One of my top five favorite songs in the whole world is Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones. The second you hear Keith Richards’ eerie opening guitar riff you know exactly what the song is. It is a dramatic beginning, subtle, with simple notes that sound as if they are battling against each other. And with each passing bar the notes build, the sounds meld, and you know, you can feel, we are headed for a climax. That peak, that crest begins with Charlie Watts beating his snare drum two times and then, at least for me, all hell breaks lose, Ooh, a storm is threatening, My very life today, If I don’t get some shelter, Ooh yeah I’m gonna fade away. The great Charlie Watts died today at 80 years old.
I was fortunate to see The Stones in 1978 in Greensboro. Etta James, whose song At Last is also one of my top five favorite songs in the whole world, was the opening act. I was 17, and me and two of my pothead buddies drove to Greensboro Monday, went to the show that night, slept in the car and headed home Tuesday morning still buzzing from seeing The Stones and the ounce of Jamaican Redbud we had smoked the day before.
This was the Ronnie Wood configuration of The Stones, still good but they were promoting the Some Girls album which I thought was a piece of crap, still do. It was, in my mind, their weak hearted stab at disco.
It is hard to remember back 43 years ago, hell I don’t remember what I had for lunch today. It’s even harder to recall a night when my lungs were filled with primo Mary Jane. But the thing I remember most, besides Keith looking like he was going to tip over at any minute, was the steady, unflinching beat of Charlie Watts.
There is little doubt in my mind that once upon a time The Rolling Stones were the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band. They had the glamourous, asexual, lead singer in Mick Jagger and the grungy, drug addict, lead guitarist in Keith Richards. All the pieces you could ask for. They were part of the British Invasion, the bad boys to the Beatles good, singing songs about drugs, depression, and Satan. Their base, their center was the blues and Chuck Berry which appealed to me because that is still my musical base today with a side of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
But what held this collection of talented egos together for almost sixty years was the beat, the foundation, the groove at the bottom of each song, delivered by a jazz drummer playing a simple Gretsch drum kit.
When I think about drummers in rock bands my mind takes me to Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and John “Bonzo” Bonham sitting behind a wall of drums, cymbals, and gongs. These guys were animals, beasts, who played fast and loud, on beat, between beats and out of beat. There was nothing understated about any of them. Their playing was a focal point of the music their bands played, like caulk filling in the cracks. Charlie wasn’t caulk, he was glue, holding all the pieces together. I guess that is why he didn’t need two bass drums, six tom-toms, seven cymbals and a massive Chinese gong behind him.
With each passing day the Rock ‘n’ Roll heroes of my youth are exiting the planet. I was barely over the death of Dusty Hill with ZZ Top when I learned of Charlie’s passing today. I am, I guess like a lot of guys my age, stuck musically in the past. I try to find new artist, new bands to listen to but I always fall back on the sounds of my youth, Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones, The Beatles, and The Dead. I consider Pearl Jam my “newest” band, my kids don’t. Their first album, Ten, was released in 1991, thirty years ago. Funny, it seems like only yesterday.