“Charlie Watts died,” I say to Mrs Plain Or Pan when she gets in from work.
“Oh…I know him,” she says, recognising the name from somewhere…and proceeds to sing the opening ‘fa-fa-fa fa fas‘ from The Kinks’ ‘David Watts‘. “He was the drummer in The Who, wasn’t he?”
Every day is Give Us A Clue in our house and the sad, sudden, unexpected news regarding the metronomic heartbeat of the Stones provided yet another beauty.
I’ve been in the same environs as Charlie Watts three times, yet I’ve set eyes on him just the once. Or maybe twice.
The first: The Rolling Stones’ Urban Jungle tour at Hampden Park in Glasgow, July 1990. Derek and I were in the traditional Rangers end – a great place to be in the mid ’80s when Scotland were rampaging their way towards another World Cup finals, but not so great for the current Stones show. The stage set was so massive and clunky that we found ourselves watching them side-on. A never-ending flood of fence-jumpers made their way from the terracing around us and melted anonymously into the standing section, their stick-it-to-the-man actions loudly cheered whenever the Rock Steady security guy tripped and fell while chasing them, but I’m ashamed to say that I was too scared of getting caught and turfed out before opening act Gun had hard-rocked their way through their 17th guitar solo or third number, whichever came first, so with a grumpy but understanding Derek, we watched from our acute angle afar.
Mick and Keef did their thang, front and centre. Ronnie prowled just behind them. Bill Wyman’s replacement was…somewhere…(who cared?) and Charlie? His kit was stuck so far at the back that, even when they came to bow at the end, he ended up being obscured by a massive, deflating rubber doll that had popped up during Honky Tonk Women. So, although I saw the Stones in concert – “We should really see them before they break up“, contended Derek, thirty one summers ago – I never did see Charlie and that nonchalant face of his as the band ground through the gears of Tumbling Dice and Brown Sugar and Miss You and a gazillion other greats. Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues indeed.
The second: Lake Ontario, Toronto, September 1997. We’re on honeymoon, Mrs Pan and I, and out on a wee tourist pleasure cruise on Lake Ontario. It’s a roasting hot day, even out on the lake, and it’s all going on; an enthusiastic tour guide pointing out significant buildings on the Toronto skyline, free drinks, a reciprocal beep and wave from other passing pleasure cruisers and then… from nowhere, up glides this big boat. It’s blasting rock music. It’s got the MTV logo all over it. And it has a host with a microphone.
“Hey you guys! We got the Stones on board!” And there they are – Mick, Keith, Ronnie, the Wyman replacement and Charlie, jazz-cat cool and riffing across his snare and hi-hat, staring off into the middle distance, lost in his playing. And just as quickly, there they went. Stone me! Literally. No photos were taken, of course. Oh no! I wasn’t always as smart as I am these days.
The third. Edinburgh a couple of years ago. We had tickets for Wicked at the Playhouse. I very kindly gave mine to my mum. Musicals ain’t my thing, I reasoned. And while they’re at the theatre, I thought to myself, I can check out the record shops without feeling I’m pushing my luck. So that’s the plan. I leave everyone at the Playhouse, I walk the short walk up Leith Street and at the top I’m met by a heaving throng of people, all gathered around the Balmoral Hotel. The road is sealed off. Half a dozen limos are circulating outside. The word on the street is that the Stones are, at any moment, leaving in the fancy cars to soundcheck at Murrayfield, where they’ll play later that evening. Well, what can a poor boy do, but hang around and catch a glimpse of a Stone or two.
A good hour and a bit later and suddenly there’s a burst of activity and yer actual Mick Jagger is standing at the top of the stairs that lead in and out of the hotel. With well-practised schtick, he holds court. “Awl-right!” he camps from below a red baseball hat, his linen suit looking expensively louche from 20 metres away. While I’m fumbling for the phone I’d long-since stuck in my pocket, he does a wee wave, one of those where the fingers bend at the knuckles and that’s about it, and, with a hop and a skip and a jump, he’s bundled by half a dozen burlies into his car. Wow, I think. He’s the same age as my father-in-law. How daft is that?! I catch myself laughing and a foreign tourist moves slightly away from me. Next there’s Keef. I think I manage to snap the top and/or back of the bird’s nest on his head. The wee twisted red ribbon is, I think, the giveaway. Or maybe it was Ronnie. I dunno. The photo, on later inspection, proves inconclusive.
This nonsense goes on for what seems like forever and then, suddenly, there’s another swell of noise, a shouldery jostle from the tourist beside me and there…I think…yes…eh?…aye!…hmmm…definitely…it’s Charlie Watts; whippet thin, nice suit, grey hair atop a Mount Rushmore of sagging lines…and then he’s gone. Just like that.
The Rolling Stones have oft-featured on these pages and without checking, I’d imagine Charlie gets a mention every time. This doesn’t always happen when you spend your time writing about guitar bands, especially ones with such iconic guitarists, but there’s a fair argument to be made that the Stones wouldn’t have rolled quite so smoothly with anyone else keeping time at the back.
Always that tiny half beat behind the group, Charlie provided the groove and swagger, the calmest man in the crew as the madness and mayhem spiralled around him. To have been a part of that group during their golden years must have been quite something indeed, yet even when knee-deep in (and on) hard drugs, Charlie appeared to be never anything other than in control at all times. With his hands on the reigns, he gave the others the permission to push forward, instructed them when to hold back and allowed them the space in which to play some of the grooviest, bluesiest rock ‘n roll of all times, dapper as a dandy and nonchalant as fuck.
See y’later Charlie. I’ll have my camera ready the next time.