Saturday, November 5, 2011

Charlie Watts is the Coolest

It's unwise to imagine too deeply about strangers' lives, particularly famous millionaire rock star strangers who offer carefully cultivated personae for consumption. But like so many others, I've had a deep interest in and fascination with the kind of public life that Charlie Watts lives, or the ways in which I interpret that life, anyway. Watts is cool for a lot of reasons, primarily for the weariness he exhibits, in nearly every mumbled interview, with the silliness of fame and rock & roll excesses. I've written before about seeing the Rolling Stones at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, on the 1981 Tattoo You tour. I had second-row seats and my view of Watts was close and clear. When I wasn't marvelling at his booming snare shots that seemed to drag slightly behind the beat via his snapping wrist-and-forearm, I was getting off on his bored appearance—an utterly absurd visage amidst such a rock & roll spectacle as Mick Jagger in the cherry-picker and Keith Richards' onstage love-affair with his bourbon. At one point, Bill Wyman or Jagger turned back to look at Watts during a song, and Watts responded with a mordant eye-roll. It was hilarious stuff, and I intuited at the moment that Watts wasn't taking any of this very seriously, and that made the fun somehow more fun.

Over the years I convinced myself that I'd seen a variation of that eye-roll in a late-70s/early-80s era Stones video; I searched the band's promos from Some Girls through Tattoo You, but couldn't find it. I saw plenty of bored Charlie, but not that blasé eye-roll, until I was directed by Molly McDonald in a piece at The Millions to the video for "Worried About You," which I'd somehow missed. These weren't the nonchalant moments I'd mythologized in my imagination, and the caps really don't do Watts' countenance justice, but still:
Are you kidding?
Gimme a break.
There's the Charlie I (don't really) know and love. But there's more that's boss about Watts than his seeming impatience with the trappings of adolescent rock & roll. There's his loyalty to the band. In the documentary 25 x 5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones, he quipped dryly on the band's golden anniversary: "Five years playing and twenty years waiting around."  But he's apparently ready whenever Mick and Keith say "we're hitting the road." Not that this sense of duty hasn't been tested—certainly in myriad private, out-of-public ways, and notoriously in the oft-told tale of Watts laying out a drunk Jagger in the latter's hotel room, at some point in the 1980s; Jagger had haughtily demanded to know "where my drummer is" and upon learning of this bidding, Watts carefully put on one of his dapper suits, walked to Jagger's room, and knocked him over the bed onto his ass, declaring that Jagger is Watts' singer, not the other way around. This incident occurred during a murky era for Watts when he was struggling with drinking and heroin addiction. He's rarely talked about his abuses in public (another cool notch in our era of compulsive disclosure).

Then there's the fidelity to his wife, Shirley, to whom he's been married since 1964. That is, pre-fame. I have no idea whether the stories are true about Watts' monogamy, but I'd love it if they were. For decades, he's drawn a detailed sketch of every bed in every hotel room in which he's stayed, rather than go out partying and philandering; during an early 1970s tour he infamously hung out in the pinball room at the L.A. Playboy Mansion for days while everyone else, bands and hangers on alike, were prowling and whoring it up. There's a terrific interview with Watts from 1993 with Matt Lauer on the show Later. A relaxed and relatively talkative Watts was promoting a tour of the Charlie Watts Quintet, one of his on-again/off-again side jazz combos, and was a month or so away from rejoining the Stones for sessions that would result in Voodoo Lounge. At one point in the interview, Lauer, obviously attempting to quell his fandom and be professional, talks excitedly to Watts about the first couple of Stones tours in the United States in 1964.

"You'd be met at the airport by hundreds of screaming women!" Lauer gushed.

"Girls," Watts respectfully corrected him.

It's one of my favorite Watts moments. In a single word he gently reminds Lauer of the essential adolescent shallowness of much of the rock & roll game, without betraying its obvious excitement and appeal to those of us on the outside looking in. It was a mature rejoinder from a mature man who's been married for 46 years and who still plays a great rock & roll backbeat. Watts admits to loving playing with his mates, but still dreads packing and leaving his home and his woman. And oh all of that silliness that comes with it.

Here's an interview from 1976 with Watts (and Bill Wyman) where he describes, among other road woes, the misery of closing that hotel room door behind him:


NEWS FLASH: Charlie Watts "very pleasantly surprised" that Shine A Light wasn't boring.


ChuckDeluise said...

What a nice piece of writing about a man who simply doesn't get enough praise and attention (Not that he wants it)! Great job!

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Tom!

Edgar said...

Charlie Watts is the epitome of cool, a clever reserved man who is solid and no ones fool.