Farewell to rock ‘n’ roll’s coolest timekeeper

210824124131-01-charlie-watts-rolling-stones-restricted-super-tease.jpg (1100×619)
Charlie Watts, 1941-2021

“All the great ones are checking out,” I said to my neighbor Swamp Rabbit after hearing that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts had died Tuesday at age 80. “It’s the end of an era.”

Swamp Rabbit sipped whiskey and shook his head. “That’s what you said when David Bowie checked out. End of an era. Maybe it’s just the end of your era.”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” I said, fighting an urge to kick him off my porch. “Charlie Watts was the timekeeper for the best rock ‘n’ roll band ever. The consummate pro, cool without trying to be. Hard-driving but tasteful, always in control of the unruly forces around him.”

“OK, Charlie was cool,” Swamp Rabbit said. “But rock ‘n’ roll drummers are a dime a dozen, doncha think?”

He was trying to annoy me. I told him Charlie’s style was spare, his fills sharp and often surprising. His playing was essential to the Stones’ sound. He joined the band in 1963 (!), when the young Brits were covering songs by bluesmen and early rock ‘n’ rollers. The Stones evolved around him. He was at the top of his game when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started writing great songs: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Paint It Black,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar,” on and on. You can’t have a great band without a great drummer.

Swamp Rabbit, who is at least 20 years my junior, refilled his dirty glass. “You’re living in the past,” he said. “The Stones ain’t made no great songs since Reagan was president.”

I told him great songs still sound great decades after they first appear, which is why many young music fans like old Rolling Stones hits. Music that fades quickly into the past is often music that wasn’t very good to begin with.

He stroked his skimpy goatee. “Blah blah. Every generation thinks the music they grew up listening to is special.”

I lost my patience. “You came of age with rock ‘n’ roll from the late 1990s. Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Korn. That ugly Woodstock ’99 festival. Music for spoiled, clueless white boys pretending to be rebels, with no knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots. I’ll bet you all go to Trump rallies now, not music festivals.”

“You’re crazy,” he said. “I like them old blues and folkie records. Pete Seeger was my hero. And Mississippi Fred McDowell: I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll.”

I calmed down and realized I’d been equating the death of Charlie Watts with the end of rock ‘n’ roll as a medium for thoughtful, free-spirited outsiders. With memories of giving the finger to the dreary institutions that controlled my early life. With sitting in my sixth-grade Catholic school class drumming on my desk as “Let’s Spend the Night Together” played in my head.

“I ain’t got no use for your nostalgia,” Swamp Rabbit said. “All’s I want to know is who’s your pick in the ‘Last Stone Rolling’ pool? I’ll bet you a case of Jack Daniels that Keith outlives Mick.”

I gave him the evil eye. “I’m not sure, rabbit. but they’re both gonna outlive you if you don’t shut up or get off my porch.”

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