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Charlie Watts Knew It’s Not The Drummer, It’s The Song

MUNICH, GERMANY - JUNE 4: Drummer Charlie Watts Perform at the opening night of the European leg of The Rolling Stones Forty Licks Tour at the Olimpiahalle Spiridon on June 4, 2003 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Getty Images)
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I’m gonna feel more wistful than usual for a while. Charlie Watts is dead. For the last 58 years, Watts was the drummer for the Rolling Stones. As a kid, like all my suburban dirtball buddies, I was a Stones obsessive. I was never obsessed with Watts however. And not only because he was the drummer and sat in the shadows behind Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Every Beatles fan could and would name every member in the same order: “John Paul George Ringo.” But nobody did that with the Stones. It was the band, the whole band—”the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” as the Stones were introduced at shows on their 1969 tour—that us dirtballs became obsessed with.

The first albums I ever bought with my own money were Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping and Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! by the Stones. I still remember taking the 1M bus to Seven Corners in Falls Church, Va., to go to the Harmony Hut record store. “Sweet Home Alabama” was on the radio at the time, but Ya-Ya’s was several years old; it had been recorded live at Madison Square Garden on that 1969 tour when the band claimed its greatestness. But I’d just seen the rockumentary about the Stones’ Altamont concert from that same tour, Gimme Shelter, on TV. I wore Ya-Ya’s out and to this day whenever I hear my favorite Stones song, “Paint It Black,” I think and even speak aloud the line screamed at the band by a fan: “‘Paint It Black!’ you devil!” 

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Like every teenage suburban dirtball I knew, I became a Stones diehard. And, boy, they made it easy in those years. This was the Mick Taylor era where the band was at its bloozy best and really could do no wrong. Taylor had replaced Brian Jones, a founding Stone, who died a rock-star death (drowned drunk and drugged) a few years earlier after getting kicked out of the band, and I’m sure that added to the allure the band had for me as much as his slide-guitar licks. The albums made with Taylor at the end of the 1960s and into the ’70s—Let It Bleed, Ya-Ya’s, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll—are comparable only to each other. If you liked one song on any of those records, you liked every song on every one of them. Charlie Watts’s snare attacks and cymbals became slower and a lot less prominent during the bluescentric Taylor years than they had been on the Stones’ more caffeinated and trebly Top 40 hits of the mid-1960s. Unlike other dirtball fave backbeaters of the era, like John Bonham or Keith Moon, Watts gave us nothing to airdrum along to. His playing became basically metronomic, and he seemed comfortable staying out of the way. But what songs! What a band!

But Taylor quit at the end of 1974, and the Stones took a turn. Black and Blue, the first record after Taylor screwed up his life and rock history by quitting the band, had a very un-Stonesy dance tune, “Hot Stuff.” And then came “Miss You” from Some Girls. Watts’s role in the band became more prominent than ever. But “disco” was a four-letter word to us dirtballs. We dropped the Stones like a bad habit. I remember a morning in the summer of 1978 when I was up before sunrise delivering the Washington Post and an older neighborhood kid named Mark drove up in his van with a bulletin: A secret Stones show at the Warner Theater was just announced. The greatest rock and roll band in the world was playing a show in a small venue in my town. Mark said he heard on the radio tickets were going on sale any minute, and he was headed downtown to get some and asked if I wanted one. I said, “Nah.” I’ve made some dumb-ass decisions in my life, and this sure seems like one of the big ones. But I know it felt righteous at the time. The Stones had gone disco. Skynyrd crashed a plane in a swamp and went away before doing anything un-rock-n-roll. 

I got over myself eventually, and grew up to see the Stones lots of times, though always in arenas and stadiums. Their shows were always fun in a good-high-school-reunion sort of way. Lots of smiles, lots of memories, lots of feeling old. And reminded me: What songs! What a band!

Watts died today in London. No cause of death was given. But you can bet it wasn’t drowning or drink or drugs or a plane crash that took him. He was 80 years old. You can’t die a rock and roll death at 80. As I type this, I can’t name a single tune the Rolling Stones have released since “Some Girls.” But up until the last show with Watts in 2019, Stones setlists still contained lots of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. I’m going to go play “Paint It Black” now, you devils.