Mark Knopfler’s American Music
Mark Knopfler loves America. Its stories, its music, its history. He has written songs about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, Sonny Liston and Elvis Presley, trawler men and strip-club owners. He has a song on his 2004 album, Shangri-La, about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. It has a crazy infectious hook. These are the kind of characters that populate Knopfler’s America. This is, after all, the songwriter who hit it biggest by having Sting yell, “I want my MTV.”
Still, I found it mildly disturbing when I recently heard one of his songs—the 1985 hit “Walk of Life”— in a string of new Burger King commercials. I find it eternally frustrating to hear a song I love being used this way. Probably most everyone does. Chet Atkins’ “Jam Man” selling car insurance. Or, maybe appropriately, Viagra using Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’.” More questionable: their use of Junior Wells’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”
As a summer promotion, the burger chain has unveiled a commercial for the “Memphis BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich” (their own capitalization, quotes my own). The spot has a normal fast-food premise: A group of vaguely multicultural eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-old people enjoying a completely normal recreational activity—in this case, a beach bonfire—when one of them, completely out of the blue, suggests they head over to Burger King. In this case, a brunette chirps, “Guys! Let’s have a barbecue today!” So we are to believe they abandon the sand and sea in order to consume what looks like a slightly reimagined McRib sandwich, topped with two slices of onion so bright they seem to be sliced from a fluorescent bulb. Taste of the South, indeed.
It’s sixteen seconds long, and by anyone but my own standards, forgettable and inoffensive. Except for that riff. What does an eighties rock band from Newcastle, England, have to do with Memphis barbecue, or even this approximation of it? Little about the song seems to evoke the South. The propelling synth line does give the song a slight Cajun flavor. Still, a far cry from Memphis, the cradle of blues, country, and rock & roll.
Mark Knopfler was born in Glasgow and raised in the Northumberland region of northern England. Dire Straits’ self-titled first record is packed with allusions to the Thames, the tunnels, and trains of London where he lived while making the record.
The eighties were a strange time for guitar players, a sonic landscape of chorus pedals, digital processing, and histrionic solos. Knopfler and Dire Straits emerged from the London punk scene in a category of their own—too virtuosic for punk, too cerebral for modern rock, too rootsy for New Wave. That didn’t stop them from becoming megastars, selling a ton of albums by the mid-eighties, including thirty million copies of Brothers In Arms, the album where “Walk of Life” originally appears. By that time, Mark had a signature look: Fiesta-red Fender Strat, tank top, and sweatbands on his wrists and head, above his thinning curls and toothy smile.
His speed immediately set him apart, from the famous closing solo from “Sultans of Swing,” to the finger-tangling difficulty of a riff like the one that opens his 2000 album, Sailing to Philadelphia:
He has never used a pick. He uses only his fingers, in a form of clawhammer that is totally unique to him. He can effortlessly play intense solos and fingerpicked parts equally influenced by blues, country, and skiffle. Though his real signature are guitar lines that feel liquid, naturally seeping between choruses and verses, seeming to fill every available space with a distinctly rich and organic vibrato.
During the early Dire Straits years, he kept his Strat pickup selector between second and third positions, activating only the bridge and middle pickups. It’s usually referred to as “quack” tone in player circles. It’s a thin tone, jewel-bright and chimey. I’ve found that few people have been able to tap into any emotional depth using it. Yet, consider the solo that closes out “Tunnel of Love,” from 1982’s Making Movies. It’s a masterpiece, a minute and half long ascent that continually lands on the exact right notes, creating an outro that caps the climax of the entire song.
But in the late eighties, he seemed to shy away from the fame, from the stadiums and radio-ready pop. He drifted away from Dire Straits with little fanfare, and instead began to craft folkier, blusier solo albums. He ditched the headbands and abandoned the red Fender for a heavier ax—the maple and mahogany heft of a Gibson Les Paul. But the tone is still distinctly his. It’s all in his fingers, this soft attack of skin on string. The graceful bend and swell of his vibrato. Wholly modest, he once described his sound, only when pushed in an interview to do so: “It seems to make no difference whether I’m playing vibrato on my left hand with a whammy bar on my right, or a bottleneck—I can get a sound that resonates. That’s the closest to an explanation I come. It’s something to do with touch and vibrato. And what that is, I’m not sure.”
