Paul Sexton: Charlie’s Good Tonight: The Authorised Biography of Charlie Watts
(Mudlark, £25, 368pp. Book review by Chris Parker)
The Introduction to this biography of Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts sums up its subject in a single sentence: “He was a global celebrity who hated attention and once said he preferred the company of dogs to humans; the car enthusiast who didn’t drive; the horseman who didn’t ride; the man of wealth and taste who grew up in a prefab; the drummer who toured the world for five and a half decades and spent all of them yearning to be back home; the jobbing musician who thought the Stones would be finished in a year and ended up as their pilot light with a whole-life tariff.” To which might be added: he was one of the rock world’s most celebrated drummers, but never listened to rock music (even the recordings of the Stones) but preferred jazz, Motown and Stax, and classical music.
Watts was an extremely private, modest individual passionately loyal to his friends and family: his best friend as a child, jazz bassist Dave Green, was still his best friend at his death; he was married to his wife Shirley for 57 years; his granddaughter Charlotte accompanied him on his last tour with the Stones. He was also an obsessively neat, elegant dresser; a collector of everything from jazz memorabilia and Civil War guns to classic cars and hand-made shoes; and a talented artist who famously drew every hotel room he stayed in and played an undersung part in designing the Stones’ stage presentation.
Not, then, your average rock star – and herein lies the problem with this undoubtedly worthy and carefully researched book: Watts is simply too self-effacing, too quiet – even too decent, perhaps – to make a suitable subject for a rock biography. Interviewee after interviewee – and the book is packed with detailed contributions from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, not to mention the scrupulously accurate memory of Bill Wyman, plus assorted touching anecdotes from family and friends – reminisces about Watts’s thoughtfulness, integrity and modesty. Sexton is scrupulous as a recorder of all this (deserved) praise, but carefully avoids the darker moments of Stones history: the exiling of Brian Jones and his mysterious death; Altamont Speedway and the disastrous reliance on Hells Angels security that led to the death of Meredith Hunter; Watts’s own period as an addict (only briefly mentioned); the various excesses of the touring life so exhaustively documented in other accounts.
Part of the problem clearly lies in the book’s subtitle – it is “authorised”, thus more like a festschrift than a biography – but it must also be (somewhat reluctantly) admitted that the devil, famously, has all the best tunes: Satan is the most compelling character in Paradise Lost, as Lovelace is in Clarissa. In short, Watts may be one of the nicest and most thoughtful men ever to grace the rock scene, but this doesn’t make him a great biographee.
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