The Rolling Stones drummer breaks his usual silence to discuss his passionate side projects
Charlie Watts has always had a reputation as the coolest and quietest Rolling Stone. But ask the drummer about something he really cares about – the great bebop players or the timeless jazz standards that the Charlie Watts Quintet perform on their new album, Long Ago and Far Away – and you can't shut him up. Watts formed the quintet in 1991 to record an album to accompany the reprinting of Ode to a High Flying Bird, a children's book he wrote and illustrated in 1964 as a tribute to his hero, the saxophonist Charlie Parker. In the five years since the Parker project, the Stones' backing vocalist Bernard Fowler has joined the quintet, and the group has recorded three more albums, each a labor of love undertaken by Watts in between commitments to his day job.
Tell me why you chose songs like "I've Got a Crush on You" and "In a Sentimental Mood" for the new album.
My mother used to sing some of them when I was a kid, hence the title of the album. It's quite nice setting a singer up like that with the strings. If you're a drummer, and you sit and the strings just swell like that, it's a fantastic sound to just swish away to. I enjoy that because I play with guitar players all the time.
The quintet's first three albums were on Continuum, and now you're recording for the Stones' label, Virgin.
Originally I wanted to do solo things behind the scenes, just bring them out on a little label. I don't really like talking about these things. Given the choice, I would sooner play to you than sit and talk to you. But when you've got it finished, it's really nice for people to be able to hear it. With the other albums, guys in the band would be saying, "My girlfriend or my mum wants one. Where can I get it?"
Have you considered doing another book like Ode to a High Flying Bird?
I keep a diary of drawings. I've drawn every bed I've slept in on tour since 1967. It's a fantastic nonbook. I used to take a lot of things that keep you awake, and I'd have nothing to do. So I have all these hotel rooms recorded.
That sounds worse than Bill Wyman's book, Stone Alone, with its endless lists of the women he slept with and how much money he made.
Well, it's more boring. What's nice about it is, it's visual, and it just goes on and on, and you think, "Is this ever gonna end?" You've got Washington in '67 and then you've got Washington a couple of years ago, and they're kind of the same.
Do you miss playing with Wyman?
I never miss playing with him, but I miss him as a person. He got to an age – a ripe old age – where he was fed up with it. Bill never had a desire to be Darryl Jones or Charlie Mingus. He's very happy now because he has two young children. He went through a hell of a time with that awful wife he had, the second wife. He's been very lucky with girlfriends, but very unlucky with wives.
Have you ever felt like quitting?
I've always wanted to be a drummer. I've always had this illusion of being in the Blue Note or Birdland with Charlie Parker in front of me. It didn't sound like that, but that was the illusion I had. As long as it's comfortable with my wife, I'll continue to do it. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't do it. The problem with being a drummer: It's not like you can write songs or tiddle about [on a piano]. There's nothing for me to do at home. My wife tells me to get out of the house.
What's your approach to the drums?
The way I look at drumming is, it's backing somebody. If you think like that, you're quite happy backing Keith in whatever time he plays – musical time or length of time. There aren't many people that play like the Stones do anymore, though the playing band has become popular in Europe again – like Blur and Oasis. At least you can hear that they're really playing: The drums are there, and the cymbals are too loud. I love that. The problem with Oasis is that we've already heard that with the Beatles. They're not the Sex Pistols. When the Sex Pistols came on the scene, I thought, "Nobody does noise like that." They were the best at that time.
What do you think of the Sex Pistols reunion?
Of all bands – what the Pistols stood for and the way they did it – I don't think it will work at the age of 40. There have been gaps, but the Rolling Stones have never stopped doing what we do, which is trying to play Chicago blues. When you stop and start again, there's another thing that comes into it, and it's age. It's not going to be the same with them saying, "Fucking bollocks" in the middle of a song. When you're 20, everybody's with you doing it.
People could say that about the Stones, too.
If Mick was overweight and a lot grayer and bald – I mean, I'm gray and bald, but I'm not sitting out in front – if he was all those things, he'd know that, and he wouldn't do it. But he's as good as he ever was, and people still enjoy it as much. I think we'll probably do it again.
A lot of Stones fans were surprised by Mick Jagger's revelation that you had a drug and alcohol problem.
I've said it myself, but people don't believe it. I nearly killed myself. At the end of two years on speed and heroin, I was very ill. My daughter used to tell me I looked like Dracula.
How did you stop?
I just stopped cold – for me and for my wife. It was never me, really. I passed out in the studio once, and that to me was a blatant lack of professionalism. You might have been drunk in the studio, but you'd never fuck up. I passed out, and Keith picked me up – this is Keith, who I've seen in all sorts of states doing all sorts of things – and he said to me, "This is the sort of thing you do when you're 60." And that stuck in my mind. I think I'm very lucky to be alive and to have made a very good living doing what I do.
This story is from the May 30th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.