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OPINION | BRADLEY GITZ: The day The Stones died

by Bradley Gitz | September 6, 2021 at 1:04 a.m.

Charlie Watts was one of my favorite rock stars because he didn't act like one.

Anyone who watched a Rolling Stones concert could tell that he saw the thing as a huge joke that only he and maybe Mick were in on. He was the greatest rock and roll drummer in the history of rock 'n' roll playing in the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band with an amused, sardonic smile on his face the entire time, as if he was just waiting to collect his paycheck and get back to jazz.

The first album I owned was the Stones' "High Tide and Green Grass," a present on my 7th birthday. Although The Beatles reigned supreme in our neighborhood, there were things on that album that permanently set the hook. Not just "Satisfaction" and "Get Off of My Cloud" but "Time is on My Side" and especially "Tell Me (You're Coming Back)," perhaps their most underrated song.

The really cool part, though, was all the color photos inside the fold-out cover (we lost such things with DVDs and streaming) of Mick and Keith and Brian smoking cigarettes and glaring at the camera, while Charlie lurked about in the background with his trademark dour expression.

Even then he seemed to hold himself a bit apart from all the hoopla.

The Stones began calling themselves "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" even before the Beatles broke up, but snickers aside at the time over the chutzpah, they really were.

It is difficult to imagine a better run of rock albums than "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out" (the greatest live rock album), "Sticky Fingers," and "Exile on Main Street."

The quality gradually dropped off thereafter, but the possibility of a return to form (as with "Some Girls" and "Tattoo You") kept me buying up until about the late 1980s.

The most valuable possession I had back in high school wasn't my silver Camaro or Pioneer amplifier, but the Stones concert tickets we camped out overnight to get at a Ticketron outlet for their show in summer 1975 at Milwaukee County Stadium (the "Tour of the Americas"). We later blew a couple weeks' worth of summer-job paychecks on scalper tickets for a concert added to their stand at Chicago Stadium (with the stage that unfolded to the strains of "All Down the Line").

I saw them again at Soldier Field in 1978, but when they came back around the next time, I'd decided they were simply too old to be doing that kind of thing any longer; that it was downright unbecoming (or maybe I was growing too old to hang out at rock concerts).

It never occurred to me (or probably them) that I would be able to take my two young boys to see a Stones concert at the Pyramid in Memphis about 20 years later (or that they would be gearing up for a tour of American football stadiums more than 20 years after that).

The Beatles were uniquely innovative and forever fresh; if "Revolver" or "Abbey Road" sounded startling when they came out, they sound even more startling now. But the Stones generally sounded the same, which also happens to be what rock 'n' roll is supposed to sound like. With the exception of some Beatles-provoked missteps ("Her Satanic Majesty's Request"), they stuck to revved-up Chicago blues, with more twangy folk and country and delicate ballads thrown in than casual listeners realize.

If a Martian landed on Earth and wanted to know what this thing called "rock" music was, you could simply put on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or "Tumbling Dice" and be done with it.

To paraphrase those Dos Equis commercials, I don't listen to rock music much anymore, but when I do it's often a Stones album from the 1960s or early '70s. And over the years when listening to the Stones, I've found myself listening most to Charlie's propulsive drumming, and marveling at how it sets everything else up.

The Beatles' recording career lasted a mere seven years, and the only live performance they gave during the last three was on a rooftop. Which means that the "Strolling Bones" have now outlasted their one-time rivals by more than half a century.

That they have spent the latter part of that time as the world's most authentic tribute band shouldn't diminish the accomplishment.

After hearing that they were going to launch their new mega-tour in St. Louis later this month, I was tempted to pay the likely exorbitant freight just so I could say that I'd seen Stones concerts a remarkable 46 years apart, thereby bringing full circle the teenager and the old man.

The temptation was only modest, however, and vanished altogether when I found out that they would be without Charlie for the first time and always hereafter.

Perhaps the most fascinating scene from the Maysles brothers' documentary "Gimme Shelter" is near the beginning, when it shows a stunned Mick and Charlie listening to radio reports about the violence at Altamont the night before.

What Charlie said then--"Oh dear, what a shame"--is what I thought when I heard he had died.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

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