Watts died last year aged 80, never having missed a Stones gig
For the world’s most low-key rock’n’roller, it made perfect sense. Charlie Watts was once described as someone who “would have made the world’s worst junkie”. Yet, when Keith Richards made this remark about his late Rolling Stones bandmate, it was based on a humbling and almost devastating experience.
“I took heroin and I drank a lot and it all goes together,” the drummer, who died in August last year aged 80, once admitted.
“With all those things you think you can handle them. Then you realise you can’t stop. I got to a point where I realised I was going to lose everything. Keith found me on the floor once and said, ‘You should wait ’till you’re 60 before you start doing that stuff – then you can do it slowly’.”
Famously faithful to his wife Shirley, and eschewing band groupies, the dapper and immaculately attiredWatts (he even took his own tea set on tour when the Stones hit the road) always looked the least likely to dabble with narcotics.
Yet, during the first half of the 1980s, when he was already in his 40s, something changed – a period he later described with memorable understatement as a “mid-life crisis” – that could in part be traced back to his lifetime love of jazz.
His subsequent journey to the dark side is one of many stories revealed by veteran rock critic Paul Sexton in the first authorised biography of Watts, Charlie’s Good Tonight, which is published next week. The book tells of the star’s humble origins in north London, from where he grew to become the loose, rock-steady metronome for The Rolling Stones, joining in 1962 and remaining behind his kit for the next six decades.
“Jazz was a real double-edged sword to Charlie,” says Sexton. “He wanted to dress exactly like his jazz heroes and that music profoundly affected him from an early age. It seemed following the drug habits of his heroes wasn’t a path Charlie would ever go down.
“That changed, but not until he was in his 40s.”
In many ways, the early to mid-1980s were the nadir of the Stones’ career. With Mick and Keith barely on speaking terms, the former having signed a solo album deal and expressed his enthusiasm for touring with his own band, friction between all five members was apparent on 1986 album Dirty Work, a cold, unlovable record that was chronically short of memorable tunes and band chemistry.
By this time, Watts was four or five years into his escalating drug habit which, as he later admitted, was partly induced by the behaviour of his jazz heroes – many of whom linked their drug intake (marijuana and heroin, most commonly) with creativity.
“To be that brilliant and that destructive?”
“There’s something terribly glamorous about that. It’s just the genius of it all.”
Charlie Sexton believes fans only really noticed Charlie’s increasingly self-destructive addiction when the Stones gathered to receive a Grammy award in 1986. “Charlie’s heroin problem was kept completely out of the public eye in a way that I don’t think could happen now,” he says. “He was never completely out of it but he became a figure who, if he were a drinker, you would call a ‘functioning alcoholic’.”
Watts himself was lacerating about his own behaviour in an interview for Desert Island Discs, admitting: “I took a lot of drugs late in life and I didn’t do it very well so I nearly 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 frightens me actually. I can’t explain it. I don’t know why I did it? I used to go out at night. It was ridiculous. It was the life of a junkie? I’d live for three days and sleep for two? It [addiction] was always around me but I just wasn’t interested. Then I had a sort of mid-life crisis and became another person.”
What triggered the decision to pull himself back from the brink came in two very different forms. The first was what would now be called something approaching an intervention from Keith, as the Stones’ guitarist later explained: “I told him, ‘That’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 blowing up.”
The second was an appeal for help from Ronnie Scott, the founder of the eponymous Soho jazz club which was going through a period of financial hardship in 1985. Wanting to give something back to the club he loved, which was in serious danger of closing, Watts rounded up a quite extraordinary array of musicians including Jack Bruce from Cream, pianist Stan Tracey, saxophonist Courtney Pine and vocalist (and long-time 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 series of critically-acclaimed concerts at the world-famous jazz club, the entire proceeds of which went into its coffers.
“If you listen to his album Live At Fulham Town Hall from 1986, you can really hear a mst o man reviving,” says Sexton. “He was still using drugs at the beginning of his orchestra gigs and recordings but I think it was a moment when he could see a way back.
“He told me when I interviewed him that the ‘moment’ came for him when he hurt his ankle when going down into his basement to get what he called, ‘yet another bottle of wine’. He knew he had to work and couldn’t do his concerts with an injury. So things went uphill w fro wa from there. But he did it in his own quiet way – there was never any rehab.”
Watts’ new-found appreciation for the straight life went to an extreme; he later admitted to, “?giving up everything – even eating. I’m an all or nothing person and I lived on sultanas, water and nuts for about six months”.
But the combination of Richards and Ronnie Scott sawWatts re-energised, never missing a concert with The Rolling Stones until his final gig in Miami on August 30, 2019.
He would die at the age of 80 from complications relating 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 around a dozen times between the early 1990s and 2019.
“The way Charlie came back from his problems is a testament to the fortitude of the man. He was intensely private so he fought his own battle – but he won when so many other rock stars have lost and died before their time.
“In the last interview I did with Mick Jagger, he told me he still couldn’t quite comprehend how sudden Charlie’s passing was. One minute they were talking about the cover design for an album reissue. And the next, as Mick put it, he was dead.”
Despite Watts’ passing, the Stones continue to tour, now with just two original members left and minus one of the most low-key rock’n’roll geniuses ever to have set foot on a stadium stage. As Keith Richards adds: “Some people are perfect as they are. They don’t need stimulants? Charlie was immaculate, an immaculate conception – bless his heart.”
- Charlie’s Good Tonight: The Authorised Biography Of Charlie Watts by Paul Sexton (Mudlark, £25) is published on September 15. For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832