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Vanity Fair is re-running their 1989 article about the Stones’ women. Rather dated, but the section about Shirley and Charlie is a nice read.
Full article here: [archive.vanityfair.com]
Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Watts have also hurtled upmarket, but in a less high-profile fashion. Charlie is one of Mick's best friends, and his secret soul mate in the way he wants to live. Browsing through Country Life magazine five years ago, Charlie found the ideal home. Halsdon, once the residence of a local Devon squire, John Henry Furse, is set above the valley of the river Torridge and surrounded by green hills and meadows. There he and his artist wife, Shirley, are content to live their solitary human lives amongst a menagerie that includes fifteen Arabian horses, eighteen dogs, and two cats.
It was the mention of the Victorian sculptor's studio, ideal for Shirley, plus ample stable space, that caught Charlie's eye after their long sojourn in tax exile in France. In the entrance way stands the only human bust Shirley has ever sculpted. "That's my brother," she says. "Charlie won't let me sculpt him and he's got such a perfect face for it."
"I think I'm pretty good," says Charlie with self-deprecating irony, "you know, an artist or something, and then I come home to bloody Rodin."
At forty-eight, after a long career of being the Stone in the background, the laconic one pounding on his drums, the slow fuse behind the fireworks of Keith and Mick, Charlie Watts has emerged into a delightfully incongruous middle age. During my visit he wears a blue bow tie and dapper velvet slippers. On the day Christopher Simon Sykes is there to photograph the house, Charlie is wandering around in immaculate white flannels, white shoes, and a striped blazer.
"What are you wearing those for?" asks Shirley.
"I'm going to watch the cricket," he replies.
"But that's tomorrow," she observes.
"I know," counters Charlie. "I'm just practicing."
Separately Charlie and Shirley are quite handsome; together they are an extraordinarily sexy couple. It is as if they have waited their whole lives to be fifty. "I think Charlie was always a fifty-year-old man," Shirley tells me in the stables that house her Arabian horses, including two European champions. She strokes a gray named Halim, "gentle spirit" in Arabic. "Charlie's tastes were never the same as the rest of the crowd. To tell you the truth, I was always surprised he was a part of that band."
Charlie was almost an unwilling rocker—single-mindedly eschewing sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll's other accoutrements. And Shirley is a most unwilling rock wife. "It was quite appalling being pitched into the life of the Rolling Stones," she remembers. "I really got lost for about twenty-five years and I've never been able to cope with it. There's been lots of anger, much of it very, very deep. I like the people in the group—up to a point. But I've always hated the way rock music and its world treat women and particularly the Rolling Stones' attitude. There is no respect."
To some extent Shirley has only survived the rock-wife problem by opting out of it. Her maiden name, appropriately, was Shepherd, and horses and dogs have been her version of the stabilizing family. "I started gathering them around me out of loneliness, I suppose." Back when the other Stones were busy sowing their wild oats, Charlie was ribbed for being so faithful to Shirley. But now he has the pleasure of shared memories and what it was like to live through the struggle and success.
"Would you like to see the rest of the house?" she asks. "It was in one family for over three hundred years before we bought it. We got it just in time. The place was about to fall in before we refurbished it." She could be talking about her own life, this woman who has survived being around the Stones for a quarter of a century. When Shirley is asked how the group's drug abuse over the years has affected her, she is understandably hesitant. "It affected my life very, very deeply," she finally whispers. "Very, very deeply. But I can't really say anything other than that because it wasn't my problem."
Her own problem was alcoholism and she is quite open about that. She checked herself into a rehabilitation center four years ago for six weeks. "It's strange, though, my treatment has had a much different effect on me than it does with most. Most people feel that once they get out, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are a lifeline for them. But I went to one and had to leave. I just couldn't talk about myself anymore; I didn't want to hear about anyone else's problems anymore.'' Now she sculpts hours each day, mostly her own dogs and horses. Halim is even allowed into the drawing room, where he stands regally for his artist mistress. While he was being photographed he fertilized the Oriental carpet. "You're ruining the rug,'' Charlie told Shirley. "It's my room," she replied coolly. "It's my rug."
