I am in mourning today, though the only black I wear is a Rolling Stones T-shirt that I might well have worn on any day, with its red-tongue logo sticking out to whoever gets in my way. But no one between ages 30 to 80 takes it that way. “Love your shirt,” almost everyone who notices says, reminding me that I’m wearing one of my half-dozen or so Stones T’s that still fit me.
But on this day, I heard from my daughter, who knew I’d break out in tears at the news:
Charlie Watts is dead.
My life as I’ve known it for all but 16 of my 74 years is left without his artistry anchoring the genius of indisputably the world’s most remarkable–certainly longest-surviving–rock and roll band in the history of the world. But his legacy lives on into perpetuity.
If you don’t know who London native Charles Robert Watts was, my sympathies. But I reserve mine principally for Charlie and his mates, personal and professional, on this sad day when news of Afghanistan evacuations, COVID-19 resurgence, and climate calamities overshadowed acknowledgment of his passing. He is the unsurpassed drummer beloved by generations of Stones fans, of which I am a member of the first generation.
I got hooked on the Stones with a 1963-64 recording of “Mona (I Need You, Baby)” spun late-night on WCAO 60-AM. What a revelation. Rhythm and blues sung by Brit boys with an accent. But what further distinguished them was the guitar-and-drum syncopation. Brian Jones, who formed the band, didn’t survive its first decade. Now Charlie is the second of this remarkably resilient band to exit permanently.
What I noticed from the beginning is the punctuation of Charlie’s percussion, just a millisecond after guitar riffs that often drowned out the drumbeat of lesser artists. He always seemed to be within an instant of coming in too late on “Satisfaction” and each of their greatest and lesser hits. Especially when played live. Keith Richards, the legendary Stones guitarist, knew to keep his ear or feet attuned to Charlie’s beat. If he could not hear it, he could feel the vibrations from the stage floor rattling his spine. (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”!)
Charlie Watts, though, was more than a rock-and-roll drumming genius. Married to Shirley since 1964, just after the band covered “Mona,” he was the Stones’ rock–stone, if you will–when other distractions might have dissolved the band led by star-power personalities. Mick Jagger will never be confused with a wallflower, and Keith takes no guff from his songwriting partner. Brian Jones couldn’t handle this dynamic and was found face down in a swimming pool in 1969, the first of serial rock stars who died at age 27.
But Charlie, along with Bill Wyman, the band’s bassist and archivist, were its elder statesmen. (Wyman retired in 1993, though he still records solo.)
I’m not sure the Stones can survive without Charlie. He absented himself from the current completion of the band’s 2019 tour, which I was thrilled to catch at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. It was–who’s counting?–at least my 25th time seeing them play live. Ironically, that July 3 concert was delayed from Memorial Day due to Jagger’s unspecified heart procedure. The Stones renewed the tour after a year of COVID cancellations. But this time, Charlie announced his absence, likely due to throat cancer that first surfaced in 2004.
More than a drummer, Charlie Watts, 80 at his death, was an artist who made his mark within and without the Stones. His first love was jazz. Rock was an opportunity. He took advantage of both, producing a catalog of jazz-standards CDs, often with back-up singers from Stones concert tours. And his eye for what might project a Stones concert to a distant stadium- or arena-sized crowd created an accessibility impossible without his visual instincts.
Charlie was also a collector of vintage cars. He could afford them, of course. But the curiosity is that he didn’t even drive them. Charlie appreciated art and design when he saw it and, undeniably, when he heard its percussive expression.
Though I have never met you in close proximity, Charlie, I love you. Your former bandmate, Bill, who I have met, sends his love, too, I’m certain. Without you, the Stones would never be who they became and may never be quite the same again now that you’re gone. Your beat will never die. Ever. Rest in peace, anyway, Charlie.
Steve Parks is a retired arts writer and still-active rock fan now living in Easton.