Rolling Stones Drummer Charlie Watts Passes at 80
On August 25, as I tuned in for my carefully regulated quotient of National Public Radio morning news, and caught the tail end of the headlines, I heard something about remembering Charlie Watts. I thought “What? What happened to Charlie?” I barely heard all the horrors about Afghanistan and COVID, as I waited for the story. When I reached my office and still had not heard it, so I went to the newspaper to find that Charlie Watts had died at age 80. I was heartbroken.
I am fond of saying, perhaps only really half in jest, that Mick Jagger is the only man I have loved for over 55 years except my Dad. The angry intensity of the Rolling Stones was definitely a tool of regulation through my childhood, long before I had a clue what that means. I just knew that something about the rhythmic crashing, irreverent, often outrageous lyrics; violent blaring tones spoke to a split off part of me, and made me happy. It was perhaps a single access route to my disavowed but plentiful rage. I would play it loudly when I had the chance.
Mick Jagger was flamboyant and the clear centerpiece. Frozen and stiff in my own body, his fluid and high speed dancing, sometimes measured, jerky pointing, and boundless energy thrilled me. I read somewhere that he lost 10 pounds in every show. His lithe body and flowy androgenous, colorful, sometimes diabolical outfits spoke to the young seamstress in me. I loved the whole package, and still do, even now that he is 78.
Keith Richard has always been a wild man, and still makes me smile in a knowing way as well. His overt self-destructive hedonism, spoke to a part of me that was passionate, suicidal and futureless. It was as if each member of the band represented one of my dissociated parts. The whole package made me feel alive. When Keith’s mammoth autobiography came out a few years ago, his grandiosity, although unsurprising, was stunning. It did not make me love him less, or admire his musical genius less. It was rather almost comical. Learning of his quite impoverished and trauma ridden childhood was not surprising either. Rather affirming of my intuition about him, although I probably had never really thought it through.
And Charlie was always a steady quiet presence sitting back there, like a heartbeat. What an irony! The backbeat of loud, intense rock music, the rhythmic foundation that held it all together, having an air of quiet? How odd. Yet that was Charlie to me. Mick and Keith were well known for their dramatic love-hate drama. Marianne Faithfull, one of Mick’s most famous exes, was quoted as saying that Keith was Mick’s one and only real love. I don’t know if that is still true. There were plenty of headlines, going back to Brian Jones’ mysterious death; band members coming and going, Mick and Eric Clapton vying over women. Charlie stayed out of it all.
The One Time Charlie Lost His Cool
Well, there was one colorful exception, at least that I have come across, where Charlie lost his cool, and punched Mick in the face. The classic Stones’ song, The Spider and the Fly runs:
“Don’t want to be alone, but I love my girl at home,
I remember what she said,
‘My, my my, don’t tell lies,
Keep fidelity in your head…’
When you done your show go to bed.’ ”
That was Charlie’s style. He was not interested in the relentless solicitations of hot young groupies, (which may account, at least partly, for how he stayed married to his wife Shirley for over 50 years.) When late one touring night, Charlie was peacefully sleeping in his hotel room, a wildly intoxicated Mick called him on the phone, rousting him out of a peaceful sleep yelling “Where’s my drummer?!”
Charlie jumped out of bed, put on his signature three-piece designer suit and tie, marched to Mick’s room and punched him in the face, loudly admonishing “Don’t you ever call me your drummer again!” and stormed out
I don’t know anything about Charlie’s childhood. Born in the early 40’s meant bombing was a constant backdrop, well detailed in Keith’s book. Charlie came from humble means, there was certainly not enough money for a drum set. When he was given a banjo at age 14, it really did not interest him, so he cut off the neck, and made the banjo head into a snare, so he could emulate the brushing of the snare that he so admired. In his sparse and modest interviews, he talks little of himself, as if there is nothing to tell. He describes being a key member of perhaps the greatest rock and roll band in the world, as almost incidental, as if that somehow “happened to him.” It was easy for me all those devoted years of fandom, to not pay much notice to Charlie. He was a steady rhythm, like a backbeat of my life. And not terribly visible.
When I was in 9th grade English, and a top student in my class, we had a scheduled field trip to go to the theater. We were all wildly excited about the outing, and our teacher, Mr. Tanner, was the designated chauffeur who would pick us all up to take us to the show. Somehow, Mr. Taner forgot to pick me up. I was the one person who was left behind. I missed the show. I was devastated, not only about missing the play. I was mystified, “Am I that worthless as to be completely forgettable?”
I have since learned something about the experience of neglect: the doubt about one’s own very existence, or the right to exist, can envelop a person in a shrunken hiding place or cloud of shame and invisibility. I felt I must earn the right to occupy my space to stand on this earth. Inherently, I just didn’t deserve it. Might that be why a momentarily undefended Charlie was so incensed by being called by Mick, “My drummer?” It was too much like denying his existence as more than a possession of Mick’s?
As a therapist working with survivors of neglect, I learned I had to take special care to write myself reminders, jotting things down so as not to be blinded and re-injure clients who made themselves somehow so easy to not see. As my consultant reminded me, “there is a way that they unwittingly elicit it.” Not to blame the neglect survivor, but to help me understand my uncharacteristic oversights or slips of the mind. It is one of the many non-verbal ways that the child of neglect describes the inner experience that they may not even be aware of themselves.
I have no idea what Charlie’s story was. Just that he was a constant, reliable, pulsing presence; the soundtrack of my harder years. And I never gave him much thought. I am sure, as music often does, The Stones provided some measure of noisy regulation. “Everybody’s gonna need some kind of ventilator…” says one of their songs.” I am sure the music was something like that to me. Thanks, Charlie, for 50 years of keeping the beat. Bye, bye…