THE MIGHTY ONE REMEMBERS THE WEMBLEY WHAMMER
Max Weinberg's 1983 interview with his hero Charlie Watts, from the out-of-print book The Big Beat: Conversations With Rock's Great Drummers, featuring a new preface written just for us
September 2, 2021 - By Max Weinberg
My friends at Backstreets have asked me to write a little something about my hero and friend, Charlie Watts, who died last week at the age of 80.
My heart is heavy with the loss yet full because of the talent, grace, humility, charm, wit, strength, and kindness CW spread throughout his life to his family, his fans, his friends, and his band. I am humbled and uplifted for the fact that I knew him.
Charlie & Me. The long hair and my glasses (ugh) would suggest late ’80’s! He was not only a hero to me for his art, he was a real mensch
I've talked a lot this past week about Charlie. I recalled that when I was a kid drummer in the '60s, a teen trying to find my way into the mysterious world of rock 'n' roll with a band — we didn't call them "garage bands," they were simply "bands" — we strivers would find ads for bands seeking musicians. And whether on the bulletin board of Rondo Music on Route 22 in Union, New Jersey (in my particular case), or in the Public Notice Music section of New York City’s The Village Voice (as pointed out to me some years ago by the great Modern Drummer interviewer Robyn Flans), those ads invariably included bands looking for a "Charlie Watts-type drummer."
Charlie Watts had become a genre unto himself!
The Rolling Stones back then were perfect for us somewhat-inept-but-hungry emulators. Beatles music was too hard; no one even attempted to play anything other than The Beatles' cover tunes. But, the Rolling Stones — blues-based — their songs you could pound out on the drums, and your excitement with the beat would cover up any of your insufficiencies.
I first saw The Rolling Stones on November 7, 1965 at what was then the Mosque Theater (now Symphony Hall) on Broad Street in Newark, New Jersey. My friend and I took the #77 bus down South Orange Avenue practically to the theater for the first show. We somehow paid three dollars for two second-row seats. When they were introduced, the girls' screams from the audience were loud—not as loud, perhaps, as The Beatles, but loud enough to send your heart into overdrive.
They opened with Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," and a half-hour later Charlie Watts became indelibly etched in my heart and soul as the coolest cat I'd ever seen.
Nonchalant, seeming to throw it all away, Charlie held the drum chair with the aplomb of a hip jazz drummer who happened to find himself a founding member of what would become the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band."
Why were they great? And still are? Of course, the songs, but even more than that, through the ups-and-downs, the angst, the absolute unique setup of a "democratic" rock 'n' roll band… they stayed together.
In many ways Charlie was not only the bedrock drummer of the Stones, as the New York Times put it last week, Charlie was the soul of the band. Proud to be there but somehow detached, as if looking in from the outside—in the way he referred to them as "them" — Charlie kept them grounded when the rock 'n' roll demons might have reached up through the quicksand and pulled them down.
Backstreets has pulled the Charlie chapter from The Big Beat as a way to look back at a snapshot from some 39 years ago, when Bob Santelli (well known to readers of Backstreets) and I set out to ask the question why, not how, you play the drums. It was Dave Marsh's original idea after a friend of mine, author Harvey Kubernik, asked me if I wanted to meet Hal Blaine, the truly legendary L.A. session man. We met, and that conversation was the genesis of the idea of setting down their stories.
As I said, Dave said I should do it. Now, you've got to know something about me — I was the guy who'd stay up all night to write the essay due in the morning. Mr. Procrastinator! But with a lot of encouragement from Dave, and the helpful writing tutorials from Bob, I set out to write a book.
I have to admit, it was a daunting proposition to sit across from the drummers I had so long admired, to be prepared to ask pointed, in-depth questions about their histories, and not come off as Chris Farley on SNL when he asked Paul McCartney, "…remember when you were in the Beatles?"
Fanboy that I was, I think back to sitting with Charlie, in the lovely tea room of his town house by the Thames River in London, as we talked drums and drummer history, mostly. It was my first one-on-one with him, and he couldn't have been more gracious and accommodating.
Throughout my life and career I've had so many of my childhood dreams and fantasies become real. One of those was getting to meet Charlie Watts. To become a casual friend, being invited to a Stones show when he was in town, seeing his Orchestra or Quintet or — how do you say it in -et? — ten-piece band was always a treat.
Once he invited Becky, my wife, and me to see his five-piece at the Blue Note in New York. Small jazz club. You could tell he was having the time of his life playing the music, in his imitable style, that he loved so much. We were sitting stageside, and when the set was over, Charlie swept down from the drums, handed his sticks to me (which I still have), and fingered the lapels of my suit.
Oh, yeah, I always dressed up to see Charlie play. Respect. For me, it was like going to temple. As he inspected the material, he appraised, "Nice — worsted wool." But then Charlie bowed, took Becky's hand to lightly brush with a kiss, and in his oh-so-suave British accent said, "…and milady's in silk." Which she was.
What a moment!
Charlie Watts was royalty. Not in the monarchy sense, of course, but in the sublime manner with which he strolled through life, dapper as a dandy, with enough artistic talent — both on the drums and in visual arts — to not only become a genre unto himself but to truly earn the sobriquet of icon.
As I seem to have mentioned many times this past week, a New Jersey songwriter of some repute has on occasion observed, "There have been pretenders, there have been contenders, but there is only one (you fill in the blank)."
Well, in this case, I write in the name of Charlie Watts, who truly was a singular sensation.