Charlie Watts, Jazz Drummer, and “Pocket King”

by Lambert Strether from Corrente.

I wanted to take a break from the constant continuity, and I blew all my YouTube cookies, so my K-Pop biases didn’t come out, but what did come out was the music of Charlie Watts (1941-2021). So now for something completely different, since the topic of this post is entirely serendipitous and has nothing to do with our anniversary or anything like that.

First, I’m going to tell my favorite Charlie Watts story. Then I will introduce a central concept in his music, probably most musicians, and certainly all dance music (“pocket”). Here is the story:

Keith Richards is the source for the original story and tells this tale in his 2010 autobiography Life.

There was a rare moment, in late 1984, when Charlie threw the drummer’s punch—a punch I’d seen several times and it was fatal; It carries a lot of balance and timing. He must be severely provoked. He threw one at Mick.

We were in Amsterdam for a meeting, Mick and I weren’t on good terms at the time, but I said come on, let’s hang out. And she gave him the jacket in which she was married. We got back to the hotel around 5am and Mick called up Charlie. I said “don’t call him at this hour”. But he did, and he said, “Where’s my drummer?” No answer. He puts the phone aside. Mick and I were still sitting there pretty upset – they gave Mick a couple of glasses, he was gone – about 20 minutes later there was a knock at the door.

There was Charlie Watts, the Savile Row suit, in her perfect attire… I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t look at me, he walked right in front of me, grabbed Mick and said, “Don’t ever call me your drummer again.”

Then he picked it up by my collar and gave it a right hook. Mick fell back on a silver platter of smoked salmon and began sliding towards the open window and the duct below.

And I was thinking, This is good, and then I realized it was my wedding jacket. I caught him and Mick before he slid into the Amersdam Canal. It took twenty four hours after that to talk to Charlie. I thought I did when I took him to his room, but twelve hours later he was like, “Damn, I’m going to go down and do it again.”

“It takes a lot to wind this guy up.” Why did you stop him? My jacket, that’s why! “

(Note that the jacket does not appear in all versions of the story, and that “meeting” no doubt exposed serious differences of opinion on matters of business.) It was, however, the details of the Savile Row suit that gripped me: Obviously, Watts came slaying. (And also to stress his autonomy as an artist, rather than just a mercenary, is the true moral of the story. That the watt being a unit of force is also not at all inappropriate.)

Now to the concept: “enclave”. Here is a not guilty use of the term from the Portland Press-Herald:

South Portland native Ginger Coate, who has been a drummer since childhood, became a fan of the Rolling Stones when she was five years old because her mother and uncle were big fans. Within a year, she was playing with Watts on her first drum kit.

Kott said Watts has a “nice crack in his snare” and is “the king of the pocket”, meaning “he lands in exactly the right place with the right feel”. She also praised the character in his playing.

And Watts Do you You have a “nice crack in his company”. And so he should. But what is meant by “pocket”? Most musicians’ interpretations amount to hand-waving (lots of “groove” and “feel,” which amounts to swapping one word for another and calling it an interpretation). Here – and if we have musicians, especially drummers, in the reading audience, I hope they’ll chime in at this point – is a more historical and technical explanation:

Historically, the term “jeep” arose in the middle of the last century [for our younger readers, that would be the twentieth] With the backbeat happening, and it is implied that the backbeat, the drum that hits notes 2 and 4, is slightly delayed creating a “laid back” or “relaxed” feel.

If the downbeat beat is exactly when the Kick Drum is struck, the Snare Drum is often played slightly later than the halfway point between two consecutive Kick Drum beats. Musicians (and music listeners) were often unaware of the science behind it, but they did have a term to refer to it: “the drummer plays in the pocket.”

Today, the term “in the pocket” has expanded a bit, suggesting that if two musicians (usually the bass player and the drummer) feel the beat together, feel and beat “one” beat at exactly the same time, they are said to be “in the pocket”.

Whether you play in front of (in front of) the beat, behind (behind) the beat, or just above (middle) the beat, as long as two musicians (i.e. guitarist and drummer) [Sic. Should be “e.g.”. See below] You feel pessimistic at the same time, they will be in the pocket.

Many people feel that the question is not so much what the pocket is as how much you know when you achieve it. For a musician, it is as if the music is playing itself, as if everything has merged together – all the rhythmic parts are played by one instrument.

(“While the band plays music,” The Music Never Stopped, The Grateful Dead.) But here we also have hand-waving: what does “at the exact same time” mean? From Tidal magazine:

[A]Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman explained to me in 2007, for an article to appear in Bass Guitar World magazine, that the band’s rhythmic axis is built on the relationship between [Keith] Richards [the guitarist] And [Charlie] whats [the drummer]. Charlie follows Keith. Keith doesn’t follow Charlie,” he said. “Charlie follows Keith, so Keith is always a little ahead. And I like to lie down behind Charlie, so I’m always a little late.” Wyman added that where every player in the shift is is crucial. “When everyone else tried to play like us, it didn’t sound like us, because they all played dead to the beat.” In other words, Their imitators were playing in the nick of time, but the Rolling Stones were playing in the pocket.

