Mike Edison thinks that Charlie Watts is dynamite.
OK, that's out of the way. There have been countless books written about the Rolling Stones. I've lost count of the ones that I've read, but I know what the best ones are, and I can now slot Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters among them. Edison's excitable tribute to the Stones' unflappable drummer is smart, funny, and comprehensive, written with palpable affection and a drummer's love for the game. Edison's thesis is not entirely surprising—Charlie Watts, a jazz cat by taste, always swung behind his kit and looked tastefully sharp while doing it—but his examples are consistently illuminating. Edison illustrates how Watts was always evolving within the Stones' basic blues-based rock and roll template, bringing jazz sensibilities to his backbeat, gifted in knowing intuitively when to hold back the tempo and when to push it, both onstage and in the studio. Having listened to and marveled at Watts down the decades, Edison's greatest discovery is that, as a drummer, if you play to the melody then you don't have to keep time, a wonderfully abstract yet graphic and powerful way to describe Watts's greatness, his feel for playing to the sensual and the fluidly lyric rather than to count-ins and bars and measures. This, and playing slightly behind Keith Richards's guitar rather than with Bill Wyman's bass, ultimately gave Watts his unique and irreplaceable sound.
If you know Edison from his late and lamented podcast Arts and Seizures or have run into him in a bar—happily, I've been his guest on each of those occasions—or from his earlier books, you'll recognize the propulsive, voice-driven, italics-exuberant writing style in Sympathy for the Drummer. I hear Edison's voice when I read, and had to actively slow down that voice in my head—the book reads as if Edison's holding forth at the bar or at his own joint with his records strewn about his feet, and a great pleasure is allowing yourself to be caught up in Edison's enthusiasm. A drummer himself, Edison's love for Watts never devolves into hagiography because he's genuinely, and regularly, startled and moved by Watts's authenticity and classiness, both as a musician and as a man. Edison dutifully recounts the infamous moment in the early 1980s when a besuited Watts decked Mick Jagger, nearly sending him out of the hotel room window into a canal below, and Watts's surprising descent into speed and heroin abuse during that same period, but Sympathy isn't interested in gossip or myth, but in how an unprepossessing man playing a tiny jazz kit can detonate his backbeat in stadia around the world, and how his playing organically moves within a song's sensual ebbs and flows. Watts is a hard man to know—famously modest and private—and so Edison does the smart thing: like the best music writing, his begins with a simple question—in this case, Why does Watts matter?—and lets the music provide the answers. And something else the book shares with the best music writing: it sent me back to the Stones' music, a catalog I know absurdly well, to listen with fresh ears to Watts's unique turnarounds, fills, and elastic grooves.
Edison writes for both the Watts-obsessed (I'm guilty as charged) and the general Stones fan, and among the great revelations in the book are the wide-ranging influences on Watts's drumming; from obscure early jazzmen and blues drummers to Big Band bashers, Edison outlines knowledgeably and accessibly the sturdy, hard-to-see roots beneath Watt's drum seat. Sympathy also offers insight into the mysterious chemistry of a band, and serves as a helpful history of the Stones from their early, tiny-club gigging to peaking in the late-60s/early-70s to the malaise in the 80s to the recent-decades' worth of sporadic recording and worldwide touring. Watts has been consistent throughout it all: always game to play, fiercely loyal, an ear cocked to the particularities of song. Some readers unfamiliar with Edison's style might blush at his repeated use of "anticipation not penetration" as a sexual metaphor for Watts's intuitive style of playing—to my ears that's Edison's charm. He's never afraid to remind us that rock and roll is as much about fucking as it is about anything else, and Watts, though not a conventional sex symbol by any measure, always seemed to understand this, no doubt with a requisite eye-roll. Edison's smutty tone is hilarious, and performs a necessary de-styling of Watts, who's debonair, yes, but also tuned to the sexuality inherent in give-and-take rhythms and syncopation, to the anticipation of the thing. Check Watts's wry grin when he's playing.
Like any book extolling the virtues of a beloved musician, Sympathy for the Drummer is bound to set debate alight. I for one am still not sold on Watts's reliance on his china, or trashcan, cymbal in recent decades, though Edison's argument that Watts was, in his inimitable style, bringing the blues into the future, is nearly persuasive. (Still: too much, I say.) And a fun parlor game to play at home is to list the songs or moments that Edison missed, or chose to skip: my fave Watts moments include the impossibly cool four-bar close at the end of "Confessin' the Blues," from 1964, and his atmospheric and lyric, somehow cinematic playing throughout the epic "Moonlight Mile" from '71. Edison argues that to his ears the last truly great Stones song is "Had It With You" from the otherwise limp Dirty Work in '86; a worthy contender for sure, though I might go with "Thru and Thru" from '94's Voodoo Lounge. (Etcetera. I'm looking forward to hashing this all out with Edison next time I see him.)
Also Edisonian are the many funny and whip smart one-liners and observations throughout, Edison's writerly equivalents to Watts's sharp snare shots:
As Albert Einstein and Charlie Watts have successfully demonstrated, time is a fungible quantity. In the most human of terms, you wouldn’t want to make love with someone who fucks like a metronome, so why would you want to play rock’n’roll like one?
Charlie’s rim shots didn’t sound so much like machine gun fire as much as they did a sprang of bullets bouncing off of marble walls during a bank heist—they rang of danger and were impossible to predict. He was never about muzzle velocity anyway—his charm lay in the danger of the ricochet.
There is some kind of molecular chemistry at work when it comes to bands, strong bonds and weak bonds, and this is why Charlie and Keith and Mick matter. It is like building a water molecule: hydrogen and oxygen are plenty sexy on their own, but put them together and you can go swimming.
[On playing along at home with Watts on the band's latest album, Blue & Lonesome] It was a hard reality check. I felt handicapped. Physically challenged. The tempos were maddening—the urge was always to push it, but the Stones’ magic was holding it back. Anticipation and penetration. Charlie Watts didn’t rise to the occasion, he rose with it.
Mike Edison gets it. He's produced an entertaining, thoughtful, funny, and frankly overdue book about how and why Charlie Watts matters. Pick up Sympathy for the Drummer and revel in the timeless style and unique gift of one of rock and roll's greatest drummers.
|POV shot. From the Exhibitionism museum exhibit.|