Introduction by George Wolff
Already a million words have been written about the late Charlie Watts, but no one matches the following brief story. It’s by E. Kaye Fulton, one of Canada’s best magazine writers (aren’t all good writers Canadian these days?).
I’ve been waiting for permission to share it and now EK says she’s happy to see her words out there…perhaps because they were unfairly rejected (unread) by the Toronto Star during a long-ago Rolling Stones Tour in Toronto.
(Monday, June 2, 1941- Tuesday, August 24, 2021)
To a teenager steeped in the Stones and short on life experience it wasn’t hard to guess, right from the start way back in the sixties, that Charlie was the wise one. The cast of a pubescent fantasy, Mick may have been the one (or-two)-nighter; Keith, the partier to get high with; Bill, bored and boring; Brian, the tortured artiste; and, later, Ronny cool on his own yet still and always a late entry. But Charlie was the enigma in this Club of Bad Boys, stuck way back on the stage, half-hidden by his drum kit, staring off into middle distance, locked someplace else with a crooked smile on his face as the rockers in front (except Bill) pranced and minced and mugged their bad-boy stuff. Charlie was a Stone but somehow above it all – the aloof guardian who indulgently drove the beat and, at the same time, remained stylishly apart from the insane energy that swirled and spilled off the stage into the audience. Charlie, the first of the Stones to go grey, was the only adult who looked like he missed homework.
To a twenty-something newspaper reporter on a spring-like afternoon on March 5, 1977, not one Rolling Stone represented any of that fantasy. Instead, they were a collective and colossal pain. Earlier that Saturday morning, reports had drifted into the Toronto Star newsroom that Margaret Trudeau had been spotted with the Stones at the El Mocambo club on Spadina Avenue the night before and had partied post-concert with them into the wee hours at some hotel. This was a ripening scandal: Maggie was the wife of the current Prime Minister; and even more naughty, she was canoodling with Mick, or Ron, or Keith – or maybe all three – on the very night of the Trudeaus’ sixth wedding anniversary. Any reporter with a whit of interest in Ottawa politics knew that Maggie was as unhinged as her fragile marriage (it would take brawny Fleet Street to convince Canadian editors of family-friendly mainstream media to make it public).
Common sense dictated that both Maggie and the Stones were long gone. But The Star newsroom was emptied to search for her at every high-end hotel in the city. Trying to think like a rich rocker teetering at the brink of established posh, I chose the ‘refined’ hotel on the waterfront across the street from The Star – the two-year-old Hilton Harbour Castle. There, I sat in the lobby and watched the bank of elevators, noticing that every time a burly or hung-over biker-type got into one of the elevators, other guests were shooed away. Each time, the elevator stopped at the 37th floor. I walked over to a bleary-eyed security guard and brazenly flashed a laminated tag. “Hotel security,” I said as I entered the elevator and rode it to the 37th floor.
The floor was what you’d expect to find after a rock and roll crowd invaded and then abandoned it. Beer cans and bourbon bottles and party trash littered the corridor now emptied of partiers. Hearing a television, I followed the sound to a room where a lone figure sat at the end of the bed. It was Charlie Watts, no mistake about it. Black cashmere turtle neck, unwrinkled black dress pants, heavy Rolex watch, impeccably coifed hair, the familiar crooked smile and arched eyebrow. “If you’re looking for someone, they’ve all left,” he said. “No one here but you, eh?” I chirped. “Whatcha doing?” He patted the mattress. “Watching soaps. In peace. I love American soaps,” he said. “Feel free to join me if you’d like.” Even then it was a surreal experience to watch taped re-runs of As The World Turns in a hotel room alone with a Rolling Stone. During the commercials, we’d talk about stuff. I told him I was a reporter, looking for Maggie and Mick, or maybe Ron, or maybe Keith, or maybe all three. “They flew to New York. She said she wanted to go to Studio 54. I think she was with Ronny. Or maybe Mick,” he said. This was news to me – and I thought it would or should be news to The Star desk as well. “Here, call your paper. Use my phone,” said Charlie. I told the desk editor where I was and what I had found. “I’m here with Charlie Watts. Everyone else has flown to New York.” “You’re with Charlie Who?” asked the editor. “Charlie,” I said. ‘I’m with Charlie.” I looked over at Charlie and winked. “You know, Charlie Watts. The Rolling Stone drummer.” Charlie grinned and winked back. “Do you want me to file a story?” I asked the editor. “What? No? You’re telling me my shift is over and if Mick and Maggie aren’t here I may as well go home?”
I did not go home – not until he had to pack up and catch a plane a few hours later – and I’m glad I didn’t. If I had called it a day, I would not have heard Charlie talk about his first passion, jazz, and his musical heroes Charlie Parker and Jelly Roll Morton. Or about the loves of his life, his wife Shirley whom he married in 1964 and their family. How much he enjoyed playing with and off Keith and how he thought it was amusing that he had spent so much of his life on stage looking at Mick’s ass. How he didn’t much relish the road or the frequent bickers of band life. “There’s something I’d like to know,” I told him. “Something I’ve wanted to know since the Sixties. When you stare off to middle distance when you’re drumming, where do you go?” Charlie smiled that crooked smile. “Sometimes I go into the song. But sometimes, my favourite times, I go where the drums are leading me.”
Thank you, Charlie Watts. Yes, you were, and are, the wise one. May the drums you find in the place they are leading you give you peace and joy. And all that jazz. ❤”