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The news just flashed across my Facebook feed.
Charlie Watts is dead.
The world's greatest rock and roll band has lost the guy who shoveled the coal into their engine from day one. A guy who could shame a metronome. He had power and swing and watched all the madness that went on around him with a sort of shy, wry grin. He was never not the coolest guy in the room. And that's saying something considering who he hung with.
All the texts and PMs from friends. Everybody got the news at the same time. Everybody is reaching out to everybody else. Nobody knows what to say.
I'll try to say something. That's what I do. I don’t mind fumbling the football sometimes.
Charlie was 80. A lot of miles under that hood. We shouldn't be surprised when 80 year old's die. But this is different somehow. These are the ones who have always been there. The ones who have driven us forward through decades. We expect them to batter and bruise but never break. He still looked immaculate. A trim English gentleman married to the same woman he met before he even joined the band. A family man who, wrote one biographer, was always looking to "book the first flight home".
This isn't supposed to happen.
Because people like this are irreplaceable. They leave a hole in the ozone layer.
I'm trying to find the right words. It's 2021, and things are so shitty right now most of us are all cried out. I'm getting too old for that anyway. But there's all sorts of memories racing through my head. In my basement as a new teen cradling a copy of "Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out", with the iconic cover of Charlie and the donkey. Charlie leaping in the air wearing Mick's red white and blue Uncle Sam stage hat and carrying Keith's Les Paul. And if you looked REALLY close you could see a picture of 2 large breasts on his white T shirt. Album covers. We noticed EVERYTHING. And then the needle hit the grooves. The Rolling Stones sounded like a freight train.....and it was Charlie who kept them from leaping off the tracks. "Charlie's good tonight, in'he?" said Mick on that live album. Charlie was always good. "I could just say 'Charlie it goes like this' and it's done. I never had to worry about the beat", said Keith Richards. "He was a blessing".
I remember devouring the "Hot Rocks" compilation album, those snare shots that kicked "Paint it Black" off sounded like pistol shots.....and I swear I still have my hand imprint on my knee from playing along each time. I remember MTV kicking off and the Stones tossing off that out of synch "Start Me Up" video that looks like it was made for free beer. Charlie behind the kit laughing when Mick's vocals are heard and the singer's mouth is closed. The music was all he cared about. The rest was a laugh.
Even my generation seemed to discover the Beatles first....and then the Stones. It seemed the natural order of things. I never argued over who was "better", and neither did they. I was and remain grateful that I occupied this strange round ball at the same time they did. And I think they were grateful for each other.
Brian. John. George. And now Charlie. How 'bout that band?
The joke has always been that Keith Richards is gonna live forever.....him and Betty White and the cockroaches that will survive a nuclear blast. We all laugh....and so does Keith, but we're gonna lose them all. Immortality does not require you to be....well....immortal. It just means you're better than just about everybody else at your job.
I'm just sputtering here. This is all coming out in real time, but that's how I want to remember it. I'll close with my 2 favorite Charlie stories.
In the 1970s and 80s Charlie fell into a nasty heroin habit. How nasty? Well, Keith Richards himself shook a dozing, drugged Watts awake during playback sessions for the "Some Girls" album and offered this. "You know, you should really do this when you're older".....which was about as "Just Say No" as Keith could get. Charlie took the hint and got clean.
And finally, this.
A drunken Jagger in an Amsterdam hotel room called down to Charlie's room and bellowed "Where's my fucking drummer?!!" Watts got out of bed, dressed himself in an immaculate suit, and made his way up to Jagger's suite. Mick opened the door and Charlie punched him dead in the face saying "Don't you ever call me 'your drummer' again. You're MY fucking singer."
RIP Charlie Watts.
In a bit..