The house is also filled with the smells of incense and dog fur. The dog pack, all eighteen, are locked inside the kitchen because of their overwhelming excitement when infrequent visitors arrive. Their barks bounce off walls crowded with dozens of paintings of more horses and dogs. Shirley and Charlie serve as separate tour guides. Now there's a kerchief tied across her head and she's wearing jeans; later, when she dons her riding gear, a stately severity appears. Charlie, in his vest and bow tie and slippers, is, effortlessly, the dashing gentleman that Mick puts so much effort into being.
"I really just put any old thing on," he says. "Not like Mick, with his fabrics and colors. He's like @#$%& Greta Garbo."
"Charlie's tastes were never the same as the rest of the crowd."
Charlie's study is as well ordered as his drumming. There is no sign of his passion for the American Civil War; instead it is lined with his neat collections of ornate boxes, memorabilia from the Nelson and Hamilton families, rare books, eighteenth-century erotic literature, stuffed birds. Atop his desk is perched the largest, a sparrow hawk. "It flew into the house and broke its neck," Shirley whispers. "Broke Charlie's heart too."
Shirley's drawing room is across the hall. Upstairs are her immaculate collections of Victorian dolls, all bought by Charlie from his numerous antiques-dealer scouts, and a menagerie of glass figurines. The drawing room contains more photos of dogs and horses and the occasional family member, and in the comer stands a life-size wooden Arabian horse once used by a London saddlemaker. Shirley's easel stands in the window with a poem about horses pinned to it. On the windowsill is an etching of a naked boy entwined with a leopard. The inscription reads, "To Shirley and Charlie with much love, Astrid Wyman, 1986."
The dogs continue their chorus from the kitchen. "We sleep with them, the dogs," Shirley says shyly. Across the hall, Charlie turns up his radio to catch a cricket match. "Well, we allow ten of them up in the bed with us at a time. I started it out of loneliness when Charlie was working, but now he's the one who really likes it. I'll shoo them away at times, but he always calls them back up."
Charlie cocks his ear closer to the cricket. He never tunes in to rock music. In fact, he claims never to have listened to a Rolling Stones album after it was finished. ''The only way I can tell if we've made a good record or not is if we're still talking at the end of it. We were all still talking at the end of this latest one, so I guess it's a good one. We had a lot of fun. But I never listen to rock 'n' roll. Never liked it. I listen to classical. Or jazz. Especially Miles Davis." Davis and Fred Astaire and Stravinsky are Charlie's heroes.
The dogs have been freed from the kitchen and are now running wild about the grounds, playing loudly outside the window. Released, they seem to trumpet Shirley's recently won sense of freedom.
"Charlie and I have a farm in France, where we lived until twelve years ago. It was a great mistake coming back to England. I've had twelve very unhappy years. I'm just now beginning to get in touch with some happiness in my life. That's because I've realized that my life doesn't have to be tied to Charlie's anymore. And, oddly enough, that has brought us closer because he doesn't have to be so responsible for everything now. When we came back from France it was difficult for our daughter, Serafina, too. Being in school and being taunted for being the daughter of a Rolling Stone. Kids would say her father was a junkie and things like that. Awful. She's twenty-one now, though, and attempting to start a life of her own."
Shirley finds Rolling Stones concerts "frightening because of the sheer power of the people in the band." She adds, "I've never felt that connected to the group. At Bill Wyman's wedding to Mandy Smith I just felt embarrassed the whole time. I'm trying not to pass judgment, but my honest opinion is I found it appalling.
"I much prefer my life here with the horses. I love the hunt. The sense of power one gets on a horse. I don't approve of hunting, but it does fulfill something in me. It's a very primeval instinct. When you hear the hounds—they call it the music—when you hear the hounds' music, it's bloodcurdling it's so thrilling. And it affects both you and the horse. There's nothing like it. It's dangerous. It's exciting." She catches herself and laughs. "It sounds rather like a rock 'n' roll concert.
Along with the November Uncut issue with the 14 page tribute posted above, they have made a special issue for Charlie for subscribers only.
Beautiful cover, got to try to track one down.
Modern Drummer magazine has a special tribute issue for Charlie.