Saturday, January 24, 2009

Following Charlie's beat

Charlie Watts is the only member of the Rolling Stones I've met face to face.

On June 13, 1986, I was walking down La Brea Avenue, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, after leaving the gym. I stopped into a liquor store to grab a soda and as I walked out, Charlie stepped in.

I froze.

I am a huge fan of the Stones and have been since 1972, the year of the band's triumphant tour of the U.S. and artistic zenith. That year, I found the Stones' compilation "Hot Rocks" under the Christmas tree, and by fall of 1973 I had collected all of their albums to date.

In 1986, however, the Stones were slipping. I bought their latest album "Dirty Work" on the day of its release that year. Side 1 was such a crushing disappointment, I didn't even play Side 2 that night. Instead, I decided to tune into the Oscars, feeling sad that I would rather watch an awards show than listen to new music by my favorite band.

The Stones weren't touring behind "Dirty Work"; instead, there were signs that the band was in danger of splitting up.

Charlie, the band's drummer, looked distracted on the cover of "Dirty Work" –maybe "embarrassed" better describes his demeanor– and he wasn't his usual dapper self when I saw him enter the store on La Brea. His jazz band was performing at the Hollywood Bowl that very night. I wasn't going to see Charlie at the Bowl, but I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to meet him for free.

I stood on the sidewalk for about 15 minutes waiting for Charlie to exit. When he did, he had two bags filled with bottles of liquor.

I walked up to Charlie and extended my hand. "Hello, Mr. Watts," I said, shakily. I was in danger of melting.

Charlie seemed taken aback, but he said "Hello" and offered his hand in return. This encounter took place five years after John Lennon's murder by a crazed fan, so I have to give Charlie credit for not running away from me.

I gushed some appreciation for his work, and then asked for his autograph, fumbling for a piece of paper and pen. Charlie signed his name, and then we went separate ways.

Twenty-two years later, my path again is looping back again to Charlie's.

In 2004, Charlie got a diagnosis of throat cancer. He immediately began treatment at London's Royal Marsden Hospital and had him lymph nodes removed. "When they do that the muscles go," Charlie said, in an interview with the Daily Express. "You can't lift your arm. It's like being paralyzed. It was a worry because of what I do for a living."

The cancer went into remission. The next year, he and the rest of the Stones embarked on a multi-year, worldwide tour that, in my opinion, saw Charlie playing better and stronger than ever.

The other day, I visited a forum on It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, a Stones fan site where I post under the name Monkeylad. I told fellow Stones fans about my condition, and asked for background information about Charlie's brush with cancer.

My spirits have soared as I watch get-well wishes and words of encouragement pile up in the thread I began.

For Stones fans, the tongue is a pretty important part of the body; it's been the Stones' logo for the past 39 years. So it's a thrill to add the international community of Stones fans to my support network.

And I'd like to think that Charlie Watts, who has maintained a steady beat for the Rolling Stones since 1962, passed on some of his strength to beat cancer to me when we shook hands on a sidewalk in Hollywood in 1986.

Although Charlie's handshake certainly didn't make me a good drummer.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Paul, we haven't talked in a zillion years, but it's Bruce Mirken here. Please email me when you have a moment at (until Jan. 28) or after Jan. 31 at (in-between I will be moving and incommunicado). I'm dealing with cancer myself currently.