“My Life as Rolling Stone” Episode 4 Recap: Charlie Watts
The first three parts of the documentary series My Rolling Stone Life featured the surviving members of the world’s oldest rock n’ roll band. Fittingly, its final episode is a tribute to their dear drummer Charlie Watts, who passed away on August 24, 2021, at the age of 80. Watts sat behind the drums for 58 years, from the Stones’ inception in 1963 through its finale. show on August 30, 2019 in Miami, Florida. The Stones hit the road a month after his death with replacement drummer Steve Jordan, shows starting with a loop of unadorned drum beats from Watts while a photo montage played on giant monitors above the stage .
Footage from their first show without Watts sees the remaining Stones going through their grief in real time. Vocalist Mick Jagger, whose usual attitude oscillates between effusiveness on stage and relaxed backstage, is almost out of breath as he searches for the words to respond to the drummer’s colossal absence. Later in the episode, he says he misses Watts’ contributions and his camaraderie, including sports talk about British football. “I’m still on it,” admits guitarist Keith Richards in his own interview and calls Watts, “the best drummer England has ever produced.”
The only time we see Watts in new footage shot for the show, he’s wearing a fancy stage outfit and saying, “It’s all about me and I’m the star for once.” While Jagger commands everyone’s attention and Richards their respect, Watts held a vaunted position as every Stones favorite. Stand-in singer Bernard Fowler calls him “the equalizer”, a tiebreaker in Jagger and Richards’ eternal war for control, adding: “Charlie talks, they both listen”.
As countless Stones classics play throughout the episode, one is struck by their anchoring around Watts’ drums. Some start with them, others pulsate with his innate sense of groove. Its fills often provide the hook where a melodic instrument would normally. In an era known for workman-like timekeepers and athletic beaters, Watts stood out with a laid-back but lively style on his feet, like a bantamweight boxer with a surprise hook.
While his bandmates went wild for American blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, Watts was a jazz nerd. His fascination began at an early age and accompanied him throughout his life. Jazz influenced his playing – its light touch and unpredictability – and his personal life – his passion for bespoke tailoring influenced by the stylish New York jazzmen of the 1950s. When the Stones first visited the city, he walked to the nearest jazz club, seeing Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. “It was America,” he says admiringly.
Like Richards, Watts loved playing music but felt uncomfortable in the spotlight. As his bandmates indulged in sex and drugs, Watts withdrew into himself. When he is not on stage, he spends his free time drawing the endless hotel rooms. He would not allow the servants to clean them lest they touch his belongings. Longtime Stones keyboardist and musical director Chuck Leavell says Watts suffered from bouts of OCD and guitarist Ronnie Woods describes him with “one word: peculiar.”
Off the road, Watts found peace in the British countryside, breeding horses with his wife Shirley, whom he married in 1964 and remained with him until his death. Unusually, he developed a drug addiction in the 1980s, saying, “I took a lot of drugs late in life and didn’t do it very well. I almost lost my marriage and my life. Ironically, it was the infamous Richards who made it clear by saying, “It’s just not you Charlie.”
As in other episodes, Watts’ bandmates and fellow musicians discuss his musical style and legacy. Richard says his loose approach set him apart from the heavy-handed English drummers of the time. Police drummer Stewart Copeland says the mystery is how he was able to “rock so hard while being so loose”. Among Watts’ signature moves was a tendency to avoid hitting the snare and hi-hat at the same time, something that sounds like a musician’s language but is easy to understand once you hear it and see play. Watts’ self-assessment was generally dry. “I play drums for Keith and Mick. I don’t play them for myself.
One of the challenges of making a Rolling Stones documentary is finding something new to say about a band that’s been around for 60 years and has already received extensive coverage. My Rolling Stone Life succeeds by focusing on each stone individually, especially the episodes about Wood and Watts, which have historically been overshadowed by Jagger and Richards. The series could theoretically be extended to profiles of former band members, but that seems unlikely. Despite their legendary status and epic history, the Stones have always been more committed to their future than their past, although with an average age of 77, what that means is now unclear.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.