September 1, 2021

Remembering Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

By Stuart Mitchner

A smile relieves a heart that grieves.

—from “Waiting On a Friend”

It’s July 1981, I’m walking down St. Mark’s Place in the East Village when I see Mick Jagger standing in the doorway of Number 96 and pretty soon here comes Keith Richards smoking and smiling his way through the sidewalk crowd. After a clumsy hug, the two head for St. Mark’s Bar & Grill on First Avenue, where Ron Wood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts are waiting, everything’s cool, it’s time to play, and for some curious reason, no one knows the Rolling Stones are in the house and about to deliver a free performance. The way the video for “Waiting On a Friend” spins it, these five guys are only neighborhood musicians. The folks at the bar take no notice and could care less that the character looning about as if he were Mick Jagger really is Mick Jagger.

This East Village street-life fantasy began with last week’s news of the death of drummer Charlie Watts. Making the rounds of obits, remembrances, and videos, I learned it was thanks to Watts that tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins agreed to play on “Waiting On a Friend” and two other songs on the Tattoo You LP. “My love for Sonny goes a long way back,” Watts says in an “American Legends” article in the January 23, 2010 Guardian. “I first saw him in 1964 at the original Birdland club on 52nd Street, playing with a trio. To sit there and watch Sonny Rollins, my God! In those days he did this fantastic thing: he used to start playing in the dressing room with no band, then walk out and go around the stage, using the room to bounce the sound off. It was amazing. I’d never seen anyone do that.”

Neither had I when I saw Rollins two blocks up St. Mark’s Place at the Five Spot. That night he started playing in the kitchen, warming up amid the rattle of glassware, plates, and cutlery. When the giant with the mohawk haircut pushed through the swinging door, he had a garland of bells around his neck jingling and tinkling as he strolled among the tables lifting and dipping his tenor sax like a divining rod.

Looking for a Friend

Given the song’s theme, atypical for the Stones, I’m imagining a friendly conversation between myself and the drummer at the bar, just some guy from the East Village neighborhood. Right away we find that we’d fallen under the spell of jazz at the same age, 14-15, listening to the same 10-inch Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker LP, the one with “Walking Shoes,” on which Charlie first heard Chico Hamilton’s brushwork and decided he wanted to be a drummer. Mostly we talk about the greatness of Sonny Rollins, comparing notes on the times we’ve seen him play, just a couple of geezers enthusing about a shared passion, or so it seems until the drummer casually lets it drop that he and Sonny “have the same tailor in New York who makes our clothes.” Only then do I realize I’ve been talking with Savile Row Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.

Friendships in the Band

Let’s face it, the Stones never really wanted to be your friend, unlike the Beatles, who’d “love to take you home.” So, what was the occasion in 1981 when they recorded “Waiting On a Friend” and made the video for the then new MTV channel? Says Mick, “the lyric I added is very gentle and loving, about friendships in the band.” True enough, with admissions like “making love and breaking hearts is a game for youth,”  “I need someone I can cry to … and someone to protect,” and then there’s the enigmatic line, “A smile relieves a heart that grieves,” a sentiment that takes on special meaning 40 years later with the loss of Charlie Watts. 

Mr. Mr.

There are smiles aplenty when you compare the differing accounts of The Knockdown in Amsterdam that took place a mere two years after “Waiting for a Friend.” Rather than quote Keith Richards directly from the text of his memoir, Life, the New York Times obit gives us “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards” returning from a night of drinking in Amsterdam. After “Mr. Jagger calls up Mr. Watts” and asks “Where’s my drummer?” Mr. Watts shows up at Mr. Jagger’s room, tells him “Never call me your drummer again,” and “delivers a right hook …. Mr. Richards said he narrowly saved Mr. Jagger from falling out a window into an Amsterdam canal.”

In Mr. Richards’s version, the focus is on Mr. Richard’s jacket. It’s 5 a.m., Mick and Keith have been out on the town, Keith has lent Mick the jacket he was married in, and having ignored Keith’s warning, Mick is on the phone to summon the stoic Charlie Watts to his regal presence.   “About twenty minutes later,” Mr. Richards writes, “there was a knock at the door. There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved …. I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ Then he hauled him up by the lapels of my jacket and gave him a right hook. Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon on the table and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below it. And I was thinking, this is a good one, and then I realized it was my wedding jacket. And I grabbed hold of it and caught Mick just before he slid into the Amsterdam canal.”

