Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, 61, has sunk into a deep leather chair in a huge hotel room in Toronto. In the corner hundreds of jazz CDs cover the walls. The table is strewn with old snapshots. Watts coughs and straightens his brown jacket.
The skinny, gray-haired drummer follows my glance across to the room to a piano near a window. Sunbeams manage to break through half-drawn curtains and illuminate the piano, as well as dust particles circling above it. Watts chuckles a bit and visibly relaxes. “Yeah man, I have been in this room for some five weeks now. So I am allowed to have a few things here to make me feel at home don’t you think.” Music is playing on a radio in another corner of the room. “This channel airs jazz all day,” Watts says while getting up to turn the volume down a bit. “I never turn it off.”
This interview takes place some time before the kickoff of the “Forty Licks” tour. Charlie Watts and his buddies — Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood — have come to Toronto for rehearsals. There is a little theater within a stone’s throw of the hotel, where the band have been fiddling with their repertoire for the last five weeks. The Stones’ tour follows the release of the double CD “Forty Licks,” which in addition to 36 Stones classics also contains four new tracks.
Does Charlie Watts still get the jitters on the eve of a big tour and the release of a “new” album?
“Ah, come on . . . ” he says. “It doesn’t affect me at all. A tour like this is a repetition of what I have been doing for the last 40 years. For me there is nothing new as far as The Rolling Stones are concerned. Well, there is a minor flow of adrenaline going through my veins, but that’s about it. I have been part of too many tours to even experience the slightest bit of adventure. Every night the same show for different people, that is all. Pure routine.”
So you’re behind your drums blase and bored?
Well no, that’s not the way it is. Forty years ago, I did my best and I still do. How can I say . . . I am a down-to-earth person and as a part of the show I know exactly where my place is. I am just not a guy who “gives himself completely” musically, so to speak. I am a musician who performs songs as part of a band.
And one who still finds that satisfying?
Yes, that’s the most important part and that is why I am still with The Rolling Stones. I am happy with it — although the group has never played the kind of music I am really interested in. For as long as I can remember I have been into jazz.
Where does that enthusiasm for jazz come from? Your father?
No, I have discovered it all by myself. Jazz was very fashionable in England in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I started buying records and became a regular visitor of London’s jazz clubs.
What is so appealing for you in jazz?
The people who played it. My heart started pounding when I first heard Charlie Parker play. Of all jazz musicians, he was the one that impressed me most. When I was about 13 I dreamed of playing with him.”
It must be a strange feeling that there are now people who dream of playing with you, a Rolling Stone?
Yes, but I am good at putting it into perspective. Ultimately I lead a life that is not that different from anyone’s. I have always remained an ordinary person. People often imagine all kinds of things about me and the other Rolling Stones. They have this dream image of us. And you have a hard time convincing them that this image is far from the truth.
I would like to get to that in a minute. Let’s go back to your childhood: What kind of kid where you?
An ordinary schoolboy. I played cricket with my friends and wanted to be a drummer. All the other kids I knew wanted to play an instrument as well. The boy next door could play the bass, a little bit. I dreamed of a great future as a musician, but deep in my heart I was realistic enough to know that that could be a very difficult path, that I probably wouldn’t make it. That is why I saw music as a hobby. It only became a bit more serious when I met a man by the name of Alexis Korner, a blues musician. You know that I hadn’t even heard about blues up until then? A name like Muddy Waters didn’t mean a thing to me. Alexis taught me what blues is — or what we white people think it is. Then I found out that Charlie Parker played some blues as well, but in a very intellectual way. Anyway, Alexis Korner wanted to start a new — what he called an R&B band — and asked me to be the drummer. That group became popular rapidly and we played the best clubs in London. There I met Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards. And the rest is history.
Would you’ve preferred the Stones to be a jazz band?
No, that is not how I saw it. I was a drummer and I played with musicians who asked me to play with them. That is how simply I saw it. When I became part of the Stones I played in some other bands as well, but they were soon out of work. One of them I started with Ronnie Wood’s brothers — we called ourselves The Woods band, or something like that. The other was a jazz band; I can’t remember the name. I was 22 years old, had a job as a graphic designer and played in three different bands. So I was doing OK. And I learned something too, because Mick, Brian and Keith turned up with Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley music books. Names I wasn’t familiar with, but good music to play.
