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The Unflappable Greatness of Charlie Watts

The Rolling Stones drummer, who died Tuesday at age 80, was a mesmerizing, suave force of coolness amid all the rock ’n’ roll chaos that surrounded him

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When one of the Rolling Stones dies, the world stops; when Charlie Watts dies, the beat stops as well, never to be played again with such mesmerizing force, with such ultra-suave propulsion, with such casually indomitable radness. Charlie Watts died Tuesday. He was 80. He was the best. I’ve been staring at this tweet for what already feels like hours. The sly smile. The impeccable tie. The folded arms. (“I give the impression of being bored, but I’m not, really,” he once said. “I’ve just got an incredibly boring face.”) The word grandfather. The words one of the greatest drummers of his generation. The numbers of retweets and quote tweets ticking up, a few hundred per second, as more people discover that the world, and the beat, has stopped. The overwhelming sadness all those people must feel, but the overwhelming gratitude, too.

The least you can do now is tumble down a Charlie-driven Rolling Stones rabbit hole for the next several hours. To kick off, let’s see what he saw. When Martin Scorsese filmed the 2008 Stones concert movie Shine a Light, he deployed, ingeniously, a sort of Charlie Cam. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is available, but I’m stuck on “All Down the Line,” a buoyant rave-up from 1972’s monolithic Exile on Main St. that had only gathered breathless intensity in the 35-odd years since its release. Watch just 20 seconds of Charlie just wrecking this, and then marvel that you’re already out of breath.

You can use this video to nerd out on Charlie’s legendarily spartan Gretsch drum kit or his mythological technique: the grip changes, the snare hits closer to the logo than the center, or Steve Albini’s observation that Charlie never hits the snare and the high hat at the same time, which “moves the focus away from the pulse and onto the gait of his playing.” (Steve is unverified, but he starts out by describing Charlie as “the only good thing about the Rolling Stones,” so it’s him.) Or you can thrill to the fleeting and blurry antics of Mick and Keith, who peacock in and out of the frame, first-name-basis pantheon rock stars who nonetheless clearly defer to their far more stoic pantheon rock star drummer. “Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically,” Keith notes in his 2010 memoir Life, reviewing 1963 diary entries in which he marvels as his outlandishly stylish new drummer morphs from a Jazz Guy to a Rock ’n’ Roll Guy who still swings with the magnificent swagger of a Jazz Guy.

Or you could just watch the boys blaze through all five minutes of “All Down the Line” and marvel that Charlie himself, comically regal and already long past retirement age in the late 2000s, is never out of breath, even if he allows himself one puffed-cheek sigh when the song’s over, which might be the only time I’ve ever seen him acknowledge the Herculean effort of anything he’s ever done.

Wrapping your arms around the Stones’ full catalog—and Charlie’s irreplaceable role in building it—feels like a futile exercise indeed, but that’s why this rabbit hole is gonna take you several hours. The 80-song playlist compiled by the band’s label, ABKCO, in honor of Charlie’s 80th birthday in June only begins to hint at his range and command, from his impeccable Bo Diddley beat on “Mona (I Need You Baby)” off the band’s 1964 debut album to the furious backbeat of 1966’s “Paint It, Black” to the insidiously filthy groove of 1969’s “Monkey Man” to the laid-back soul ecstasy of Exile’s “Tumbling Dice” to yeah wow this is gonna take forever. You know what’s a fantastic rock ’n’ roll drummer record? Some Girls, from 1978, which starts with the Stones attempting disco on “Miss You” and succeeding only because of the dapper gentleman painstakingly making the bed for Keith to lie in, tightly wound but infectiously relaxed. I am bowled over every single time by that album’s cover of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” but I’ve never truly focused on Charlie, the way he pushes the song forward like a rock star only to pull it back like a jazz great and radiate pure human feeling like a god-tier soul man, a mesmerizing sense of attack and release all the more invaluable for how quickly you can take it for granted.

How Charlie looked—how he acted—was of course as essential to his genius, and his band’s, as anything he ever played. The instant his death was announced, roughly 800,000 people tweeted some version of the famous mid-’80s story where Mick called Charlie’s hotel room in the middle of the night and asked “Where’s my drummer?” whereupon Charlie got up, shaved, put his suit back on, journeyed up to Mick’s room, and punched him in the face, saying, “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!” Even Nancy Sinatra tweeted this story, which I have now dutifully and delightedly reread 800,000 times today, because it’s the best. (Keith’s version, as retold in Life, is definitive, and extra-delightful for its attention to detail, from the salmon platter to the Amsterdam canal to the wedding jacket to Charlie’s cologne.)

Oh, God, the Stones are going to tour for years without Charlie Watts. I would call that heartbreaking, but stopping when they’re supposed to stop is antithetical to the band’s whole ethos. This summer, in fact, they’d announced a fall 2021 U.S. tour, and in August they said they’d hit the road without Charlie, then recovering from an unspecified medical “procedure which was completely successful.” Those would’ve been the first Stones gigs he’d missed since he joined up in January 1963. Charlie was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 but made a full recovery; remarkably, given the world-historical chaos forever swirling around him, he’d carved out an intensely private but seemingly idyllic personal life. In 1964 he married his wife, Shirley Ann Shepherd; their daughter, Seraphina, was born in 1968, and in 2020 they adopted a greyhound.

I hope you saw the Stones in concert at least once. Charlie’s Stones. The real Stones. Very arguably the single greatest rock band ever born. I saw them, once, at SBC Park in San Francisco in 2005. Midway through their set they rode a slow-moving motorized catwalk stage out to the middle of the crowd, and for 30 glorious seconds the Rolling Stones passed within a few feet of me, rocking / grooving / swinging out to “Miss You.” It’s as close as I’d ever been to Mick, to Keith, to Ronnie. But it’s Charlie Watts I’ll always remember, so debonair, so ageless, so unflappable, so indispensable. I can still picture the modest smile on his face: not a smirk, not a pompously self-satisfied grin, just the quiet satisfaction of a job well done, a job he did better than anyone in history, for longer. His discreet bliss, in that moment, was mine, just as it has always been and will always be everyone’s.