Thursday, September 13, 2012

(37th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Spotlight on Charlie Watts (and Mac): What Reliability Brings to the Table"

Song: Tumbling Dice
Album: Exile on Main St.
Released: May, 1972

Spotlight on: Charlie Watts (and Mac)

One of my most favorite features of virtually every Rolling Stones album is that they include a breakdown of who plays what instrument on each and every song.  Many bands simply list a summary of instrument credits for the entire album, focusing most of their visual ideas on features like written lyrics, artwork, photography, general concept and video.  The Stones put effort into these elements as well, as it can all contribute to fans gaining insight to the music…which is the ultimate intention.  But I’ve found that the Stones added dimension of fleshing out instrument credits by song as being a great way of welcoming fans further into the fold, allowing us to conjure up an image of what it must have been like to be in the studio during the production.  And more often than not there is a surprise or two:  For example, Keith Richards is credited for bass guitar on Street Fighting Man; Mick Jagger plays the electric piano on Fool to Cry; Harvey Mandel is the lead guitarist on Memory Motel; Brian Jones plays autoharp on You Got the Silver (only unusual considering the fact that he was pretty much a non-entity by this point); Pete Townshend contributes to background vocals on Slave; and so on.

Of the more than 400 songs the Stones have written and recorded, there are 3 near constants on all of them: 1) “Mick Jagger on vocals”, 2) “Keith Richards on guitar”, and 3) “Charlie Watts on drums”.  And of these three, it’s probably Watts who is the most consistent:  Where Keith and Mick may hit the 97 percentile of Stones songs in their primary roles, with Charlie it’s more like 99.9%.  For all intents and purposes, that’s every Rolling Stones song over a 50 year time span.  That’s a lot of drumming.

Keith Richards has never been one to throw praise around lightly, but when it comes to the topic of his drummer, he is effusive.  How much does Keith Richards value Charlie Watts?  One measure was expressed just this year, the official 50th Anniversary year for the Rolling Stones.  That is….official for most of us.  According to Richards, though, the Stones were not the Stones until Mr. Watts joined them in early 1963.  And so, the master of the guitar riff will be holding off his celebration until 2013.

Charlie Watts:  Such a non-Rocker is the way he’s always come across to me.  Even the name “Charlie”…. it just doesn’t have that Rock ‘n’ Roll feel to it.  “Ozzie”, “Ringo”, “Jimmy”, “Janis”, “Sid”, “Jerry”, “Ronnie”…even “Mick” and “Keith”…. but “Charlie”?  It fits him though.  Mr. Watts is one of the great anomalies of Rock history.  Where the rest of the Stones have floated around him for half a century in full rock regalia, Charlie sits stoically at his drum kit, looking like he has the chills most of the time, wearing out-of-context tee shirts, out-of-trend haircuts, and detached demeanor:  All of it unorthodox for a Rock musician.  He’s more of a Jazz/Big Band type guy (Nancy and I saw the “Charlie Watts Orchestra” perform at the Channel back in the late 80s, where he looked more natural in his surroundings).  How the band has been able to keep him on board for all this time is one of the more fascinating mysteries of the Rolling Stones long saga.  As such, I’ve invariably seen him as a gage of sorts.  In other words, if it’s good enough for Charlie Watts it’s good enough for me.

Above all else, Charlie Watts epitomizes the definition of reliability.  He comes across as the type that is there for his band mates through thick and thin, forever ready to lay down the back beat.  This is what Keith Richards - a classic bohemian type prone to erratic late night moments of inspiration - values so much about the man.  It’s why half the time on stage, Richards is not looking at the crowds, but rather looking at Watts with a shit-eating grind on his face, and in doing so, setting up a chain reaction of glee; starting with the crowd and ending with the guy on the stool.

Reliability:  I’ve had my share of experience with it too, having been surrounded by many friends and family over the years that are quite good at it themselves.  Of all these very reliable connections, my close friend Mac is right there at the top of the list.  I could leave it there, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?  What the heck:  Might as well do a bit of reminiscing…

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Mac and I did not start off on the right foot.  When my family moved into the old neighborhood on Martin Ave in Franklin as I entered 1st grade, he was hanging out with some tough characters, including a crowd of Garfield Street ruffians on the other side of the Franklin version of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Sneakers were tossed on roof tops. Toys were strewn across fields.  Pickup baseball games were interrupted.  Middle fingers were pointed upward.  Large sticks were waved about.  Friends were poked fun at.  Parents were alerted to mischief of one kind or another. 

