True musical virtuosos are minimalists who put roll before rock
No need to rock; the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts in 1966. Photo by Jeff Hochberg/Getty Images
by Mike Edison
It was Muddy Waters who let me know that I had been lied to. It was about a week after I had gone to see Jeff Beck at the old Palladium on 14th Street in Manhattan, a field trip I now blame on the fog of war that is high school and marijuana, and the received wisdom that Beck was some sort of god, part of a holy trinity that included Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, all inmates in the Yardbirds – who, despite their own debatable virtues, proved to be some sort of incubator for guitar talent, at least if you accept that everyone who had the gig went on to bigger and (in the case of Page, anyway) better things.
Beck fulfilled his own promise – the whole act was architected to prove his primacy as a guitar hero. He articulated complete mastery over his Stratocaster, painting the room with a full spectrum of colours, squeezing out sonic hot flashes of varying intensity, alternately squealing like wounded animals and orgasmic women, and all from what has to be considered a primitive musical instrument, because, after all, what is an electric guitar but a piece of wood with a few magnets drilled into it?
But primitivism is something Beck would never understand, and as such, unlike his colleague Jimmy Page, neither would he ever understand that, while rock was about the guitar, roll was about the drums.
I remember a thing called ‘Space Boogie’ that promised to combine two of my very favourite motifs and delivered on neither, boogie being something you can dance to, and space being a place I’d like to go. Instead, we got clobbered with a double-bass-drum workout that left little doubt about the drummer’s cardiovascular superiority but not much else, and a guitar played through some sort of synthesiser, a whole lot of flash on guitar designed to dazzle, but no real song. It sounded vaguely similar to rock’n’roll, but on closer inspection, failed the test.
Which brings us to Muddy Waters. A few months after the Jeff Beck show, I trundled up to the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side to see Muddy Waters. Like a lot of folks, I had found the blues through the Rolling Stones. They loved Muddy Waters, therefore I should, too. Transitive theory and all that.
It should be noted that Muddy and Beck play very similar instruments – slabs of wood with magnets and wires – the crude building blocks of the electric guitar have never really changed. But Muddy pulled the greatest sound I had ever heard in my life out of his Telecaster – a looooong, lonely wail, the sound of space and time collapsing on top of each other, cries from the sweltering Mississippi Delta, both plaintive and pleading. ‘They call me Muddy Waters,’ he sang. ‘I’m just as restless man as the deep blue sea.’ His hands were enormous, he could barely get his finger through the copper tube he used as a bottleneck, and he filled the hall with perfect, primitive atavism, a single twisted note that spoke of lust and frustration and conquest, an uncompromised mating ritual – anticipation and then… finally… penetration! All Jeff Beck had offered was ejaculation. Unlike Muddy, Beck was determined to reach climax with every single note – it was all rock, and no roll. And that’s when I had my epiphany. Much like the Apostle Paul, who once wrote in a letter to someone called the Corinthians, ‘When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.’
I was a witness. I saw and heard what moved Chuck Berry to worship this man. I felt what the Rolling Stones felt, what moved them to start playing the blues, and why they were never driven to play a zillion notes, just the right ones. Miles Davis had that going for him, too.
That Muddy Waters and Miles Davis were both virtuosos is inarguable, but some dimwitted, self-described ‘musician’ is bound to argue that the V-word signals a technical prowess of which neither was possessed: Muddy was an unschooled primitive with limited technique, and Miles, for all his musical education and natural gifts, never played with blinding speed, and his range, like Frank Sinatra’s or Billie Holiday’s, was limited – no stratospheric high notes for those cats – but damn, they had an awful knack for hitting the right note, every fucking time. When it came to cutting through the bullshit and expressing pure human emotion, they were freakishly evolved.
Nowhere in the definition of ‘virtuoso’ is it written that you have to play a lot of notes. Undeniably, Jeff Beck is a virtuoso guitar player, but he takes all the virtue out of virtuoso when he puts himself before the song. Just because you can make your guitar sound like a video arcade doesn’t mean you should.
Charlie Watts played his modest kit with finesse and humility, and liberated the groove
Perhaps you don’t think the Ramones are virtuosos, but go ahead and try to play in that style convincingly. I’ve seen ace guitar shredders and top-flight drummers with years of schooling and incredible technical skill give it a go, and the results are laughable. Ditto a million punk-rock bands, kids in torn jeans, black leather jackets and Converse high-tops playing punk rock in the Ramones style, true apostles of the art form: some of them are quite good, but only one in a million is good enough. Also, it takes four people who are vibrating at the exact same frequency. Good luck with that.
You don’t think minimalists can be virtuosos? Tell it to Ernest Hemingway. Tell it to Thelonious Monk. Tell it to the Japanese calligrapher who spends his entire life perfecting a straight line, or drawing a flawless circle.
Rush bulletin boards – that is, online discussions of the band Rush – are lousy with shithead comments, like: ‘Can someone PLEASE explain Charlie Watts to me? He doesn’t do anything I couldn’t have done after one week of drum lessons.’ Or ‘Who are the luckiest drummers in the world?’ And the de facto answer is always: ‘Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, talentless guys who made fortunes playing with real musicians.’
When I was coming up, Charlie Watts didn’t get much respect, not among other drummers. Neither did Ringo Starr – mostly they got a begrudging acknowledgment just for being in the Stones and the Beatles, but very few drummers were singing the praises of these guys. In the 1970s, everyone was gaga for prog-rock guys with gazoonga drum sets who could work 10-minute drum solos.
Yet with his easy swing and often loping, uneven fills, Watts found out how to get inside the song, like a great singer – and yet his relentless pounding on the most mean-spirited songs of the era delivered an authenticity to a band that, on their best nights, were an existential threat to the status quo. He found space to breathe in a music that had little room for it. He stretched time and, while others blew up their drums looking for a cheap pop from audiences increasingly becoming slaves to the spectacle, Watts played his modest kit with finesse and humility, and liberated the groove. He gave purchase to the singer and the guitar man. People have broken out of prison with less moxie.
It was impossible to cop his style – he was far too much of an autodidact. With Charlie, it was never about chops, it was about style. The Rolling Stones were smart enough to hire a jazz cat who would always put the roll in front of the rock, a guy who didn’t measure his worth by how many notes he played, whose ego was tempered by the primacy of his job: to put the song over, to make the band sound great. While others battled their drums, Charlie finessed his. He knew when to swing, he knew when to stomp. Charlie didn’t play drum solos, not because he wasn’t good enough to play them, but because he was good enough not to have to.
The suburban male concept of virtuosity has conflated technical prowess with musical value. It worships complex recipes, not pure ingredients. It’s a toxic system that rewards show-offs and neuters authentic folk musicians – meaning masters of their indigenous art, not the navel-gazing, guitar-strumming mould that seems to grow in every nook and cranny of the world’s high schools and colleges. I’m talking about folks like Muddy Waters or Bob Marley, Joseph Spence or Ali Farka Touré. Virtuosity and simplicity need not be at odds.
Virtuosity is just a word. Say it enough and it doesn’t mean anything. You can call a pie a cake, but it doesn’t make it so, and anyone who thinks that Jeff Beck or Buddy Rich offers more musical potency than Muddy Waters or Charlie Watts, solely based on the illusion of their instrumental prowess, is perversely wrong. It goes without question that the Rollings Stones – The Greatest Rock’n’roll Band in the World – would need The Greatest Rock’n’roll Drummer. But if you are asking who is ‘the best’ drummer, you are asking the wrong question.
Excerpt from Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters (2019) by Mike Edison. © Mike Edison 2019.