Never showy, never leading, enemy of noise, the drummer who died yesterday at the age of 80 was the essential pulse of the sound of the Rolling Stones.
And what did we do with these rebellions?
Well nurture the old agonies
And fatten the same hierarchies
Even of stupid anarchists
The Rolling Stones would blame us.
“The Rolling Stones would blame us”, Jaime López and Roberto González
For whom the Bell Tolls? For whom do the bass drum and toms of Charlie Watts reverberate? Maybe not for everyone who ever wobbled with “Satisfaction”, “Brown Sugar” or “Start Me up”, but for millions around the world who link epiphanies of our lives with the steps of the so-called “band more great rock and roll in the world ”.
Now it turns out that the death of the discreet and serene drummer makes us realize that his pulse, his throbbing, was an essential, indissoluble part of the sound of The Rolling Stones, as much as the voice (and movements) of Mick Jagger and the Keith Richards guitar. Or we always knew it, but we accept the dictates of a media circus in which Jagger and Richards have been terrible children, a good or bad marriage, jet-setters, rock stars, consumers of how much legal or illegal substance puts them up, hunters of divas, actresses and models, ambitious businessmen and composer of memorable songs despite the regrets.
Because neither success, nor fortune, nor fame tarnish the powerful, well-sustained legend that the Stones forged, especially in the second half of the 60s and the first half of the 70s. Few who really love rock can haggle credit for albums like Let it bleed, Beggars banquet, Sticky fingers and Exile on Main Street (some will even want to add Some girls). Punk disdained the Stones, tore them to shreds and spat on them, but the group that built a career on the blues, Chuck Berry and sheer ambition, had already inscribed their name in history.
In the light of his death, the exceptionality of the figure of Charles Robert Watts becomes evident, a man whom in Mexico we always saw playing live combing gray hair. It was tender to see him stand up to thank the applause with a modesty that conquered even the most cynical and incredulous. Although in the 1980s he fought battles against alcohol and heroin, he was never the protagonist of scandals or arrests. He never felt comfortable in the rock star outfit. He lasted 57 years married to Shirley Ann Sheperd, from 1964 until her death, this Tuesday, August 24, 2021.
Watts was musically trained with jazz, which he adored, to the extent that he put together at least one big band and a quintet parallel to packed stadiums and bulky Stones sets. He idolized Charlie Parker and much preferred Igor Stravinsky and Miles Davis to Elvis Presley (he was not alone). His path to rock was through blues, which began to play professionally with Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated, a seminal group that baby boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Z would do well to revisit.
Those of us who saw him at the Foro Sol or tried to hunt him at the Four Seasons in the capital knew very well: Charlie was a very different animal from legendary and untamed beasts like Keith Moon, John “Bonzo” Bonham and Ginger Baker. Although it had a more refined style than Ringo Starr, it resembled Ringo Starr more than those for its conciseness and economy; never showy, never leading, and an enemy of noise, it was, nevertheless, the best metronome the Stones could have. Get yer ya-yas out! The Rolling Stones in concert, from 1970, exhibits it with a frenzied and jubilant heartbeat imprinted on the drums. Self-taught, a student of pure hearing, Watts never learned to read music.
The adolescent that I was in the prehistoric 70s remembers him with straight hair, parted on one side, ungainly, without much glamor. There he was, on the big screen in the Cuevas or Godard room, behind Plaza Satélite, in the movie Ladies and gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. You almost had to guess him and the band’s original bassist, Bill Wyman. Jagger and Richards stole cameras. Even Mick Taylor, the requintista who replaced Brian Jones, seemed to come out more. Over the years, Watts fully assumed the look that he had admired in great jazz players. The short, slicked-back hair, the at least two-piece suits, some with a chalk stripe, the suede footwear. A gentleman.
Another image of the drummer that has stuck in my memory is of the Stones reviewing the footage of the fateful Altamont concert in Gimme Shelter, the documentary by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Visibly intoxicated and somewhat annoyed by the tragic outcome of the festival, Watts emphasizes, with his attitude, that the dream of the 60s ended, and not happily.
There is no iconic song of their satanic majesties that one hears again right now without being able to appreciate, in all its grandeur and clarity, the solid rhythmic backbone of Charlie Watts. It must be said in jazz jargon: the Stones songs swing, dance, waddle, and that is the primary responsibility of the drummer. Without vanities or stardom, the also graphic designer, who came to work in an advertising agency before being employed in professional rock, gives each song what it needs, no more, no less. Everyone will have their favorite Charlie Watts memories and rolls. In “Under my thumb” there is a soft throbbing almost to Motown. The beginning of “Sympathy for the devil” is tribal, Mephistophelic, almost to the rhythm of a dark voodoo ritual; the frantic gallop of the live version that is collected in the aforementioned Get yer ya-yas out it is symptomatic of a time of wars, revolts, revolutions and high-profile assassinations; pure adrenaline. That of “Miss You” is a measure that wishes to be a disco, but bluesy languor appears, as elemental as it is effective. “Start me up” is a combat rock in hormonal mode and eighties rhythm. And I would not like to disdain, because for some reason it touches me very close, to the dry whip of the batacas that follows the first chords of “Beast of Burden”.
Those of us then –Jose Emilio Pacheco would say– are no longer the same. The Rolling Stones would blame us; and we to them. One of the most modest and consistent sound architects of what we call rock has died. At 80 years of age, he was ahead of Richards. It’s no surprise: Keith will outlive us all.