I can’t cite the book, because I read the book standing in Borders in Philly, but he described The Rolling Stones’ pocket as big and soft as a catcher’s glove. Return to what was not checked “at the same time”. Main passage for me:

in popular music. While there are some genres that embrace standard regularity—EDM comes to mind—others take a looser approach to getting into the groove. Musicians often talk about where the percussion falls as a “pocket”, precisely because it flexes on both sides. For example, jazz bassists, particularly in the hard bop and straight forward styles, tend to play before the beat, adding urgency to the beat, while blues and soul jazz players play a little backwards, adding a relaxed lubrication to the groove. Drummers can show more subtle levels of rhythmic shading. Listen closely to Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” and you’ll notice on the verses that Al Jackson Jr’s snare lags a bit behind the rest of the group, so the feel is more languid than the chorus. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but it makes a huge difference in the emotional dynamic.

There is also a misconception that bands are driven by bass and drums. There sure are plenty of drummer/guitarist backing bands that are obvious: Al Jackson Jr. and Duck Dunn at MG’s; Fleetwood Mac; Mick Fleetwood and John McPhee; Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads. But there are also plenty of rock bands where, as with the Stones, the guitarist leads and the drummer follows. Think Jimmy Page and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica, or Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols.

I find this notion of time neither “hard nor absolute” very appealing, because here in NC we often talk about layers of time that have different rhythms: market time, political time, military time; Maybe institutional time, typical Jungian time, and so forth. I think, however, that it is fair to say that elites, operating at all these temporal levels, simultaneously, are by no means “in the pocket.” Just the opposite.

I’ll give the final word to Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich:

Finally, Ulrich stated that while watching footage of Watts’ final performance with the Stones—a set they played in Florida on August 30, 2019 as part of the band’s No Filter tour—he learned a new reason why Watts is so essential to the band. Moving.

I was looking at a few clips [that show] And even seeing Mick Jagger there swaying. He’s swinging to Charlie Watts’ drumming. People sit there and go, ‘Yeah, I’m dancing with Mick Jagger.’ No, you’re dancing with Charlie Watts the same way Mick Jagger dances with Charlie Watts’ drumming.

Now let me introduce some videos of Charlie Watts, the jazz drummer. There’s not all that much on YouTube — the flood of Watts interviews and tributes makes finding any actual music more difficult than it should be — but YouTube’s search function is notoriously bad, so maybe I’m missing a trove of buried (and why might) t-geniuses of Google’s search brain, Who bought YouTube, do they fix it?).

* * *

Flight to Sydney (one way)

This is a bit frantic, actually frantic and frantic. The wild solos start at 0:53, and you can see why a good timekeeper is needed. Make sure to listen to the end!

* * *

Boogie Woogie in Barcelona

More boogie woogie here; Well, maybe to listen to it while cleaning the house?

* * *

Route 66

Lots of swing in this one, with the interaction between the band members; Watts is very happy. At 2:31 At first, Watts appears to, for once in his life, become flashy, but it turns into a great clip.

* * *

Perhaps readers interested in jazz could come up with better songs (I’ve avoided the band’s performances on Letterman etc; though clubs would be more of a suggestion.)

Let me end by going back to rock. From The Rolling Stones 1995 (i.e. Post-Mick Taylor) Show at Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1995, positive ambient version of Gimme Shelter.

I’m sorry about the visual quality, but I’m using this version because it has two great moments: at 3:06, Keith Richards’ stunning smile at Lisa Fisher’s fireworks; The second time is 5:59, when the crowd starts chanting “Charlie! Charlie!” Talk about being in the pocket![1]

* * *

I have to say that this old programmer encouraged that Charlie Watts continued to do what he loved until he stopped working; I think that’s a good example to follow, and something to hope for. And what Charlie Watts loved was his The jobbecause the drums he job Ask any guitarist. Work versus job. “Increasing the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” LeGuen said.

More broadly, our society needs more Charlie Watts and should do what it takes to create them. Fewer thieves, military men, spreadsheet jockeys, influencers, celebrities, and administrators: more musicians, painters, photographers, world builders, railroaders, knitters, gamers, welders, winemakers, and “for the love of the game” types in general. I firmly believe that our single social focus on drawing accumulated capital from human labor power produces an enormous “angel share” of wasted human creativity, and the joy that comes from creation. We have, of course, the wealth to address this, but there are… oversight issues.

Notes

[1] Even more amazing, the Rolling Stones were playing at the time from 1995 to 1962 = 33 years. Living clean. It pays off every time.

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