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Charlie’s Good Tonight by Paul Sexton review – chronicles of a reluctant Stone

“Never do the authorised biography,” a colleague once told me. “You’ll find out where the bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking, but you won’t be allowed to publish their location.” That advice surely applies double when the act under consideration is the Rolling Stones, a group who have left in their wake a trail of outrage, depravity, misogyny, addiction and a few real-life cadavers. There has been some decent music at times, too. The group’s incendiary past gets scant airtime here – the hellish Altamont concert of 1969, for example, with its on-film crowd murder, was merely “an event waiting to go wrong”. Even the Stones’ music gets little attention. There are lists of who guested at which shows and on which albums, praise for Charlie Watts’s unerring timing and ability to hold together a rowdy, loose-limbed band (bassist Bill Wyman gets rare praise for his part too) and some commentary on drum technique, but the impact and meaning of the Stones’ music stays unremarked.

It doesn’t much matter. There are already walls of books about the Stones, including Keith Richards’s memoir, Life, and we are here to celebrate the late Watts, who, while bringing stability to their shows and inspiration to their records – the tom-tom gallop of Paint It Black, say, or the wonky cowbell of Honky Tonk Women – was always ambiguous about Stonehood. As early as 1966 he told Rave magazine: “It’s just a job that pays good money”, which remained his default position. “I have tried to resign after every tour since 1969, but each time they talk me back into it,” he tells author Paul Sexton later in his career. “It’s like being in the army,” he once told NME. “They don’t let you leave.”

He protested too much, of course. Running through the interviews here, whether by Sexton or lifted from other sources, is a strong camaraderie, along with testimony to how much Watts enjoyed playing with the band. “In the Beatle period, when people used to scream at you, girls running down the road, I hated that, used to hide. But there’s nothing like walking on a stage and the place is full of screaming girls.”

Watts’s ambiguity was there from the outset. He grew up in a prefab in a drab north London suburb, and jazz, his first love, became a passport to a world of crisply dressed cool and dazzling artistry, his heroes alto saxophonist Charlie Parker – jazz’s Picasso – and drummer Chico Hamilton. One of a talented pool orbiting around blues pioneer Alexis Korner in the early 1960s, Watts was headhunted by Jagger, Jones and Richards but faltered. “Should I join this interval band?” he asked his fellow travellers, relenting only after the trio secured enough gigs to match his wage in an advertising agency. Art – his only O-level – remained a passion. He sketched every tour hotel room he occupied, and later advised on the Stones’ elaborate stage sets.

The Stones’ ascent to stardom was swift, astutely overseen by manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who traded on their bad-boy image. Though Watts could play along, affecting a gormless, slack-jawed idiocy for TV cameras, he remained wedded to jazz’s cool school, and to his beloved wife Shirley (nee Shepherd), an ex-art student whom he wed when pop-star marriage was considered commercial suicide. The pair prospered, moving from a Regent’s Park flat to a Sussex mansion and finally to a Devon farm, where Shirley established an upmarket stud farm of Arabian horses. Later, during the Stones’ tax exile, they added a French farm, where their daughter Seraphina grew up.

Watts circa 1965: ‘The Stones’ ascent to stardom was swift’
Watts circa 1965: ‘The Stones’ ascent to stardom was swift.’ Photograph: Icon and Image/Getty Images

Watts’s personal life is rightly given as much prominence as his career, but it is not drama-filled. He remained a devoted husband and father (later grandfather) and maintained friendships that stretched back to childhood. He never lost his passion for jazz. The orchestra he put together in the late 1980s was internationally acclaimed, and was followed by smaller groups at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. The Stones became wealthy and in later years super-rich – the 147 shows of their 2005 A Bigger Bang tour grossed $558m – enabling Watts to indulge his passions. Always immaculately dressed and always a collector, he freely indulged his passions: endless Savile Row suits, handmade shoes at £4,000 a pop, cashmere sweaters that would be worn once or twice, the purchase of Edward VIII’s suits at Sotheby’s. Then there were the military uniforms, civil war weaponry, Napoleon’s sword, the drum kits of legendary jazzers … and a string of Arabian horses, including the $700,000 purchase of a grey mare.

Sexton, a longtime Stones chronicler, tells Watts’s story with warmth and diligence, though difficult issues are ducked – the causes of Watts’s flirtation with heroin in the 1980s remain opaque – and there are some unctuous turns of phrase. The Stones’ late career albums, mediocre at best, become “greatly underrated”, “an improbable triumph” or “undervalued delights”. Even a passing PR man is “a revered writer”. Never do the authorised biography.

  • Charlie’s Good Tonight: The Authorised Biography of Charlie Watts by Paul Sexton is published by HarperCollins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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