Mark Knopfler's Dire Straits

If he played by the rules, he could be as big as Jimi Hendrix, but fame isn't what drives this brilliant guitarist

Mark Knopfler in Dire Straits playing a Steinberger guitar, Australia, 1980 Credit: Bob King/Redferns/Getty

Mark Knopfler has played with masters— — Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Steely Dan — —but he still speaks of them with a disciple's diffidence. "I love Bob," he says, for example. "He's different in the sense that he didn't necessarily take to an instrument; he's much more a poet and writer – to him, that's all. Whereas I've just got this thing where I can strum a couple of chords. . . ."

Some strummer: Knopfler may in fact be the most lyrical rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix died and Jeff Beck gave up the game. He is also, as the leader of England's Dire Straits, a serious songwriter. In this regard, he sometimes sounds uncannily like Dylan ("I hear the Seven Deadly Sins and the Terrible Twins came to call on you"), and at other times – when he's talking about how he's "run every red light on memory lane" –— like Bruce Springsteen. But when Knopfler picks up a guitar, he speaks with his true voice —– snarling on the bass strings, soaring up to nail a high, blue note, then fluttering away like a flurry of startled birds over the edges of the music. Although he seems immune to his own magic, he's something of a master himself.

Sounds real good," somebody says, as Phil Everly steps into the compact Eden Studio control room. "That's because he's on it," Everly replies, nodding toward the dimly lit room beyond a glass partition, where a solitary guitarist is fretting out a filigree of artful, sparkling notes. The track he's embellishing is an Everly original strung with skin-shivering vocal harmonies à la the Everly Brothers, of whom Phil was one legendary half. The tune, which will adorn his British comeback album, is titled "Better Than Now," a paean to romantic bliss. "I wrote it about my second wife just before she served me," he cracks.

Engineers and assistants titter appreciatively, and Everly, looking ageless and dapper in designer jeans and a Members Only jacket, chuckles into a glass of red wine. Another long, liquid guitar run fills up the controlroom speakers, and Everly sips and smiles enthusiastically. "That sounds nice," he says, cocking his head. "Boy, that sounds nice too. Damn!" he whoops, choking off further praise. "I'm gonna get hoarse if I don't shut up now."

The track is finally wrapped, and in the next room Mark Knopfler stubs out a cigarette, unshoulders his Stratocaster and ambles out of the studio. Everly clucks admiringly. "There's only two guitar players in the world who can do that," he says. "Him and . . . you know Waddy Wachtel? Yeah. They never seem to play the same thing twice."

The control-room door opens and Knopfler walks in. He is tall, thin, tousle-haired, with an engaging, lopsided smile. He solicits Everly's opinion on the leads he's punched into the track; Everly, however, only wants to know how Knopfler makes those strings sigh and sing. The guitarist breaks into a big, abashed grin: maybe, he muses, it's because he's a lefty playing in the traditional right-handed mode – more inbred finesse among the frets. "Yeah," Everly exclaims, with a brotherly bark. "Well, I'm left-handed too, and so's my brother, Donald, and it didn't help us."

The engineer cues a playback, and Ed Bicknell, who's been standing near the door, slips out into the corridor leading to the studio. Bicknell, who manages Dire Straits, retains a booking-agent's soul from his early days in the band business: these union-scale session gigs with Mark's boyhood idols are all well and good, but with a new album, Love Over Gold, that's sold 2 million copies in its first five weeks of release and gone to Number One in fifteen European countries. . . well, it just twists a manager's heart to see his boys overlooking even one live-concert buck. But after five years of Knopfler's steady-as-she-goes approach to success, Bicknell seems almost resigned. What're you gonna do, he shrugs, as Knopfler scrooches by and disappears into the studio for another take. "It's hero time."

That Knopfler still has heroes at the age of thirty-three is perhaps a sign of his sincerity, his reverence for craft. Meeting and working with his idols is as nourishing to him as his own success, maybe more so. After all, what is stardom these days? "I often find that success is perceived much more by people outside than by the people who're involved in it," he says in a bustling Italian restaurant the next night, over a breast of chicken and a bottle of Chianti Classico. "The people who're involved in it are usually so bloody busy that they don't have time to think about it at all."

Over the last several months, aside from writing and producing Love Over Gold, the fourth Dire Straits album, Knopfler has been heavily involved in composing the multi-stylistic soundtrack for Local Hero, a movie by Scottish director Bill (Gregory's Girl) Forsythe. (Knopfler says he played a guitar solo on one Muzak-like track "that's so appalling, it's great.") He also recently took Dire Straits into the studio for a whirlwind three-day session (mixing included) that produced an uncharacteristically bouncy three-song maxi-single that's due out in late January.

That's about as hectic as Knopfler wants to see things get, though. Not too long ago, he disappeared for nine days to a cliffside retreat in Sicily with his American girlfriend, Lou (short for Lourdes) Salamone; and when the pair decided to marry in the spring in New York City (Knopfler's second home, where he's just bought a house), he had Bicknell — —to the latter's undoubted distress — —juggle an Australian tour that had been penciled in for that same time.

