Mark Knopfler: Fearless Leader
One day in 1977, Mark Knopfler and John Illsley visited an art gallery run by a friend in London’s West End. “We just couldn’t believe the stuff that was in this gallery,” Illsley recalls, “bits of string, bricks piled up in a comer, garbage cans strewn all over the floor.”
During the ride home to their apartment in south London, Knopfler sat in the back seat of the car, scribbling furiously. “We got to the flat,” Illsley explains, “and he stayed writing in the back seat. So I went upstairs and made myself a cup of tea. Thirty minutes later, he finally came in. ‘I just finished this song,’ he said. And that was ‘In the Gallery,’ ” Illsley says. ” Illsley says. “He wrote the whole thing between Shaftesbury Avenue and Deptford.”
Mark Knopfler — singer, songwriter, guitarist and undisputed captain of Dire Straits — still works with the same intensity and single — minded devotion to his craft. The group has long been a superstar attraction in England, Europe, Australia and Japan. Now, the smash hit “Money for Nothing” has given the band its first Number One album in America; Brothers in Arms has already sold 2 million copies. But Mark Knopfler has rarely been seen in public without a guitar around his neck since he founded Dire Straits in the summer of 1977 as a vehicle for his evocative country-and-blues-rooted songs. Offstage, his life seems to be an endless succession of Dire Straits recording sessions, film soundtracks (Local Hero, Cal, Comfort and Joy), production assignments (Bob Dylan, Aztec Camera) and guest appearances on other artists’ records (Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry and Steely Dan; “Private Dancer,” recorded by Tina Turner, bears his copyright).
“Even now I just go up and look at my guitars sitting on the side of the stage,” admits Knopfler, 36, idly chewing on a guitar pick before a recent New York show. “I’ll hang out at Rudy’s Music Stop down on Forty-eighth Street when I’m in town, just to be around the instruments, just looking at the damn things.” (New Dire Straits guitarist Jack Sonni used to work at Rudy’s.)
When Knopfler talks about his music, he often seems at a loss for words. Running a hand through his receding brown curls, he interrupts his sentences with thoughtful pauses. His arctic-blue eyes are often cast to the floor, as if the next word is written on his shoe.
Yet his mind certainly works in Cinerama and his guitar often speaks in tongues. Knopfler’s 1983 soundtrack for the Bill Forsyth film Local Hero conjures up vivid images of the Scottish Highlands with its pensive melodies and the solitary sigh of his guitar. His lyrical soloing on Dire Straits, the group’s 1978 debut album, resonates with animated echoes of moaning cotton-field blues, Nashville plucking and gutsy Sun rockabilly. His singing is a smoky mumble, but it renders his rich lyric portraits of young lovers (“Down to the Waterline”) and jazzmen (“Sultans of Swing”) with seductive intimacy.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1949, Mark Knopfler is the son of a Jewish architect whose communist sympathies forced him to flee the fascist regime in his native Hungary. When Mark was about nine years old, the family moved to Newcastle, in the north of England. At fifteen, he got his first guitar. Not long after, he cut his first record in a London studio, an unreleased demo of an original song, “Summer’s Coming My Way.”
Knopfler worked for two years as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post and, after graduating with an English degree from Leeds University, was a lecturer at Loughton College in Essex. In April 1977, he moved into a London apartment shared by his younger brother David and bassist John Illsley. With the addition of drummer Pick Withers, they became Dire Straits.
The pressures of the group’s sudden success — they got BBC airplay with a demo of “Sultans of Swing” and had a record deal by Christmas 1977 — eventually ripped the band in half. “David was under a lot of strain,” says Illsley. “Mark felt very responsible for David and didn’t quite know what to do. But once Making Movies was out and David had left, it seemed to lift a tremendous strain. Mark felt very freed.” Withers also quit, in 1982.
With his second wife, the former Lourdes Salamone (he was briefly married during his university days), Knopfler splits his home life between apartments in New York’s Greenwich Village and London’s West End. But he isn’t seeing much of either this year. The current seven-member Dire Straits is in the middle of a mammoth world tour that will not end until next April.
Do you go into training for a tour of this length?
Oh, yes. I warm up on the rowing machine, and then I lift weights. You have to, or you’d be exhausted. I don’t run — running’s boring — but I’ve always loved sports. I played a little football [soccer] when I was young, but I only started getting strong when I was seventeen or eighteen.
The thing I like most about sports is hand-eye stuff, which I guess connects with playing guitar. I’m crazy about motor racing. I figure that if I didn’t know how to play a note and didn’t have any music in me, that’s what I’d like to do. ‘Cause that’s an occupation guided by a very simple rule: Don’t fuck up. It’s always struck me as being very much to the point.
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