On The Death of Rolling Stones Drummer Charlie Watts

So apparently being a legacy member of The Rolling Stones doesn’t confer you eternal life like the longevity and curious durability of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would seem to infer. They continue to pump blood, despite the carnival of excesses and close calls they’ve experienced over the years, while perhaps the only truly mild-mannered member of the band—the one-and-only Charlie Watts, who was the heartbeat of The Rolling Stones for nearly 60 years—is gone at the age of 80.

Charlie Watts was one of the greatest drummers ever in country music. And he didn’t even play country music. Well, The Stones did have their strong dalliances with country on records such as Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, and other songs here and there. They were significantly influenced by many of the old country greats, and specifically Gram Parsons, who the band recognized as a singular musical soul, and labored to emulate during their heroin chic days in the early 70’s. In fact, it almost killed them like it did Gram. But they were The Rolling Stones, so they survived.

When Charlie Watts was on, The Rolling Stones were on. And when he was off, it was because The Rolling Stones were off, and he knew it, and refused to participate fully. He was the band’s conscience, and compass point. Mick, Keith, Brian, the other Mick, Bill, and later Ronnie, they could get off into God knows what. But Charlie would be right there waiting for them when they came back, sticks in hand, ready to kick off the song, the most subtle smirk behind his wide eyes.

He was the envy of every other rock band—a drummer that didn’t perpetually harbor envy for more attention, and seize every opportunity to receive it. He made an art form out of not complementing a song, but completing it. He was the consummate back line musician. And he gave so little of a shit about being the center of attention, that’s exactly what he became to many of his fellow drummers, who studied his sense of groove and composition—including, if not especially, country drummers, who unlike their rock counterparts, make their legacy off of knowing their place in the music instead of stepping out, just like Charlie Watts made a career of.

Charlie Watts could stick a groove like a Gold medal gymnast dismounting from a pommel horse. His transitions from the hi-hats to the ride cymbal were sublime demarcations in Rolling Stones songs that stirred the soul. The subtlety of his playing disguised a deftness that was indispensable to The Rolling Stones sound.

And now he’s gone. It’s sad, even though he leaves behind a legacy of every single Rolling Stones album they ever recorded, and will be remembered fondly. But it’s also a little troubling. Rolling Stones aren’t supposed to die. It’s a reminder of our own mortality, and the mortality of everyone else, at a time when such weighty concerns are top-of-mind.

But even when we’re all dead, the music of The Rolling Stones will endure, because they had one of the best drummers to ever mount the stool, whether you even noticed him, or not.

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