not only introduced me properly to the Stones but inadvertently hipped me to Sonny Rollins and Peter Tosh as well (albeit later on in life). And as much as The Beatles had come to define my young life as a music fan, they didn’t make me feel cool like the Stones made me feel cool, y’know?
I mean, I was clearly too young to listen to 1978’s Some Girls as much as I did as a kid, what with Mick Jagger’s horndog musings on Black, Chinese and Puerto Rican girls and gritty tales of a maggot-infested Big Apple that sounded as though they jumped out of a cell from Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic. 1981’s Tattoo You, which turns 40 at the end of August and will be celebrated in the form of an anniversary box set in October, hit me even harder considering how much an infant MTV played the videos for “Waiting On A Friend,” “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire” and “Neighbors” in its first few months on the air.
VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “Waiting On A Friend”
And when I’d go into the city with my mom or my grandpa (who ran New York’s first paper recycling plant in Astoria, Queens), the gritty sights felt like the Stones sounded to me, if that makes any sense. Not until I fell in love with hip-hop in 1983 as a 4th grader did any music feel like New York City to me like Some Girls and Tattoo You (I’d get into this trilogy’s underrated middle child, 1980’s Emotional Rescue, in my 30s).
That was Charlie Watts. He died yesterday, less than three months after his 80th birthday. And if there’s one common thread in the emotional tidal wave of tweets and Facebook posts in the wake of his passing just days after coming off the road from the Neverending No Filter Tour for what seemed like a non-life threatening surgery, it’s his official canonization as Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest drummer, full stop.
Its so easy to get caught up in the dazzle of a drummer as heavy and complex as Bill Ward, Bill Bruford, Bonzo, Ringo, Larry Mullen Jr., Charlie Benante and, of course, the late, great Neil Peart. Watts, a rock drummer by necessity but a jazz drummer at heart, sought his greatness on the kit through discipline and economy. His drum set wasn’t some elaborate cage of unnecessary toms and gongs; he’s been using the same small kit for the majority of his time on Earth–a 1957 round badge maple Gretsch set with a 12″ x 8″ mounted tom, 16″ x 16″ floor tom, 22″ x 14″ bass drum, and 14″ x 5″ snare.
“Charlie’s probably got the smallest drum kit in rock and roll,” Bill Wyman told St. Louis radio station KSHE 95. “Drummers today have about 50 or 60 items. He’s got about seven. He’s an economist.”
Yet within the frugal confines of his trusty Gretsch, Charlie was able to manifest the right tempo for any situation, regardless of whether it was the standard Bo Diddley backbeat of their early days, the reggae and funk maneuvers of their key work in the 70s or the undercurrent of multi-culti New York street culture that permeated their underrated work in the 80s on albums like Undercover, Dirty Work and Steel Wheels.
In 1994, I was in the thick of the Alternative Nation. Yet I was still amped for Voodoo Lounge even though I was listening to more Sonic Youth and Soundgarden than the Stones at the time. In the fall of 1997, during my semester interning at the original SPIN Magazine offices, they let me write album reviews on their AOL page. My first piece for them as a glowing take on Bridges To Babylon, lauding the band for working with the likes of The Dust Brothers, Meshell Ndegeocello and Biz Markie, seemingly taking cues from Beastie Boys and Beck, which meant they still had one foot in the cool pool. My stanning for the Stones for SPIN @AOL, however, was countered in the print issue by a 16-year-old Jessica Hopper, undoubtedly one of the most renowned and respected writers of our generation. In her brutal takedown of Babylon, she asks whether Bridges to Babylon was “a punishment or a joke,” preceded by a declaration of how she first heard about the Stones after listening to Pussy Galore’s epic deconstruction of Exile On Main Street. Total oil and water, amirite?
VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “Saint of Me”
When A Bigger Bang came out in 2005, I made it my no. 1 album in my ballot for that year’s Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll. I also contributed my one and only blurb printed in the P + J issue of the Voice, where I admittedly took a cheap shot at the editor of the defunct free NYC nightlife publication The L Magazine for talking some kinda dumb shit about David Fricke, a hero of mine. He clapped back at me in the next issue of The L, but his biggest diss was calling me “hopelessly out of touch” for making A Bigger Bang my favorite album of ’05 over some hipster bullshit like Spoon or Animal Collective. Fuck Animal Collective. I’ll listen to the Stones’ worst album far quicker than I’ll listen to the best Animal Collective LP.
I’ve told these stories before, and my apologies for being redundant. But nonetheless they remind me of why the Rolling Stones have been arguably the most consistent vital force in my music collection for most of my life, starting in elementary school. They always made me feel cool, even if they were old geezers. The Strokes never made me feel cool, because they weren’t the Rolling Stones, nor will they ever be them in any capacity regardless of how good their music may be (and they have some fantastic albums, don’t get me wrong). And “No Charlie, No Stones” isn’t just a pithy social media catchphrase–its the absolute truth. Without the jazz-rooted swing of Watts behind his Gretsch, the band cannot exist as the Rolling Stones.
VIDEO: If you want to check out the jazz side of Charlie Watts (which we will focus on in another article), look no further than his quintet’s magnificent tribute to Charlie Parker 1991’s From One Charlie)
Ronnie Wood once said, “Charlie’s the engine. We don’t go anywhere without the engine.” Yet like the tough call made by ZZ Top in the recent passing of Dusty Hill, it seems like the show will go on despite the unexpected departure of its rock, at least at press time. The passing of longtime pianist Ian Stewart notwithstanding, this is the first significant death in the Rolling Stones core lineup since Brian Jones. And with the great Steve Jordan of the X-Pensive Wings filling in for Charlie behind the drums on the current tour, it’s unclear whether or not they will complete the scheduled dates in light of the tragedy expressed so eloquently in a public statement from the Watts family:
I remain forever grateful I got to see them two summers ago at MetLife Stadium–my first and only time experiencing the Stones in concert. I’d been trying to go see them since the Steel Wheels tour, but I didn’t have the money or the industry pull to successfully land tickets. So when they came around in August of 2019, I made sure I was there with the help of StubHub and the front offices of Sea of Reeds Media. In my heart, I knew this was gonna be possibly my last chance to catch the band live, and sadly I was right. Well, at least in the context of Charlie Watts. And he was absolutely perfect on that night.
As for a new album, it’s unclear how much material the Stones recorded before going back on the road or if there’s even enough music with Charlie behind the kit to merit a full-length LP. There was one single, last year’s “Living In A Ghost Town”, which was their first original song since the 2006 greatest hits collection Grrr and found them dipping back into their longtime love for dub and reggae. We can only hope they have nine or ten more cuts like that. And I’ll be right there in front to champion it, just like I have throughout my whole life.
Farewell, our darling Charlie.