HITS Daily Double


An appreciation by Phil Gallo

The last time I saw The Rolling Stones, they played up their history over any new material. It was at Staples Center in 2013, a 50th anniversary tour that saw Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts reach back to “The Last Time,” scrape the dust off “Emotional Rescue” and reel off an impressive show-closing run of “Start Me Up,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Brown Sugar” and “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Performance-wise, it wasn’t my favorite of the 30 or so Stones shows I’ve witnessed, but it did, once again, lend credence to something I’ve always felt about watching the Glimmer Twins and company. If the guys in front aren’t in full form, take a look at Charlie Watts, because he always will be.

He never disappointed. Never seemed out of it, disillusioned or too consumed by whatever party would follow the show. He had a reputation for being the quiet, mild-mannered family man, and it showed—at least it did over the 40-plus years I've been attending Rolling Stones shows.

By the time I was actually able to fulfill the dream of seeing The Rolling Stones in concert, their canon was already set. “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Ruby Tuesday” were in regular rotation on the oldies station; Exile on Main Street was not only two albums prior, it was a musical lifetime removed from the more recent songs “Angie” and “Dancing With Mr. D.”

That Forum show in the summer of 1975 supporting It's Only Rock 'n Roll was the first rock spectacle I ever saw, and with little to go on, it felt like a marathon event. Try as you might to cast your eyes elsewhere, that show was all about Mick.

Just as The Stones adapted to musical trends, so, too, did their stage show and the clear importance of the drummer, Charlie Watts, who died Tuesday at the age of 80.

As the decades passed, the legend of Keith Richards grew, and his presence on the stage became as vital to the spectacle as Mick’s moves. Bassist Bill Wyman, by choice, and Watts, by necessity, were the motionless pillars holding the operation together, a point driven home the night I was fortunate enough to see their warm-up gig at the 700-capacity Toad’s Place in New Haven, Conn., prior to the start of the Steel Wheels tour.

Sure, they’d been together for 26 years, but this was their first U.S. show in eight years, a lead-up to a run of stadiums that would test audiences’ enthusiasm for a band coming up on a decade removed from their last hit. Their set that night was just under an hour, and as magical as one would wish. Mick flubbed the lyrics on “Bitch,” they debuted two new songs, dug deep for a convincing “Little Red Rooster” and made “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll” an anthem for the ages.

A few weeks later, at the home of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., I saw them deliver the full, sprawling show that would become their M.O. for global tours Voodoo Lounge in ’94-’95 and Bridges to Babylon in ’97-’98. By that point, The Stones had outlived Southern rock, prog rock, disco, new wave, hair bands, grunge and Britpop, yet their relevance was still being brought into question. The records may have been mediocre, but their L.A. stops on those tours were focused and spry.

Between those two tours, Watts brought a jazz group modeled on the small bebop combos Charlie Parker led with Dizzy Gillespie to L.A. to play the Henry Fonda Theatre. Watts let his saxophonist, trumpeter and vocalist vie for time in the spotlight; if memory serves, he didn’t even take a solo. No different from his work with The Stones: He’s there to keep it swinging and in time.

In The Stones’ first go-round of the 21st century, they brought the focus back squarely onto the music for the Licks Tour, which celebrated their 40th anniversary by playing small theaters and arenas as well as stadiums. Fortunate to catch their shows at New York’s Roseland, L.A.’s Wiltern and Staples Center and New Jersey’s Giants Stadium, I’d venture to say I heard them play at least 75 different songs over the four shows, a testament to their willingness to keep their music classic and away from any oldies designation.

Best of all, the band was tight and well rehearsed, leaving room for some exploration on “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” while otherwise sticking with the tenor of the originals.

I noted then that the larger the venue, the more comfortable Jagger seemed, while Keith appeared blissed out regardless of where he was performing. Charlie almost always smiled when the camera was on him; in his case, the smaller the venue, the more evident that Watts was in control.

But think about it: How many bands do you go to see to watch the drummer? Sure, the Eagles in the early days because Don Henley also sang. Stewart Copeland made sure you watched him at any show by The Police. Rush’s Neal Peart. Talking HeadsChris Franz, Blondie's Clem Burke and The Band’s Levon Helm make my list. But I’d have to think long and hard to come up with anyone who was as low-key and convincing a force as Charlie Watts, especially among drummers who played modest-sized drum kits.

On record, he’s the glue for all of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers. (If you’ve read this far, we’re pretty sure you know about the drama behind those records.) Now go back a bit. Think about “Get Off of My Cloud,” long a personal favorite. Play it in your mind and you hear those drum fills and that fabulous beat. Push play on “Stray Cat Blues” from Beggar’s Banquet and your mind remembers the acoustic guitar and Mick’s pained vocal. Now press play on a device and you’ll get a prime example of why Watts' drumming was different from that of his peers—the steadiness, the balance between instruments, with Charlie letting Keith lead the song, the air left to breathe in the song and the forcefulness of the meter.

Rock fans have been getting pummeled these last few years by untimely deaths—David Bowie, Tom Petty, Prince… the list goes on—and even though Charlie Watts was 80, he seemed invincible. He may have predated the stars of the ’70s by 20 years, but he was their peer when it came to making important, timely music.

The manner of his death seems so quintessentially Charlie. Private. He politely says, “I won’t be touring,” and three weeks later he’s gone, with no explanation. Years earlier, when Mick had a heart operation, the news was everywhere; the concern was “Is this the end of The Stones?” Same with the time Keith fell out of a tree. We dare to not think about them dying. Now Mick, Keith and Ron Wood will carry on, just as Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have, just as Brian May and Roger Taylor have, just as Otis Williams did.

But unlike The Who, Queen and The Temptations, it’s different with Charlie. He was in our musical life for so long, and for anyone who ever studied the dynamics of rock-band instrumentation, he was a paragon. There’s a reason every garage band in America in the 1960s and ’70s wanted to sound like The Rolling Stones: They were the blend of the raw and the rehearsed, the steady and the arbitrary, musicians who played songs that hewed to a form or a riff and took chances when they saw a way to break free and stretch out. An intoxicating British flair added to an interpretation of Black American culture that white guys learning to play guitar worshipped. It only worked, decade after decade, because Charlie Watts held it all together.