The influence of the American South and its music has been becoming more obvious with each of the six solo albums he has put out, plus the one he recorded with Emmy Lou Harris. On his 2002 album, The Ragpicker’s Dream, you can find songs called “Fare Thee Well Northumberland” and “Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville” coexisting on the same album. The guitar work is captivating—like the fingerpicking in “Devil Baby,” or the incredible country-slide work in “Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville.” He has a particular knack for taking the grooves of rural American music and using them as backdrops for uniquely English characters. He listened to the same pantheon of American guitar guys as everyone else—B.B. King, Blind Willie McTell, Lonnie Johnson, Chet Atkins—but somehow ingested the soul and meaning of it, instead of simply parroting the songs and grooves.
“I've got R&B in me,” he once said in a 1979 interview with Guitar Player, “and I got into the Chicago blues and B.B. King when I was 16. I think I could call Lonnie Johnson an influence, in some ways…but I never sat down with a record player and tried to play things note-for-note. Instead, it was always more of absorbing something of the spirit of the music.”
An example of what that touch and vibrato can do: I have this distinct memory of being in my mother’s kitchen, at sixteen years old, sitting on the floor with my back against the wooden cabinets, weeping. It was after midnight and my mom was in her pajamas, sitting on a stool pulled up to the kitchen counter, leaning on one arm, regarding me with a mixture of concern and slight amusement.
Moments before, I watched Mark play in the concert George Martin put together to raise money for Monserrat, after a volcanic eruption destroyed much of the island in 1997. I had watched it numerous times before. I had recently started to listen to a lot of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler, and noticed he was one of the tracks on the DVD I had hitherto skipped. It’s a classic charity concert, in that everyone tries to strike that appropriate balance between “having a great time” and “respecting the nineteen people who lost their lives in pyroclastic flow.” Mark emerges in a suit with a white satin shirt, straps on his ’59 Les Paul, and plays “Money For Nothing” and “Brothers In Arms” backed up by the London Philharmonic. I believe the latter might be one of the most intensely beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
Things to consider: the soundman at the Royal Albert Hall; George Martin and the London Philharmonic; a ’59 Les Paul. These are all the absolute most ideal versions of the things they intend to be, the Platonic Form of musical circumstances. Combined, they could make an adequate guitarist sound fantastic. Mark Knopfler is more than an adequate guitarist. I can even tell you the exact moment that broke me open. On the last verse he sings, “And it’s written in the starlight / and every light in your palm,” and between each line plays a small, gradually rising lick. That ability to weave his guitar between his lyrics in an understated fashion, no one can do it better. But the moment after the word “palm” leaves his lips, he hits this unison bend that pulls me inside out. He bends the string up for the harmonic, releasing it plunging into the depths of the most powerfully pure moment of distortion I’ve ever heard.
And so I lost it, momentarily. I was crying on the kitchen floor because all I wanted from the universe was to be a successful musician. I wrote often, and even though my mom’s best friend is a writer, I had not yet thought of it as something one could do. In that moment, I was steadfast in that way we can only be at sixteen (yet should remain forever), that if my music career were to flounder, if I couldn’t do this one thing, there was simply nothing else that could satisfy my own expectations of myself.
And yet, in watching that performance, watching the apparently simple, effortless movements of his fingers across the fretboard that I know are neither simple nor effortless, I was struck by how impossible this proposition was. And it wasn’t money or fame that I mourned in that moment, but rather the presumption that if I played enough and wanted it badly enough, the universe was somehow required to respond.
