Everybody’s darling: Why the music world loved Charlie Watts
September 28, 2022BIOGRAPHY
Charlie’s Good Tonight: The Life, the Times and the Rolling Stones
It’s his granddaughter Charlotte who identifies Charlie Watts’ born “grandpa energy”. Applied to any other Rolling Stone, it would be the standard ageist put-down they’ve weathered since the Sex Pistols were small. The way in which their muted, dapper, deadpan drummer made it a lifelong virtue is surely unique in the world of rock’n’roll.
With forewords by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and new interviews with family, friends and other surviving Stones, the late backbeat maestro’s “authorised biography” is hardly apt to fossick in the darkness that consumes countless other books where he plays a supporting role.
Presented with a virtual vacuum of personal drama, the worst you might say about British music journalist/ Stones confidant Paul Sexton’s hugely affectionate portrait is that it often feels like it might just drift away on a cloud of warm fuzziness.
Snappy dresser, obsessive collector, thoughtful gift giver, jazz aficionado, horse and dog lover, gifted artist, impeccably modest musician, besotted husband, dad and grandpa … this Charlie Watts isn’t even the curmudgeon that he’s sometimes made out to be, with his apparently bored soft-focus gaze and pithy media quips about “Five years working, 20 years hanging around”.
Yes, there are due mentions of his utter disinterest in his band’s recorded product, and his renowned reluctance to leave his beloved wife, Shirley, their hundreds of Arabian stallions and stately home in Devon for yet another very long and lucrative world tour.
But more surprising themes of Sexton’s book are the enormous pride and warmth Watts felt for the band he played in from January 1963 until August 2019, and the crucial creative engagement he shared with Jagger in particular as artist and designer of logos, staging and album covers.
Young Charlie’s early love of Billy Eckstein, Johnny Ray and Nat King Cole and his first serious gig with London blues instigator Alexis Korner at the fabled Ealing Jazz Club set the pre-Stones tone for a life always enraptured by music. Jagger, Richards and others take turns enshrining detailed first impressions; “this left hand on a perfect back beat” and the instant conviction “that this is the man we’ve got to have”.
The story arc from the brutal grind of Britain ’64 to the druggy pits of Cote D’Azur ’71 and onwards to the epic stadia of modern times is well-worn, to say the least. Sexton doesn’t miss a beat of it, but from the more sober and workmanlike perspective of the backline it breezes by with a bare minimum of artistic analysis and a refreshing distance from the chaos and conflict of legend.
Watts’ grandpa energy is manifest in hotel sock drawers arranged in strict colour order, late night walks alone through deserted cities, cordial drop-ins to fellow band members’ hotel rooms and utter refusal of any form of idol worship that might jeopardise his route to the next art shop, record store, stud farm, cricket match or daily phone call home.
Sexton’s style is necessarily anecdotal, as major upheavals fail to materialise and grieving colleagues queue up with fond recollections. Well, OK, there are famously two dramatic incidents to the Watts legend but there’s little to say about a wealthy man’s brief, private lapse into drug addiction during a spell out of the spotlight, especially when he pulls himself out of it sans rehab or tragedy.
And the one about punching his lead singer on the nose in a New York hotel room falls a little flat when Jagger simply denies it ever happened.
nstead, we get to marvel at small, sweet incidents and peccadillos that define a more intriguing distinction. The way the master of feel instantly knows someone has been touching his drums after an engineer applies a teeny quarter-turn to his snare skin, for example.
Or the time in front of a squillion-strong crowd when he beckons his drum tech Don McAulay in the middle of Waiting on a Friend
not for technical assistance but to ask after his ailing father.
Of course, this is the only kind of book that could emerge from the inner sanctum so soon after the passing of such a universally adored musician. But with ego and decadence effectively subtracted from the legend, it’s impossible not to be moved by the true backbone of the Rolling Stones operation: a genuine and ever-expanding family bond that relishes its opulence, yes, but never at the expense of somebody’s birthday.
The rest of us can take comfort forever in the records that he never listened to. But to fully appreciate the grandpa energy enveloping all those here that he loved so dearly, from the lead singer he probably never actually punched to the granddaughter who made his final tours such a joy, makes the loss of Charlie Watts almost too much to bear.