A Friendly Emptiness

Lots of people are writing good remembrances of Charlie Watts. (Here’s one I really like.) But none of them are drummers, that I have found so far, and so none of them seems to get what matters most about what he did with his art.

I am a drummer, and I do. And here it is.

Charlie Watts taught me to play the back of the beat.

Not the backbeat; that’s what James Brown taught me, and all of us. That’s the 2 and the 4; the beat that sounds like rock and roll since “Rocket 88,” in which no one plays it but if you can’t hear it you’re dead. Same with Elvis’ “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” or “Rock Around the Clock” for crying out loud. It is right there in the DNA of the thing. One TWO three FOUR. The Stones were a blues band as surely as Zeppelin and the early Beatles were. Taking that American backbeat and pulling it back through their big guitars.

But Charlie Watts taught us drummers that the backbeat is a whole continent, and you can choose where and how to live on it. And he chose to live at the very end of that continent, on the western beach of every bar. His snare backbeat would push along right at the end of what we could hear as where it needed to be.

And by making that choice, suddenly each bar had so much ROOM in it. Head room, elbow room. In every way that something like “Immigrant Song” is crowded as a dance floor, “Beast of Burden” (or “Tumbling Dice,” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking“) has space for days on all sides. And you can hear how the band would lie back in it, propped against it, happy to filigree and embroider and otherwise piece in the song, confident that they had all the time in the world.

Charlie Watts taught me that a drummer is a timekeeper, but not a metronome. A drummer actually KEEPS the time: domesticates it, trains it, decides what it will do or won’t, and thereby creates the space in which the rest of the band does everything else. Richards, Jones, and Wood couldn’t have inscribed those long, languid rhythm lines and soaring lead lines against any other space than the one CW made for them.

Of course this is just not just my legacy; check the opening bars of Sheryl Crow’s great single “My Favorite Mistake” to catch the inimitable Wendy Melvoin leaning a Keith Richards riff up against Gregg Williams’ best Charlie Watts homage. Anywhere the drummer lets you exhale and stretch out: there he is. Michael Bland on Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” I actually think the main shift when Prince changed bands in the late eighties was behind the kit, from Bobby Z. to Michael B., because suddenly there was some space in all that electric funk. There’s a great bit at the top of “Calhoun Square,” where we hear Prince instructing the band on how to do it: “Listen to the drummer, but you still want to have fun. It shouldn’t be work. Two, three, BAYbay…”

There’s a lot of unaccountably breathless stuff said about a drummer’s time being an expression of their soul (even in the Mike Edison piece linked above: “It came from his heart, not from his hands…”)

Well, maybe. I am not comfortable speculating on the texture of a musician’s heart based on their art. Music isn’t a window into who someone is so much as it is an “expression” of an intention through the actual substance that comprises them, like oil pressed from an olive (that’s John Dewey’s analogy, though I can’t cite it right now — honest). And so perhaps Charlie Watts’ time reflected the sensitivity he cultivated through his jazz attentions and creations. I don’t know. I don’t have him here to ask him.

But I do have his music, and I know what his music made me notice and made me feel, and what it likewise did for his bandmates. And it was really something special. It sounded like nothing else, and so it gave us all more to hear and more to think about when we sit down at the kit and do what we do. Which is calling structure out of nothing; marking time in our own special way so that others can fill it in with their own special ways.

Not unlike being a teacher, come to think of it. In that great teachers, like great drummers, don’t merely dazzle with their words and erudition, their speed and their fills: they create spaces for others to become who they can be. Here I’ll quote Henri Nouwen on the dynamic, which he calls “hospitality” after his Christian tradition:

The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

I love being a teacher, and I love being a drummer. I think Charlie Watts did too. I will miss him.

Image from NYT.

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