Danehy: Goodbye to Charlie Watts

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Just a couple weeks ago, I was having a nice discussion about music with my good friend, Pima County Deputy Sheriff Bob (last name classified). He’s an inveterate hard rock headbanger guy, coming up on 50 but still banging his head. He and his wife even go on those Def Poison Megadeth Anthrax Leppard cruise ship things. I told him that since he was getting on in years, he’s going to start seeing his musical heroes shuffling off this mortal coil.

We’ve all been through it. When I was teenager, Jimi, Janis, and Jim (Morrison) all croaked themselves within a year of each other, and all at the age of 27. I remember thinking that when I got to 27, I was going to be nervous for an entire year. But then I just decided that I wouldn’t be a drunken drug user and so 27 turned out to be a breeze.

It sucks when they die way before their time. Karen Carpenter’s anorexia gave her a heart attack at 32. Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash at age 35. My favorite singer, Marvin Gaye, was shot dead by his father, one day shy of Marvin’s 45th birthday.

Those are outliers, but the way the music business chews people up and spits them out, there is another form of outlier, the musician who manages to maintain a relatively normal life and live into his old age, still doing what he loves. For example, Paul McCartney is still alive. He’s one of the very few older vegetarians who doesn’t look like he died several years ago but nobody told him. Probably the most impressive of this rare cohort is Brian May, the guitarist for Queen who earned his doctorate in Astrophysics at the age of 60. 

And then there was Charlie Watts, the legendary drummer for the Rolling Stones who passed away last week at the age of 80. How about this? The soft-spoken, unassuming Watts was married to the same woman for 57 years. That’s got to be the all-time record for a rock star. 

There was a seedy bar/sometimes blues joint on Van Nuys Boulevard, just outside The Projects where I grew up. My friends and I were all into Motown and Stax/Volt, but the first time I heard the blues, I said to myself, “Oh, heck yeah!” My mental voice was still high-pitched and squeaky as neither it nor —nor my colorful vocabulary—had yet passed through the Puberty Portal. 

We’d sit on the curb and listen to the tales of woe being pulled along by a chugging guitar and an almost-sinister harmonica. One time they left the front door open, probably to let the accumulated body funk to come rushing out. The place smelled like ass, sautéed in stale beer. I looked in and saw a linebacker-sized woman dancing on the bar. No one was watching her, but nobody was telling her to get down from there, either. I thought to myself, the power of music! 

I wanted to be a musician (and an astronaut and a professional athlete), but I knew that my options were limited. No way was I going to be able to play the guitar since my hands are smaller than Donald Trump’s when he gets out of the pool. Plus, as we were widely known to be the absolute-poorest of the 500 families in The Projects, the purchase of a guitar would have to come sometime after we got our first Cadillac.

I had learned how to play the clarinet at school, but, even to this day, the clarinet is to rhythm and blues what Tucker Carlson is to racial harmony. So, I settled on drums. I mean, how hard could it be, right? Plus, it would be the least-expensive instrument to play…as long as I didn’t want to get actual drums. 

I would watch all the bands on TV and study the drummers. A couple British guys had this weird affectation where they would hold the drumsticks as though they were surgical instruments, scalpel in the right hand, hemostat in the left. Others would defy convention by holding both sticks like hammers and just pounding away. But Charlie Watts was my idol. He was a traditionalist from the way he held his sticks, to the simple four-drum set he used, to his ability to set aside his jazz impulses as he set down a driving R&B beat.

While Mick Jagger was doing the absolute-worst James Brown impression of any white man on the face of the Earth and Keith Richards was somehow using muscle memory to grind out the blues-rock riffs that helped earn the Stones the title of the greatest rock and roll band in history, Charlie Watts was the captain of the team, his simple, straightforward beats guiding and pushing the band along. His funky cowbell opening to “Honky Tonk Women” is legendary. It’s funny, however. While the band would be playing in front of 100,000 people in some giant stadium, Watts said that he would imagine himself at the Blue Note or Birdland, sitting behind and playing with Charlie Parker. 

Well, Mr. Watts, you’re in the music suburb of Heaven now. Go find Charlie Parker and ask Parker’s usual drummer, Kenny Clarke, if he’ll let you sit in. It’ll be to everybody’s satisfaction. ν

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