Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Sultan of swing: an ode to Mark Knopfler
The first time I heard Dire Straits I must have been in second grade. “Walk of Life” came on the radio and the Hammond organ hooked me immediately. Of course, being eight I had no idea the song was brought to life by Mark Knopfler and his crew of British rockers or how to ever find it again, so that little riff was consigned to a dusty corner of my mind even as my eight grade self downloaded “Money for Nothing” and “Sultansof Swing” on Napster.* There it sat waiting to be rediscovered with only the harmonica part from “Fear ofFalling” to keep it company. Then, in high school, I bought Dire Straits’ greatest hits CD. Of course I rediscovered “Walk of Life” as I drove the Carter boys and my brothers home from Best Buy in my mom’s minivan.** But I also realized something else: Mark Knopfler is a flipping genius.
**That’s a forest green van thank you very much.
If you want it in SAT terms, Craig Finn is to The Hold Steady as Mark Knopfler is to Dire Straits. It’s not a Springsteen dynamic where he is the beginning, middle, and end of the band, but Knopfler and Finn were/are singer, songwriter, and soul. The only twist is that Finn mostly uses his guitar as a prop while Knopfler plays and plays extremely well.
Knopfler drove Dire Straits for years and they made some wonderful music.* Like so many artists before him, he continued on with a solo career after the band dissolved, but unlike the rest, he continues to kick ass.
*Beyond the aforementioned songs, I recommend "Telegraph Road" (actually written about the Telegraph in SE Michigan), "Communique", "Romeo and Juliet", and "Two Young Lovers" to the interested reader.
So, in an attempt to make up for downloading those songs back when I was fourteen, here’s a top five list of Knopfler’s solo work. It may not be much for an homage, but let’s just say he’s always welcome at my parties. In no particular order:
I guess this is technically Dire Straits, but I don’t think it’s on any of their albums, so instead it finds itself on my blog. Knopfler threatens to boogie then follows through as we watch a missed connection. A guy and a girl spot each other on the train ride home. They make all the same transfers, sitting closer and closer together until she gets off. Our hero, realizing he’s blown his chance(s) writes her a song. Unlike a lot of what-could-have-been-songs however, this one isn’t melancholy. In fact, it’s pretty upbeat. Sure he blew it but maybe, just maybe, the woman on the Eastbound Train will call. Hey, it’s worth a shot.
An intense, bluesy tribute to the man who came before Ali, the second-to-last king as Knopfler called him. The song itself is spartan, just Mark’s guitar and some drums for rhythm. And the lyrics! To write like that is by itself fantastic. To be able to combine words and music in such a way is astounding. Along with the lyrics, the album liner contained a something Liston said over forty years before the song’s release: “Some day, they're gonna write a blues for fighters. It'll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.”
In terms of mood, you can’t get much further from “Song for Sonny Liston.” That little organ riff reminds me of “Walk of Life” and Mark (here with Sonny Landreth) grooves his way through what I think is a perfect companion to Paul Simon’s “Father and Daughter.”
This man is Truman Capote with a guitar. The way he sets the scene just draws you into a story that is packed with more substance than a lot of movies out there (Heavyweights, for example). There’s a retired army man (Capt. McIntyre? Col. McIntyre) teaching his class of sixth graders how to dance. He stalks through the gym, making sure the form is perfect and the timing is crisp. The Christmas party is coming and the boys – a pimpled gangly lot – are going to have to dance with the girls so they better make sure they don’t embarrass themselves. The party comes but that’s it. How do they do? Does the singer get his girl? We never know – but the narrator, now a boxer, still uses McIntyre’s waltz when he steps into the ring. Also, it reminds me of Heavyweights.
There are plenty of songs rebuking American political leaders. As far as subtlety goes, however, Greenday’s “American Idiot” seems to be par for the course. Well, Mark Knopfler does things a little bit differently. Sometimes you wonder if this touching father-son conversation actually did happen, maybe on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Kennebunkport. If you like Knopfler’s political commentary, be sure to check out this song, too.
So what can we conclude from this list? Not much except: yeah, the boy can play.