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Mark Knopfler’s Second Act

Since he walked away from the Dire Straits in 1995, the guitarist has found a new, quieter career as one of rock’s greatest songwriters

Scott Spencer Sep 09, 2008
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Knopfler is in London for just a few days, taking a breather from his European tour, which stretches from Dublin to Moscow, and then on through the US this summer.

“There’s a diner nearby,” he tells me. “A real greasy spoon. As soon as I get back from the road, I like to go there and have eggs and some toast. It serves to break the spell of the treatment you get when you’re touring.” Beyond the grounding rituals of a workingman’s breakfast, Knopfler has a wife and two sets of children to spend time with, sleep to catch up on, the thousand details of life hovering near, but he has a pro’s demeanour, and today he is relaxed and unrushed.

Closing in on 60, Knopfler has a Roman senator’s profile, with a cap of silver hair pushed back on his head. He shows no lingering effects from his motorcycle wipeout on a busy London street five years ago, in which he broke several ribs and his collarbone. “He had to be painfully cut out of his leathers,” his wife, the British television and film-actress-turned-novelist Kitty Aldridge, tells me. “No one knew at that stage whether he would play the guitar in the same way ”“ or at all ”“ again. But there were no complaints, no depressions, no feeling sorry for himself. He worked at the physiotherapy until eventually he managed to get a guitar under his arm again.”

If rock & roll survival is in part a matter of conditioning, Knopfler seems to have found the key to longevity: He looks coiled, radiating power and self-possession.

The first time I saw Knopfler, he was fronting his band Dire Straits, and they were playing the old Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, riding high on their first hit, ”˜The Sultans of Swing.’ The place was packed with people who were for the most part seeing Knopfler, his brother David and the other Straits members for the first time. Knopfler prowled the small stage, his red-and-white Stratocaster sounding somehow like no other guitar before it.

“I’m left-handed, but I play a right-handed guitar,” Knopfler explains, describing his unique guitar sound. “That means I am fretting with my left hand, my stronger hand, so I can get a lot more vibrato on it. The second thing is, I don’t use a pick. I use my fingers ”“ not my fingernails, but the fleshy part of the finger right below the nail.”

From the jump, it was a rock & roll fantasy. Four working-class guys who came charging into New York, a perfect storm of talent and timing. It was 1979, disco was on the fade (though Donna Summer and Chic still ruled the charts) and punk was on the come, but here was a band that sounded classic, eternal, with the simplicity of an old Sun record and the integrity of jazz, but with the fizz and fun of a senior prom. They were already in their late 20s, long in the tooth for rockers, and in all likelihood that delayed gratification was a lifesaver for Knopfler and the rest of the band. They were a little too old to be subsumed by the tidal wave of adulation, and they had spent enough time learning their craft and scraping together money for the rent (Dire Straits was in itself a reference to their collective poverty) to learn a bit of humility.

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The band eventually sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Their 1978 debut made the Top 10 list of every country in Europe, their 1985 song ”˜Brothers in Arms’ was the first CD single, and when the MTV era heated up, they were on the leading edge of it ”“ not only did their ”˜Money for Nothing’ catch the mania of the new music-video craze, but it was the first video shown on MTV in England.

By the early 1980s, however, Mark’s brother David had left the group. In his view, they were always meant to be a cult band. The younger Knopfler, who has gone on to record several solo albums, has said, “I left for the same reasons everyone leaves jobs that are no longer fulfilling their hopes and aspirations. I didn’t see myself spending the rest of my life being a strummer for someone else’s dreams.” Mark is philosophical about the split. “After a short time it became clear to me that David was in the wrong job, going at it as hard as we were. It was a hell of a pace, recording and touring hundreds of gigs. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, although I was determined to survive it. Everyone has got to really want to be there, and the tough days haven’t got to put you off.”

But other than that, the band’s life was relatively free of turmoil ”“ Knopfler continues to tour and record with former Straits musicians Guy Fletcher and John Illsley. And the audiences just got bigger and bigger. In one remarkable year, they played more than 250 concerts. Gold records piled up, and the band won two Grammys. And then, one day in 1995, Mark Knopfler pulled the plug on the entire enterprise and that was that. “I never expected it to get that big,” Knopfler tells me. “I don’t really care about making more money at this point. What am I going to do with it? Buy a boat? I don’t really want a boat. And I’ve got a lot of guitars.”

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Knopfler has always brought the borderline-geeky enthusiasm of a hard-core music fan to his work. In grade school he was mad for the Kinks and got himself into trouble for scrawling “Le Kinks” on his notebooks and desks. As a teenager, he was one of those guys who drank hundreds of cups of coffee, smoked constantly and listened obsessively to Bob Dylan.

“My father bought me a guitar when I was a kid, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by asking for an amplifier. That’s why I played in folk joints, and that turned out to be good for me. I got exposed to a lot of other types of music. The big jigsaw puzzle of music started to take shape. You follow the songs, one song leads to another, and then another. Later on, I learned Bob had been in the same boat I was when he was a kid ”“ with a cheap guitar, no money for an amp, wanting to play with a rock band, but having to play in folk joints.

“There should be a statue of Dylan on each coast of America,” he says. “I’ve been in love with the songs ever since hearing his very first record. I’d go round to friends’ houses making them play Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde over and over again.”

As it happened, after Dire Straits’ first hits in the US, one of Knopfler’s early supporters, the legendary producer Jerry Wexler, invited Knopfler to play on Dylan’s 1979 record Slow Train Coming. “I was staying in LA and driving over to Santa Monica every day to run down songs with Bob at his place,” Knopfler says. “There was always just the pair of us. He’d play piano, and I’d play one of his Fenders. For a guy from the north of England with one record out, it felt pretty special.” A few years later, Knopfler was brought on to produce Infidels, one of Dylan’s most pungent and well-regarded records. “What a producer does depends on the artist,” says Knopfler. “Mostly with Bob you just pick up your guitar and play the song.

“At that time,” Knopfler goes on, “I was living half the time in New York and half in London. I think Bob quite liked walking the streets of Greenwich Village again. He used to come round to our house on Bank Street armed against the cold in a fur hat, long blue cashmere coat and biker boots. I’d make a pot of coffee and we’d play pool.”

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