Since the Rolling Stones are in town for their abbreviated 50th-anniversary tour, I thought I’d share a memory of my one extended encounter with a Stone. It was with Charlie Watts. This was 1996. I was assigned to do a one-page thingy on him for Vanity Fair, on the occasion of a new album he was putting out with his swing band. I’ve always been enervated by those who say “Charlie Watts looks so old!” or “Charlie Watts is a corpse!,” because Watts is about as perfect-looking as a man can look. He is white-haired, slim, and 71—and becomingly all of those things. He was only in his mid-fifties when I met him, but he has not changed much since. I took the assignment to look at him as much as to talk with him. I can’t find the article but I remember that I led with, “Are there others out there for whom Charlie Watts is the focal point of the Rolling Stones?”
We met at the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he was staying. He had an elaborately furnished suite whose skyline beauty he did not take for granted. “I mean, look around here,” he said, motioning his arm panoramically. “It’s like bloody Cary Grant, innit?”
I recently heard it said somewhere—perhaps by Keith Richards himself—that whereas most bands are anchored by the drummer, with the bass and guitar following, the Stones are anchored by Richards, the senior guitarist, with Watts, the drummer, hanging a half-beat behind him: one of the secrets to the Stones’s sound, their distinctive controlled sloppiness. This would have been useful knowledge for me the day I met Watts. It took about ten minutes for me to figure out, but he was hanging behind the beat even in conversation. It sounds cute, like exaggeration for the good of a story, but it’s true: Every time I asked a question, he answered the question before last. We fell into a sort of conversational fugue, wherein his answers overlaid my questions, which I adjusted on the fly to be belated follow-ups to his belated answers. Strangely, it worked: What was meant to be a perfunctory, transactional half-hour appointment became a two-hour talk, and Watts, to my delight, was in no hurry to be rid of me.
But I should add that what made this episode stranger, and perhaps contributed to the peculiarly laggy rhythm of the talk, was that this was my first time out of the house since the birth of my first child. My daughter had been born only three days earlier, and my wife and I were still consumed by the joy and terror of not quite knowing how to live in this state: with a baby. Severely sleep-deprived, I’d shaved for the first time in days and put on my nicest clothes, knowing that Charlie was himself quite the clotheshorse. Near the end of the interview, after I’d become perhaps too comfortable in Watts’s presence, my fuzzy-headedness got the best of me. I unleashed upon him a question that I’d always wanted to ask a Stone or ex-Beatle: What is it like to live a life where you’ve nothing left to prove, nothing necessarily to motivate you artistically, but still plenty of life ahead of you?
Except I asked this question in the most sloppy, logorrheic way possible, with some mortifying addendum along the lines of, “I always imagine that for someone like you, life must be something like a perpetual Sunday brunch, where you’re always sitting on the veranda with people bringing you mimosas and café au lait, with a wedge of cantaloupe and a tray of croissants in front of you, and no set plan for the day.”
The fugue stopped. There was silence. Watts stared at me stonily for what felt like half an hour but was probably thirty seconds.
Then, finally, he looked down, looked up, and said to me, “Cantaloupe melon? Bloody ’ell, I’ve never ’eard that one before.”