This is not your father's Rolling Stones book. Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters is as much a study of drumming and what constitutes great rock and roll as it is about the cat who's provided beats for the Rolling Stones over the last 57-plus years. Even if you're one of those people whose favorite meme is “OK Boomer,” you could enjoy this labor of lust.
Mike Edison's words hit and linger with the force of a robust cymbal splash. The author offers several convincing reasons why Watts matters, why he may be the most important Stones member, and [SPOILER ALERT] why he’s the greatest rock-and-roll drummer—and he's extremely entertaining in proving his theses.
Sympathy for the Drummer is the opposite of a dry biography. Edison—who's written for Spin, Daily Beast, and Interview, and once served as publisher and editor of High Times—takes a mostly chronological approach to Watts’s and the Stones' stories, going through each phase with perceptive insights, contextualizing Charlie and the band in the grand scheme of music history, detailing the Stones’ personnel changes, off-stage antics, drug and alcohol problems, interpersonal conflicts, etc.
Edison's writing style is flamboyant, funny, and frisky, and his observations are bolstered by his own experiences as a drummer in rock bands such as GG Allin & the Holy Men, Sharky's Machine, Raunch Hands, and Edison Rocket Train. His knowledge of early rock, blues, jazz, and country also makes him well-suited to analyze the Stones' dalliances with other genres. Edison's perspicacity about the timekeepers of rock and roll's pioneers is illuminating, giving shine to musicians commonly overlooked in music histories. His assessments of the jazz drummers who made the biggest impact on Watts’s style are also revelatory.
The key to Watts's success, Edison asserts, is "he never overplayed his hand, never chased flashy fills, never competed with the rest of the band for air space, never played anything just because he could. He found nuance in a music that often had little room for it, and along with his greatest conspirator, Keith Richards, he gave the Stones their swaggering beat." He deems Charlie one of the great minimalists of music, the epitome of the less-is-more ethos. In the process of praising Watts's precision and restraint, Edison mercilessly slams excessive showboater Buddy Rich and casts a skeptical eye/ear toward Rush's Neil Peart and his humongous-kit-loving ilk. Also, Jeff Beck, Doors, and Aerosmith fans may burst a blood vessel upon reading Sympathy for the Drummer. Nevertheless, even if you respect those musicians, these putdowns are supremely entertaining.
In another passage, Edison further nails down why Watts rules: "Charlie's style was seemingly uncomplicated, but it was impossible to duplicate. He was an enlightened savant, unchained. His unique, old-world sense of syncopation and newfound futurist frenzy pushed the Rolling Stones over the top into an unparalleled stratum of audacity, courage, and revolt..."
Edison has something interesting to say about each Rolling Stones album, even if the releases themselves aren't interesting. Once we're past 1981's Tattoo You, his enthusiasm really wanes, and you can't blame him. However, it's nice to see someone give the oft-scorned Black and Blue the props it deserves.
Some of the tangents in Sympathy for the Drummer merit attention, too. While examining Some Girls' "Miss You," Edison spends several pages discussing how rock compared to disco during the '70s. Ultimately, Edison concludes, the Stones didn't totally understand punk and disco, but Some Girls proved they were uniquely equipped to play both very well (and country, too). Another rewarding side trip is the multi-page footnote ruminating on which song deserves the honor of being the first example of punk rock. Our scribe nominates "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
Sympathy for the Drummer contains so many memorable phrases and pithy passages, one is tempted to quote extensively. I'll present a handful to you, to give you an idea of Edison’s flavorful prose.
“[Y]ou wouldn't want to make love with someone who fucks like a metronome, so why would you want to play rock'n'roll like one?”
"In a fundamental way, blues is like pizza—it has few ingredients, and yet it is astonishing how many people fuck it up."
"Those deemed not talented enough to play the guitar were brought to the drum department. Which is one of the sad truths drummers have had to endure: we are treated like the chiropractors of the music industry."
"Putting Kenney Jones in for [Keith] Moon is like trading Jackson Pollock for a house painter."
"The true virtuoso is a paragon of humility... The show-off feeds on his own talent. They self-fellate because they can. The true virtuoso has no need."
[Watts's drumming on “Angie” is] "the musical equivalent of killing someone with a smile on your face."
[Mick Jagger’s 1987 solo album Primitive Cool] "is unsurprisingly neither."
I asked Edison if he’d tried to get an interview with Mr. Watts, and he said, “Charlie has a no-interview policy and the Stones don’t cooperate with anything unauthorized. I made a perfunctory stab, but it wasn’t gonna happen. Honestly, it is better this way; I don’t owe them anything or feel any obligation to pull punches.”
That checks out. And although Edison doesn’t shy away from noting the Stones’ aesthetic and personality flaws, and Watts's struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, the band and their drummer still emerge at the end of Sympathy for the Drummer’s 249 pages looking more like Mick Jagger’s bank account than Keith Richards's visage.
9/10, would read again.