Rolling Stone’s Charlie Watts: A genius who fought his drug demons…and beat them | Music | Entertainment
Watts died last year at the age of 80, having never missed a Stones concert
For the most understated rock’n’roll in the world, it made perfect sense. Charlie Watts has been described as someone who “would have made the world’s worst junkie”. Yet when Keith Richards made that remark about his late Rolling Stones bandmate, it was based on a humbling and almost devastating experience.
“I took heroin and drank a lot and it all goes together,” the drummer, who died last August at the age of 80, once admitted.
“With all these things, you think you can handle them. Then you realize you can’t stop. I got to a point where I realized I was going to lose everything. ’til you got 60 years before you started doing this stuff – then you can do it slowly’.”
Famously loyal to his wife Shirley and eschewing the group’s groupies, the dapper, immaculately dressed Watts (he even took his own tea set on tour when the Stones hit the road) always seemed the least likely to indulge in Drugs.
Yet during the first half of the 1980s, when he was already in his 40s, something changed – a period he later euphemistically described as a “midlife crisis” – that could in part be attributed to his lifelong love of jazz.
His subsequent journey to the dark side is one of many stories revealed by veteran rock critic Paul Sexton in Watts’ first authorized biography, Charlie’s Good Tonight, which will be published next week. The book recounts the star’s humble origins in North London, from where he became the loose and steady metronome of the Rolling Stones, joining in 1962 and remaining behind his kit for the next six decades.
“Jazz was a real double-edged sword for Charlie,” says Sexton. “He wanted to dress exactly like his jazz heroes and this music affected him deeply from an early age. It seemed like following the drinking habits of his heroes wasn’t a path Charlie would ever take.
“That changed, but not until he hit his 40s.”
In many ways, the early and mid-1980s were the nadir of the Stones’ career. With Mick and Keith barely speaking, the former having signed a solo album deal and expressing enthusiasm for touring with his own band, the friction between the five members was apparent on the cold 1986 album Dirty Work. and unlovable that was chronically short of memorable melodies and group chemistry.
By this time, Watts was four or five years into his increasing drug use which, as he later admitted, was partly driven by the behavior of his jazz heroes – many of whom linked their drug use (marijuana and heroin, most often) to creativity. .
“To be so brilliant and so destructive?”
“There’s something terribly glamorous about it. It’s just the genius of it all.”
Charlie Sexton thinks fans didn’t really notice Charlie’s increasingly self-destructive addiction until the Stones reunited to receive a Grammy Award in 1986.” he says. “He was never completely out of it. , but he became a figure that, if he was a drinker, you would call a ‘functional alcoholic’.”
Watts himself ripped into his own behavior in an interview for Desert Island Discs, admitting, “I took a lot of drugs late in life and didn’t do it very well, so I almost lost the marriage and my life?I’m Dracula in the mid 80s. I saw it before I really got there.
“It’s just a thing that actually scares me. I can’t explain it. I don’t know why I did that? I used to go out at night. It was ridiculous. was the life of a junkie: live three days and sleep two? [addiction] was always around me, but I just wasn’t interested. Then I had kind of a midlife crisis and became a different person.”
What triggered the decision to pull back from the abyss took two very different forms. The first was what we would now call something approaching a Keith intervention, as the Stones guitarist later explained: “I said to him, ‘It’s just not you, Charlie .’ And also, the main thing that really worried me about Charlie at the time was his drinking, really heavy-duty cognac and he was exploding.
The second was a cry for help from Ronnie Scott, the founder of the eponymous jazz club Soho who was going through a period of financial difficulty in 1985. Wanting to give something back to the club he loved and which was in serious danger of closing, Watts brought together a pretty extraordinary array of musicians, including Cream’s Jack Bruce, pianist Stan Tracey, saxophonist Courtney Pine and vocalist (and longtime David Bowie collaborator) Gail Ann Dorsey.
With the addition of at least 30 other musicians, the CharlieWatts Orchestra was born, playing the first in a long line of critically acclaimed concerts at the world-renowned jazz club, the entire proceeds of which went into its coffers.
“If you listen to his Live At Fulham Town Hall album from 1986, you can really hear a mst o man come alive,” says Sexton. “He was still using drugs at the start of his concerts and orchestra recordings, but I think it was a time when he could see a way back.
“He told me when I interviewed him that the ‘moment’ came for him when he injured his ankle going down into his basement to get what he called ‘yet another bottle of wine’. He knew he had to work and couldn’t’ “I wasn’t doing his shows with an injury. So things got worse from there. But he did it in his own quiet way – there was never a rehab.”
Watts’ newfound appreciation for the straight life went to extremes; he later admitted, “? Giving up everything – even eating. I’m an all-or-nothing person and lived on raisins, water and nuts for about six months”.
But the combination of Richards and Ronnie Scott re-energized Watts, never missing a gig with the Rolling Stones until his last concert in Miami on August 30, 2019.
He died at the age of 80 from complications related to an operation. He remained married to his wife Shirley until the end, and was surrounded by his small family including his daughter Seraphina and his granddaughter Charlotte.
“It was an incredible turnaround,” concludes Sexton, who interviewed Watts a dozen times between the early 1990s and 2019.
“The way Charlie came back from his troubles is a testament to the courage of the man. He was extremely private, so he fought his own battle – but he won when so many other rock stars lost and died before the end. ‘hour.
“In the last interview I did with Mick Jagger, he told me he still didn’t understand how sudden Charlie’s passing was. One minute they were talking about designing the cover of a album reissue. And the next one, as Mick said, he was dead.”
Despite Watts’ passing, the Stones continue to tour, now with only two original members and less than one of the quietest rock ‘n’ roll geniuses to ever set foot on a stadium stage. As Keith Richards adds: “Some people are perfect the way they are. They don’t need stimulants? Charlie was immaculate, an immaculate conception – bless his heart.”
- Charlie’s Good Tonight: The Authorized Biography Of Charlie Watts by Paul Sexton (Mudlark, £25) is out September 15.