Charlie Watts, the drummer of The Rolling Stones has died at 80. And unlike the rest of the Rolling Stones, his life was (relatively) gently lived. Watts was the good guy amid bad boys. He projected a sense of calm and focus, and in doing so, gave people like me a way to relate to the best of rock and roll without becoming consumed by — or learning to revere — the pitfalls. In life, Charlie Watts was remembered as a damn good drummer. But, what he projected was an essential counterpoint to the mythos of rock and roll. He gave square fans a way in on the fun.
Men have been using rock stars as role models since before rock stars started rocking. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I saw Mick Jagger speeding through the west village in a sports car with a Melanie Hamrick in the year 2015. Jagger had a baby with Hamrick in 2016; I became a father in 2017. I was certainly living a higher life pre-baby than I was post-baby, but I was not rocking a sports car at unsafe speeds.
Now try to imagine Charlie Watts driving that sports car — behaving like a testosterone-laden male cliché in 2015 or in 1964. Apparently, the most violent thing Watts ever did on tour was punching Mick Jagger in the face after Mick called him on the telephone and referred to him as “my drummer.” Splendidly, the myth goes that Watts showered, shaved, and dressed in a suit and tie, before marching downstairs of the hotel to pop Mick a good one. Later, Watts felt bad about it. Because of course he did.
Charlie Watts had one kid with one wife Shirley Ann Shepherd. Mick had eight kids with five different mothers. No shame on having a bunch of kids. No shame on marrying models and awesome ballerinas. But I think it demonstrates that Watts’ experience of marriage and fatherhood are closer to that of the average parent’s. I’m not saying we can’t find things to relate to with Mick, but there’s an excess with the other Stones that just didn’t exist with Charlie Watts. He’s modest about fatherhood, and in that there’s power.
As I’ve written about before, sometimes I think of my toddler as Mick Jagger. Uncontrollable. Full of attitude. Hilarious. Cool. Unreasonable. And while she’s gone from being two years old and obsessed with “Satisfaction,” to four years old and slightly more into “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll,” I still realize that I have to be the Charlie Watts to her Mick. Watts provides the steady rhythm of the Stones. Watts’ background was in jazz and graphic design before he became a Rolling Stone, and it shows. He doesn’t punctuate the songs of the Stones, he’s doing something else entirely in there. Just listen to the percussion work of “Waiting on a Friend,” it’s like there’s another band happening on the side, and it’s all Charlie Watts. The point? If you’re stuck with Mick Jagger, you’ve got to compartmentalize and do your own thing sometimes.
The music video for “Waiting on a Friend” in particular is what made me realize I could love the Rolling Stones. Unlike the Beatles, which was just a potpourri of musical styles and personalities you could adopt, the Stones, felt, at least to a teenager in the late ‘90s, as kind of same-y. I liked all the big songs, mostly because my dad liked them. But, I could tell, even at 15 , that their lyrics were either incomprehensible, sexist, or both. While the Beatles felt timeless, the Stones always felt, to me, like they belonged to another generation. That is until I really saw Charlie Watts. Unlike the Beatles, you need to see the Rolling Stones to get why they mean so much. And me witnessing Charlie Watts in the video for “Waiting on a Friend,” was my way into liking the Rolling Stones.
When you watch this video today, you’ll swear, in the beginning, that Mick Jagger is straight out of a Flight of the Conchords video mostly because he just looks so damn goofy. Mick is “standing in a doorway” for a while until he and Keith decide to walk to a bar. Then they meet up with Ron Wood and seemingly have some beers, like regular bros. What’s Charlie Watts doing in this video? He’s just like sitting down behind them, half-obscured by a pillar, with that famous, lovable grin. He’s talking to a nice woman in the bar but he’s clearly not flirting. He’s just hanging out, in a way that isn’t annoying. He’s the guy you want to be at the bar. It’s like he’s sort of waiting for the other Stones to get into some trouble that he’s going to have to sort out. He’s the designated driver, but he can have one beer and then be smart about it.
When it’s time for the Stones to play their instruments in the corner of the bar, Charlie casually just strolls over, his bald spot on full display, and just sits down and starts tapping away. The rest of the band have an affect, a whole shtick they have to do, they have to writhe around like reptiles or demons. Watts just sits down and starts working.
Charlies Watts is like if Spock had to work with a bunch of cavemen. He’s tolerant, and kind, but also, down to business. The lesson for me, as a young man, was simple. That guy is also part of The Rolling Stones. Not only that, he’s an essential part of the band, and he’s not conventionally cool. Charlie Watts’ anti-coolness was then and still is, for me, a constant revelation. Even the most explosive and seemingly confined rock music had, at its core, a steady, well-mannered, and focused guy. The Stones could not have been the Stones without Charlie Watts. But, his example is bigger than that.
Watts was himself regardless of the pressure his friends put on him to be more like them. They didn’t change him. He changed them, or at the very least, their music. And he did it with quiet confidence, dignity, and class. That’s rock n’ roll.