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Elegy for Charlie Watts
A short appreciation of the backbone of the Stones plus new Coltrane coming in October
Last Monday, I decided to give a listen to the track that the Rolling Stones released to accompany the announcement that their 1981 album Tattoo You is getting the 40th-anniversary treatment. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly excited to hear ‘Living in the Heart of Love.’ I thought “oh ho hum, another unreleased Stones track,” but still, I added it to one of my Spotify playlists and while hearing it for the first time, my reaction was what it often is when I listen to Mick and the crew: Charlie Watts is one heck of a drummer.
A little more than 24 hours later and the sad news came that Charlie Watts had passed away. Like I suspect most of you reading this, my music consumption over the past ten days has been dominated by shovelfuls of the Stones. I’m by no means a Stones completist, but do have pretty much everything they recorded from Aftermath to Exile on Main Street. I went into the stacks to spin Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and Exile as well as sampling other choice tracks while pondering Watts, his legacy and processing the loss of such a singularly unique musician.
A drummer anchoring one of music’s most beloved rock bands who was largely indifferent to rock music and far more partial to jazz, a dresser more sartorially aligned with Saville Row than skid row, a collector of classic cars who couldn’t drive, a man who had drink, drugs and women within reach and, except for a few missteps in the eighties, largely abstained, Watts was rife with contradictions that made him all the more relatable, made the news of his death feel more like a member of the family had left us.
As much as he might grimace or shrug it off, Charlie Watts was a charter member of one of music’s most exclusive clubs: one of the British blokes who in the early- and mid-sixties created music that conquered the world. That made Watts nothing short of royalty. While he never indulged in the flashiness of contemporaries like Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker, his ability to create a rock-solid beat with authority, weight, momentum and an impeccable sense of time was the bedrock of the Stones’ sound. More plainly, Watts gave their music grit, guts and barely concealed menace.
As I was listening to the Stones over the past week and a half, a few recordings stood out. ‘Get Off Of My Cloud,’ their second chart-topping single, begins with Watts setting the table with a drum riff that hangs just a little behind the beat. Throughout the verses, he retreats to the snare every four measures to accent Keith Richards’ guitar and in the process, gives the tune its distinctive and different rhythm.
Watts’ drum fills were often simple, just a short, heavy run on the snare or the toms. At 2:40 into ‘Dandelion,’ the B-side to 1967’s ‘We Love You’—the only recorded encounter with the Stones and the Beatles (John and Paul sing along in the chorus—if you listen closely, you can hear John’s distinctive tone)—Watts unleashes a syncopated run on the toms that almost takes you by surprise and brings an edge to one of the Stones’ most successful attempts at embracing psychedelia. During the song’s closing almost-choral sounding section, Watts plays a series of fills on the snare and toms that lie bare his affinity for jazz and especially, an appreciation for the great Max Roach.
After Richards lays down a chordal riff to start ‘Street Fighting Man’ (full disclosure: my all-time favourite Stones tune), Watts throws down a series of bombs on the toms before playing a heavily syncopated drum beat that absolutely drives the tune (perhaps only Bill Wyman does more to make the song an all-time classic). Nothing flashy here but then Watts was never really for flash, thank you very much.
While the passing of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers felt like we were getting closer to the shuddering of an era (I wrote about this recently), Watts’ passing, after the initial shock that he was gone, seemed twinged with celebration and collective mourning. Scrolling through my Twitter feed—it was almost entirely about Watts or the Stones—was a reminder that we were all connected by our love of music and above all, our love of Charlie Watts and together, professing it one last time.
A short round-up of music goings-on: In June, I predicted that the release of Lee Morgan’s complete recordings from the Lighthouse in July 1970 would likely be the archival release of the year. A prognostication that is more like close but no cigar with last week’s news that a complete recording by John Coltrane of A Love Supreme recorded live at the Penthouse in Seattle on October 2, 1965 will be released on October 8. With his Classic Quartet plus Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass clarinet and bass, the mind boggles as to how good this music may be. ‘Psalm,’ the final part of the suite, has been released to bring the anticipation level to a fever pitch.
In terms of my own listening, I have a great deal of things that I am either working through or hoping to get to soon, including the aforementioned Lee Morgan live recordings as well as the Beach Boys’ Feel Flows (just the 2 CD edition), multiple sets of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, the new box set of Leonard Bernstein’s Stravinsky recordings on Columbia Masterworks and the recently released complete concert by Charles Mingus at Carnegie Hall in January 1974. I hope to have a full report on them all plus a few other things in the near future as well as thoughts on autumn music and a large essay on Elvis’ early-sixties recordings (been labouring on that for almost a month now and hope to have it out by the end of next week). Thanks, as always, for reading!