When the Stones had their breakthrough, did you feel that you found your niche? That this was “your” life?
No, I never felt that way. I was looking ahead all the time. Like, “Just a few more years, then this is all over.” Most bands I played in up until then, didn’t exist for more than six months or a year tops. For example, that band with Alexis Korner didn’t last for more than nine months. It was my experience that every band eventually would wind up without work and that would be the end of it. But after a while I learned that things were a bit different with the Stones: The more we played, the more work we got and the more popular we became. But still I thought we wouldn’t last for more than three years. And after those three years I thought, “If we continue for another three years then we should be lucky.” And today I still feel the same [laughs].
So you just rolled through life, and everything fell into place?
You could see it like that, yes. I have never been very ambitious. If the Stones would call it quits, I would say, “Thanks, we’ve had a good time.” I don’t have a problem with it. Those were good years, no more than that. I have never showed off the fact that I am with The Rolling Stones. To be honest, I have never been interested at all about being in newspapers or magazines. That has been the case ever since the beginning. Self-promotion is a dirty word for me. I haven’t given interviews for years because I don’t see the point of talking about myself.
You just said that you had some good years with the Stones. But there obviously have been some very low points, like Brian Jones’s death in July 1969. He was a good friend of yours?
Yes, we got along very well. And not everyone could say that. If he wanted he could be very pleasant, but sometimes . . . It was a shock when he died, but you didn’t need special powers to see how it would end. Physically he always was a weak boy and still he continuously abused himself. He often was not capable of finishing tours . . . During tours he became a physical wreck. And that for a young man in his 20s, who was supposed to be at the height of his powers. Look, when you are 40 and you use drugs and drink to excess, then you can expect to collapse halfway through an exhausting tour. Brian was just very sick, even when he was not drinking or using drugs. He was very fragile and was suffering from asthma terribly. But he refused to even try to do something about his health and just kept drinking and using drugs. He had a very self-destructive nature. There are more people like this. They try to lure others into death and if they don’t succeed they eventually destroy themselves. Brian was that kind of person.
Did Brian Jones’s death change your life back then?
No, not at all. I was just too young to learn from it. If something like that would happen now, it would have a lasting impact on me. I know that for sure. But I couldn’t see Brian’s death as a warning for my own way of life, because I wasn’t nearly as wild. I drank and used drugs, but not nearly to the extent Brian did.
You emphasize that you have always remained an ordinary guy, but it must have been difficult to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
If you weren’t careful you’d be floating, absolutely. But I think that because of my down-to-earth nature I had a lucky escape. Maybe it did change me somehow . . . I don’t know. Because you’re in this strange world, especially when you have reached a level of success. People think for you, talk for you, everything for you . . .
And then there are all these groupies . . .
Take it from me that most of those stories are just fantasies. If you want to believe all that nonsense about groupies, be my guest. I don’t, and I should know because I live in that world. I never took what I could have, because I have never been a man who embraces the lifestyle that is supposed to be part of rock ‘n’ roll. Funny, eh? To hear that from a guy who has been playing with the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world for all his life.
OK, let’s talk music: Do you have special feelings for songs that appear on the “Forty Licks” CD? “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black” . . . to name but a few.
No. When I look at the songs, I hardly have any memories. With each song I can see the studio in which we recorded it, no more than that. But I haven’t written a single song myself, so they will never be that close to me. I ran through them with Keith in his bedroom and then went to the studio to record them. So, no good nor bad memories. It would, of course, be much better if I could tell you stories about “Ruby Tuesday” coming to me in a dream when I was on the beach, while Keith was sitting behind me and started playing his guitar as if in a trance. But unfortunately, I cannot tell you nice Rolling Stones stories like that.
You recorded “Satisfaction” in the United States. What do you remember of your first visits there.
