CELEBRITY demises don’t move me for an obvious reason: I didn’t know the celebrities. Naturally, I emphathise with the bereaved but, alas, lack Bill Clinton’s gift of feeling their pain. The sad news of Rolling Stone Charlie Watts’ death in London on Tuesday was slightly different. For a start, the drummer Keith Richards has described as “the main man” in the world’s greatest rock ‘n roll band wasn’t really a celebrity. He gave very few interviews in 60 years and most of those were accidental rather than organised.
The lovable quality Watts exuded was being so truly, innocently himself that people didn’t need to know more to vouchsafe their esteem. It is rare for the public to read a figure so trustingly for so long, even as his occasionally indecorous confreres did their best to do their worst. Aged 80 when he died, Watts was married to Shirley for 57 years.
Rated as one of the best-dressed men in the world – and that long before man-boys began wearing trouser cuffs above sockless ankles – the ease with which Watts styled himself was mirrored in the swing he tailored for the baby Stones. That was no doddle given how roseate but scrappy Jagger, Richards and Brian Jones were as an outfit when, in 1962, they head-hunted the drummer Alexis Korner (no less) had recruited as beat-keeper for Blues Incorporated a year earlier. At that time, jazz-obsessed Watts was the only honest-to-goodness musician in the fledgling Stones line-up. By the time I started buying my own music, the Rolling Stones were already a Rolling Stones tribute band but the advent of CDs allowed me – like legions of others – to immerse ourselves in a back-catalogue so beloved throughout the world that it fuelled 40 years of touring after the band’s last smash-hit album (1981’s Tattoo You).
Everyone has favourite guitar riffs and they’re easy to cite: Keith’s spare, chilling solo right before Merry Clayton’s storied star-turn in Gimme Shelter; Mick Taylor, Love In Vain, live in 1969; Keith and Ronnie at the peak of “weaving” in the late 70s. But Watts didn’t do solos. Richards dismissed John Bonham as a “little heavy-handed for my taste.” By a little, he meant a lot. Pete Townsend put up with Keith Moon but always slightly resented the fact that The Who’s drummer did more riffing than he did. The nearest thing to a solo for Watts was the traditional banter between himself and Jagger whose best-known example the post title references.
He may not have wanted attention but listen to the jazzy feel of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, the Gibb-equalling mastery of disco in Emotional Rescue and Miss You, the generalship over chaos on Midnight Rambler and the sympathetic order he brought to Jagger-Richards grime on dozens of b-side gems and you’ll get that it’s the “Wembley Whammer” starring every time. Farewell, Charlie. As Paul McCartney said yesterday, he was a rock and a lovely man.
Great column CL.
Glad you mentioned Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. The second half of that song was just the band improvising after they thought the recording had stopped.
Charlie may have been the only “honest-to-goodness musician” in the band in 1962, but by 1970 the ‘Stones were chock-full of them.