"Charlie’s Good Tonight: the Authorised Biography of Charlie Watts" extract in the Times
Date: September 2, 2022 17:27
EXCLUSIVE BOOK EXTRACT
Charlie Watts: ‘Mick, I’m not your drummer. You’re my vocalist’
A year after the death of the legendary Rolling Stones drummer, Paul Sexton talks to Mick, Keith and Charlie Watts’ family about the man they loved
Friday September 02 2022, 2.00pm BST, The Times
From his silver hair to his handmade shoes, Charlie Watts was approximately 68 inches of understated style. I recall once visiting him in his hotel suite in Amsterdam during a European tour, everything laid out just so and with a Miles Davis album playing gently. His fondness for wide lapels and statement cuts helped him present a more imposing figure than suggested by his modest frame. Jeans and trainers were beneath his contempt. He was the elegant uncle you never had. Backstage, he could even carry off the bathrobe with the Stones’ tongue and lips logo.
Mick Jagger explained amusingly that, at the end of a show, his bandmate would only join him, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood stage front to take a bow when he had finished fiddling with his drumsticks, arranging them into a neat row before he would leave the stool. When he went on Desert Island Discs, he said a friend had pointed out that his would be the neatest island ever.
“I always believed that he had OCD,” says Charlie’s granddaughter, Charlotte. “We would mess with him. I can remember getting home and going down to the dressing room and moving one pair of socks and swapping it over with another pair. They’d be colour-coded. You’d time how long before you heard, ‘Who’s touched my stuff?’ ”
There were times, his family admit, when Charlie’s style sense beat his common sense hands down. “He came to visit me at boarding school in upstate New York and we’d had terrible snow, several feet, freezing, and he hadn’t packed for it. I’d seen this twice – his absolute refusal to buy the right shoes for snow. He came out with Tesco bags wrapped around his shoes. And we had to walk him up the hill for breakfast. Mortifying.”
Charlie had the ability, both intentional and otherwise, to sum up a story, a situation or a life with a crisp uppercut. “Five years working, 20 years hanging around,” was among Charlie’s most famous one-liners, but there were many more. When the Summer of Love drew to a close, Charlie was on amusing form with Melody Maker about its presence in his neighbourhood. “When flower power started, it was probably fantastic,” he mused. “But now it has become a funny word, like rock’n’roll. There is even a shop in Lewes which has got ‘Herrings are flower power’ written up in that white stuff on the window. I suppose they’ll have ‘Sprats are LSD’ next.”
The first time his relationship with Bill Wyman came into our conversation in 1991, he was entertainingly forthright. “Bill’s got a wonderful sense of humour. But certain things bother him that I a) wouldn’t even think about, and b) would have forgotten about. If Bill says on August 4, 1963, we weren’t paid for playing at wherever, well, the bloke still owes us the money and it irks him. For 30 years, he’s harboured this resentment.” He added with clear affection, “He’s an angry young man, that one.”
“I don’t know why,” reflects Bill, “but then we became this great rhythm section that everybody admired and we were always on time, always ready, always available, always sober… We were the bedrock that they just went loony on, basically. If you ever see any of the videos, you can see me and Charlie at the back laughing at them, when they’re doing all that crazy stuff they used to do, jumping off beds and going through walls and things.”
“His philosophy is, ‘I only need so much,’ ” the Stones’ early manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, once said of Charlie. “He has settled for that and not digressed for the bullshit.” Even in his first flush of fame, Charlie was telling the music press, “I give the impression of being bored, but I’m not really. I’ve just got an incredibly boring face.”
Almost every time we met, Charlie would mutter something about not coming close to par with any of his percussive heroes. This might hint at a lack of self-awareness, but it was founded on a sense of English reserve and humility that was better developed than anyone’s. Brian Jones, even as he began his slalom of substance-based deterioration, described him as “probably the most detached and well-adjusted person on this whole pop scene”.
In the opening couplet of If You Can’t Rock Me, the opening track from It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, Mick sings, “The band’s on stage and it’s one of those nights…/ The drummer thinks that he is dynamite.” He certainly wasn’t talking about Charlie. To him, arrogance was simply uncouth. He knew who he was and he didn’t change, with the exception of a relatively short period of narcotic madness in the Eighties.
The nadir of the Rolling Stones usually centres on the Dirty Work album of 1986 and Ronnie Wood says that you can measure how unharmonious the Jagger-Richards marriage was at that stage by the fact that he achieved four co-writes on it. Mick is routinely held up as the baddie of that time because by then he’d signed his own deal with CBS and released She’s the Boss, the first of two solo albums in two and a half years, and toured with his own band.
An alternative point of view, one recounted by Tony King, who was a key part of the Rolling Stones machine for a quarter of a century, is that Mick felt the Stones were in no shape to tour and the new casualty, starting an unfashionably late habit in his mid-forties, was Charlie. His surprising decline into serious overindulgence came to a head during the sessions for Dirty Work. All the Stones were at the Kensington Roof Gardens for a live insert into the 1986 Grammy Awards, in which Eric Clapton presented them with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Two things stood out: one, the absurdity of the fact that the Stones had not only never won a Grammy before, but weren’t even nominated for one until 1978; the other, how skeletally unhealthy Charlie looked.
