Today is the birthday of the one, the only Charlie Watts, drummer for The Rolling Stones. I owe him so much. Without Watts setting the beat for the Stones, I do believe I wouldn’t really know what rock’n’roll is. There was a time, when a kid, that I didn’t really differentiate much in the way of who adds what to the sound of a song I liked. I’m not sure, exactly, when I came to realize that Watts is key to much of what I love about the Stones’ music.
I don’t know that I could isolate musicianship for comment on all instruments. Picking bass players, for instance. Pianists would be workable, I imagine. Mainly when I think of rock, I think of the singer and the guitarist. In the Stones there was always two guitarists, and the fact that one of them is Keith Richards has much to do with the sound and structure of Stones songs, as records. But a major factor in what the band is, is the drumming of Charlie Watts. Ramshackle the band may be, most of the time—especially on my favorite LP of theirs, Exile on Main Street, from which comes today’s song—but the drumming is always wonderfully propulsive, and so well integrated into the attitude of the songs. And the Stones were, early on, a rock band that could always do more than one thing well.
“Let It Loose” is one of the songs that amazes me on Exile. Its vocal is almost too naked, for a rock song, with Jagger going for a kind of gospel rave-up feeling—stealing a few lines from “Man of Constant Sorrow,” with a great delivery. The song benefits from strong back-up vocal support from a mini-chorus, including Clydie King and Shirley Goodman, with Jagger, as he does in some of the album’s best tracks, letting their voices sustain his and provide incentive to go beyond himself.
But what about Charlie? After that subdued opening, with guitars that sound more like keyboards, and Dr. John laying down a tinkling piano sound that gives the song much of its stateliness (“Who’s that woman on your arm / All dressed up to do you harm?”), Watts comes in a bit ahead of “Bit off more than I can chew” to emphasize the shift, and his playing is so crisp, you can hear his wrists, so to speak, even as Mick starts to get worked up with “she delivers right on time” and admits he “can’t resist a corny line.” And he can’t refuse carrying the bedroom blues.
We’re in the midst of a kind of bar scene where one guy spots a girl he’s got to have out with another guy. The kind of situation that will—a line I love in its delivery—“take the shine right off your shoes.” This song is about the kind of “do or die” situation that occurs when you’re vulnerable to someone’s charms, but, worse, desperate to prove yourself and to make something happen. To get the girl without getting got, we might say.
And then Watts kicks those big bass drums on “In the bar you’re getting drunk / I ain’t in love, I ain’t in luck.” That part is, to me, the full kick of this song. That insistence on both at once—I ain’t in love (I can walk away from this), I ain’t in luck (I’m not getting any)—is belied by the vocal here which is so far gone it’s amazing. Jagger, riding Charlie's kick-ass emphasis, sounds truly drunk and willing to put it all out there, the way a guy looking for salvation through sex might just be. Calling to “let it all come down” with a potent mix of Watts’ drums, the girls echoing him, Dr. John adding “let it all come down” and making the piano get a touch Cajun just so we know we’re in the cauldron, and it's mainly the piano and horns and Charlie that are taking this home—as you can tell by how gospelly the girls are getting. Then Jagger draws out, over a pummeling beat that sounds like he’s being buffeted by waves—“I’m just a straiiinger / A face you’ll ne-eh-eh-ver see no more.” Has striking out in a pick-up bar ever sounded like this?
Hear the voice climbing in the background around 4:30 and the way the piano comes in to lead us out around 4:40-4:50, rising like a second chance or a faint hope into the closing mix. And under it all is Charlie performing that roll onto the cymbal, one, two, three, four times, and then the moment of crisis is past, and it ends with what almost sounds like the start of a hymn. The song does what it exhorts us to: lets it loose, lets it all come down, so that we have some idea of the joy of letting go and letting full-throttle emotion carry the day. And, gospel sounds or not, this isn’t testifying to the joys of the Lord, it’s testifying to the power of desire and the soul-wracking straits it can produce.
Keep those tears hid out of sight.
Happy birthday, Mr. Watts!