It took some time, but eventually Mac came around, joining up with the good guys by middle school or so.  For years I thought this was based on some amazing insight on his part.  Only recently did I find out the truth…. Mac was kicked off of Garfield Street for what remain undisclosed transgressions.  He had no choice but to hang with us.  Way to burst my bubble good buddy!  Anyhow, none of us were really out of the woods yet.  In fact, the abuse probably picked up a few notches around this time:  Mac’s proximity to us and familiarity with our faults gave him much more ammo.  In hindsight, this eventually gave me more ability to defend myself in many situations later in life.  At the time though it could often be grating on the nerves.  Why?  Because Mac is about as sharp-witted as they come.

But the Master made up for it all when just the two of us were hanging; when there was no chance for faction-driven taunting within the crew (which had you on the giving end one night and the receiving end another).  These were really the moments when our friendship grew.  Comic book collecting, aforementioned visits to Humarock, playing our own ‘card’ on NFL Sundays (quarter bet each game), roaming the halls at Dean Junior College, pinball at Newberry’s Department Store, and of course, eventually discovering a very similar taste in music (one of our greatest of pastimes).

It was probably around my junior year that I knew Mac would be a friend for life.  Years later he would finally admit to me that it was he (along with Phil) who sent the telegram stating: “Your performance at Oskey was moronically asinine.  If it continues we will take action”.  This in reference to my jaw-cracking take on the tune ‘Popcorn’ at the Franklin High School Variety Show.  I should never have given my initial hunch a second thought:  Only a good friend can keep you on your toes with a prank like that.

While in college, we kept in touch.  In 1982, when I was going to school in Canada, Bob and I made the drive down to St. Michaels in Winooski Vermont to visit Mac during a long weekend.  It was a great visit for me.  Bob didn’t know what to make of Mac at the time, though they would eventually develop a tremendous friendship.  My point here:  College and distance were no longer obstacles; they were opportunities for new experiences and adventures.  From that point on, this was the prism through which we would view that reality.  ‘On the Road’ was no longer abstract to us.

Mac has been there for it all.  Ok, maybe not all of it, as despite the rumors he was not there on the Eifel Tower with Nancy and I…though he was only a few blocks away (just that once I decided to use my ‘Mac repellent’, a gift from Fred and Kip on the eve of our trip to Europe and Bob’s wedding in the summer of ’89).   But Mac has been there for just about everything else:  Zurich, Brussels, Mainguy Island, the biggest and best of concert events, Ottawa, Montreal, more Steeves weddings than any non-relative, New York City, Amsterdam, Lake Street, Boston, Chicago, Banff, Jasper, Burlington Vermont, Quebec City, Harvard Square.  The list goes on. 

This is what I mean by Mac’s reliability.  I can’t recall him even once declining an offer to do something potentially momentous.  Even I can’t make that claim.  And Mac’s reliability comes with honesty, integrity, and generosity.  There’s not much more you can ask for in a friend.

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Of all musical instruments, I believe the human element can come out of the drums best.  There is such strong contrast between a synthesized drum track and a good drummer. 

There are so many songs to select from in Charlie Watts’ catalog, but I choose Tumbling Dice ( ) for this week’s Stepping Stone.  Watts and his tumbling, rumbling dice, are indeed the Stones most human of elements – and that’s saying a lot.  It all comes across beautifully in this song.  Tumbling Dice is also my choice because it is well known that ‘Exile on Main St.’ was not the most pleasant of experiences for any/all parties involved.  There were many nights when things were going nowhere in the dingy, dimly lit, Ventilator Blues of a basement in NellcĂ´te (but oh, that sound).  Amazing patience was needed to deal with the late night sessions, many of which ended in chaos.  Keith Richards credits Charlie, and only Charlie, for sticking it out (along with producer Jimmy Miller).  Some nights the three of them were rolling ‘sixes and sevens and nines’.  The frustration in the air must have been thick.  But other nights it was nothing but snake eyes! 

Looking back to my own experiences, those snake eye days and nights can make up for all the others.  When you have reliability in your life, you learn to ride it out.

-          Pete

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