Friday, April 1, 2011

Mark Knopfler: The Words Matter

Pop music was once something we heard on records (33 or 45), on radio, and at weekend dances. Today, it’s the air we breathe. Thanks to the iPhone, iPod, and other devices, we spend hours a day with pop music plugged into our heads. The brand name iTunes is becoming a generic term, like Kleenex. These are the tunes of my I.

You can debate the virtues and vices of musical genres: classical, folk, metal, hip-hop. But I am a writer, not a musician, so words, not musical styles, matter most to me. When I look back over the half-century of pop music in my experience, beginning with The Kingston Trio in 1960, I realize with a shock of recognition that the musicians I have admired over long periods of time were writers, poets, songsmiths.

Like many in the 1960s, I fell for Bob Dylan, but I never fell for his writing, and his appeal didn’t last. I tuned Dylan out after “Lay Lady Lay” (1969). I didn’t understand his lyrics—long streams of doggerel that meant what? What was happening (positively) on 4th Street? When Dylan had visions of Johanna, what were they telling him? His hit songs (like “Like a Rolling Stone”) had catchy hooks and mesmeric repetition, but only the best told stories that I got, grabbed, grokked. (There’s a nice ’60s term for you, grok, from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.)

And so Mark Knopfler. I remember exactly where I was (a Papa Ginos pizza joint) and which direction I was facing (slightly angled toward the jukebox and beyond that the street in a strip mall in Rockport, Massachusetts) when I first consciously heard Knopfler’s first hit song, “Sultans of Swing.” Problem was, I couldn’t make out most of the words because of Knopfler’s understated baritone. For the five of my fourteen readers who have never heard the song by Dire Straits, Knopfler’s group before he went on his own in the 1980s, here it is. Sorry about the hairstyles: the 1960s were over (it was 1978) and the world had caught Saturday Night Fever.

I was not plugged into popular culture in the late 1970s or the early 1980s (long story, think lay monastery) so I didn’t wake up to Mark Knopfler again until the film “Local Hero” was released in 1983. Knopfler wrote the soundtrack for the film, and I listened to the theme song over and over and over. Here it is. You’ll notice that there are no words, only the guitar that cries and sings, for which Knopfler is best known.

But Mark Knopfler has endured and improved with age, unlike Dylan, and while the guitar is still featured, time has burnished the Englishman as a poet. The strength of Knopfler’s best lyrics is their specificity. They are almost all stories of men (not women, usually) living on the fringes of society—men down if not completely out, still alive with desire. “Sultans,” that first hit, is about the members of a club band on the make.

You check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords.
Mind, he’s strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing, 
And an old guitar is all he can afford
When he gets up under the lights to play his thing.

George, Harry, and the lead man who “steps right up to the microphone” are still young and hopeful. There’s no sniff of tragedy in these lyrics, although it is “raining in the park” and “you don’t see too many faces” in the third-rate club the Sultans are playing. But by the time the 1990s and 2000s rolled around, Knopfler was older and so were his leading men. Wow, so was I. I don’t know whether his songwriting reflected his life experience (multiple marriages, the showbiz odyssey), but the older Knopfler is chastened, reflective, yet still unembittered. There’s always hope here.

Two of my favorites from the past decade are typical of the broader list: “Behind with the Rent” and “True Love Will Never Fade.”

Here are the lyrics—and the link—for “Behind with the Rent.”

This didn’t used to be me, old boy
This isn’t what I’d want
pulling old night fighters
in a restaurant
There’s smoke and flames behind me
where the self-respect all went
and I’m behind, behind
with the rent

I’ve been stitched up like a kipper, old son
but I won’t be again
Hell hath no fury
Oh, I’m like a lot of men
Now I’m stalking this old Doris
with lascivious intent
and I’m behind, behind
with the rent

Just a little duck and dive
and a bit of wheel and deal
She’ll remind me I’m alive
She’ll remind me I still feel
Just a little shelling out
for a bit of you-know-what
I know this is all about
something that I never got

Well this crumpet’s past it’s sell-by-date
but they all would qualify
They’re going to be lonely
and be happy to comply
She knows that I’m a chancer
coming on like a gent
but I’m behind, behind
with the rent
Yes, I’m behind, behind
with the rent 

The old “chancer” here has lost his self-respect, working in tired joints and picking up tired women (“stalking this old Doris”). Just before the guitar break are the words that break my heart: “I know this is all about something that I never got.” He knows the women he picks up aren’t fooled for a minute, they’re just as lonely—and needy—as he is.

A song you might turn off before you give it a chance is the deceptively titled “True Love Will Never Fade.” You’ll think, has there ever been a grosser cliché in the history of pop song titles? Until you listen. The song is about a tattoo artist working along the waterfront and one woman—long departed—on whose shoulder he once inked a “sign” (maybe her sign of the Zodiac).  For this lonely man, who usually works “the rowdies and day-trippers,” that remembered encounter with a nameless woman is a sign of something else. In the final verse, the it has become “a picture that we made,” a picture to remind us that—

True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade

I wonder if there’s no forever,

no walking hand in hand
down a yellow brick road
to never-never land
These days I get to where I’m going,
make it there eventually,
follow the trail of breadcrumbs
to where I’m meant to be
to where I’m meant to be

I don’t know what brought you to me
that was up to you
There’s so many come to see me
who want their own tattoo
I fixed a needle in the holder
laid my hand upon your spine
and there upon your shoulder
I drew the picture as your sign

When I think about us
I see the picture that we made
the picture to remind us
true love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade

I work the rowdies and day-trippers
Now and then I think of you
Any which way we’re all shuffling
following the queue
They’d like to move my operation
They’d like to get me off the pier
And I dream I’m on a steamer
pulling out of here

When I think about us
I see the picture that we made
the picture to remind us
true love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade
True love will never fade 

Here’s a concert version from 2007. You’ll notice: no guitar until the middle of the second verse, just the words, just the words, just the words.

When I know that words like these are the ones plugged into my head on my early morning walks, I worry just a tiny bit less about the fate of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Webster,
    Thanks for this musical flash from my past. I was in high school when Sultan came out. It was often the song playing on my clock radio when the alarm went off. Loved Knopfler then and still enjoy his music all these years later.
    I also agree it is greatly about the words, although great guitar like Knopfler's doesn't hurt.
    God bless!


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