To begin with I took him for granted. The Rolling Stones made great records - that is their records got better and better - from Come On to I Wanna Be Your Man to Not Fade Away to It's All Over Now - better and better. I knew they had a drummer, you couldn’t miss him, the one sitting down at the back, sulky expression, hair not quite so à la mode as the others - but it took time to realise just how good he was. I was just getting started with music, I was nine years old when their first record came out.
Pop groups were a new thing. There wasn’t anything much to measure anything against. They always had a drummer - The Beatles had Ringo Starr, The Kinks had Mick Avory, the Who had Keith Moon, The Small Faces had Kenny Jones, The Yardbirds had Jim McCarty… they were all good but I didn’t know that yet.
Get Off My Cloud, Paint It Black, Have You Seen Your Mother?, Satisfaction…
As the sixties progressed I was enamoured along with hundreds of others with the hyperactivity and dazzling dexterity of countless busy drummers. The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience exploded, Cream simultaneously impressed and bored the shit out of me, Bands skittered and skidded around, and frequently flew off the track, but through it all the Rolling Stones sat four square on the road, a big and powerful motor car rolling steadily through the night.
I’m really not sure that i should continue with the car metaphor, but if i did then Charlie Watts would have to be the engine. Or possibly the driver.
Let’s lose the car metaphor.
Records by the Rolling Stones were fundamentally more propulsive than records by other groups. Perhaps Creedence Clearwater Revival came close, and later Canvey island’s very own Dr Feelgood, but no other band possessed a drummer of such elegance, grace, sophistication and outright drive.
“Charlie’s good tonight,” Mick famously remarked on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!. The Stones were not always good but I don’t think they were ever let down by the drummer. I don’t know, but I can imagine that Charlie was good every night.
In his wonderful book, Life, Keith Richards recalled following the cables and locating Charlie ensconced behind his kit in a far-flung cellar under the chateau where they were recording Exile On Main Street. Charlie Watts, suit and tie, the day’s newspaper spread across the kit, kettle coming to the boil on a Primus stove by his side. On time and ready to keep time. No need for a conversation, Charlie would, I imagine, know exactly what to do and what not to do.
When the Rolling Stones celebrated an unprecedented twenty-five years Charlie summed it up as twenty years of waiting and five years of playing.
I often think of Charlie Watts making a drawing of the bed in his hotel room before he got into it to go to sleep.
In 1966 or ’67 he moved to Lewes in East Sussex, where I was currently suffering through school. Mick and Keith had been incarcerated in jail in Lewes pending sentencing following the 1967 drug bust. From the school playing fields you could just see the jail up there on the hill. I remember looking up at the prison in awe and disbelief. They were only there for two days but I think the local youth felt a special connection to the Stones, especially with the drummer living amongst us.
Charlie Watts house was a charming cottage on the end of Southover High Street. The cottage fronted the road and the front door opened directly onto the pavement. There was a bus stop just along the road. As a teenager I caught the bus a couple of stops along from his house and took a seat on the top deck with the express intention of looking down into the windows of his house.
Years later I became friends with Ian Dury. Ian was friends with Charlie’s wife, Shirley. They’d attended the Royal College Of Art together. Ian told me he used to visit them in Lewes. He talked about the bus stop, and how the bus would slow down outside the living room window and all these teenage boys would be looking down at them from the top deck. I shamefully admitted to having once been one of them, which Ian found highly amusing.
I wasn’t going to put that bit in but I was…you know, a fan. I still am, I love them. Occasionally I loathe them, I get exasperated by them, and then I fall in love with them all over again… because although they don’t know it, and it probably wouldn’t make a drop of difference to them if they did, they’re family - they’ve been in my life since I was a nine year old and they’re family.
I don’t know how you grieve for someone you’ve never met, and if it’s even appropriate. Charlie’s gone. The Stones will probably carry on until there are no Stones left. And then it’ll be the end of an era. I’m glad to have been around for it. Thank you Charlie - sorry about the bus stop thing.