Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’ reliable backbeat; his drums go silent

At some point, it really did seem like The Rolling Stones would live forever.

Sure, we all made jokes about Keith Richards being seemingly immortal, likely due to heavy drug use. And Mick Jagger typically appeared ageless on stage, dancing, prancing, and gyrating around like a man half his age.

I often thought about Jagger being the same age as my father and tried to imagine Dad strutting and preening across stadium-sized stages to “Brown Sugar.” The visual was absurdly amusing. My father passed away in 2005, far too young at the age of 61. Mick is still going.

The Stones were planning to tour later this year, showing once again that they can’t be stopped. (Or that they’re a money-making machine that no one wants to stop.) They were scheduled for 13 dates from late September to late November, basically making up the shows that had to be postponed last year due to COVID-19.

But when Watts announced that he wouldn’t be joining the band on tour after a medical procedure, it was a reminder of how old these guys. No matter how fit, or abnormally resilient, they might be, the touring life of a rock star probably isn’t meant for people that would be considered elderly in virtually any other circumstance.

At that age, any medical procedure can also be cause for concern. We don’t know what Watts needed treatment for, but the New York Times‘ obituary said it was an “emergency” procedure. And though the procedure was deemed successful, complications obviously developed as Watts died while in the hospital. (Whether he had gone home after the original procedure or returned isn’t known.)

Nonetheless, it was amazing that Watts played with the Stones and toured for as long as he did. Mick and Keith have always been the creative force behind the Stones, but Watts sure appeared to be the band’s consistency. He wasn’t flashy. There was nothing “rock star” about him. He looked like he’d be just as comfortable playing with a jazz band at a nightclub.

That’s probably why Watts wasn’t someone I idolized or tried to emulate when I wanted to be a rock drummer as a kid, like Alex Van Halen, Stewart Copeland, Steve Smith, or Rick Allen. (Save the jokes about Allen’s left arm.)

But Watts made it look so easy, so smooth. He held his sticks in a traditional style (maybe call it a “jazz” style), rather than someone who was just going to pound the drums. His kit was simple, not elaborately surrounding him. Yet the sound was just as strong, just as full, and provided the foundation for the rest of the band. He brought class to the entire operation.

It’s impossible to visualize the Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts on drums. He was always there behind Mick and Keith, setting the pace, providing the beat. Ol’ reliable.

Eighty years old. The same age as my mother now.

When Watts joined the Stones in his early 20s, could he have possibly imagined he’d play drums in a rock band for that long? I remember arguing with my uncle years back, who thought it was silly for old people to be playing rock music. (I especially didn’t like hearing this from the person who turned me on to a lot of the rock music I still love.)

Why should rock musicians be any different from jazz or classical performers, I countered. Yes, rock music is the music of rebellion, of the young. But what about the craft of it? Few would say that the Stones got better as they got older, or since the 1980s. Yet what about still being able to play at a high level, and all of the skill and preparation which goes into that?

I’m guessing the band will carry on without Charlie, as they planned to after his surgery, with Steve Jordan on drums. At least to finish out this 2021 tour. But beyond that? This isn’t like Darryl Jones replacing Bill Wyman on bass. The band was still going strong when Wyman decided to leave.

Maybe this really will be the end of an era. And really, shouldn’t it be? It kind of feels right. For Charlie.

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