Herein lies a story that has assumed almost mythological status. The incident took place in either Amsterdam or New York. Mick either was or wasn’t wearing Keith’s dinner jacket. Charlie either laid a blow on Mick or he didn’t. Mick fell into a plate of smoked salmon and almost went out the window or he didn’t.
“Keith has invented a new idea of that,” says Bill. “He says it was in Amsterdam and he saved Mick from going out the window. Complete invention! Keith does that. It was in New York and Mick was entertaining all these celebrities in his hotel suite. I was told this by Paul Wasserman, who was our publicity guy, because he was there. None of the rest of us was there. Keith was asleep.
“Charlie came down, like he was bored, again, looking for somewhere with someone still up and awake. So he comes down, he walks in and Mick goes [to his friends], ‘Oh, it’s Charlie. This is my drummer.’ And Charlie just lost it. He went, ‘I’m not your f***ing drummer; you’re my f***ing vocalist,’ and he went whack and knocked him right across the room. Of course, all these celebs were in total shock and Charlie just walked out.”
Bill continues his received version of events. “Mick said, ‘He must be drunk,’ and the phone rang and they said, ‘Oh, it’s Charlie. I think he wants to come down and apologise.’ So there was a knock on the door again. Mick went there and Charlie said, ‘And don’t you forget it,’ and hit him again.”
To my surprise, Mick doesn’t dismiss the subject when we speak in the lead-up to 2022’s Sixty tour. “I might have said that, but it’s not really the worst thing in the world you can say about anybody, is it? It was sort of a friendly thing. And he didn’t knock me out or even hit me. I remember I was near a balcony, then the security people said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Keith has another memory of Charlie losing control. “Some loudmouth had said something. We were in a restaurant somewhere, I think in America… Charlie gave his order, then he stood up and walked around to this guy. He said, ‘I heard what you said,’ and bang. This guy was on the f***ing floor.”
Thankfully, and still in time, Charlie looked in the literal and metaphorical mirror. “I was personally in a hell of a mess and, as a result, I wasn’t really aware of the problems between Mick and Keith and the danger these posed to the band’s existence… I don’t know what made me do it that late in life, although in retrospect I think I must have been going through some kind of midlife crisis. I had never done any serious drugs when I was younger, but at this point in my life I went, ‘Sod it. I’ll do it now,’ and I was totally reckless.
“Some people are able to function like that, but for me it was very dangerous, because I’m the sort of person that could become a casualty quite easily. I just don’t have the constitution. This phase lasted a couple of years, but it took a long time for me, and my family, to get over it.”
Charlie refuted the idea of him as the sensible one in the Stones. “I’m not that sensible,” he said. “But I never used to indulge in anything to excess until about [the age of] 45, so the male menopause, you might say. And I very nearly killed myself. I don’t mean overdosing. I mean I nearly killed myself spiritually. I nearly ruined my life.
“Now, luckily, thanks to my wife, I’ve stopped everything. I’d never broken anything in my life and I broke my ankle, going down to the cellar to get yet another bottle of wine at my home. I was playing at Ronnie’s [Scotts] in about three months’ time. I’d booked the orchestra in there. And I thought, ‘This is it. It’s ridiculous. What have you done?’
“Looking back, it’s silly what I used to do, just over that little period. Accidents happen easily that way… You’re liable to fall down and break your neck.”
The hard-drug spiral certainly endangered Charlie’s marriage, but eventually he had the strength to recognise what he was doing to himself and his family. “My father wasn’t this wonderful person 100 per cent of the time,” says his daughter, Seraphina. “He was a man with his own demons, like every musician. Obviously, he got sober and he was sober a very long time, and there was no fuss and fanfare, no story about that. He got clean and there was no rehab. He just did it.”
The downside, by Charlie’s own admission, is that he also cut out eating, living for six months, as he said, on “water, sultanas and nuts”.
Of all the people to compliment his recovery, Charlie received rich posthumous praise from Keith. Years before, talking about the collective misbehaviour of the Exile era, he admitted readily that “drugs were the tool and I was the laboratory”. But he also pointed out that in that early Seventies period, Charlie “did a good dent in the cognac industry”. Fifty years on from that record, Keith reflects, “Charlie could drink and hold it. What he hated about it was that it blew him up. He started to get chubby on it and that is unforgivable for him. A few years later, he was dabbling once or twice, in Paris. But Charlie certainly doesn’t need anything to change the vibes around him. He would make the world’s worst junkie.” On his friend getting clean, he adds with admiration, “I think he realised, ‘I’ve been through this period,’ and said, ‘Done it. Finished. Never again.’ Well done! It took me ten years.”
Edited 16 time(s). Last edit at 2022-09-02 17:42 by slane82.