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    Charlie Watts, 1969

    Category: Interviews

    CHARLIE WATTS  Evening Standard, July 1969)


    There are two brands of Rolling Stones: there are the big, bad ones, who sometimes appear to have been created for the specific benefit of the Sunday newspapers; and there are the others.

    Brian Jones appeared, I suppose, to be the baddest of them all, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richard are cast in the same die. But that image doesn’t fit the new Stone, Mick Taylor, or Bill Wyman or Charlie Watts at all.

    Bill is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, has an enormous butterfly collection and is, in effect, a virtual recluse in his Suffolk castle. And Charlie – well, Charlie’s Charlie, the man who commutes to his job as a Rolling Stone on the Southern Region – Lewes to Victoria Station: Charlie, the happy family man (‘although I have my days’), the artist, the jazz fanatic and the obsessional collector.

    ‘What I like about money,’ says Charlie, in his slow and slightly lugubrious way, ‘is that if I want to buy a pound of peaches I don’t have to buy half a pound. I can have a pound. And that’s nice, isn’t it? I don’t spend a lot really, apart from on things I’m collecting, but it’s just nice to know I can if I want to.’

    He is not the most publicity conscious rock and roll star in the world. Rather he is shy and reserved, and it came as a total shock this week when he rang the Rolling Stones’ office and said wasn’t it about time someone interviewed him.

    ‘He’s never done it before. We can’t think what’s got into him,’ said the Stones’ publicist. ‘Maybe he feels he’s doing his bit for the them, while Mick is away in Australia.’

    Charlie and Shirley Watts and their baby Serafina live in what in the thirteenth century was a hunting lodge for the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s a higgledy-piggledy smallholding of nine hundred years of different architectural styles, one bit having been added as another was knocked down. At the back there are various barns and a cottage and walled gardens so that it’s rather difficult to tell exactly where the house ends and the outbuildings begin. A couple of friends are living in the cottage part of the house.

    There are more than forty acres in all, some of it farmed, some of it as pasture for Shirley’s six horses and donkey, and then there’s a very big garden which keeps one man busy full time. It’s an exceptional home, where every day you’re likely to discover something new. If you can imagine a place where a thousand years of English culture and architectural style has all been accumulated on one plot then this is it.

    Charlie doesn’t drive so Shirley brought him to meet me at the local pub. Alcohol gives him a headache, so he drank tomato juice, chatting with the landlord and me about the Test score. ‘Fancy the Kiwis doing so well,’ he kept saying over and over all day.

    Back at his home he took me on a guided tour. He’s strangely embarrassed by the whole affair of being interviewed because he doesn’t want to appear flash. ‘I suppose I ought to say that Princess Margaret or someone comes to see me,’ he jokes. ‘I always seem to give the wrong impressions. I don’t want people saying, “See what he’s done with his money.” I don’t really think it concerns them. So you won’t write too much about the house, will you?

    ‘I’m an obsessional collector. If I were Paul Getty I’d just keep buying things. My favourite collection is my guns.’ (They’re mainly from the American Civil War.) ‘But I collect everything.’ And to prove it he takes me off to a sale in Lewes in the afternoon. It’s his first time at a sale as he usually buys from antique shops, and he is mortified about having to share his new experience with a reporter.

    In a month or so it will be time for the Rolling Stones to go back on the road after a break of more than two years, performances all over Europe and America having been lined up.

    ‘Until the last two weeks or so we’d been recording practically every day all this year. I’m not really looking forward to going back on the road because I never ever liked it. I used to enjoy playing in clubs best. When we decided to make our comeback, Mick wanted three hundred thousand in Hyde Park and I wanted to play in Ken Collyer’s to about twelve hundred.

    ‘I like the actual playing but I hate the living out of suitcases that goes into it. Before the Hyde Park concert I was only nervous that the band would fall apart at some time, not nervous at all about playing in front of all those people. I used to like it when there were riots. We’ve always been a crash and wallop group, and I used to get excited when we weren’t able to carry on after three numbers.’

    Before he became a Rolling Stone, he and his wife (who is a sculptor) were at Hornsey Art College, and some years ago he drew and wrote an excellent little book as a tribute to his idol Charlie Parker – Ode to a High Flying Bird. Was he ever sorry, I asked, that he hadn’t continued his career in art?

    ‘No, never. I can do all that now. We have our own studio here and we can do what we want. I work at it in phases. I’m not doing much now. But I have my drums in the studio, too, and I practise on them just about every day. Being a drummer with the Stones is much more creative than a lot of people think. If Keith writes a song then I can turn it into a samba, maybe, or a waltz or anything. And if he likes it then that’s fine. But in some other types of music if a song is a waltz then you can’t do anything about it. The dots are there on the paper and you just have to play it as it’s written.

    ‘I suppose I find it difficult to justify to myself everything I have, and because of this I’m at a crossroads between grandeur and straight living. Everything I have means a lot to me, of course, but it’s not really as good as a good laugh, is it?’

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