Watts is totally fine with letting the maniac over there play the curtain-raising guitar riff, but when it’s time for the song to really get up and get moving, the drummer doesn’t launch into a fireworks show or somersault down the stairwell. He just pats his snare a few times, as if he’s patting us on the back, bringing us into the music with him. C’mon. Let’s go.
Watts — who died in London on Tuesday at 80 — was a misfit among misfits, a gentleman lost at sea with hungry pirates, a cool jazz mind in the world’s most insatiable rock-and-roll troupe. He dressed nicely, he performed with excellent posture, and he struck his drums with a politesse that somehow made the music of the Rolling Stones feel exponentially rude. He knew what was essential to his band’s singular surge-and-swing, so that’s what he did. No grand gestures, no wasted strokes. “When you’re playing rock-and-roll, you know, the challenge is . . . the regularity of it,” Watts said in 2008, inadvertently explaining the riddle of his magnificence.
His drumming was designed to be felt more than noticed, and the world seemed to do it in that order. “Charlie’s good tonight, inne?” Mick Jagger asks before the penultimate cut of “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert,” a throbbing 1970 live album that features Watts on the record jacket, big smile, seemingly walking on air. He usually played it so cool for the camera. What’s with the glee? Maybe he knew Jagger could have popped that question in the middle of any Rolling Stones concert and the answer would have always been “yes.”
It held true if you caught the Stones live anytime in the 21st century, too. Keith Richards describes guitar playing as an imperfect communication between two hands, and that concept definitely extends to how his hands steadily strengthened their telepathic connection to Watts’s extremities for nearly 60 years. In his 2010 memoir, Richards writes that Watts’s greatness has “something to do with the way Charlie’s limbs are constructed.” What a way to understand someone. Apparently, the Rolling Stones learned to read each other’s minds by reading each other’s bodies.
But more than anyone else in the band, Watts was also reading time. Jagger and Richards were always free to make a mess of it, smearing notes and smudging temporality — and that left Watts to uphold “the regularity” of his band’s fantastic rock-and-roll, to keep those songs moving forward, measuring time in evenhanded thumps and whacks, reminding our bodies what it feels like to move deeper and further into life.
Watts’s steadiness made the music’s excitement feel almost perpetual, which, in turn, makes it hard to remember how a lot of Stones songs end. Go check their albums and you’ll be reminded that the band’s most celebrated songs — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Rocks Off,” “Miss You,” “Start Me Up” — do their nasty, dazzling things, then fade out to silence.
This was a band that didn’t know how to stop. Until now, they didn’t have to.