By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I was wanting to take a break from the ongoing ongoingness, and I had blown away all my cookies in YouTube, so my K-Pop biases weren’t showing up, but what did show up was music by 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 anniversaries, or anything like that.
First, I will tell my favorite Charlie Watts story. Then I will introduce a concept central to his musicianship, perhaps most musicianship, certainly all danceable musicianship (“the pocket”). Here is the story:
Keith Richards is the source of the original story and tells this anecdote in his 2010 autobiography ‘Life’.
‘There was a rare moment, in late 1984, of Charlie throwing his drummer’s punch – a punch I’ve seen a couple of times and it’s lethal; it carries a lot of balance and timing. He has to be badly provoked. He threw one at Mick.
‘We were in Amsterdam for a meeting, Mick and I weren’t on great terms at the time but I said c’mon, let’s go out. And I lent him the jacket I got married in. We got back to the hotel about five in the morning and Mick called up Charlie. I said “don’t call him not at this hour.” But he did, and said, “Where’s my drummer?” No answer. He puts the phone down. Mick and I were still sitting there pretty pissed – give Mick a couple of glasses, he’s gone – when about 20 minutes later there was a knock at the door.
‘There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed…I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said “Never call me your drummer again.”
‘Then he hauled him up by the lapels of my jacket and gave him a right hook. Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below.’
‘And I was thinking, this is a good one, and then I realized it was my wedding jacket. And I grabbed hold of it and caught Mick just before he slid into the Amerstdam canal. It took me twenty-four hours after that to talk Charlie down. I thought I’d done it when I took him up to his room, but twelves hours later he was saying “Fuck it, I’m going to go down and do it again”.
‘It takes a lot to wind that man up’. Why did you stop him? My jacket, that’s why!”
(Note that the jacket does not appear all versions of the story, and that “meeting” no doubt exposed serious differences of opionion over business matters.) However, it’s the detail of the Savile Row suit that gets me: Clearly, Watts came to slay. (And also to underline his own autonomy as an artist, not simply a mercenary, the real moral of the story. That watts are also a unit of power is not at all inappropriate.)
Now to the concept: “the pocket.” Here is a guileless use of the term from the Portland Press-Herald:
Ginger Cote of South Portland, who has been drumming since childhood, became a fan of the Rolling Stones when she was 5 years old because her mother and uncle were huge fans. Within a year, she was playing along with Watts on her first drum kit.
Cote said that Watts has “such a nice crack to his snare” and is the “pocket king,” meaning “he lands right in the right spot with just the right feel.” She also praised the personality in his playing.
And Watts does have a “a nice crack to his snare”. And so he ought to. But what is meant by “the pocket”? Most explanations by musicians amount to, well, handwaving (lots of “groove” and “feeling,” which amount to swapping one word for another and calling it an explanation). Here — and if we have musicians, especially drummers, in the readership, I hope they will chime in at this point — is a more historically grounded and technical explanation:
Historically speaking, the term “pocket” originated in the middle of the last century [for our younger readers, that would be the twentieth] with the occurrence of the backbeat, and implied that the backbeat, the Snare Drum striking the beats 2 and 4, is slightly delayed creating a “laid back” or “relaxed feel”.
If the downbeat is exactly when the Kick Drum is struck, then the Snare Drum was very often played slightly later than the midpoint between two consecutive pulses from the Kick Drum. Musicians (and music listeners) were often times unaware of science behind this, but they had a term for it: “the drummer is playing in the pocket.”
Today, the term “in the pocket” has broadened a bit, suggesting that if two musicians (usually the bass player and the drummer) are feeling the downbeats together, feeling and placing beat “one” at the exact same time, they are said to be “in the pocket.”
Whether you are playing ahead (front) of the beat, or behind (back) of the beat, or right on top (middle) of the beat, as long as two musicians (i.e., bassist and drummer [Sic. Should be “e.g.”. See below] feel the downbeat at the same time, they’ll be in the pocket.
Many people feel that the question is not so much what the pocket is as much as how you know when you’ve achieved it. To the musician, it feels like the music is playing itself, as though everything has merged together — all the rhythmic parts being played by one instrument.
[A]s former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman explained to me in 2007, for an article that would appear in Guitar World’s Bass Guitar magazine, the band’s rhythmic axis is built on the relationship between [Keith] Richards [the guitarist] and [Charlie] Watts [the drummer]. “Charlie follows Keith; Keith doesn’t follow Charlie,” he said. “Charlie follows Keith, so Keith’s always slightly ahead. And I would lay back behind Charlie, so I’m always slightly behind.” Where each player is within the beat is crucial, Wyman added. “When everybody tried to play like us, it didn’t sound like us,” he said, “because they all played dead on the beat.” In other words, their imitators were playing in time, but the Rolling Stones were playing in the pocket.
