The subtitle to Mike Edison’s new book on the Rolling Stones’ drummer—Why Charlie Watts Matters—clearly lays out its premise. John Colpitts measures its success and chats with its author.
Mike Edison’s new book, Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters, is a fun read, even if you’re not familiar with the author’s provenance in the colorful literary universe of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll publishing. He’s also worked as an acquiring editor at Backbeat Books, the publisher of this wonderful, opinionated, and approachable defense of the best Stone (at least for many of us who regularly peruse the pages of Modern Drummer). Mike is a drummer himself, with a long CV that includes stints in garage bands like Raunch Hands and Sharky’s Machine. He even put in some time with the infamous GG Allin, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Sympathy celebrates the weird, the sloppy, and the flat-out magic of Watts’ elemental pulse.
An academic tome might cite countless sources or include transcriptions and expert testimony, and Edison does this when it counts. But he often makes his points through anecdotes, myth-busting, and the occasional literate hyperbole. Sympathy thankfully is not a ponderous academic treatise, and while Edison occasionally leans into gonzo flights of fancy, he takes the reader on a grand tour of forty years of Watts’ contributions to the Rolling Stones. “Hopefully my writing and years behind the drums both show in this book,” Edison tells Modern Drummer. “I really did try to write the very best book about drums and drumming, full stop.”
Even if you’re someone who doesn’t feel that Charlie Watts needs a champion or a defense, Edison acts as a kind of Virgil figure through the drummer’s recorded life, and even his biggest fans will emerge from these pages enriched. This is first and foremost a book about the Stones’ music, and perhaps in a grander sense an argument against the mindless celebration of virtuosity. Edison walks us through the drummers who clearly inspired Watts, either via direct testimony (Watts has given very few interviews over his career) or by inference. One pleasure of the book is just how much American popular music history it traverses. Read it in front of your computer, and the unsung masters of the drums spill out of the digital cornucopia.
Watts once said, “I owe my living to Freddie Below.” If you’re wondering who that was—it’s not too late to acquaint yourself! The drummers who haunt the early pages of this book and the formative years of Watts’ apprenticeship reaffirm the debt that white blues interpreters owe to African-American musicians. A survey of performances by Odie Payne, Earl Phillips, Francis Clay, Frank Kirkland, Clifton James, Jerry Allison, Tony Williams, Earl Hines, Max Roach, and many others who are checked in this book illustrates the breadth of choices we all can make across a bar of 4/4 time.
“A lot of cats don’t know what to do with space—all they can do is poop in it,” Edison writes early on in the book, and this statement is a stand-in for the larger thrust of his narrative. Space is the place, time is fluid, and virtuosity is often a crutch for a lack of ideas. When we met up with Edison to discuss the book at Brooklyn’s legendary Juniors, he said that the book is really about “the misplaced emphasis on virtuosity, and being ‘the best,’ and the nature of identity, what makes a group, and which parts are replaceable… obviously Charlie is not.”
The book tries to clarify the ineffable: what is the essence of Charlie Watts? It’s something beyond technique and execution, and perhaps can be found somewhere between the notes. Kenny Aronoff did the transcriptions for Sympathy for the Drummer, and Edison says that as they listened to “Hang Fire” from Tattoo You over Skype, Aronoff was amazed by the beauty of the performance and exclaimed, “If I played like this, [John] Fogerty would fire me.”
Edison continued between bites from his sandwich and salad, “The accents are all over the place, he’s opening the hi-hat in the weirdest places, it’s totally counterintuitive, and its totally swinging.”
The few included transcriptions give the book some of its most revelatory moments, especially the “Loving Cup” 5/4, 4/4, 5/4 turnaround, which many of us might never have considered. It’s a moment that supports Edison’s thesis that Charlie plays the song, not the conceptual and virtuosic moments beyond the song that we get with our more technically advanced heroes and heroines.
Edison also delves into Charlie’s use of the China cymbal—one of his tangible trademarks. “I worry it’s too much inside baseball for civilians,” he admits. “Charlie evolved. People forget how hard rock the Stones were. In 1975 they were a hard-rock band competing with the Who and Led Zeppelin.”
Sympathy for the Drummer takes us on a journey through the Stones’ catalog, and even for someone who feels like Watts is essential, the depth of his contribution is revealed here. As Keith Richards has said, “No Charlie, no Stones,” and Edison wrote the book to prove it.