In which I pay tribute to the single one of these people that I know what to make of
Consider a band. They build a reputation on noise and pugnacity, in both their music and their behavior. One of them has wildly surpassed the once-improbable fantasy of upward mobility he set for himself. One has, against all odds, survived a frightening array of substance-related traumas. One has allegedly slept with over a thousand women (and it’s not who you think it is).
One is arguably out of place among the rest, and yet makes them unmistakably what they are. That’s the one I want to discuss, the one I feel is under-discussed: the Drummer, Charlie Watts.
As a respected forebear of mine points out, Charlie has never bothered to cultivate a look akin to that of his bandmates, nor to engage in the antics for which they are notorious. He is a bit too…together. He’s got all his ducks in a row, his ducks have been sitting in a row for decades, and he knows it. He’s a clean-cut kid at seventy-nine; you wouldn’t believe he’s seen some of what he’s seen. But he’s been there basically from the start, and he’s seen just about everything it’s possible for a successful musician to see.
What fascinates me about his musicianship is that it appears to run counterintuitive to his image, at least within the context of the group. His driving, propulsive percussion—racing, four-on-the-floor, heavy on downbeat—is largely responsible for their aggressive sound (because, well, collectively they’re nothing if not aggressors). I might even argue that his contributions constitute the single most recognizable feature of their work. On any given track, he knows how to make an entrance. And it’s unexpected, these gritty, tough, boastful patterns coming from such a proper- and meek-looking guy. Compared to the others—all of the others, over time—he is what you would call unassuming.
Here’s the thing. We may take for granted that this is not exactly subtle music. But Charlie’s playing is no more simple than it is subtle; the traits are hardly mutually exclusive. Enter his original love of jazz and its attendant fluidity. He has no qualms switching time signatures mid-song: he takes “Midnight Rambler” (on Let It Bleed) from shuffle to straight time and back over nearly seven minutes, and he can go from laid-back tripping along to insistent and attention-commanding within a bar’s time. Similarly, he is game to mix and mangle genres: that aforementioned switch renders “Rambler” a corrupted blues; and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (on Sticky Fingers) is one part structured rock & roll to two parts jazz-informed jam, in which he does minimal solo improvising but keeps tabs diligently on Bobby Keys’ saxophone and Mick Taylor’s guitar. During the evolution of the whole, more flexibility and dexterity has been demanded of him, and he’s risen to the occasion.
Not to mention he’s accumulated a host of endearing personal isms for our listening enjoyment. He doesn’t shy away from the toms, always a musical power move. There’s one drum fill he’s immensely fond of, a pounding syncopation on the three-four of the measure—it’s hard to explain verbally without charts and stuff, but it’s all over Let It Bleed and also makes an appearance on “Honky Tonk Women” (though to catch it you have to listen past the cowbell, and that’s no easy feat). Speaking of cowbell, he’s happy to go wild on the bells and whistles, literally. Cymbals, hi-hat, tambourine, bongos…oh, and even if he isn’t the mastermind behind the shakers, he cooperates closely enough with them for some songs to actually rattle your bones.
All this to say that, in a group who went out of their way on principle to be neither classy nor stylish, Charlie Watts remains a paragon of class and style, from his ties to his semi-bored facial expressions as he pounds out those patterns. (Well, most of the time.) We salute you, sir.
Image: 2010 didn’t have much in the way of dapper, but when it did… (radiox.co.uk)