I can’t cite to the book, since I read the book standing up in a Borders in Philly, but it described the Rolling Stones pocket as being as large and soft as a catcher’s mitt. Back to the unexamined “at the same time.” The key passage for me:
In popular music, . Although there are some genres that embrace metronomic regularity — EDM springs to mind — others take a more flexible approach to getting into the groove. Musicians often speak of where the beat falls as “the pocket,” precisely because it flexes to both sides. For example, jazz bass players, particularly in hard bop and straight-ahead styles, tend to play ahead of the beat, adding urgency to the pulse, whereas bassists in blues and soul play slightly behind, lending a relaxed lubricity to the groove. Drummers can exhibit even subtler 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 slightly behind the rest of the kit, so the feel is more languid than on the chorus. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but it makes an enormous difference in the emotional dynamic.
There’s also the mistaken belief that bands are driven by bass and drums. Certainly there are plenty of drummer/bassist teams that clearly powered their bands: Al Jackson Jr. and Duck Dunn in the M.G.’s; Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and John McVie; Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. But there are also plenty of rock bands where, as with the Stones, the guitarist leads and the drummer follows. Think of Jimmy Page and John Bonham in Led Zeppelin, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica or the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
I find this concept of time that isn’t “rigid or absolute” very appealing, because here at NC we often speak of layers of time which have different rhythms: Market time, political time, military time; perhaps institutional time, Jungian archetypical time, and so forth. I think, however, it is fair to say that elites, operating in all these levels of time er, simultaneously, are by no means “in the pocket.” Quite the reverse.
I’ll give the final word to Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich:
Lastly, Ulrich mentioned that in 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 was so imperative to the band’s dynamic.
“I was looking at a couple of the clips from [that show] and even seeing Mick Jagger up there swaying,” he said. “He’s swaying to Charlie Watts’ drumming. People sit there and go, ‘Yeah, I’m dancing along with Mick Jagger.’ No, you’re dancing along with Charlie Watts in the same way Mick Jagger’s dancing along to Charlie Watts’ drumming.
Let me now present a few videos of Charlie Watts, jazz drummer. There are not all that many on YouTube — a deluge of Watts interviews and tributes makes any actual music harder to find than it should be — but then YouTube’s search function is notoriously poor, so maybe I’m missing a trove (and why can’t the search brain geniuses at Google, which bought YouTube, fix it?).
This one is a little hectic, indeed hecticker and hecticker. A wild solo begins at 0:53, and you can see why a good timekeeper would be needed. Be sure to listen to the end!
Boogie woogie in Barcelona
Much more boogie woogie here; good, perhaps to listen to while cleaning the house?
Plenty of swing in this one, with interplay among the band members; Watts is very happy. At 2:31 it at first seems like Watts has, for once in his life, gotten flashy, but it turns into a great segue.
Perhaps jazz-oriented readers can come up with better songs (I avoided band performances on Letterman and so forth; I though clubs would be more a propos.)
I’m sorry for the visual quality, but I’m using this version because it includes two great moments: At 3:06, Keith Richards’ sly, amazed smile at Lisa Fisher’s pyrotechnics; the second at 5:59, when the crowd starts to chant “Charlie! Charlie!” Talk about being in the pocket!
I have to say that this old codger is encouraged that Charlie Watts kept doing what he loved until he dropped; I think that’s a good example to follow, and something to hope for. And what Charlie Watts loved was his work, because drumming is work; ask any guitarist. Work, as opposed to a job. “the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” as LeGuin puts it.
More broadly, our society needs many more Charlie Watts’ and should do what it takes to create them. Fewer thieves, militarists, spreadsheet jockeys, influencers, celebrities, administrators: More musicians, painters, photographers, world-builders, model railroaders, knitters, gamers, welders, winemakers, and “for the love of the game”-types generally. I firmly believe our socially single-minded focus on distilling accumulated capital out of human labor power produces a ginormous “angel’s share” of lost human creativity, and the joy that comes from creation. We have, of course, the wealth to address this, but there are… control issues.
 Even more amazingly, the Rolling Stones had then been playing for 1995 – 1962 = 33 years. Clean living. It pays off every time.