It remains, in my memory, a moment of true awe. Awe in the fullest sense: admiration and reverence, mixed with a heavy dose of fear. Terror of growing up, of getting older and never feeling this way again. It was a similar feeling to the one I’d felt standing at the base of Yosemite Falls a few years earlier—similar, that is, if my lifelong dream had been to be a waterfall. Why would you want to do anything, if you couldn’t do it as well as it can be done?
It’s an oft-repeated fact that Mark was a journalist before Dire Straits made it big. All his work is heavy with a literary sensibility, but delivered in his humble Geordie voice. He was in his thirties before he had a hit, and most likely fairly comfortable in his writing and teaching careers. In that 2007 interview, the interviewer asks Mark if he would ever consider writing—poems, short stories and the like. To which he answers, “I’d be shabby dreadful. We should do what we’re supposed to.”
Yet it’s impossible to deny the literary backbone of his work. On Sailing to Philadelphia, the title comes from Mark’s love of Thomas Pynchon’s mammoth 1997 book, Mason and Dixon. The album is his most ambitious, in terms of storytelling. It attempts to take all of America in its grasp: beginning with the racetracks of Pennsylvania, traveling to the dust of the prairies (accompanied beautifully by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), onward to the deserts of Nevada. He takes a meandering path that stops in the Jim Crow-era South for the sensitively rendered “Baloney Again,” and a busted silver mining town, in “Silvertown Blues,” a track that can’t help but remind me of Springsteen’s best mid-nineties work.
He maintains a writer’s heart—an urge to tell the truest story about people with the most difficult and desperate lives, to preserve human desires whether in their ideal or most weakened states. He understands America’s soul, the desires that pulse in the backbeats of rhythm and blues, country and bluegrass. He loves losers, those scrappiest members of our society, the people on the bottom or abandoned on the margins of our culture. He ingested all those American records so deeply that they emerge naturally from his fingertips and in the words he writes about the people who make this place home. He has grown from a monster guitar player into a refined, nuanced songwriter.
The critical audience seemed to be willing to allow him to wander from his Dire Straits success for about one or two albums before they began lamenting the loss of the “old” Mark Knopfler. As William Ruhlman wrote when reviewing his last release, 2009’s Get Lucky, “…it’s time to stop comparing his two careers and simply accept them as separate entities.” This “new” career has a significant debt owed to the music of the South, and is in many ways vastly more interesting than his eighties work.
What could be wrong with reinventing yourself?
That night in the kitchen, my mom eventually stepped in with advice: “Give yourself ten years. You owe yourself a decent chance at making the music thing work,” she told me. “But if it hasn’t worked out by the time you’re twenty-five, do something else.”
What I heard in that moment, was that I would probably fail. But what I think she meant was: By the time you notice you’ve failed, there will be new things you will care this deeply about; you will burn to be this good at something else. She meant: You don’t yet know the person you’ll become.
I’m twenty-five now, and have, as my mom forewarned, found other outlets for my passions. I long ago packed up the dream of being a professional musician, but simultaneously never left it far behind. I channeled it into my writing, where it seems like a better fit, where it informs everything from my choice of material to the very sentences I create. And there’s little sense of loss or failure. I realize now that there’s no exact moment where you let dreams go, it’s instead a process of amending and revising. Allowing one desire to infiltrate and fuel others.
I’m excited to see that Mark has a new album coming out in September. He’s been on this gambling kick for the past few years—two out of the last three albums have slot machines on the cover, Shangri-La opens with the murder of a man who sweeps into small English towns to sell slot machines to pubs. This new cover is dramatically different, more austere, less stylized: an old van, one tire missing, sits in a woodsy clearing surrounded by old tires. A little dog shuffles away, as a trashcan smokes in the background. On first blush, it seems an unsurprising image of rural America as one could expect to find. Or England. Or anywhere one can find a junkyard filled with cars and dogs and tires. The title, Privateering, is straight from British naval history and an ode to his independent spirit. A reminder, much like his latter-day career, that when considering what we create, to remember our work has to please our own senses as much as any audience we can envision. And with that, come the joys and perils of figuring out exactly what it is that we’re supposed to do.