The execution of the anecdote, like so much of Life, is the equivalent of a ringing cluster of Keith Richards riffs — the borrowed wedding jacket, Charlie’s Savile Row suit at 5 a.m., the cologne, the salmon, the canal, and, the last touch, that it’s not Mick he’s grabbing hold of but the jacket.

True to newspaper-of-record form, the Times makes sure to quote the drummer’s eventual regrets: “ ‘It’s not something I’m proud of doing, and if I hadn’t been drinking I would never have done it,’ Mr. Watts said in 2003.”

“Perpetual Thrilling Motion”

My first thought on hearing last week’s news was that, as George Harrison was originally cast as “the Quiet Beatle,” Watts might have been “the Quiet Stone.” His adult-in-the-room manner offset the Stones’ rowdy image the way Ringo’s boyishness worked for the Beatles, the street kid from the Dingle giving the group the added touch they needed to win love on a grand scale. With Ringo, there’s also the landmark moment when he steps into the Sgt. Pepper spotlight to sing “With a Little Help From My Friends.” As a drummer, he’s at his best in “Rain” and the medley that closes Abbey Road.    

With Charlie Watts, certain songs come immediately to mind, starting with rock absolutes like “Paint it Black” and “Satisfaction.” Various music critics have put together lists of his most distinctive performances, among them the BBC’s Mark Savage, who says of “Paint It Black”: “Watts pitches his drums low, rattling the floor tom with a pounding 4/4 beat that gives the song a sinister, eerie undercurrent.” In “Get Off My Cloud,” he “opens the song with a rock-solid beat-and-fill pattern, that he basically repeats for three straight minutes without ever letting up. It’s a feat of endurance that keeps the song in perpetual, thrilling motion.” For “19th Nervous Breakdown,” Watts provides “one of his most manic drumbeats, full of jittery ride cymbals and rumbling tom fills.”

Period Pieces?

In the summer of 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, the Stones made nice in compilations like Flowers and songs such as “Dandelion” and “We Love You,” both with John Lennon and Paul McCartney singing back-up. It’s unfortunate but understandable that the Stones have reportedly never played either of those songs in public. One explanation would be that they are, in effect, “period pieces.” Released as a single in August 1967, the combination reflects both the light and dark sides of the time. With a production that highlights Jagger’s inspired singing and shots-of-life drumming from Watts, “Dandelion” is an unstoppably joyous song. Go to the lyric version on YouTube and you can feel the positive spirit of the time with an intensity equal to the summer’s other anthem, the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” where Jagger and Richards return the favor by singing in the chorus.

In “We Love You,” Charlie Watts is once again at the center of the song, picking up, translating, and carrying through to the end the powerfully ominous keyboard figure that follows on the first sound: the slamming shut of a prison cell door, a reference to the newsmaking drug bust of Jagger and Richards. This might also explain the stoned-out lyric: “We love they and we want you to love they too …. We don’t care if you hound we … You will never win we … Your uniforms don’t fit we….”

Grand Illusion

“I’ve always wanted to be a drummer,” Watts told Rolling Stone in 1996. “I’ve always had this illusion of being in the Blue Note or Birdland with Charlie Parker in front of me. It didn’t sound like that, but that was the illusion I had.”

It’s a magnificent illusion, under the circumstances: massive venues, stadiums, sports arenas overflowing with vast, crazed crowds spread out as far as the eye can see, fields of people, all of it somehow reduced to the intimate scale of a New York night club in another era by a drummer who understands the paradox, that in the context of jazz, it’s necessary “to play with great intensity very quietly.”

Playing behind the Stones, driving the engine in arenas with tiers of lights towering in the background like the skyline of a great city, Watts turns the combination around. You settle down in an intimate timeless setting, it could be Birdland or the Five Spot or St. Marks Bar & Grill, and you think “very quietly” and “play with great intensity.”