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Charlie Watts dead at 80 - remembering the wild years in Villefranche-sur-Mer

The Rolling Stone's drummer is the first of the legendary band to pass away. But he, along with his fellow band members lived a long and fun life. Our German contributor, Rolf Liffers, gives us a taste of the wild rockers' French Riviera life.


Charlie Watts in January 2010. Photo: Poiseon Bild & Text (press photo by a photographer of the consulting company Poiseon AG in St. Gallen, Switzerland)) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charlie_Watts_on_drums_The_ABC_&_D_of_Boogie_Woogie_(2010).jpg), "Charlie Watts on drums The ABC & D of Boogie Woogie (2010)", https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode



Exactly 50 years ago, the Rolling Stones were almost finished. Scarred by their drug-fuelled wild life on the Côte d'Azur, hardly anyone expected them to make a comeback. But they were soon back on top! Now the legendary rock group is once again at a turning point, if not facing the final end. Their drummer Charlie Watts, who had been with them practically from the beginning and was considered the "soul" of the English band, died this week in London at the age of 80. Without their drummer, the group loses its rhythmic foundation.


"There are people you can't imagine dying one day," wrote the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, speaking from the soul of millions of shaken fans. Those who saw him could hardly imagine that he was miming in the rock'n'roll circus. In fact, the Brit had the charisma of an English gentleman, agreed the media. In contrast to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, he was rather inconspicuous, always elegantly and discreetly dressed. But at the beginning of the seventies, when the freaky troupe went wild at Nellcôte Manor in Villefranche-sur-Mer between Nice and Monaco, he too had fallen off the rails and had become addicted to drugs.


Watts, however, fought his alcoholism and tried to pull himself out of the swamp by his own bootstraps. Although in 1971 there would have been room in the lavish rented villa Nellcôte for all the wild men involved in the Stones, in perhaps wise foresight he settled in the department of Vaucluse in Provence.


At that time, the Stones were struggling with blatant tax and drug problems and were constantly in the sights of the police. In their British homeland, the musicians - or rather the then 28-year-old band co-founder Keith Richards ("Angie") - were unwelcome. So they went into exile, settled on the Côte d'Azur, worked (as if) in a frenzy on a new album with the evocative title "Exile on Main St.". With a speedboat, they made the stretch of coast between Menton and Marseille unsafe, speaking of their "Mainstreet Riviera".


Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts (from left) after a show in London in May 2018. Raph_PH (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rolling_Stones_bow_post-show_22_May_2018_in_London_(41437870275).jpg), "Rolling Stones bow post-show 22 May 2018 in London (41437870275)", https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode


They mobilised drug dealers, stalked girls in Saint-Tropez, visited brothels, got involved in fights and were forever in trouble with the law. In the end, they were thrown out of France. In the USA, where they fled for the next tour (and new attempts at detoxification), it ended for the time being when Richard's visa expired. And because they were no longer allowed to enter England or France, the Stones moved to Switzerland. In his biography, Richards describes in detail the adventures of his friends in and around the "glittering palace of Nellcôte at the foot of Cap Ferrat with a beautiful view of the bay of Villefranche", which he rented for many "thousand dollar notes".


The flight to France was preceded by all kinds of trouble. The eternal campaign of the police "against the plague of junkie guitarists" as well as the late realisation that they had been "ripped off" by their manager Allen Klein to such an extent that "in the end he owned all the rights to our entire work" (Richards). And then there was the constant stress with the tax authorities. "At the beginning of the seventies, the top tax rate in England was 83 per cent, for investments and for so-called unearned income even up to 98 per cent", which Richards understood as a "rather blunt challenge" to "leave the country". No chance there of coming down "from our mountain of debt". "So we packed our bags."



The Stones in the South of France


Bassist Bill Wyman did not establish himself at Nellcôte either, but somewhere in the countryside near Grasse. There he became friends with the surrealist painter Marc Chagall - "the weirdest couple in the history of mankind" (Richards). Mick Jagger suddenly found himself living in the Hotel Byblos in Saint-Tropez, where he married his Bianca on 12 May 1971. After marrying his Nicaraguan fiancée, he moved into a house owned by Prince Rainier's uncle and later into the villa of a Madame Tolstoy. Mick's wedding is remembered by Keith in quite terrible terms: armies of "photographers clogged the streets of Saint-Tropez, from the church to the town hall a merciless battle raged man against man".


Keith went into hiding, leaving his "role as assistant best man" to Mick's friend, saxophonist Bobby Keys. The actual best man was Roger Vadim. Bianca's bridesmaid was Nathalie Delon, "a beautiful girl and still wife of film star Alain Delon", with whom Bobby immediately fell madly in love.


This was not without danger. For Nathalie and Alain were at the centre of a scandal in which French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and "the entire criminal underworld between Marseille and Paris were also involved". After a brief affair with Nathalie, Delon's Yugoslav bodyguard had been found shot dead in a Parisian rubbish dump.


But the unsuspecting Bobby was unstoppable: at the wedding party he blew his lungs out for Nathalie. When work on the new album continued at Nellcôte, he was not only on hand himself, but also Nathalie, who lived nearby with Bianca. Bobby and Nathalie were happy, racing up and down the Côte d'Azur on a fat motorbike, occasionally giving each other a little shot of heroin in the backside. Bobby suffered accordingly when Nathalie suddenly broke up with him - as it later turned out, to save him from possible attacks from the drug mafia.



The gate to the former Stones villa "Nellcôte" in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Photo: Gudrun Schwartz (gudrunfromberlin) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gates_of_Nellcôte_1.jpg), "Gates of Nellcôte 1", https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode


For Nellcôte, Keith afforded the six-metre long speedboat Mandrax 2, made entirely of mahogany. "Everyone jumped in, Bobby Keys, me, Mick, whoever felt like it. Sometimes we went to Menton for breakfast, to Monte-Carlo for lunch, for a chat with Onassis' and Niarchos' troupe. "The waterway - the Riviera - was our main street," recalls Richards, who was addicted to drugs at the time. "We let ourselves drift. Off to Antibes. Or to Saint-Tropez to visit broads." In the harbour of Villefranche-sur-Mer, "the favourite playground of the US Navy, we told stoned sailors the best whorehouses, the Cacao Bar and the Brass Ring in exchange for a bag of weed. The hookers rolled in from Nice and Monte-Carlo, plus all the whores Cannes had to offer".


The (night) work on the new album goes like clockwork, even if under partly chaotic technical conditions, because the band uses their own mobile studio truck instead of renting expensive recording studios in Nice or Cannes, as originally planned.


In the following winter, the ground gets too hot for the musicians at Nellcôte, despite the drop in outside temperatures. The narcotics officers are breathing down their necks. Burglars steal most of Keith's guitars. At the same time, the public prosecutor's office in Nice is investigating the members of the "Bedouin camp" on speed. However, a lawyer who worked for Charles de Gaulle and had been bosom buddies with Prime Minister Chaban-Delmas gets them off.


Instead of going to prison for a few years, only a legal agreement was reached. After that, Richards had to stay away from French territory until revoked and continue to pay $2,400 a week in rent for Nellcôte as a kind of bail.


"We felt that we had been drawn to France to set up something special there," Richards said years later. After quite a few unsuccessful rehabs, he's been clean since 1979. "And we succeeded with Exile on Main St.; it's one of the best things we've ever done."


The Stones still have at least one foot in the Côte d'Azur: Mick Jagger's ex Jerry Hall has a house in Le Lavandou, on the beach at Saint-Clair.


- Rolf Liffers

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