This must be the place: ‘And the drummer, he’s so shattered, trying to keep on time’
Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.
Charlie Watts. Drummer of The Rolling Stones. The backbone of rock-n-roll. Gone last Tuesday at age 80. The engine in the muscle car that is (or was, sadly) the Stones. Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far.” And I think that sums up Charlie Watts.
There was no better drummer. The key to the Stones was that Watts sat in the pocket, anchoring the greatest rock band ever, like a park bench with guitarist Keith Richards and lead singer Mick Jagger this whirlwind unfolding before him — as if two balloons floating in the breeze, but always safely tied to that park bench.
Watts wasn’t flashy. He didn’t have to be. Because he had the most important thing in being a musician: groove. You could set your watch to his timing. The swagger was undeniable, the essence of cool.
In the beginning (and forever more), Watts was a jazz cat who was roped into a rock ensemble, launching the wildest adventure in rock music. My all-time favorite drummer, a founding member of my all-time favorite band. Long live Charlie Watts. Bravo, my brother. Bravo.
In my world, the finest rock band ever will always be the Stones. Nobody even comes close. Sure, The Beatles were the greatest “band” of all-time, but the Stones were the top of the mountain in terms of real deal, nitty gritty, dark and dirty rock-n-roll.
The Stones always have and always will “do it” for me. They are my keepers of the flame of rock music — past, present, and future. They set the bar, set the tone, set the trajectory for rock since forming in 1962. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Stones rolled through at a time and a place (a crossroads, if you will) of culture, politics and art (and fashion) that was so incredibly serendipitous, it’s almost mind-blowing, to be honest.
The most life-changing concert of my entire existence (and probably the foundation of why I became a music journalist) was seeing the Stones for my 18th birthday (Feb. 5, 2003), with the show on Jan. 8, 2003. The Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.
Growing up on the Canadian Border of Upstate New York (about 45 minutes from Montreal), I begged my mother for a ticket to the Stones. Working in the grill at the local McDonald’s at the time, I didn’t make (or have) enough money to purchase the expensive ticket.
But, there it was, right under the Christmas tree — a Stones ticket for Montreal. My mother’s best friend had planned on going, but something had come up and she needed to unload the ticket. The melodic stars of my desires had aligned.
There I was, age 17, driving across the bridge over Lake Champlain from Rouses Point, New York, to Burlington, Vermont. Part of the ticket purchase was a bus ride with other Stones freaks from Burlington across the border to Montreal. The whole way up and back was a ferocious, notorious North Country snowstorm. Slow and steady in the bus along the highway, eventually parked outside of the Bell Centre.
I was all alone at the gig. I didn’t know anybody on the bus and didn’t run into anyone familiar at the venue. A curious, mischievous teenager left to his own devices (hence it’s 18 and over to drink, but the beer-stand folks didn’t ID me when I purchased a Molson Canadian draft). The ticket led me up stairwell after stairwell to the nosebleed seats. But, I didn’t care. I was so damn thrilled to be in the same space and bubble of energy as the Stones.
Before the band went on, I snuck by security and was able to access the uber-expensive floor seats. I kept moving further and farther along, stealthily landing around Row 5 of the floor alongside the catwalk. Just as I realized where I was, the Stones came on. Melodic chaos. Blinding lights and sound. Razor-sharp guitars. Keith. Mick. Charlie. Ronnie. I was in fuckin’ heaven.
Keith then rolled down the catwalk, to which I extended my hand up and he slapped it. I was stunned. Then, Mick stood on the catwalk right in front of me and performed “Brown Sugar,” the whole massive arena going “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Woo” all around me.
Most of the show (the “40 Licks” tour) was focused on the “Exile On Main Street” album, which, to this day, remains my favorite album. Pure rock. Pure soul. A sonic and sensory overload. A true masterpiece. I walked out of there forever changed. My life had to be (and always will be) around music, especially when performed live. That Stones show was 18 years ago. And yet, I still chase the magic felt that night.
A couple years later, as a sophomore in college, I wrote an essay for my media culture class debating who was the greatest rock band. I presented an argument over several pages as to why the Stones deserved that honor. The professor gave me an A+ on the paper, saying it was “a convincing argument.” Looking back, it was the first piece I ever wrote about music. And the road goes on forever, eh?
And as I type wildly away at this column, “Exile On Main Street” is blasting from the stereo. It has stood the test of time as the rawest, dirtiest, most in your face rock-n-roll album of, well, rock-n-roll. Shit, the album is still ahead of its time. This is truth.
Every song still stands on its own. The whole chaotic back story of its creation. The recording process involved. The utter melodic beauty. The social, political and economic climate of that time and place put to vinyl. Sheesh. It’s all there, and then some. Rock on.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.