Here is Charlie. He’s propped up against a gilt headboard with a small canvas resting against his knees, pencils balanced delicately on his thin abdomen, rising and falling with his calm breathing. Outside it’s Sydney, but who cares? It could be anywhere, here in this hotel room. And that’s the joke, the absurdist point he wishes to make by sketching each hotel room where he stays on tour with the Stones. He’s not painting the cities, the landmarks, the broad avenues, heraldic statures, ports or pubs or suburbs of any city anywhere, no, this, the inside of the rooms is what he paints. Because they are his experience—what it’s like to be in the Rolling Stones.
Here are two drunks in a bar in the Earl’s Court Road. It’s early February, 1967, and these two Londoners, Colin and Ralph, have been listening to Between the Buttons since its release a couple of weeks earlier, on January 20th.
“It’s the SAME PROGRESSION, mate! I tell you, why can’t you hear it?” This is squat and stalwart Colin, who has red hair and full lips with a flaming beard that he lifts and lowers when he’s talking, as if to fan himself, or to add emphasis to his words. Tonight, the beard is up and down as Colin again sets forth his theory about Between the Buttons wherein the album mimics the subject matter and progression of Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys, released the previous year.
Ralph says, “I don’t think Mick Jagger gives a fuck for Brian Wilson, you know? I don’t think Charlie Watts would give him the time. Wilson is a fey bastard. The Stones, man, they’re straight up fucking, is what they are, not all this airy fairy wouldn’t it be nice bollocks.”
Next door in Mick’s room or on the other side of the hall in Keith’s, down the way where bloody brilliant Brian Jones lays his head, there you might find the Rolling Stones rather as you expect to find them, with the groupies and the alcohol and the drugs. But here in Charlie Watts’s room, it’s quiet but for a Charlie Parker LP playing low and the sound of Charlie’s healthy breathing as he takes in and out the stale air. In with the stale air, out with Charlie, in with the not me, out with the me, in with God, out with the Ego, breathing, like drumming, an exercise in working both sides of a binary, the precious polarity that it all boils down to, that jolly bilateral symmetry making a drum set the reflection of a human mind and its capacity to alter the airwaves around it. Charlie’s breathing and painting the hotel room. He sketches mattresses, shiny silk bedclothes. He works on showing light shimmering on silk, he works on depth of field as he tries to capture his toothbrush on the counter through the open bathroom door, but always it is too big, it looks like something much closer than it’s meant to look. Drawing is hard. Jazz is hard. Rock is easy, but, and who gets it, rock makes money, people love it. People will love the cartoon he’s dashed off for the back of Between the Buttons, people will love his rhymey doggerel and try to parse its meaning.
“But listen,” Colin says. He knows he’s right and so he persists, buying another Newcastle for Ralph just so he’ll listen. “Blimey if both of them ain’t about the same bloody thing. A relationship, like a man’s first one, birth to where he loses her and don’t know why.”
Ralph leans against the bar and looks into his glass. It is a patient look. “Most of rock and roll’s about the same thing, though, right? They’re not singing about a cure for cancer or economic theory, now are they?”
When Colin gets drunk his skin flushes up his breastbone until his whole head and neck are crimson. That’s happening now. He twirls a coaster and makes his point. “Song One on Pet Sounds? ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’ Song one on Between the Buttons? ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together.’ Last songs? Pet Sounds: ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.’ Between the Buttons? ‘Something Happened to Me Yesterday.’ Both of them sort of dealing with it, man. The sadness.”
So Charlie plays rock and devotes his down time to grinding away at something hard, something that demands all of his attention. That’s when you feel your ego leave you, when you lose track of time or having any sense of a body—when you’re absorbed in learning something new and hard. Each hotel room is enough different to present a challenge while enough the same to let him hone his skills. He’s getting good at the deep folds of the thick, light-defeating drapes that cover the windows and the way the air conditioning lifts the sheer curtains underneath. Just enough. Not a billow, but a lift.
“Ah, ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’ is about Mick discovering he’s a blood pouf, like the rest of the world couldn’t have told him just by looking. It’s about a homosexual experience, if you like. It ain’t about no girl. Now, ‘Miss Amanda Jones’—that’s the one for me.”
“But the middle songs, too—” and Colin is ready to launch into it, but Ralph looks at him and laughs as “Ruby Tuesday” starts up on the jukebox and Colin just shuts the fuck up.
This is 1966, it’s a hot summer, it’s early days, and Charlie still imagines he’ll spend his middle years playing for a jazz trio in the East End somewhere, this rock thing, that Rolling Stones phase a dream of his early youth. If he knew how many hotel rooms there would be, would he even have started? Or would he have painted instead of sketched—fully rendered Technicolor dreams of hotel rooms, each one a night in a life.