The death of Charlie Watts, the drummer with the Rolling Stones, this week affected me more than I thought it would.
It’s not that Watts was a powerful presence. The drummer, a man more comfortable with jazz than rock and roll, was the yin to Jagger’s charismatic yang, a quiet bloke who always seemed like he would be happier listening to his 45s at home than touring with roadies. Perhaps that’s why his death affected me; that and the fact that the Stones always seemed so invincible, like they could live for ever.
Still, Charlie slipped away quietly at the age of 80 with little fuss. His death made me think of the one time I met him, at a reception in a big house somewhere in the heart of North Devon.
I was a wet-behind-the-ears reporter who had just received the Siberia posting. After a less than stellar debut in Plymouth they sent me away to Barnstaple to quietly disappear into obscurity down country lanes and up and over towering sea cliffs.
On the wet night I arrived in Barnstaple and felt the sting of approaching snow in the air before I surveyed my miserable bedsit which required coins to keep the lights on, I never thought I would find myself in the same room as Charlie Watts.
However, in keeping with the great man’s desire to shun the limelight, Watts bought a property in the heart of Devon, a remote place down lanes full of manure that holidaymakers seldom found. I can’t even recall the reason for the reception but another famous resident of middle-of-nowhere Devon was standing in the room holding court, the late poet laureate Ted Hughes. I recall then the strength of his presence. Hughes was a towering figure, with something of a bad boy Byronic reputation who marched across the hills leaving a trail of female suicides in his wake.
Charlie couldn’t have been more different. He eschewed many of the rock and roll stereotypes of his fellow Stones that gave the band an edge the Beatles lacked, although the reality was more nuanced. In interviews, he talks a lot about the technical aspects of drumming and, of course, his love of jazz. Charlie sounds like an instructor at a technical college as he explains the intricate machinery of the drums. He talks about touring with the band like it’s a chore he can take or leave. It makes him oddly endearing.
Charlie’s death wasn’t the only thing that made me recall my time in North Devon. I thought of J, a photographer who may or may not have been with me at that reception. The North Devon bureau had two reporters - Mark, who was affectionately known as The Rock of Barnstable for occupying that remote bureau for at least eight years, and his raw trainee. We used a photographic agency that Mark, not so affectionately, referred to as The Dolts. We could routinely rely on the agency to fail to show up at assignments or to take a picture that had nothing to do with the story. J was from the Braunton Beach surfer crowd. He had an eye for a good picture but could be hit-and-miss. In the days before cellphones, the disconnect between reporter and photographer was a wide as the panoramic beaches of the North Devon coast.
Years, later J is a successful photographer in L.A. In the same week as Charlie Watts died a curious story hit the newsfeed. Spenser Elden, the naked underwater baby on the iconic cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” filed a lawsuit against the band claiming the famous artwork was child pornography. J recreated the famous underwater shot with Elden on the 25th anniversary of Nervermind in 2016. Thankfully, Elden wore shorts on this occasion.
The two events made me think of how all roads led back to an obscure part of rural Devon in the early 1990s. I missed it too, the subtle seasons, the fragrance on the air that heralds spring down those winding lanes, the long empty sands, and the russet colors that crept up on the moors with fall. Ted Hughes died of cancer. He never made it out of the 1990s. Mark died of cancer too. Charlie had, to use cricket parlance, a good inning. This amazing footage of Sympathy for the Devil from 1968 showcases Watts’ quiet genius, as well as a cameo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the audience.
It sometimes feels like we lose the brilliance and plod on with our mediocre selves. The Spenser Eldens and the Yoko Onos survive. Those of us who try our hands at things, fail, and move on.
It can leave what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described as a feeling of sadness and longing that is “not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain.”
I can barely remember what I spoke to Charlie about but I recall it was an obscure planning application near his home. I recall nervously asking the great man for a comment and his matter-of fact-response. “No, thank you.