Charlie Is My Darling

and then there were three.

Charlie Is My Darling, 24 august 2021

Charles Robert Watts, of blessed memory. Darling Charlie of the perpetually bemused grin, the smirk that said, “What are those wankers getting up to now? Alright then.” Charlie who stayed in the car (he maintained he was asleep) when Mick and Bill decided, “We’ll piss anywhere, man.” Charlie decamping with the rest of the Stones to the south of France and Nellcote and the biggest problem he caused was a refusal to tune his drums. Charlie with the setlist written in grease pencil on the plexiglass baffle next to him. Charlie who grimaced through giant inflatable penii and no one thinking about the fact that one of the band members played his instrument sitting down before making a decision to fill an enclosed space with soap bubbles. Charlie in the "Start Me Up" video, which I must have seen a hundred times on the big screen at the Ritz when it came out.

"You make a dead man... what??"
"You make a dead man... what??"

One of the first things I said to a friend that terrible afternoon was, “Poor Shirley.” I have never met Shirley Watts, but my pain for her is real.There is a saying in Hebrew for which there is no English equivalent (although many men try to tell me there is every time I mention this), which roughly translates into, “I participate with you in your sorrow.” That is the only expression of condolence that fits right now despite the fact that I do not know any member of the Rolling Stones on a personal level. But what I do know is that Charlie Watts is gone and this is terrible.

The older I get the more I believe in magic, the kind of big magic that caused Robert Mapplethorpe to have moved into the apartment Patti’s old friends lived in, the magic that sent Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine on a walk down the Bowery at the very moment Hilly Kristal was standing outside of his bar, the magic that had Bob and Tommy Stinson rehearsing in their basement just as Paul Westerberg was walking home. The magic of some kind of vortex or ley line that pulls a combination of people together. That’s the magic that put Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on that platform at the Dartford train station (there’s a plaque there now and I shall go see it soon I hope) so they could meet. I honestly don’t know how they stayed together for as long as they have. Don’t say money, the money didn’t come until Steel Wheels. And also, they have enough money to never have to do any of this again. There are other more lucrative and less labor intensive ways they could make money at this point.

Honestly, I was mildly annoyed when the Stones announced they’d be going out without Charlie, and called on them to grant refunds to the people for whom it would deeply matter, because those people would be the frequent fliers, the ones who have been there over the decades. For the large groups of investment bankers for whom going to see the Stones (or whoever) is a status symbol, background music to their drinking and partying, they wouldn’t know the difference and wouldn’t care and wouldn’t even think about not going. I look at all of those posts and messages of support from the band members now and instead of thinking, “They are working very hard to convince us that we should be okay with it,” I now think, “They knew it was bad and were trying to tell us it would be all right.”

I still think his death was a surprise for everyone. The machine had nothing prepared in advance. The machine can move very fast, but “We’re going to just shut down the website and put up a picture of Charlie and fuck links to the merchandise store or the tour or anything else” is a real, raw and emotional reaction, not the kind we are used to seeing from the Stones Machine. The individual tributes of grief. I said to my dearest Stones-friend, who was(is) coming out here to see the Detroit show with me, that now I was determined to show up. As long as we’re not stuck near stupid people who say dumb things, I’ll be okay, and even then, I’ll be with her so I’ll be okay. This is one of the few times in my life I have felt bad for Mick Jagger, that I have felt unlimited sympathy for a group of rich old white men. They lost Charlie. That’s not a thing you come back from. In 2019, I presented a paper at the Pop Music Studies Conference called, “Growing Up In Public: Musicians Processing Loss in Modern Times.” It needs a better title, but this came out of watching Bruce Springsteen mourn Clarence Clemons in real time on tour, and wanting to discuss how there was now a pattern of artists trying to wrestle with the death of their friends and co-conspirators in real time. Given everything I have seen so far with the Stones, I am both curious to observe their approach and also glad to be able to participate in their public grief.

I am in the middle of copyediting WHY PATTI SMITH MATTERS and so I kicked myself a bit or not having thought about what I would want to write about Charlie when we were told he wouldn’t be on tour. I was talking to a friend when Vulture emailed and asked me if I could write a remembrance. I wrote The Simple Genius of Charlie Watts in 6 Classic Rolling Stones Songs. Somehow I knocked it out in 4 hours. I was so very glad to be living in a house and could just turn up the stereo and sing and write and dance without worrying about bothering anyone. I would have liked to have gone out and had a drink at a bar; perhaps some day I will be able to do that without jeopardizing my health and well being.

This was the exact kind of thing I feared at the start of the pandemic, not that we would lose musicians to COVID (but of course we did), but rather, having to postpone or cancel or push back tours meant that in the course of just getting older, someone would leave us and there would be thousands of people who will now never have the chance to see Charlie Watts play drums live onstage with the rest of the Rolling Stones. This was the exact fucking scenario that worried me the most, along with the loss of venues, clubs, talented behind the scenes folks like soundpeople and road managers and guitar techs and merchandise wranglers who had to go and get another job because the one they’d done all their lives had been put on hold. The records we won’t hear because we are focused on trying to survive and that does not inspire creativity.

It's not just that we lost Charlie Watts. It's that he didn't get to go out one more time because a bunch of fucking incompetent wankers decided they knew better and they could monetize death and that the culture doesn't matter. That hasn’t changed and it’s going to get worse. This is why, when Patti Smith announced a show at the Ryman in October, while my first thought was, “Is this a good idea?” my immediate next thought is, “She can’t wait.” Yes, they are going to ask for proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests. It is still a risk.

I don’t think it’s quite hit me yet and I don’t know if it ever will. When we lost Bowie, it felt like the avalanche was just beginning. Now I know that it never stopped.

Remember what it was like at a Stones show when Mick did the band introductions and the arena or the stadium cheered for Charlie for a solid two or three minutes, the rest of the band definitely standing there and letting those cheers run for as long as possible, knowing that it made Charlie uncomfortable but knowing full well he deserved that and much more.

Charlie’s good tonight, inne? Always.

Red Carpet for Exhibitionism, November 2016
Red Carpet for Exhibitionism, November 2016, photo by me