I thought America was cool. When we first went there, I only wanted to go to New York and Chicago. Because of the jazz clubs. I couldn’t care less about the rest of the States. During our American tours I have managed to visit just about all jazz clubs in New York. Most of the time with our piano player Ian Stewart, he was completely in line with me [Stewart died in 1985]. I remember well the first time I visited such a club — I think it was in 1964. A fantastic feeling. Man, what great artists I heard there. And in Detroit we saw B.B. King at the Silver Dollar. Really really good, I’ll always remember that. Well, in those days there were a lot of people who I loved to see playing.
For someone of your name and reputation it must have been easy to introduce yourself and to just jam along?
Oh God no, I couldn’t do that. I just wanted to go to these clubs to listen. And I still do. I pay an entrance fee just like everyone else and I sit at a table and listen. And by the way, I don’t consider myself to be an outstanding musician. The band I am in is great, but I am not. No, I just like going to concerts. Sometimes I have great nights; sometimes I am bored to death. Now it sounds like I go out and paint the town every weekend, but that is far from the truth. The truth is that I hardly go out. Apart from jazz I am not keeping up with latest developments in music, so the number of artists I definitely want to see grows smaller and smaller.
If you could do it all again, what would you change?
I most definitely would become a drummer again. And I would probably want to be in the Stones as well. Or no, rather in Charlie Parker’s band. Even when we already were famous, I was still dreaming of that sometimes. Well, the Stones were a good alternative.
What have you always considered to be the biggest disadvantage of life as a musician?
That you are never home. So you really have to know what you are doing. Either you remain a bachelor or you must have the fortune of being with a woman who is in sync with you and who has patience with you. Otherwise you would fall from one conflict into the other. I have always had the fortune of a solid home base. My wife and I will have been married for 40 years next year. We first met on the day I started playing in Alexis Korner’s band, even before I became a member of the Stones. My wife has known Mick and Keith for as long as I have. She is a sensible woman, she has always kept well away from the Stones. Mainly because she isn’t interested in the world surrounding that band. That is why we kept going for as long as we have, I guess. But through the years I have grown accustomed to returning home whenever it was possible during tours. That is why I thoroughly enjoy performing in London, because I can just go home afterward.
What do you do when you’re at home?
Come to think of it . . . I do nothing at all really. It is wonderful. I enjoy just being there. I hardly watch any television. I read a book sometimes, but I rarely finish one. It takes me ages to go through all those pages, because I just cannot concentrate that well anymore. Keith on the other hand does read a lot. And the biggest whoppers of books you can imagine. History books, he loves those. No, I couldn’t force myself to read those books.
Do you need company at home?
I am what you would call a loner; I can get along just fine without people around me. We live on a farm, you know. Even worse, we have two. One in England and one in France. My wife runs the farm and I live there, so to speak. The only people about the house are men and women who are in agriculture. So there is no rock ‘n’ roll fuss. Occasionally we go out and dine with friends, but not too often. I am not like Ronnie Wood who needs to have people around him all day. If I am honest, I enjoy the company of dogs more than that of humans. Not that I loathe my species, but I am of no good to them. They would find me a miserable little man after a while. Keith doesn’t go out at all either. He lives with his wife in Connecticut and his life isn’t all that different from mine. Mick is the only one who, through the years, has succeeded in dragging me out of the house, time and again. Occasionally we go out together. When he was still with Jerry [Hall], we saw each other quite a lot. But after those two separated, it has become less and less. But on tour he is still the one I hang around with most. For instance, we go to museums together. Through the years we have developed the same cultural interests.
But you and Mick seem to be opposites.
Well, we are. Mick is a social person and finds it important to get to know new people. In that respect, he drags me along. Because if it was up to Keith and me, we would never set foot outside our homes, so to speak.
It doesn’t seem much fun as a Rolling Stone. Everybody wants something from you.
Well, it is not that bad in my case. People recognize me, but usually leave me alone. It is a bit different for Mick. For him it sometimes is a nightmare, the way he is cornered by fans. But he still goes to the hotel bar downstairs to sit there and enjoy himself. Man, I would never do that. Just too much hassle.
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