Charlie Watts – Ode to the Wembley Whammer

On Saturday 26th June, 1982 I travelled by train to London with friends Paul B and Paul S. We were on our way to Wembley Stadium. We were 16 years old and going to see the Rolling Stones.

A year earlier I had bought – and played to death – my first Stones album, Tattoo You. It was the beginning of a love affair with the band that remain to this day.

Through death, riots, drug busts, leavers and joiners over the almost 60 years, the Stones have been perennial to Great Britain and the world as the Queen.

Always there, still touring, playing those thrillingly familiar songs that have marked the progress of my youth, adolescence, loves, life, hopes fears and dreams. The triumphs and joys had me reaching for a Stones song. Despair and low confidence had a Stones number to pick me up. Uncertainty, crossroads moments and big decisions were taken with a familiar soundtrack.

There is a love of music and the people that produce it, that defines analysis. Why this band? Why this song? Try and touch the magic and it turns to dust or stays one tantalising step out of reach. Of course you can quantify production values, look at chord progressions, call out references within lyrics.

But trying to nail why you love any form of music and why it moves you? Don’t bother. You’ll sound like you are draining the very soul that soars when the music plays.

At the heart of my beloved Stones was Charlie Watts. When news emerged that he had died on Tuesday, everything stopped. It was a moment of genuine grief and loss. Someone who had always been there was now gone. I’d never see him playing live again.

My mind was flooded with sounds, images, the sound of drums and the face of this incredibly talented, yet disarmingly modest man who eschewed the excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle yet contributed more than most to its mountain of memories.

The tributes paid have been wide and effusive. Rightly so. There will not be another Charlie Watts. As there will not be a cohort of bands like the 60s British invaders. As there will not be a generation like the war babies.

Like millions of us fans, I never met Charlie. I hope that my chanting of ‘Charlie, Charlie’ when the band was introduced over the years touched him in some small way.

Interestingly my sister Cheryl did speak with him one day back in the 80s. She was working at the Ritz and took telephone bookings.

On this particular day, an old client called up to request his usual room. She carefully took his name and asked a colleague if they knew this gentleman who said he’d stayed there before. (Oh yes, Mr Watts, he has room number…’)

Charlie asked if she was new there. Cheryl said yes. He asked how she liked it, chatted over the booking and wished her well in her new role. It’s often the small moments that speak volumes of a person’s character.

Like the way Charlie sketched every hotel room he stayed in. When in rare interviews he was asked about life on the road and it was clear he’d like nothing better than to get back home to wife Shirley and his daughter, the horses they bred and the dogs they loved.

His talent for design that had a massive hand in the creation of the Stones live stage sets over the years. From Still Life to A Bigger Bang, the amazing sights that accompanied the sounds were from  Charlie’s ideas with the crew.

I won’t recall the famous punching Mick Jagger incident again – it’s enough to show that whilst modest and self-effacing, Charlie knew his worth. And for that I’m glad. His recommendation that the free Hyde Park concert in 1969 go ahead in tribute to Brian Jones who’d died a few days earlier. His genius idea to play live on the back of a truck through the streets of Manhattan in 1975 to promote the upcoming tour, like the old blues bands used to.

His sense of timing, his deliberate execution of every beat. Knowing what to play and when not to play. More learned scholars will be able to explain his technique better than me. I just loved to see and hear him play. Listening to the Charlie Watts Orchestra on Radio 3 this week and catching up on YouTube with the Charlie Watts Quintet showcased his love of jazz, his impeccable quiet leadership and his diverse gifts as a musician and artist.

His indifference to the celebrity lifestyle made him greater in stature. Especially amid the wilder excesses of the band he found himself in. Some have contested that he was a frustrated jazzman, somehow compromised by the ongoing obligations to the Stones. That misses the point entirely.

Charlie simply loved to play. He loved being on stage, playing in a band. And he loved Mick, Keith, Bill and Ronnie. The silence of Mick and Keith in particular in the days since Charlie died is significant. This is a bigger blow that anyone could imagine; the rock on which the band was built is gone.

The music of the Rolling Stones will be played as long as people love music written and played with passion. They will endure and be heard by generations not yet born.

When you sit and listen – no dammit, get up and jump around listening to Paint It, Black, Street Fighting Man, Gimmie Shelter, Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Start Me Up, Undercover of the Night and whatever else you want, the driving force that keeps the whole gloriously ramshackle, sloppy Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World on the money, is the indefatigable steadiest heartbeat that ever graced the rock & roll stage.

RIP Charlie. We Love You.

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