While it has traditionally been the mission of most British bands to set their sails full-tilt toward the United States in search of a big score, Knopfler does not see himself as a world-beater. In fact, Love Over Gold, whose lead cut runs nearly fifteen minutes long, is an album that seems designed to torment quick-fix American radio programmers. And when Warner Bros. Records asked him to edit the endless cut —– a dramatic survey of the socioeconomic landscape called "Telegraph Road" — —into a five-minute single, Knopfler declined. "I don't think something like that is worth an answer, do you?" he asks equably. "The only thing you can do is be a nice English chap and say no thank you."

If American radio can't deal with the album, Knopfler isn't inclined to push the point. When Dire Straits was shopping around its first demo tapes years ago, almost every major American record label turned them down, some more than once. Now, Knopfler and company are not about to abase themselves.

"Dire Straits is a gold act in the U.S.," says Bicknell one rainy afternoon in his London office. "To become a platinum act, we'd have to spend all our time plunking around there. These are guys in their early thirties; they're starting to settle down, get married. If we play Greece or Portugal, we're an event. If we play Boise, Idaho, we're probably the tenth band through there that month."

Who needs it? If they were all younger, maybe. But Knopfler was already twenty-eight when "Sultans of Swing," a richly atmospheric track off the band's debut album, became a worldwide hit, and he already had separate careers as a journalist and a schoolteacher behind him. Rock—the business – was just another vocation. If the band members had been younger when fame found them, Knopfler says, "We'd probably be dead by now, or definitely on the casualty list. We couldn't have handled it."

Not that he was ever an unstable sort. The son of a Hungarian architect, he grew up in Glasgow and Newcastle, and at seventeen took a job as a reporter with a provincial newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening Post. It was a brief career. Next he pursued university studies; but it was music that still drew him. "The day I finished university, I went to London and joined a band and promptly ended up completely destitute, divorced [from his first wife] and selling guitars to stay alive."

To bail himself out, he signed on as a lecturer at Loughton College near London, teaching English to a motley group of secretaries, Arabs and problem kids. But if journalism wasn't in his blood, he says, "neither was teaching. They were just things I could do, you know? Basically, I only got the teaching thing because I was tryin' to be a musician and I was starvin' to death."

Finally, in March 1977, Knopfler put together a band: his younger brother, David, played rhythm guitar; John Illsley, an erstwhile sociologist of Mark's age, played bass; and pub veteran Pick Withers handled drums. Knopfler himself played lead guitar and wrote all the songs. It was a dream setup for a long-frustrated musician and songwriter, but it only lasted for two albums. By Dire Straits' third LP, Making Movies, David Knopfler had departed to seek stardom on his own; and by the time Love Over Gold appeared late last year, Withers, feeling musically repressed, had also split.

Knopfler hasn't seen much of his brother since their unhappy breakup. "I don't bother with him," he says curtly, but then relents. "One of the problems was having this huge, great specter of a big brother writin' tunes and tellin' everybody what to do with them. It's probably much better that I should leave him to grow up in his own way. I certainly wouldn't want to tell him how to do that."

Knopfler's determination to mold Dire Straits entirely in his own image has paid off in a 1983 group that's far more full-bodied and stylistically varied than the original foursome. Illsley remains on bass – an inventive player with the rangy good looks of a "real" rock star; American guitarist Hal Lindes ably punctuates Knopfler's leads; Alan Clark, once a sideman with Lindisfarne, and Tommy Mandel, another American, late of Ian Hunter's band, complement each other on keyboards; and the formidable Terry Williams —– king of the straight 4/4 with Rockpile —– recently slid into the drum seat.

This latest edition of Dire Straits assembled one drizzly November night at the Woodwharf, a damp, dockside rehearsal facility on the Thames River. With Williams pumping on drums and the twin keyboards rising majestically over Knopfler's moody guitar figures, the group was kicking with new energy. "That band is Steaming," said Knopfler afterward. "There was smoke and flames coming out of that place." Added Illsley with a smile: "This is the happiest this band's ever been."

Knopfler very much wants to keep it that way. Obviously, with his newly ballsed-up band and continuing penchant for literate songwriting (his songs, he says, are "about people tryin' to change their environment, tryin' to impose themselves on a dire-straits situation"), he could easily make a bid for idolhood in the Springsteen market —– big statements, big sales. But no.

"It makes me a little wary when people start saying, 'This is a work of genius,' or 'This is a masterpiece.' That's a kind of labeling too: 'Oh, yes, well, he does some masterpieces.' I'm just as happy doing a Phil Everly session, or playin' 'Move It,' or 'Sweet Little Rock & Roller.'"

Just another singer in a rock & roll band? Hardly. But Knopfler knows his mortal horizons, and remains largely unimpressed by his own instrumental brilliance. A superb guitarist in a traditional style and a songwriter whose tunes take little account of passing trends, he's happy to keep honing his talents, putting out albums for however many people care to buy them (about 3 million per LP, so far), playing wherever there are halls to be filled and otherwise getting on with his life as a human being: sunny, secluded days in Sicily, and soon, a home and family.

And of course, whenever one of his musical idols requires a lead guitarist to transform a track, Knopfler, ever the fan, is available. There's still "a whole stack" of such seminal stars on his all-time list, he says –— "and I'm looking forward to meetin' 'em all."