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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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Hanging on the wall at British Grove is an oil painting titled “Four Lambrettas and Three Portraits of Janet Churchman,” by John Bratby, the reproduction of which graces the cover of Knopfler’s most recent CD, Kill to Get Crimson. Bratby was the founder of the so-called “kitchen sink” school of British painting, with canvases depicting such unlikely subjects as sinks, spoons and toilets. One of the finest tracks on Knopfler’s latest record, ”˜Let It All Go,’ tells the story of a less fortunate painter in the 1930s, who, unable to find a niche in the art market, enlists in the armed forces. It is a song that shares with dozens of other Knopfler compositions a Chekhovian curiosity about and empathy for the lives of disparate characters ”“ the wife of a scaffolder, Irish labourers in Germany, a wounded soldier in Napoleon’s army, mercenaries, a dreamy, exquisitely existential surfer.

Knopfler’s intellectual range is wide, and his reading is broad and idiosyncratic. In the course of our conversation, he touches on Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, Bernard MacLaverty and many other writers, both classic and contemporary, famous and relatively obscure.

And sometimes he will read something that is just plain odd, such as Grinding It Out, by McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, a how-I-did-it that eventually made its way through the pathways of Knopfler’s imagination to re-emerge as an astonishing rocker, a song that compassionately captures Kroc’s entrepreneurial spirit even as it serves up a devastating critique of megacapitalism, a kind of exquisite poetic two-step that puts ”˜Boom, Like That’ in the same league as the work Bertolt Brecht did in Threepenny Opera.

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The song begins, “I’m going to San Bernardino/Ring-a-ding-ding,” nine words that perfectly fix Kroc’s tale in the American Fifties of Frank Sinatra. Kroc is flogging milkshake mixers, and he sells to a couple of guys with a successful hamburger stand, which they in fact call McDonald’s, and Kroc is overtaken with a blinding vision of what could be:

The folks line up all down the street

And I’m seeing this girl devour her meat

And then I get it, wham clear as day

My pulse begins to hammer and I hear a voice say:

These boys have got it down

Oughta be one of these in every town

These boys have got this touch

It’s clean as a whistle and it don’t cost much

Wham, bam, you don’t wait long

Shake, fries, patty, you’re gone.

In song after song ”“ ”˜Done With Bonaparte,’ ”˜A Place Where We Used to Live,’ ”˜This Is Us’ ”“ Knopfler imagines his way into the lives of characters with precision and empathy that overshadows the work of many novelists. When I say as much to Knopfler, he shrugs. “I feel sorry for anyone who lacks compassion,” he says. “Without compassion you can’t make art. I grew up that way, it was how I was raised. My father was a Hungarian Jew, and he did three jail sentences on political charges ”“ he was a Communist ”“ before coming here before the Second World War. He left the Communist Party, but he was always on the left, we all were. For instance, this is my paper,” he says, holding up The Guardian, and looking dubiously at my copy of The Times of London.

When we have finished with our lunch, the shadows have deepened on the second floor of British Grove, and Knopfler surprises me by clearing the dishes himself and taking them into the studio’s kitchen. “Mark is as far from the rock & roll stereotype as you can get,” his wife tells me. “Manners are important to him and rudeness appals him. There are no tantrums and no tiaras.

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“We both work at home,” Aldridge says, “and we meet up in the kitchen at lunchtime and at supper time. He’s very interested in writing, the process, inspiration, the ideas. He will talk about writing and writers all night, but when it comes to his own writing, he just gets on with it quietly. He won’t bend your ear talking about what he’s working on, demand reassurance, or even mention it.”

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