Charlie Watts, the drummer for the greatest rock and roll band ever, has died at the age of 80.
Just last week Watts decided that he would not be taking part in the Rolling Stones’ tour this fall. He had beaten cancer once, but decided that the rigors of the road – and his ongoing battle with lung cancer – superseded the desire to tour with the boys one more time.
There is nothing that I can add about Watts that you won’t find anywhere else, except for maybe a few personal anecdotes. When a man plays drums with the same band for 58 years, that career is fairly well documented, and there’s little that I can add to that litany except my own perspective. With that in mind, here goes:
I didn’t grow up with the Stones. I get a strong sense that pop fans in the 1960s (and remember – I barely made it into the decade) were either Beatles People or Stones People. My parents were clearly Beatles People, based on the records that I inherited from them. Almost every one of the American Beatles LPs were in their collection, a couple of Beach Boys, some Dylan – and a few scattered others. There were no Rolling Stones records, not even a 45. So I didn’t discover that whole world of music until later on. By junior high school, when I’d spend my Saturday nights camped out listening to the “oldies show” on WCLR in Chicago, with blank tapes loaded to build my music collection, I started learning the basic hits, like “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” As high school wore on I picked up a few stray singles and a copy of the Hot Rocks LP, which was a required item in a south suburban record collection. (That may be its own post for another day.) I was more than likely the only person at Andrew High School driving around with “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In the Shadow” on a mix tape, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The Rolling Stones were part of my radio career starting on Day 1. On my first day in the studio in college at WLRA, I largely stuck with what I knew in terms of music. The official rule of the station was “play two new releases per hour,” and there I was suggesting that Debbie Gibson should count. But I very likely threw at least one Stones record in every show, usually from that already-worn copy of Hot Rocks or Through the Past, Darkly that I would drag with me from home in a carrying case with other “secret weapon” LPs. And, yeah, by my second year, and when I was doing the morning show, you were likely to hear something like “Have You Seen Your Mother…” on the air as well.
So how did I arrive on the tune for this post? (And why not just stick with “HYSYMBSITS?”) “Mixed Emotions” was the first song to pop into my head when I heard the news. I think it’s because it’s fall, and there are certain “times and places” that have stuck with me forever. On September 8, 1989, I saw the Rolling Stones play live at Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin. It was a big day in a lot of ways: that morning I agreed to terms on my first full-time radio job – an ill-fated stop at KRVR-FM in Davenport, Iowa. I raced back home from the Quad Cities to meet my friends in my parents’ driveway, where the limo to take us to the show appeared. You read that correctly: my friend Rich turned 21 that day, and we decided to celebrate by having a limo drive us from the southwest suburbs up to Wisconsin. That way, we could drink the whole way up there. (Small problem: limos do not have toilets on board, a problem we realized near the border.) Our driver – who we nicknamed Chauncey – got us to the show in time to see Living Colour as the opening act.
Vernon Reid and the boys were well worth the price of admission, but the prize for me was seeing the Stones. In the summer of 1989 my world was upending; kicked out of college, and deciding that I didn’t need it anyway, I spent my time in the studios of WJTW in Joliet playing soft rock and honing my craft. There were two exceptions: the two days I took off to go to concerts. One was The Who, and the other was The Stones. (If you’re going to pick two, those are strong.) By the time the Stones took the stage, it started to rain. A lot. We were on the lawn at Alpine Valley, and the band was maybe an inch or two tall from our vantage point, and we were soaked, but it was the freakin’ Rolling Stones. Standing in the pouring rain as they sang “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the gravity of the changes life had in store for me hit all at once.
The show was on the Steel Wheels tour, in support of their new album of the same name. The first time I heard “Mixed Emotions,” Watts’ drumming hit like a shot. I thought “This sounds like the old Stones.” This wasn’t the disco-fied sounds of Some Girls or the power pop of Tattoo You or whatever “Undercover Of the Night” was. No, this sounded authentically great to my 20-going-on-40-year-old ears. That CD immediately made it into my collection, but was one that got lost in a move somewhere along the line.
I’ve spent the past week or two getting a new radio project at Grand Valley ready to launch. (More will be coming on that, trust me.) In digging through music for a new format I stumbled upon “Mixed Emotions” one night, put it on – and that same wave of “This sounds fantastic” passed over me. It’s the drums.
Charlie Watts will be missed.